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Arranged in a semicircular bouquet of white gloves and tuxedos, 14 "gentlemen songsters" from Yale decorate the table of American culture with a cappella harmony almost a century in bloom.
For the past 94 years, the Whiffenpoofs have passed on a musical tradition that includes classic ballads, jazz standards, and time-honored Yale songs, making it the oldest a cappella group of its kind in the country.
"I guess the Whiffenpoofs are themselves a bit of an institution," says Vikram Swamy, a baritone in the 2003 Whiffenpoofs and also the group's business manager. "Our repertoire is really excellent, because we're so old."
The group's landmark harmony, "The Whiffenpoof Song," earned the Whiffenpoofs national prominence in 1946, when Vallee, Tex Beneke, and Robert Merrill recorded versions that became popular. A year later, Bing Crosby, accompanied by the Fred Waring Glee Club, released a rendition that peaked at number seven. Since then, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald (made an honorary Whiffenpoof in 1979), Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley have all put their spin on the tune.
"Damned from here to eternity" (as the song attests), Whiffenpoof members migrate, every Monday night since their inception, to the tables down at Mory's, where the group was formed. Mory's is a New Haven dinner club where members and their guests gather around engraved mahogany tables to eat and pass silver, double-handled loving cups filled with trademark champagne-based punches. Louis Linder, Mory's proprietor in 1909, allowed the young men to sing for their supper and drinks, earning him a line in the song:
"We shall serenade our Louis/while life and voice shall last/Then we'll pass/And be forgotten with the rest." One of the more poignant lines in the anthem, it faces bravely, but not soberly, the mortality of life on a college campus and on the earth at large. It's a sentiment that survives even the changing discernment of popular music, which the Whiffenpoofs themselves seek to do by sticking to older vocal jazz stylings, according to Swamy.
And their sound never seems to lose its popularity. Every year, the group's winter, spring, and world touring schedules fall to several different members. The business manager, who oversees these plans, traditionally un-enrolls and graduates one year late. If that seems like an unreasonable sacrifice, consider that the group has performed for Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton; Mother Theresa; and the Dalai Lama and has appeared on Saturday Night Live and in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Rose Bowl, and the White House, where the group visits regularly.
On December 11, the 2003 Whiffenpoofs appeared on a Christmas-themed episode of The West Wing, singing "Bye-Bye Blackbird" and "O Holy Night," at the behest of creator and senior producer Aaron Sorkin, who has been a fan since his childhood.
Two days before the episode aired, the Whiffs also made a stop on NBC's Today. It was their second visit since 1996, when Yale's senior prank society, the Pundits, intercepted pickup arrangements from NBC, then hatched a plot to appear on the show impersonating the singers. Thwarted by an unexplainable I-95 traffic jam at 4 a.m., the Pundits called the actual a capellites, and the show went on according to plan.
It would seem contrary to fate to tamper with the singing arrangements of the Whiffs but understandable that the group would incur satire. Put tuxedos on young male Ivy Leaguers, send them around the world to sing, and the image that results is not initially one of "little black sheep who have gone astray," as "The Whiffenpoof Song" claims.
But the group is not the emblem of unchecked collegiate advantage it may have once been. Combing the faces of antiquated class photos lining the walls at Mory's, few nonwhite students are to be seen, but recent incarnations of the Whiffs have featured a multifarious lineup of ethnicities, religions, and orientations.
Of course, matters of identity and social politics are supplanted by the rewards of camaraderie. According to the Whiffenpoof Constitution, the group is dedicated to "eating, drinking, and good fellowship." Distilled further, as Swamy easily explains, "The Whiffenpoofs represent a love of singing."