Striking Oil

If you talk to Wally Collins about Boulder's New Wizard Oil Combination, the musical aggregation he formed more than a quarter-century ago, make sure you get your lingo straight. "It's not a band," he says a bit testily. "We're a group or a choir, but we're not a band. 'Band' means instruments."

Indeed, the sixteen Wizards, whose ages range from 22 to 71, carry the only instruments they need in their throats. They specialize in a dazzling brand of a cappella; if they can't make their music with their vocal chords, they don't make it at all.

Such a constraint might seem daunting to the average entertainer, but the Wizards love to grapple with it. According to Oakleigh Thorne, a 68-year-old who works for a nonprofit environmental concern in Boulder, "Singing a cappella is the biggest challenge for a singer, because you've got to be in tune with the other people. And you're creating the harmonies with just your voices, without the crutch of a piano or guitar. That's the appeal of a cappella singing."

This allure is obvious to the residents of a Boulder senior center, where the Wizards play an annual "Winter Cheer" show. The combo forms a loose semi-circle in front of its audience; then, after one singer hits a pitch-pipe reference note, the musicians launch into their first number, "Wink and a Smile." The room is instantly filled with lush, angelic harmonies, rich chords, a swinging rhythm and a copious supply of glee. "Because we're good, we have fun," asserts Thorne, who's also known in these parts for having founded Boulder's Owl Records imprint. "The better you are, the more polished you are--and the more fun you can have."

Following the first of the song's multi-layered choruses, the men illustrate this point by launching into a hilarious "instrumental" break, with various Wizards wailing away on imaginary saxes, trombones, stand-up basses and so on. The shtick is a clever reference to the outfit's no-frills approach, yet it doesn't get in the way of its skintight vocal sorcery. The listeners hoot and holler their approval, making the room seem more like an uptown nightclub than part of a retirement home. This impression is accentuated by a dose of politely risque humor the Wizards offer up at the tender conclusion of the opening number. Despite the mature ages of most of the crooners, this is clearly not your father's barbershop act.

Collins conjured up the Wizards in 1971, shortly after moving to Boulder. (The recipient of a doctorate in music from Yale, he'd been hired to serve as associate dean of music at the University of Colorado.) He soon hooked up with Thorne, another Yale alum with whom he'd sung in the Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella tradition at his alma mater since 1909; Cole Porter was once a member of the ensemble. When Collins suggested that the pair assemble a Colorado version of the Whiffs, Thorne was immediately receptive. He'd created just such a group--dubbed the Buffoons, in reference to CU's buffalo mascot--years earlier. Many Buffoons later became a part of the Collins/ Thorne project. "I jokingly refer to them as our farm team," Thorne points out. "About half of our current members are former Buffoons."

As vocalists lined up to take part in this endeavor, Collins (who no longer sings with the Wizards but serves as their official historian) began the search for a handle. The inspiration for the moniker he settled on came from a Leadville, Colorado, newspaper from the late 1800s. "I found it in an article about early music in Colorado; something called the 'Wizard Oil Combination' was set to appear in Leadville," he says. "I had no idea what it was, but it sounded so funny. It was similar to the names of a number of rock bands at the time that made no sense at all, so I proposed using the name for our group. We added 'new' to it because the New Christy Minstrels were a big thing at the time." He remembers, "Everybody voted against the name, but nobody could come up with a better suggestion."

The choice turned out to be one with a rich background, as Collins subsequently learned from a scholarly a cappella devotee. The Wizard Oil Combination to which the Leadville newspaper had alluded was one of several like-named late-nineteenth-century vocal collectives sponsored by John Hamlin, creator of Hamlin's Wizard Oil, a hugely successful patent medicine. "It was reputed to be about half codeine and half alcohol," Collins says about the concoction. "And it would cure anything...for about three days. One man claimed he cured his wife of breast cancer with just two bottles. People paid a dollar for one small bottle--and that was a lot of money in those days."

Wizard Oil--which also included sassafras, ammonia and chloroform--was hardly the only such compound on the market during this period. Between 1850 and the early 1900s, Americans spent millions of dollars on a wide range of dubious remedies that allegedly cured everything from worms and asthma to impotence and drunkenness. Hamlin, a Chicago magician, profited handsomely from this craze--and he was aided immeasurably by the original Combinations, which he used to attract crowds at traveling medicine shows that crisscrossed the country. He marketed a handful of potions at these events, including a "cough balsam" and "liver pills," but Wizard Oil was his biggest seller. Its label called it "The Great Medical Wonder," a bold claim matched by its slogan: "There is no Sore it will not Heal, No Pain it will not Subdue." Also rehabilitated was Hamlin's bank account. He scored huge profits from Wizard Oil, some of which he used to finance the construction of Chicago's Grand Opera House (now called the RKO Grand).

The federal government closed the door on such colorful but dangerous medical chicanery with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but a few artifacts from the era remain. For example, Collins owns an antique Wizard Oil songbook loaded with ditties about the linament's limitless powers. The New Wizards perform one air from this keepsake during their retirement-home appearance. "He talked just like a brother to those honest sons of toil," they sing sweetly. "He said life would be brighter by the use of Wizard Oil."

The present-day Wizards (whose mind-bending arrangements can be heard on a self-produced cassette, Presto!) say the same thing about singing itself. For Collins, the joy of being a Wizard derives from "the ability to get together without any instruments and make interesting, beautiful music...Like any group of men, they get some male bonding started, and they just have a lot of fun."

Allen Rogers, a 46-year-old Wizard, agrees. "I suspect that some of these guys may have gotten away from music and singing, and this is a way to get back into it. They start singing again, and they remember just how fun it was." The camaraderie that results is an added bonus: "We get together every Tuesday to practice, and it gives us a chance to be with people who share a common interest. I've sung with the Wizards for about half my life. Some of my oldest friends are old Wizards."

Rogers and company have also made innumerable friends among a cappella buffs over the years--and since the New Wizard Oil Combination still plays an average of two gigs a month at assorted area venues, more fans are joining up all the time. It doesn't take the performers long to win over the folks at the senior center: When they're invited to sing along with a song, they eagerly take lyric sheets and prepare to join their guests in a little street-corner-style music-making. As one Wizard points out, "It's fun to sing together." And then the New Wizard Oil Combination goes on to prove it.


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