Saturday, May 4, 2013

HOW WE GOT STARTED: The Early Days of the 1946-47 Nassoons (revised)

 The Princeton Nassoons' logo 
        My article on the 1946-47 Princeton Nassoons attracted such interest that I decided to tell more of the story. My original account of "How We Got Started" has been slightly revised, based on some information I garnered from some faded clippings in an old scrapbook I hauled out this morning.
        I am sad to report that of the original twelve reconstituted Nassoons, only three of us are still living. Later in this article I have included links to obituaries for some of the deceased members.
        It has been hard to lose such good friends over the years, and each death has stirred wonderful memories of that first amazing year, when twelve men from several different classes, including mostly returning veterans, had to start from scratch and develop a repertoire in a few short weeks. 
       Along with our own new arrangements we wanted to include some of the favorite songs of the pre-WWII Nassoons, whose "modern" harmonization had distinguished them from other college men's a cappella groups like the Yale Whiffenpoofs, with their traditional four-part harmony. The accomplishment was all the more remarkable considering that we had never sung together as a group, and we had no members of the earlier Nassoons to serve as a nucleus to build upon.

      We practiced for an hour and half five days a week in a second floor room of the then First Presbyterian Church  (now Nassau Presbyterian Church), memorizing the words and music to a host of songs at once, and working hard to develop just the right blend. We would concentrate on singing to the focal point of our arc, melding our voices into one smooth sound on every chord. We would hold notes until we could feel the blend, nodding in delight to one another as we achieved just the right effect.With five-, six-, and even some seven-note chords each one of us had to be right on pitch!
        Our rehearsals were strictly private. We wanted no one to hear us until we were ready for our public debut. Eleven of us had been chosen by a group of the original Nassoons, who returned on Friday afternoon, May 17, 1946, to recruit a new group of Nassoons. I was still in the Navy at the time, having been made the Assistant Materiel Officer of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, Philadelphia, after completing my duties as Supply Officer of the USS Chandeleur (AV10), which incidentally was the first ship to go into moth balls at the Philadelphia Naval Base.
        I had been back on campus a few times and had learned that the Nassoons were going to be holding tryouts. Knowing how important that was to me, my very obliging superior officer, Cdr. Frank Levy, gave me shore leave that weekend, so I could be there for the tryouts. I took a train to Princeton Junction and caught the "Dinky" into Princeton in plenty of time. I was both pleased and somewhat intimidated by the large number of students who were there for the tryouts.
        Each of us was grilled by our Nassoon judges, who quickly checked our pitch, range, and interval accuracy, and then had us sing a few lines. They narrowed the contestants down to about fifteen or twenty, whom they invited to return the next afternoon for the final tryout. I was happy and relieved to survive the first cut.
        The next day each of us remaining candidates had to sing his appropriate part in a quartet with three of them. The song was "My Sweet," to which they had the sheet music for those who needed it. That song will always have a special place in my heart! You can imagine how thrilled I was at the end of the day to learn that I was one of the fortunate eleven to be chosen.
        The older Nassoons also chose eight of the candidates, two for each part, as alternates. They were to be a "feeder octet," potential future members who would practice our numbers and be available as needed.
        It was predictable that the feeder octet would enjoy singing together, so much so that they decided "Who needs the Nassoons?" So they formed their own group and called themselves "The Tigertones"! They continue to this day as another one of Princeton's premier singing groups and friendly rivals of the Nassoons. Of course, the Tigertones have long since chosen to ignore this part of their origin!
       At the very beginning of the 1946 fall semester, we decided to increase our number to twelve. We had several candidates, among whom was my close friend and classmate Ed Knetzger, whom I had encouraged to try out. Ed was unanimously elected.
        The other members of the "starting twelve" included first tenors Steve Kurtz '48 and Al Burr '49; second tenors Jim Buck '46, Og Tanner '48, and yours truly '46; first basses Don Finnie '47, Ed Knetzger '46, and Bill Rogers '48; and second basses Don Elberfeld '47, Jeff Pennfield '49, and Jack ("J.C.") Taylor '45. Three of the twelve, Steve Kurtz, Og Tanner, and J. C. Taylor, had been members of the "Nasshounds," an undergraduate octet led by Hugh Hanson '48. They had made their debut at a Vassar hosted dance in January, 1946. With the advent of the Nassoons and the Tigertones, the Nasshounds ceased to be.
        Two great additions to our group were 2B Dave Romig '48 and 2T/1B Herb Spencer '49, who were active as alternates and joined us later in the year. Herb introduced a number of songs and wrote down the arrangements of some that we had been singing without the sheet music, including my arrangement of "The Tigertown Blues." I was immensely grateful to Herb for relieving me of that tedious chore, which in those days had to be done "by hand."
        Jack Pemberton '49, J. C. Taylor '45, and I are the three surviving members of the original twelve,  many of whom had accomplished amazing things in their lifetime. Herb Spencer is also alive and well, and still singing! He directs a close harmony group called the PennUltimates, at Pennswood Village in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where I preach every Sunday. Herb and his wife Charlotte, who is a retired Presbyterian minister, are members of our congregation! It's a small world, indeed!
        There's still more I want to tell, but this is enough for now.


1 comment:

  1. Another great Dick Armstrong story.