The Whiffenpoofs, A St. Louisan's Ascent to Yale and an Interview with Emil Beckford

This website is still fun after all these years. You never know who is going to contact you with an idea for a story.

In a recent example of kismet and happenstance, a young man, Emil Beckford, reached out to me, about an a cappella concert in which his group “The Wiffenpfoofs” from Yale University are performing a series of concerts in St. Louis at a retirement home, St. Louis University High and Mallinckrodt Grade School on South Hampton. Emil is a SLU High alumnus and grew up in St. Louis.

I must admit as a man raised on 1970’s soft rock, then K-SHE 95/MAGIC 108 and eventually (the ultimate saviors) punk rock, alt country and late 20th Century indie/rock I was waffling on engagement with Mr. Beckford. A cappella just isn’t a style I’m familiar with.

Yet, happenstance led me to a cross country track meet in Spanish Lake, MO where one of my kids was running as a member of the Metro Panthers team. I spotted an old acquaintance and fellow St. Louis Public Schools parent who works at SLUH. I asked him if he ever crossed paths with Emil and his eyes lit up followed by kind memories: “Great student, amazing person…you should do it”. That was the nudge I needed to proceed.

A couple email exchanges later and I’m chatting with Emil over the phone about his experiences growing up in St. Louis, his path to Yale and his participation in what turns out to be one of the most respected a cappella singing groups in the world.

From the Whiffenpoofs official website:

Every year, the most talented senior Yale students are selected to be in the Whiffenpoofs, the world’s oldest and best known collegiate a cappella group. Founded in 1909, the “Whiffs” began as a senior quartet that met for weekly concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar, the famous Yale tavern. Today, the group has become one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions, with over a century of musical excellence.
— whiffenpoofs.com

The Whiffs have sung for Presidents Obama, W. and H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan and performed in such venues as Carnegie Hall, Broadway's Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. In recent years, they have been featured on television shows such as "The Sing Off", "The West Wing" and "Glee."

They’ve performed on all inhabited continents throughout the world, and their current tour schedule includes shows across the U.S., Mexico and China…and that’s just the shows booked through mid-April, 2019, they will continue touring the world for a full year with this current lineup of singers.

Emil and the rest of the Whiffenpoofs are performing in St. Louis, October 13-15, including a show at SLU High on October 14th. I’ll be there, you can be too. Tickets are available HERE for a donation you are comfortable with.

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So, here’s a recount of our conversation and the story of a St. Louisan, raised and educated right here in the city, his path to Yale and evolution as an artist joining one of the most renowned singing groups in America.

Emil grew up in the Fairground Park Neighborhood on San Francisco Avenue. He attended Kennard Classical Junior Academy in the North Hampton Neighborhood PK-2nd grade, and 3-5th grades at his church’s Transformation Christian school on Cook Avenue, then on to McKinley Classical Junior Academy in the McKinley Heights Neighborhood where he attended middle school.

His experience at Kennard is a faint memory, but he came into his own at McKinley, making friends, performing as a chorus singer and becoming comfortable as a “smart kid”.

“McKinley was cool, I got into chorus and my vocal teacher, Ms. Sims, was an incredible mentor and nurtured me. It was nice to have teachers who really cared about you and were on your side. A lot of my teachers were like that. A great school, great people.”

He went on to SLUH with the desire to pursue computer science, inspired partly by the high-tech inventions in Iron Man-2. So maybe Tony Stark plays into this trajectory of good decisions…see comic book people, follow your heart. He considered Metro High School as well.

Emil claims his years in St. Louis formed him; the life principals taught at SLUH helped form his moral compass, along with his family, that is still guiding his decisions today.

Yale arrived on his radar as a possiblity when he was a Freshman at SLUH. An upper classman he was in a play with decided to go to Yale and that opened his mind. He had heard of Yale, but it didn’t register that he could go to Ivy League schools. His friend convinced him to consider it with the help of a video called “That’s Why I Chose Yale”, a sweet, sometimes hilarious, over the top pitch which highlights the creative approach to recruitment. If you are singer, and a smart kid, you just might be welcome here.

Emil is studying Psychology, taking a lot of statistics and biology courses at this point. His original plan was computer science at Wash U., but the possibility of an artistic arc at Yale helped seal his decision.

