Long before the choral students on "Glee" were inventing mashups or the Barden Bellas of "Pitch Perfect" were rehearsing for Nationals, a cappella music was already a hit on the Lee University campus in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Danny Murray had been asked by Dr. Paul Conn in 1994 to form a 16-voice choral group that would professionally represent the university but be small enough to walk in and entertain a Rotary Club meeting.
"A sort of 'strike force' for Lee University branding," Murray compares.
After listening to popular music of the '90s, Murray says he recognized a musical "vacancy" for a style that emphasized the voices. Once deciding on a cappella music, he recruited all freshman singers to begin with a totally fresh group and sound.
If you go
* What: Voices of Lee 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert
* Where: Lee University, Conn Center, 150 11th St. NE, Cleveland, Tenn.
* When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14
* Admission: $30, $20 and $15
* For more information: 423-614-8320
"Both this new group and myself were all very naive as to what it took to make music with just voices," Murray says.
One month later, the group made its debut at Celebration '94, a VIP event dedicating new construction and celebrating growth on Lee's campus.
"Little did I know that 15 years later, a cappella would become so in vogue and we would be called by NBC to be on the debut of 'The Sing-Off," says the director. The ensemble made it to the finals and placed third.
Calling that national exposure a "game-changer," Murray says invitations for performances began "pouring in." Since then, Voices of Lee has appeared in programs everywhere from Memorial Auditorium to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They've performed at Christmas at the White House, Carnegie Hall, Shanghai International Music Festival.
In 2018, they were featured in "Christmas on Broadway" a national telecast from New York City. Also last year, Wacker Corp. sponsored the Voices of Lee's performance for its employees in Munich, Germany.
This weekend, Voices alumni will return to campus for a 25th anniversary reunion concert. More than 100 expected alums will join the current Voices of Lee on Saturday night in Conn Center for a program of favorites from across the years and "a sound that will be out of this world," Murray adds.
Jermaine Purifory will be among those alumni. The Cleveland tenor was in Voices of Lee from 2003-2008.
Purifory made it to the final Hollywood round of Season 9 of "American Idol," then stayed in Los Angeles for a time singing back-up vocals for the TV hit "Glee." Most notably, Purifory toured with The Impressions in the United States and United Kingdom as lead singer on their Farewell Tour. He currently is pursuing a solo career.
He credits Murray with the training and professionalism that has served him well in those endeavors.
"Danny prepared me for the music business. He taught me discipline, taught me about hard work, taught me consistency. Danny teaches you how to be a great singer, but he teaches you so many life lessons that you take with you. He taught me how to hold conversations in meetings, how to interact on a professional level. He's the best coach I've ever had."
And, the singer added, his friendship with his mentor didn't end when he left Lee.
"Once you're one of Danny's kids, you're always his kid. Throughout my professional career, I've stayed in touch with Danny. Anytime any of us go to him, he's always there to give us advice," Purifory said.
In spring 2018, Voices won the Collegiate Group of the Year, Religious Group of the Year and Video of the Year awards at the A Cappella Music Award ceremony in Nashville for their music video of "What a Beautiful Name."
The viral video again thrust Voices into the national spotlight with over 58 million views to date. That video and "No Longer Slaves" have been viewed more than 100 million times on social media.
Voices has appeared on "Good Morning America," Bill Gaither's video series, Gaither Family Fest and the a cappella ensemble produced the "Voices of Lee Evening" at Miracle Theatre in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, each week for nine months. They have recorded 16 CDs and two DVDs.
"Danny and the Voices of Lee have brought an unmatched level of skill and passion to audiences since day one," praises Lee's President Conn. "The impact of their sustained excellence over 25 years is incalculable."
Murray has coached collegiate musicians for more than 40 years. He is a Lee alumnus and a choral clinician who uses practical instruction, humor and dedication to inspire singers to deeper understanding of their musical gifts.
"What an honor it has been to lead Voices of Lee for the past 25 years in our mission to represent Lee University and be ambassadors for Cleveland, Tennessee," said Murray.
"My time in the Voices of Lee completely changed the course of my life forever," said Phil Nitz, former Voices member and current worship leader at Christ Church Nashville. "Not only did I grow as a musician, but I was stretched in ways that helped me learn invaluable lessons about myself, my calling and God's faithfulness to those who walk in his will."
For more information about the concert or Voices of Lee, call 423-614-8320.