Getty Images
Getty Images

15 Celebrities Who Sang A Cappella In School

Getty Images
Getty Images

Long before they were winning awards and our hearts, these 15 celebrities were just college kids with some extracurricular interests in singing.


John Legend now produces an a cappella documentary series called "Sing It On," which just premiered this week, and who better to contribute to a show like that than a Grammy-winner with his own a cappella past? Back when he was a young John Stephens, Legend was a member of UPenn's Counterparts. We’d recognize that voice anywhere.


While at Dartmouth in 1988, the future actress and comedian was a member of the Rockapellas, a socially conscious, all-girl a cappella group.


A decade after Aisha Tyler left Dartmouth, another comedic actress—then Mindy Chokalingam—joined the Rockapellas, and also wrote skits for them.


Before Dawson’s Creek, Van Der Beek was singing with the Drew University 36 Madison Avenue a cappella group to try to win hearts. "A girl heard me sing 'Englishman in New York' and I got to, like, go to her dorm room to give her our CD," he told The New York Times. And while he hasn't done any public singing lately, he was in a Ke$ha video once.


#canttaketheSpenceoutoftheGirl #oscars #tbt @kerrywashington

A photo posted by Gwyneth Paltrow (@gwynethpaltrow) on Feb 26, 2015 at 6:11pm PST

While attending the Upper East Side's Spence School for girls, the future Olivia Pope had a singing idol: one Gwyneth Paltrow. "It was a nine-girl a cappella singing group—we called ourselves Triple Trio. And when I was in junior high school I really wanted to be in Triple Trio because there was this really amazing senior named Gwyneth Paltrow and she was president of Triple Trio," Washington told Jimmy Kimmel last year. "And then I was co-president of Triple Trio one day. My shining honor!"


Before he was the star of Heroes, Masi Oka was the music director of the hilariously named Brown Bear Necessities at Brown University. The all-male group is known for wearing suspenders, but one year, Oka created an arrangement of "Flashdance…What A Feeling" and went onstage in a purple leotard and a tutu. "A cappella is all about commitment," Oka later said.


The veteran reporter was a member of Wellesley College’s Blue Notes in the mid-'60s.


Bareilles was a member of Awaken A Cappella while she was at UCLA, and loved it. "It's so goofy," she told The New York Times, "but I felt like I'd found my family at school."


Anyone who watched The Office knows that Andy Bernard often broke out in song and bragged about his Cornell a cappella group Here Comes Treble. But Helms did actually sing with the all-male Oberlin College Obertones during undergrad (for one semester—he once said he quit because he "decided smoking pot was more important than extracurricular activities"). He also formed the bluegrass band The Lonesome Trio with two of his college friends; their debut album comes out this summer.


Long before she debuted on Broadway, Lauren Graham was in the Barnard Metrotones. “That was like the most fun I had in school, and still some of my best friends are from that group,” she told the Columbia Spectator.


In the early '90s, well before he went on to star in Prison Break (or Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" video), Miller was the lead vocalist of the Princeton Tigertones.


With Quincy Jones for a father, it’s no surprise that Rashida is musically inclined. Perhaps she even took some production cues from him when she served as the musical director for the co-ed Harvard Opportunes. And though she might not have a signature tune ("Ha, a signature tune! I wish. That's what makes you an icon, right?"), she says her favorite holiday song is Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."


"That song 'All You Want' by Dido—I was in an a cappella group in college, and that was my audition song," Hathaway revealed earlier this year of her tryout for Vassar’s all-female Measure 4 Measure. The extra practice certainly paid off—Hathaway won her Oscar based on her singing performance in 2012's Les Miserables


The future Oscar-winner was a founding member of the co-ed Harvard-Radcliffe Veritones in 1985. One of her solos was during their cover of Yazoo's "Only You," which Sorvino will apparently still sing if you ask her nicely.


The real Stephen Colbert has been known to break out in song on his show, and even guest-starred on The Office as Andy's Here Comes Treble nemesis Broccoli Rob. The persona "Stephen Colbert" claims to have attended Dartmouth and performed with the group The Sing Dynasty. Here's the thing though—there actually is an a cappella group at Dartmouth called the Sing Dynasty, but they formed because of Colbert's joke. Regardless, even without official a cappella bona fides, Colbert can and will perform sans-instrumentation at public functions.


No, really. According to Lawrence Wright's book The Looming Tower, as a teen, Bin Laden basically formed a vocal band. "Although he was opposed to the playing of musical instruments, he organized some of his friends into an a cappella singing group," Wright wrote. "They even recorded some of their tunes about jihad, which for them meant the internal struggle to improve themselves, not holy war. Osama would make copies and give them each a tape."

Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.


In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.


The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.


Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.


Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.


Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.


Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.


Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.


More from mental floss studios