He’s currently thinking about Graduate School, but is making a lot of connections in the artistic world. There is still time.

“I’ve spent the last year trying to be a better writer.”

Was there a culture shock moving from North City to New Haven, CT?

“New Haven is not really a college town, it’s a real city, but there is a Yale bubble. At Wash U and SLU, the contrast is not as clear in the separation between the city and the Universities. Yet, New Haven is way more walkable. In St. Louis, you have to drive everywhere. You have no social life without a car. In New Haven, I walk everywhere, ride a scooter, getting by on my own energy.“

I asked about any euphemisms or characteristics from his STL experience that are not picked up out east.

“Panera is St. Louis Bread Company to me.”

His friends are flummoxed by this. To them “Bread Co.” is a foreign concept.

What about the privilege and elitism associated with the Ivy League. Was it a struggle transitioning from St. Louis to that scene?

“SLUH prepared me to hit the ground running. I was there with rich kids and people who had access to all things. I’ve been grappling recently with being a black man in America, we have less privilege. Male privilege for sure, but SLUH made it easier to transition from North City to Yale. I’ve taken a step back to think about where I’m from and where I’m at now. Talking to people from my neighborhood, I see how my life could have been if my life had taken a different turn. On a recent return home, someone called me ‘the neighborhood savior’ and it shook me. People look up to me and expect great things from me. I’m grateful for that and I try to stay grounded in who I am and not jump off the deep end.”

So where’d the Whiffenpoof involvement come from?

“Yale has ~16 a cappella groups, 14 Freshman - Junior and 2 all Senior groups.”

He was aware of the Whiffs, from a concert where all the groups performed on campus. He had friends who joined and he was aware of their ‘claim to fame’. To join the Whiffs, you have to take a year off and commit to a year of touring. It’s a big deal. He auditioned and got accepted.

 Emil, third from the right

Emil, third from the right

I asked if this a ‘cool I got it’ thing or a jump up in the air ‘I did it’ type thing?

“Oh yeah, I was screaming and jumping off the floor.”

Now, I know nothing about a cappella music, I asked what his influences are to ground myself. Emil has shifted toward Jazz and neo-soul. I’m not going to embarrass myself and try to recount the long list of artists he mentioned as I’m not educated in these worlds, but I have some iTunes mining to do.

He’s connected to the local artist community and wider to connect with contemporary musicians performing, recording and doing it. He’s in touch with what he grew up with, gospel, etc. It’s still a meaningful grounding.

He’s a tenor-2, one of 4 in the group, he’s on the higher side.

Some people he went to HS with are doing amazing things, musically. Further, one of his cousins Najii Person is rapping and is an inspiration. Check out that video, I know where almost all of those places are, north, south city, downtown. It’s a joy. Here’s another cut. Thanks for the tip. I see all those places, and hear all those words.

Emil is playing at a retirement home the night before the SLUH show on October 14th. He has 3 siblings at Mallinckrodt School on Hampton, and they are playing there as well. The Whiffs invite members to tour their hometowns.

I asked about his plans in the future, would you return to St. Louis after your degree?

“If jobs send me half way across the world, I’ll have to follow my best opportunity. I was in St. Louis for 18 years, one of the reason I came to Yale was to see more of the world. I moved 1,000 miles away and want to explore more of the country including the West Coast and the rest of the Midwest. I don’t think I can stay away from home for too long because so many people I care about and mean so much to me are still there. If I can settle down in St. Louis, I’d be thrilled about that. It doesn’t hurt that the cost of living is so reasonable.”

Emil spoke of the lure of San Mateo, CA and the larger Bay Area and maybe even more so Seattle, WA and the mountains and natural beauty in that area.

There you have it, kind readers.

I’m always grateful for people who reach out to me and thankful that it works out sometimes. I want nothing but success for Emil. I’m a dad, we’re wired to want success for the next generation. I’m a city school parent too, and I thrive on beating back the negative narrative we’ve inherited. There are amazing teachers, people and kids here. Our schools can set young people up for great successes. You don’t have to move to the suburbs to play that staid story out.

Out greatest strengths are right here: our people and our communities. If you live here and commit to rooting down here, and surround yourself with people who love their kids, you can find everything you need.

Hell, you can even go to Yale and be a member of a world-renowned group of singers.