A Spotlight On Lower Cape Personalities And Visionaries
Harwich’s Singing ‘Valet’ Fred Boak Does What He Loves Best
by Elizabeth Van Wye
Harwich resident Fred Boak has found a way to do what he loves. By day he is a computer programmer with more than 25 years in the computer software business. But when his work is done this self-styled “harmonizer-at-large” is also fulfilling a lifelong dream. He sings with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, an Eastham-based band described by the Boston Globe as “Dixieland, pop, avant-jazz, rock.. .and fully over the top.”
Boak, who was born in Manhattan and grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was an only child. His father was a Presbyterian minister and Boak grew up loving to sing. He joined the church choir at five and advanced through all the church and high school choruses, taking voice lessons along the way. Boak came by his talent honestly. Both parents sang in vocal groups and it was natural for him to join in as soon as he could “I just loved doing it,” he recalled. “I couldn’t stop!”
Boak’s musical tastes progressed from the Beatles to art rock, including the bands Genesis and Kansas, to Frank Zappa and then all the modern classical blues, doowop and more. Meanwhile, in 1980 he was doing well enough in high school to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boak says that while MIT is well known for its math and science, it was also a good place for music.
He sang in the Chorallaries ofMIT, the university’s mixed vocal a capella group, and eventually became the director for two years, frequently doing vocal arrangements. The group went on a couple of tours, through the Midwest, Chicago and Florida during the January independent activities time frame. “We’d schedule a tour and stay at alumni houses along the way,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, back in the classroom at MIT, Boak was studying economics and material science, learning all about plastics and chip design. “I liked the beginning courses,” he says, “but it wasn’t what I wanted, so I Ieft in 1985.” Boak got a job at WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square and worked there for several years before a mend told him about a computer job at its sister company, WordStock, designing computer systems for book stores.
“I started out in tech support and learned programming on the job,” Boak says, add. ing, “I’ve been there 20 plus years.” In the ’90s, he moved to Harwich, where he telecommutes, continuing to program inventory control systems for bookstores.
Telecommuting is not for everyone, he says. “It takes discipline and there are good days and bad. Mostly it’s great, with flexible hours.”
It’s especially good for his music, Boak says. In 1997 he heard singer Chandler Travis perform with the Philharmonic, his nine-piece group, for the first time.
“I started out as a fan,” Boak recalls, and Travis soon asked him to start selling the merchandise, the assorted CDs, Tshirts and other band paraphernalia often available at concerts. “When he found out I could sing, I weaseled my way on stage,” Boak says with a smile. “I love it,” he adds, “I hadn’t sung in 10 years and didn’t realize how much I missed it. I love playing and singing Travis’ songs… he is fantastic. They are some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen.”
Boak performs vocals as needed with both the Philharmonic and the Three-o, a smaller group of Philharmonic musicians, occasionally adding a collapsible vuvuzuela, the South African plastic horn, into the mix. Their unique sound, including horns, a keyboard and a mandolin as well as vocals, has been called jazz, pop or omnipop and even alternative Dixie land. “He gives free range to the horns,” Boak says of Travis, adding that the music can be danceable but also quiet. John Donohue, writing for the New Yorker, has described the music as “playful original songs that mix mind-bending wordplay with jazz, shimmering rock, and horn-fueled R&B.”
The group is known for its pageantry, especially in their attire, and may perform in costumes as diverse as bathrobes, pajamas or suits. Recognizing the special nature that clothing plays in their performances, Boak assumed the persona of “Chandler Travis’ valet” and during shows he dresses in the style of a contemporary Jeeves, with black suit, white shirt, black bowler hat, pink paisley bow tie and matching handkerchief, pink sunglasses and flip flops.
The group performs year round at restaurants and other venues, both on Cape Cod and nationwide, as well as at private parties, with 12 to 15 shows every month in the summer. They also perform gigs to help out non-profits in need, like their annual Christmas show, this year at the Old Jailhouse Tavern in Orleans.
With his flexible work schedule, Boak manages to do what he loves. “When I left school I wanted to do music I loved,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to lead a band. This is the best of that for me. I get to perform songs I really like, respect and appreciate.”
For more information on the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, visit www.chandlertravis.com
Originally published in the October 13, 2011 edition of the Cape Cod Chronicle