Before pop-culture phenomena such as “Glee,” “The Sing-Off” and “Pitch Perfect” made a cappella trendy among millennials, there were The Bobs.
“There was no one doing vocal music the way we were when we first started out,” said Matthew Stull, one of the founders of The Bobs.
On Saturday, the wacky a cappella group returns to the Barns at Wolf Trap, a venue that hosted one of The Bobs’ very first performances in 1984 and countless since.
The Bobs, who borrowed their name from the dog show term meaning “Best of Breed,” celebrated 30 years together last fall.
In 1980, Stull, a trained actor and director, was delivering singing telegrams. When the company went out of business, Stull and another employee, Gunnar Madsen, decided they didn’t want to give up singing.
“We said, ‘Oh, that singing was fun, maybe we could have an a cappella group,’” Stull said.
A big fan of Motown music, Stull knew every good vocal ensemble had a strong bass singer.
“I was very much into The Persuasions and the Four Tops and people like that,” Stull said. “If you’re going to have an a cappella group, you have to have a really good bass singer.”
Stull and Madsen put an ad out in the paper and received a single response.
“Richard was the only person to answer our ad for a bass singer and that’s how it all started, Stull said.
Richard Greene is a musician, composer, producer and sound engineer. He and Stull are the two remaining original members of The Bobs. Jazz vocalist and opera singer Dan Schumacher, along with jazz singer Angie Doctor round out the group.
Despite their style of music, The Bobs don’t like the a cappella label.
“Richard [is] a musician, Gunnar played piano and they arranged the first songs as if we were just a band,” Stull said. “And that’s where the concept came from, that we would always think of ourselves not just as a vocal group ... The whole concept of The Bobs was always not to be an a cappella group, because that had kind of a certain connotation to it. People hear that and they say, ‘Oh, you must be singing barbershop,’ and, no, we don’t.”
What The Bobs do sing is a combination of original and cover songs with a humorous take.
“There are some pretty great lyrical twists and stories that go [into] the writing,” Doctor said.
Though a Bobs member for just a year, Doctor is a longtime Bobs admirer. In fact, she auditioned for the group once before, 18 years ago. Though she didn’t get the spot then, Doctor went on to work with Greene on several other projects. Last year, when former Bobs member Amy Engelhardt was leaving the group, Greene asked if Doctor would like to replace her.
“I slid right in,” Doctor said.
Doctor had just two months to learn the group’s music before their first performance. But Stull said the time crunch was no problem for the professional Doctor.
“Angie has made us all step up our game,” he laughed.
Just a month ago, The Bobs released their 18th album, “Biographies,” a concept album in which each song is based on a different famous person.
“Every song is about or from the perspective of a certain person — alive or dead,” Doctor said.
After more than 30 years as a group and countless tours, including stops in Europe and Alaska, and an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, The Bobs have managed to remain one of the premier modern vocal groups.
“We’re the grandfathers of modern vocal music,” Stull said. “I say that in jest, but on some levels, it’s true.”
“What I’m finding is the groups that have been long established are having a resurgence because the younger generations are being introduced,” Doctor added. “... We’re seeing there are a lot of fans coming back who were fans at the beginning and going, ‘I haven’t seen you guys for so long and you guys are so good.’”