Celebrated, spoofed, but never duplicated: the Yale Whiffenpoofs turn 110
The Yale Whiffenpoofs — the country’s oldest college a cappella group — turn 110 this year. To celebrate, they are hosting a major concert on Oct. 11 at Battell Chapel, featuring not only members of the Whiffenpoofs past and present, but also current members of Whim n’ Rhythm, their all-female a cappella counterparts, founded in 1981.
“I want the underclassmen to get inspired to plant the seed of getting involved in a senior choral program,” says John Burke '72 B.A., president of the Whiffenpoof Alumni Association.
To underscore the advantages of joining a storied a cappella group like the Whiffenpoofs, organizers are also holding a career panel on Oct. 12 with Whiff alumni who will discuss how they leveraged that experience into career success. The panel will include Yale child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett ’65 B.A., Yale philosophy professor and former dean of admissions Jeff Brenzel ’75 B.A., tech entrepreneur Joseph Dennis ’88 B.A., and in-house NPR musician and singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton ’93 B.A.
Organizers say the history of a cappella at Yale offers much to celebrate. At the Battell event, which they’ve dubbed “The Perfect Concert,” they want to build excitement among students and the local New Haven community who may have forgotten just how unique these traditions are. The concert is free for Yale students and will feature “Master Whiffs” between the ages of 24 and 95. Robert Blocker, dean of Yale Music School, will host.
In some respects, says Barry McMurtrey ’88 B.A., Yale’s a cappella prowess is better recognized around the world than on campus. “The Whiffenpoofs perform more than 200 concerts a year,” he says. “They are one of the most high-profile advertisements for Yale internationally.”
The Whiffs are a notoriously difficult group to join. They accept just 14 members, and those who are tapped enjoy a rare opportunity. Most Whiffenpoofs forgo a traditional senior year on campus to travel the world and perform in concerts. Venues have included Lincoln Center, the White House, and Carnegie Hall. This spring’s tour will take the group to China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and they’ll visit as many as two dozen countries by the end of the summer. Most Whiffs stay at Yale an additional year to complete their studies once their whirlwind roadshow winds to a close.
Yale’s famous 14
The 110th anniversary offers an opportunity to revisit some of the Whiffenpoofs’ big moments — and there have been many.
In 2010, the group competed on NBC’s reality show “The Sing-Off.” “They became pop stars,” McMurtrey says. In 2013, the Whiffs were featured on the hit TV show “Glee” as the “world-famous Waffletoots.” And 2017 saw the Whiffs make an appearance in “The Simpsons,” when Mr. Burns returns to Yale, his alma mater, and is inspired to start his own for-profit university.
The group garnered plenty of musical fame in its early days as well. American radio star Rudy Vallée popularized “The Whiffenpoof Song” in 1937. The song was written in 1909 in response to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gentleman-Rankers” and begins: “To the tables down at Mory's, to the place where Louis dwells, to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well.” Mory’s, a private Yale dining club, was where five Yale students originally decided to form the singing group and remains the Whiffs’ home venue on Monday nights when they are in town.
Lots of famous musicians recorded versions of the Whiffs’ namesake song, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, and Louis Armstrong. “Bing’s version was a big hit during WWII,” McMurtrey says. “The Army Air Force Rangers adopted it as their song, and it was played all over America.” To this day, the group sings “The Whiffenpoof Song” at the end of every concert.
Famous Whiffs include songwriter and composer Cole Porter (1913 B.A.) (who penned the Yale songs “Bulldog” and “Bingo Eli Yale” while he was a student), and “Office Space” actor Ron Livingston ’89 B.A. In future years, there will be notable women to add to that list as well, as the group welcomed its first female member, Sofia Campoamor ’20 B.A., in 2018, turning her into, as the Washington Post said, “an a cappella icon.” Another female tenor is in the current Whiffenpoofs: Neha Bhatt ’21 B.S., a pre-med student, biomedical engineering major, and the group’s first woman of color.
This weekend of celebration will be a reminder of the group’s many high points and its continued cherished place at Yale. “All the Whiffenpoofs are thrilled to sing songs they’ve known for generations to the Yale student body one more time,” McMurtrey says.
“The Perfect Concert,” featuring the 2020 Whiffenpoofs, the Whim N’ Rhythm of 2020, and Whiffs alums of all ages, will be held Fri., Oct. 11, 8 p.m. at Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets. Admission is free to Yale students, and $15 for general public. Purchase tickets here.
The Whiffenpoof Career Panel will be held Oct. 11, 10 a.m. at Sudler Lecture Hall (Rm. 201), in William H. Harkness Hall, 100 Wall St.