With a distinct acapella style they call “vocal play, Naturally 7 is a New York based vocal septet that has contributed to America’s soundtrack with their unique style. Featuring Roger Thomas, Warren Thomas, Rod Eldridge, Lee Ricardo, Dwight Stewart, Garfield Buckley, and Kelvin “Kelz” Mitchell, Naturally 7 has made their mark by using their voices to replicate music instruments to accompany their choral harmonies.
The group recently released their seventh album, Both Sides Now, which features classics spanning over a century from Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” to Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace.”
Roger Thomas, co-founder, of the group Naturally 7 spoke with the National Museum of African American Music about the group’s new album, Both Sides Now, their repertoire of music, and career highlights.
What have been some of your career highlights?
Roger Thomas: I suppose one career highlight has been going on three world tours with Michael Bublé. We did that three world tours that pushed us out in front of about 4 million people. That’s nothing to sneeze at. We did Quincy Jones’ 75th birthday and we became friends with him. We were the only group that was on the stage that night that he didn’t know who we were. They had the greats there like James Ingram, Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock. He was just so overjoyed by what we did. That was really cool for us. Also, we did the  BET Honors did a tribute for Herbie Hancock and showed the world what we were doing. We’ve had so many highlights. All of it has been a blessing.
For those discovering Naturally 7 for the first time, can you describe the group’s sound and explain what vocal play is?
Roger Thomas: We are acapella and most people know it means singing without instruments. Vocal play is when you become the instruments, meaning actually mimicking the instruments. Often times when you sing acapella, you just sing the ooh’s and aah’s, but it isn’t taking the place of modern instruments. So that’s exactly what we do is when you hear the sound, you hear the instruments and literally believe that you’re hearing the regular instruments that you would hear when you are listening to other genres like R&B, hip hop, pop, funk, gospel, it doesn’t make any difference, we’re going to sell that world of sound just with our voices. We’re not really chained to any particular genre, but coming out of the church, gospel and R&B and coming out of New York; in our set people are going to hear anything from classical music to rock.
Let’s talk about the album, Both Sides Now. What would you say is the difference between this album and your previous albums?
Roger Thomas: First of all, if you were listening to the album before this one, Hidden in Plain Sight, they are both extremes. We actually don’t have a lot of vocal play on this album. This was a specialty project where we concentrated on the choral aspect, the harmonies, and almost going back to our roots where we originally came from. The theme of the album was classical and classics, so that’s what we kind of did. If you listened to the album before this it was urban, hip hop, R&B, and just completely different.
How do you pick the songs that you are going to put on the album? Because looking at your discography, there are a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs and then you do a Roberta Flack song; there’s a wide range. So how do you narrow your songs down?
Roger Thomas: (laughs) I’m going to be honest with you. From the time we got together in 1999, we found that more people were more surprised that we would even know that song, so the effect of that was overwhelming. So, you can imagine seeing seven black guys on stage, people would think we were about to do some Donny Hathaway, Earth Wind & Fire, but we like to do stuff that people don’t expect. We can take a song like “In the Air Tonight,” and then make a hip hop version out of it, and we have our own lyrics and our verses, and the chorus is hip hop. We like kind of doing things where people end up shocked. At Carnegie Hall earlier this year, they did a 1960s movement, and we did “Summer in the City” and we mixed it with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” They didn’t expect us to mix those together. That’s our goal, and that’s what we like to do. In a set, Roberta Flack’s song “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” they may have not heard a male sing that song. It’s not even a black white thing, it can be gender.
Do you ever get feedback from the artists whose songs you put the Naturally 7 spin on?
Roger Thomas: Yes, we have to clear songs. One of the songs, “Everything She Wants,” by George Michael, we had to clear. This was before he passed and he was like “oh my goodness I love what you guys did with it. I give you permission, I hope you have a lot of success with it.” I’d love to hear from Paul Simon, we haven’t had that. We’ve heard from James Taylor’s people, some how they got wind of it, and asked us to put it on their Facebook page and they loved it. We did a song for Quincy Jones called “Wall of Sound,” and in the middle of it, we did “Off the Wall.” Quincy produced “Off the Wall,” so you can imagine his face when we hit that. We love when we get a chance for the original artist to hear it.
Since your voices are your instruments, how do you care for them? Do you get a lot of sore throats? (laughs)
Roger Thomas: (laughs) We actually police each other. We have to remind each other “bring your voice down.” So even talking actually, loud talking, hurts us more than singing every day. We police that and sleep. None of us smoke, we are very careful with our instruments since it’s inside of us, we have to take care of ourselves. If someone gets a cold or something, then that affects the show and what people are going to hear. I’m not saying that we never lose our voices, because we do, but the show goes on.
Why is it important to have the National Museum of African American Music?
Roger Thomas: One of my pet peeves that people just forget too quick. It could be something that happened five years ago and it’s already forgotten. People forget how we got here from something that just happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So, people are visual people so to actually see something that will help. In a museum situation, if we are teaching people this is what has taken place, these are the steps that have been taken to get to the steps that you are on now, and that way you can even know there are other steps. People have to know how they got to where they are and know the people that paved the way and the events that happened along the way. If you don’t know that then you’re doomed to repeat history. I truly believe we have to lift up our heroes and the people that have made it possible for us to be where we are.
Keep up with Naturally 7 by checking out their website.