By James C. Pitman '99
On a frozen night in Roseville, Minn., a tonic melody could be heard for a suburban mile outside the Roseville Covenant Church. Passers-by might have mistaken the majestic harmonies for those of a gothic pipe organ or a sophisticated synthesizer plugged in to a precision sound system. Instead, it was a sextet of Bethel alumni —Poor Baker's Dozen, as this male a cappella band is called—wrapping up a weekly rehearsal in pitch just as perfect as it was when members first rehearsed their craft in the halls and men's rooms of Bethel College some eight years ago.
The story of Poor Baker's Dozen (PBD), so-named simply because its members total "less than 12," actually begins with two, tenor Jeremiah Gamble '95 and baritone Kendal Marsh '95, who were already touring with the Bethel Connection, a student ministry group, in 1993.
"We got together and thought it would be fun to sing in a group with some guys," remembers Jeremiah, who had been singing with his extended family in the Gamble Folk since he was three years old.
Brothers Jon and David Olson '99, alto and tenor respectively, joined the group a year later. Tenor Jeff Zupfer '95 and bass Chris Heng '95 (other Bethel Connection veterans) would later follow.
"We really had no aspirations, no goals," Jeremiah recalls. "We barely had a name." Four members of the group, which has become known for its tight harmonies and eclectic rhythms, write and arrange the original music PBD performs. But that wasn't always the case.
In the early days, Poor Baker's Dozen struggled to find its identity in an era of grunge rock and hip-hop music. Back then they sported matching blazers and slacks, recalled Jon with a grimace, "and sang a medley of horrible hits!"
They all admit that their first concert—a high school event—was far from perfect, but they've tried not to lose sight of what motivated them to sing together in the first place: a desire to worship and praise God through music.
"We have a strong sense of wanting to communicate a message to an audience," said Kendal, "but there's no real copying of something that's been done before."
Although it's not a new idea to have a male harmony group, especially in today's generation of "boy bands" such as N'Sync and Backstreet Boys, Poor Baker's Dozen, which now per Poor Baker's Dozen which now performs primarily original music, doesn't want to be confused with anyone else on the music scene.
"As we started to sing, we really didn't want to be a Glad or a Take 6," said Jeremiah. "We have yet to run into another group that uses hand percussions and trash cans! We don't just write a cappella music. We write music where the instruments are ultimately our voices."
As group members began graduating from college, they had to decide whether to continue as a group or disband. "We took a couple of months, prayed about it, and decided that if we were going to go on, we were going to record a CD or demo," explained Jeremiah.
But they knew it would take some effort—and some paltry platforms— to solidify their performance and their finances enough to enable them to make a recording. The band decided to press on and released its first CD in 1996.
As all six band members will admit, the "poor" in their name isn't exactly a misnomer. Releasing independent CDs is an expensive endeavor, and raising funds took time. To finance the undertaking, the group even agreed on one occasion to change its name to the "Campfire Wilderness Boys" at a Girl Scout camp concert. Instead of the usual gospel or contemporary hits, they specialized in Brownie songs, including the ever-popular "Friendship Song."
Then there was the 2:30 a.m. performance at Valleyfair one summer, during a Youth for Christ all-nighter at which the group was given a milk crate full of rusty microphones to use. Situated outside the "Red Garter Saloon" attraction, PBD found that nearby sodium lighting created terrible feedback in the sound system, adding insult to injury.
"It was the worst concert of all," Jon remembers. "That's when you know the Lord works through you as a vessel."
"God is gracious," echoed Jeremiah, "because no matter what, we've improved since then."
The phone at the Poor Baker's Dozen headquarters rings often now, but the group is determined to take things at a slower poor-man's pace, doing only about five shows a month.
"There have been any number of times when our jobs have pulled us apart," said Jon, "but now we have wives, houses, and babies!" Through it all PBD has tried to remain true to its ultimate purpose: not to be successful on Christian booksellers racks, but to be humble, harmonious servants. Group members have seen plenty of friends and peers form Christian bands and record deals, shoot a couple videos, and then fade into obscurity within a few year's time.
