When the Miller Brewing Company first approached Take 6 about recording a jingle for one of its beers, the company was probably thinking about the exemplary work the Grammy award-winning sextet had already done for other advertisers. After all, the a cappella vocal group's cool, finger-poppin' sound--a kind of jazzy updating of classic street corner doo-wop for the CD age--had already moved plenty of Levi's 501 jeans, Burger King Whoppers, and Domino's pizzas. Why not add a few brewskis to the product roster?
What the company and its ad agency had failed to take into account, however, was Take 6's most important affiliation.
"We are a Christian group, first and foremost," emphasizes member Mervyn Warren on the phone from a stop on their current U.S. tour. "And a lot of people who know us as a Christian group would be very disappointed if we `sold out' and did a beer commercial."
Junk food and jeans are one thing, apparently. But after a long night of spreading the good word of the Lord, it ain't exactly Miller time.
"We didn't even have to think that one over," Warren says of the brew meister's offer. "We told them flat out, `No.'"
The company was surprisingly understanding of Take 6's convictions. "They just went out and put together a group that sounds like us and did it with them!" Warren laughs good-naturedly. "And as a matter of fact, they did a pretty good imitation."
IF MILLER AND ITS AGENCY earned themselves a few weeks in purgatory for committing such a dastardly deed, at least they're to be forgiven for overlooking the religious subtext of Take 6's music. Lots of people can listen to the rich, gorgeous vocal work on a Take 6 album without really noticing the Biblically inspired messages that run through each of their songs. It's part of the secret of Take 6's considerable success outside of the gospel realm. And it's also part of the reason why so many artists and producers who want to use the suddenly hot Take 6 sound on their commercials, albums, movies or whatever, can't.
Since the beginning, when Warren, Alvin Chea, Cedric Dent, Mark Kibble, Claude McKnight, and David Thomas first began harmonizing in the men's room of a Seventh-Day Adventist college in Huntsville, Alabama, Take 6 has been bound by the strongly shared faith of its members to spread the spirit of Christian love in its songs. But an equally shared sense of humor and good salesmanship has kept the Take 6 repertoire from becoming preachy or heavy-handed.
Indeed, on the group's current single "I L-O-V-E U," the devotional lyrics are oblique enough that a guy could recite them to his girlfriend without sounding the least bit like a Jesus freak. And at other times, on both the group's self-titled 1988 gold-selling debut album and the current So Much 2 Say, the singers infuse so much irreverent humor and high-spirited fun into the proceedings that even a godless pagan who wouldn't know the devil from Heavy D could get off on the good-versus-evil tales they spin.
"We don't try to beat anyone over the head with Christian messages," Warren explains. "I believe if you just connect positive lyrics to a melody that people like, it's gonna turn over in their heads. We've all had that experience where you'll be walking down the street singing a song to yourself and you don't really know why you're doing it. Well, we'd like to think that our music could have that effect on someone. Only that instead of having some meaningless or negative lyric turning over in your head, it would be some positive little phrase, like `spread love.'"
The subtlety of Take 6's ministry has had its own positive and negative effects. On the plus side, the sextet's lighthearted, easily digestible approach has won them an audience far outside the grasp of the average gospel group. The Sixers turned heads at the 1989 Grammy awards when they walked away with top honors in both the gospel and jazz categories, and a few of their songs have even garnered airplay on urban and adult-contemporary stations. Subsequent collaborations with stars ranging from Stevie Wonder to Andy Williams, and Ella Fitzgerald to k.d. lang have further broadened their appeal.
On the downside, the casualness with which Take 6 delivers its message has attracted a lot of offers from advertisers and artists who'd like to use the group's distinctive wall of vocals without the accompanying moral baggage.
"I won't mention any names," Warren says, "but I can think of a few offers we've gotten that we had to back away from, either because of the image of the artist or the questionable nature of the song they wanted us to work on. Not to pass judgment on anyone, you know, but the fact is, we are a gospel group, and a lot of the people we've recorded with have been pop artists. So we have to be careful who we associate ourselves with. If an artist has a reputation for being very . . . liberal, then we might have to turn the offer down. And then, after we consider the image of the artist, we have to consider the particular song they want us to sing on. We don't have a problem with non-Christian music. But if the lyrics are questionable, we'd have to back away."
Perhaps the most insightful solution to this sticky situation was devised by Quincy Jones, who used Take 6 on two songs for his 1989 album Back on the Block. For one of those selections, the shimmering "Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)," Jones placed Take 6's voices in a lush melodic setting that highlighted the sweet tenor quality of the group's combined high harmonies. The track was notable for its resemblance to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and one other thing: Its only lyrics were one long series of "do-do-do's."
Talk about spreading the word.
WITH ALL THE RESTRICTIONS imposed on Take 6 by their strict Adventist faith (on top of not being able to jam with 2 Live Crew or Spuds MacKenzie, the group is forbidden to perform on the church's Sabbath--which just happens to be Friday night), you'd think at least once in a while the guys might feel boxed in by their lifelong endorsement deal with the Lord. But if the members of Take 6 feel restricted by anything, it's the contrived limitations of the a cappella form.
Already the group has begun to "stretch the boundaries of a cappella" on a few of the tracks on the new album. "I L-O-V-E U" features a realistic-sounding "drum" track that producer Warren assembled by sampling hand claps and other body sounds, then playing them back on a sequencer. On another song, sung "horn parts" are augmented by--a broken taboo--actual horns.
"Everyone in the group has had musical training to some degree," says Warren, who himself holds a master's in music. "So it's probably inevitable that as Take 6 continues to record, instruments will slip in and out some more. But it's my hope that we never become a singing group with a full band behind us. We may continue to stretch the boundaries a little bit, but we intend to remain an a cappella group, because that's what's unique about us."
As for the limitations of being a Christian band? "Christianity is not a bondage; if anything, it's a freedom," Warren insists. "We just want people to know that you can be a Christian and still have fun. You can still do the regular things that everybody else does."
Well, almost. In an effort to counter the generally held opinion that it's Take 6 featured on those Miller radio ads (aired primarily on the East Coast), the group put a Surgeon General-style warning label on its current album proclaiming, "We, the members of Take 6, are strong advocates of healthful living, and we do not participate in the use or advertising of alcohol, tobacco products or illicit drugs."
"That's exactly why we did that," Warren comments. "Because bad news travels faster than good. And while we've done our best to tell people, `No, we didn't do it,' I still get calls from friends of mine insisting that we did! `Oh, I know it's you! I know you did it!' On one hand, it's flattering that a company would want to use a group that sounds like us in their commercial. But it can be damaging, particularly when a group like us takes a stand on certain issues and our sound is used in connection with things that contradict that stand."
Warren sighs. "People should know that our sound and our stand go together, like a package deal."
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Take 6 will perform at Scottsdale Center for the Arts Amphitheatre on Wednesday, October 3. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
On "I L-O-V-E U," the devotional lyrics are oblique enough that a guy could recite them to his girlfriend without sounding the least bit like a Jesus freak. Take 6 has attracted a lot of offers from advertisers who'd like to use the group's distinctive wall of vocals without the accompanying moral baggage.
"We just want people to know that you can be a Christian and still have fun."
The group is forbidden to perform on the church's Sabbath--which just happens to be Friday night.