At the White House Tuesday, 19 Yale men singing “And hey babe the sky’s on fire — Ain’t I goin’ to Carolina in my mind” was all it took to seduce a congressman.
Shortly after U.S. Rep. James E. “Jim” Clyburn heard the Duke’s Men perform James Taylor’s “Carolina On My Mind,” the South Carolina Democrat extended the group an invitation to perform in his hometown during their spring break tour. The Duke’s Men wooed some 2,000 dignitaries, including members of Congress, during a performance at the White House’s opening reception for the holiday season.
The singers emphasized the honor they each felt about being invited to perform at the White House.
“The most beautiful thing is knowing that things like this actually happen,” singer Joshua Min ’07 said. “In every room, there was a celebration going on — a jazz combo, women’s choir, odd colonial music group. For them to accommodate a small Yale group is incredible — we’re not Jessica Simpson.”
The all-male a cappella group, known for belting jazz standards, performed in the East Room, which is typically used by the president for public events.
“This is the room where Lincoln and Kennedy’s bodies were displayed,” Duke’s Men music director Ethan Heard ’06 said. “The acoustics were amazing — the room was entirely wood, and the perfect size for our group. We didn’t need microphones and heard each other perfectly.”
The group performed in front of an elegantly-decorated Christmas tree near a window facing the Washington Monument.
When a floor vote at the Capitol kept members of Congress overtime, preventing many from attending the White House reception during the Duke’s Men’s first performance, the White House staff invited the a cappella group to perform a second time later in the evening.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush attended the reception to gauge the Duke’s Men’s talent as an unofficial “screening process” in determining whether to invite the group back for future White House events, Min said.
“When you sing for the White House, they have you sing and they do it on a lower quality, or lower priority level,” he said, describing Tuesday’s performance. “If you’re good, they invite you back to cultivate a relationship.”
So impressed was Bush with their performance that she extended the group an invitation to future presidential events, Min said.
Members of the Duke’s Men underwent unprecedented security before entering the White House. All the nearly two dozen members had to consent to a background test and were patted down by Secret Service officers before being admitted to enter the building. Still, the group’s special invitation to the reception allowed them through with fewer security screenings than typical White House visitors, Duke’s Men business manager Joshua Stern ’06 said.
“We got in with relative ease because we were invited,” Stern said. “But the White House used to allow 6,000 people a day through, and now you can’t take tours. If you want a tour, you need congressman or senator’s permission for security hoopla.”
This summer, Stern sent a demo album to the White House special events planning staff. Tracking the package as it spent four months navigating the White House’s red-taped bureaucracy, the Duke’s Men finally received word of interest in November.
Driving through the night in vans and cars, members of the Duke’s Men braved a six-hour ride to Washington, D.C. for their performance. The singers are staying overnight and stopping in New York today on their way back to campus to perform at a Manhattan private school.
The holiday season traditionally demands the heaviest commitment from a cappella groups, Min said.
“It’s very hard because you’re bound by your love for activity, and by your work,” Min said. “It’s not an issue of us not wanting to sing, because we do this to share our music. We never get tired of sharing our music, but my back is in physical pain — physical weakness from travelling — [But] you’re not traveling with strangers.”