Nearly two decades ago, a little-known singing group took the public television airwaves by storm.
Rockapella, known for its pitch-perfect four-part harmony and comic antics, became the energetic house band on the geography game show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
Since then, America’s favorite a cappella combo has appeared in commercials for Folgers Coffee, Almond Joy and Coca Cola. They’ve serenaded Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today Show,” ridden in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and shared the stage with the likes of Billy Joel and the Boston Pops Orchestra.
On Wednesday, the band brings its blend of high-octane vocals and innovative arrangements to the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.
“There aren’t a lot of groups doing what we do,” said Scott Leonard, the band’s principal producer, writer and arranger. “We’re the only a cappella group that’s broken out on this level.”
Raised in Indianapolis, Leonard’s first exposure to music came in the form of his mother’s record collection. He loved listening to the swinging sounds of Mel Torme, Glenn Miller and the Mills Brothers.
One album in particular made an impression on the young singer: Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book.”
“Probably my reason for getting into music was Stevie Wonder,” said Leonard, who also counts Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” among his favorites. “I kind of refused to let my voice change because I wanted to sound like him as much as possible.
“He’s the Mozart of our times.”
Leonard attended the University of Tampa on a baseball scholarship, but soon switched his major to vocal studies. After stints singing at Disneyworld and Tokyo Disneyland, the tenor found himself auditioning for a New York City group called Rockapella.
“They were just guys who had day jobs and sang on the street for fun,” Leonard recalled.
He joined Rockapella in 1991. The same year, the group —
first spotlighted in Spike Lee’s “Spike & Co.: Do It A Capella” — was selected as the house band for “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” The show ran for five seasons, earning Rockapella widespread attention and a gig as Folgers pitchmen.
When “Carmen Sandiego” ended, however, the band had trouble convincing record companies and radio stations that it belonged outside the preteen market.
“We were going to be the cool “Barney” in America,” said Leonard, referring to the popular show “Barney & Friends.”
Luckily, he said, the band appealed to adults as well.
In addition to its dedicated American audiences, Rockapella enjoys a faithful fan base overseas — especially in Japan, where the band inspired a wave of a cappella mania.
“When we walked out onstage, it was like we were The Beatles,” Leonard said, describing fervent crowds clapping along to every song. “They have been really enthusiastic, really faithful and devoted fans for so long.”
Leonard has a personal connection to the country; he started out singing with a Japanese rock band and recorded his first solo album there. His latest solo effort, “Tokyo Robots,” features such Asian-flavored tracks as “Hanae,” “On a Street in Fukuoka” and “Standing Flower, Floating World.”
Rockapella, meanwhile, has released seven albums in the United States and 10 in Japan.
The band’s current lineup consists of Leonard, tenor John K. Brown, bass George Baldi, vocal percussionist Jeff Thacher and tenor Steven Dorian, who joined during the 2009 holiday season.
Adding Dorian to the lineup was “a no-brainer,” Leonard said. “Steven came in, and he was a breath of fresh air. He’s very talented and he’s very easy on the eyes.”
Leonard said he strives to pick songs that highlight each performer’s talents.
A typical Rockapella concert features a mix of original music and covers of classics including George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Leonard thrives on crafting complex arrangements of familiar tunes. “Everybody knows those nuggets of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ or ‘White Christmas,” he explained, “but when Rockapella does it, it’s completely different.”
After its current tour, Rockapella will head back to the studio to work on a new album.
Tentatively titled “Bang,” the album will feature such audience favorites as “Tonight,” “4You4Now4Life” and “California Sad-Eyed Girl,” as well as some newer material.
A holiday album is also in the works, Leonard said.
According to Leonard, a cappella music is once again on the rise.
“I see a newfound appreciation for live performance,” Leonard said, thanks in part to the popularity of shows such as “Glee,” “American Idol” and “The Sing Off.” “There’s more knowledge about singing and what sounds good.”
Leonard is also noticing a groundswell on college campuses across the nation. Locally, at least two schools boast a cappella singing groups: Cal Poly’s Take It SLO and Cuesta College’s Voce.
The singer said he’s eager to welcome more singers into the fold.
“It’s definitely time for some young a cappella groups,” he said.