The Miracle Mix of Take 6 : Vocal group rates a 10 on the success scale

The leaps-and-bounds musical success story of the a cappella group Take 6 is unlike anything else that has hit its field in recent years.

Consider what has happened since its first album titled "Take 6," was released on Reprise last March:

--The singers played two dates at Radio City Music Hall with Stevie Wonder, who bought 200 CDs of their album to distribute to friends.

--They recorded the theme song for Candice Bergen's TV show "Murphy Brown."

--They took part in an album by Joe Sample, singing a song called "U Turn," which they co-wrote with him.

--They did other studio work with Johnny Mathis, Stephanie Mills, Smokey Robinson and Kenny Rogers.

--They sang the National Anthem at a World Series game.

--They taped one of their original songs for the sound track of Spike Lee's upcoming movie.

--They toured with Andy Williams, taped a 501 Blues Jeans commercial, performed on the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars fund-raiser, and drew rave reviews at the recent National Assn. of Jazz Educators convention.

--They have been nominated for three Grammys (best new artists, best soul/gospel group, best jazz vocal group), of which they are certain to win one, probably two (remember, you read it here).

Heady stuff for six young products of a small Seventh-day Adventist college in Alabama, who figured it would take them another four or five years to reach any measurable degree of success.

Take 6 began as a quartet, but became a quintet by accident, when they were rehearsing in a bathroom. "Bathrooms always have the best acoustics," says the founding member and lead tenor Claude McKnight. "Suddenly we heard this flush, and out came Mark Kibble, who added his voice to ours." Kibble, also a tenor, became chief arranger. The group now includes two other tenors, Mervyn Warren and David Thomas; a baritone, Cedric Dent, and the bass voice of Alvin (Vinnie) Chea.

"Cedric is still in school," McKnight said. "He's in a doctoral program in music theory at the University of Maryland. He's only been singing recently; all his life he was a pianist, in fact, he's doing his dissertation on Bill Evans. Alvin also is still in school, but he and Cedric will be through in June."

Meanwhile, the group is juggling dozens of offers. They will have a song on Quincy Jones' next album. Reuben Cannon wants to write them into his script for the TV show "Amen." Anita Baker wants them to open for her in London in October. They will headline a European tour in July.

Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston want to work on projects with them; Bill Cosby is writing them into an episode on his show. To put it succinctly, they've got the whole world at their feet.

Their songs are mainly gospel and their Christian beliefs are powerful. "We've been Adventists all our lives," McKnight said. "Our parents are Adventists and most of them went to the same college we did, as did some of our grandparents."

Despite their common religious heritage, their tastes and backgrounds vary considerably. "Actually, I grew up as a trombone player," McKnight said, "but when I went to college, they didn't have a good band, so I thought I'd better sing. My influences were the trombonist Urbie Green and big bands like Woody Herman and Count Basie."

Born in October 1962, McKnight is the second oldest; Dent is two weeks his senior. Kibble and Warren are both 24 and both are sons of ministers. The youngest members are Thomas, 22, an engineering student until the record took off and forced him to change his plans; and Chea, 21, son of a Liberian father and Guianese mother.

Given the subtlety of their harmonic blend, it seems incredible that very few of the group's arrangements are written down. "Even though we all read music proficiently," McKnight said, "the arrangements sink in quicker if one of the guys will work it out at the piano and teach it to us part by part."

Kibble, who composed or arranged some of the sextet's best songs ("Get Away, Jordan," "He Never Sleeps," "David and Goliath," and, with McKnight and Warren, he hit single "Spread Love"), confess to a somewhat limited early background. "I grew up listening to classical music, Christian music and easy listening; it was all pretty conservative, without much secular exposure until an uncle turned me on to Gene Puerling of the Hi Los, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross."

The group's musical range is so broad, it was no surprise to learn of McKnight's use of falsetto. "I sing the top tenor part, but I'm a natural baritone, so a lot of what I'm doing is falsetto," he said. "If it's a slower, mellower tune, I may sing the entire song falsetto; if it's uptempo and higher register, I've expanded my range to where I can do a lot of things in my full voice."

Coming along smack-dab in the middle of an era of over-electrified gimmickry, Take 6 takes pride in its ability to get along, when necessary, without any amplification at all. During a clinic at the Jazz Educators' convention, they dispensed entirely with mikes; in a large auditorium for a regular show that evening, they used six mikes, as has become more often their custom lately, but confessed that they weren't too happy about the results. "It gets a little confusing," McKnight said, "if the system isn't just right."

The degree to which Take 6 has crossed over to the jazz community can be ascribed in large measure to its singular rhythmic impetus. Chea, a classically trained pianist, was a junior in high school who didn't start singing until a year after he had won the San Francisco Music Teachers' Assn. piano competition. He now supplies the group with its foundation, often in the form of a steady pulse akin to that of a walking bass.

"I love this group," he says. "Singing with it is a personal dream for me; it shows that with the Lord's help, if you put your mind to it, there's nothing you can't do."

McKnight carries the thought further: "This is not only entertainment for us--it's also ministry. We want to reach people who wouldn't normally listen to Christian music. When we can come to something like a jazz convention and be appreciated, well, that's what we're all about. We're enjoying every minute of it, and we're delighted that everyone else seems to be too."

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