"We've realized it doesn't matter how many CDs you sell or how many people you're singing to," Jon said. "What matters is how many people you reach for the Lord and fervently pray for."
Reps from record labels have come and gone, some even dangling lucrative contracts and record deals that would have had other young Christian bands packing their steamer trunks and hopping on a Silver Eagle tour bus to Nashville. One of those deals did tempt the band for a moment, but ultimately everyone decided that the disruptions on the home front simply weren't worth the payoff.
"We doubted that any label would give in to our demands," explained Jon. "Our priorities were not what a label's would be; they all expected us to pull up stakes."
"I think we've had enough other things going on that have kept us from taking that step," added Chris. "We are patient and content. I don't look at what we're doing as settling. We finally just became exhausted with this intangible thing called ‘success,' and found we needed to have peace and joy with what we were doing."
Today, band members maintain a kaleidoscope of full-time careers. Several are married, with young families that bring demands of their own. As these obligations beckon for attention, Poor Baker's Dozen has decided to stay planted and focus on reaching people locally with their music.
PBD currently performs in numerous venues throughout the Midwest, including the New Union in Minneapolis and the Sonshine Music Festival, as well as various churches. In fall 2000, the group returned to Bethel to share its talents with alumni and their families at Homecoming. And they have gained new fans as headliners for Jars of Clay, Small Town Poets, Go Fish, and Clear.
Poor Baker's Dozen also has extended its ministry connection by becoming a sponsor for World Vision, a Christian relief agency, last year signing up more than 150 World Vision partners through its concerts.
After the spotlights have dimmed and the fans have all retired to their domiciles, Poor Baker's Dozen remains more than just a group of entertainers who are off the clock for the night. They have bonded together as a community, pledging their allegiance to God and to each other.
Working together as musicians is "more of a way of life than just a way of meeting goals you set," reflected Kendal. "If nothing else, we've developed into an accountable group."
"And we've shed many a tear together," added David. "I don't know what life would be like without this family."
Jeremiah describes PBD as "a community in which we see that men can choose to put God first," Jeremiah said. "It is a sanctuary where His presence changes things—our relationships, the presence we have on stage. Our healthy desire is learning to be worshipful performers, not just performers. People may be worshipping in the audience, but if we're not worshipping, then we're not being genuine."
Life isn't always placid in this surrogate family. Occasionally it's a human triumph just to get six male voices harmonize in pitch.
"We've realized that perfection is not our goal," admitted Jon. "The message has got to be there, the emotion."
A big part of what makes PBD a family is a common connection through their years at Bethel College. Each one agrees that Bethel empowered and prepared them for their role as musical messengers.
"A lot of it just goes back to the examples we saw in our professors," said Jeff.
"We didn't want to be a ministry," recalled Jeremiah of the group's undergraduate days. "But when we decided to follow God, we were made into one."
"I learned much about life and relationships and my faith in that environment (at Bethel)," reflected Kendal. "There are a lot of opportunities there."
At Bethel, Poor Baker's Dozen had its run of the music facilities, including the private rehearsal rooms on the fourth floor of the Clauson Fine Arts Center. If the rehearsal rooms were crowded, however, the group retreated to the men's room to utilize its acoustics, occasionally with what Jon remembers as "a captive audience."
Band members praise the Bethel professors who made their college experience so rewarding.
"With most of my professors, I could just go into their offices and talk at them, cry at them, yell at them—and they'd still love me," David said.
"The biggest thing," said Chris, "was having people to believe in me for things that I didn't even believe in myself."
In addition to the two CDs PBD has already produced, another is on its way. The group is slated for a special CD release concert on September 7 at Bethel's Benson Great Hall. For ticket information, call 651-638-6333 or 800-255-8706 (ex. 6333). Send e-mail requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.