When Johnathan Estes auditioned to be part of a college doo-wop group in 2005, he didn’t imagine the project would blossom into a full-time career that would take him all over the country.
Blend, a Southern Illinois-based a cappella group that specializes in '50s and '60s hits, will wrap up its farewell tour in late January. The jaunt will take them to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.
Blend first began as a student project at John A. Logan College at the request of instructor Karen Sala. After the group placed first in its division at a talent show, Estes encouraged the other members to pick out a few more tunes from the era, dress the part and continue booking appearances. Next they got a call to sing at a nursing home in Benton.
“That turned into a birthday party, and then next thing you know we’re going to festivals in Kentucky and then Missouri,” Estes said.
Since then, over a dozen singers have shuffled in and out of the group; Estes is Blend’s sole original member. He is currently joined by Edwin Linson, who has been with the group since May 2016, and Nik Berry, who auditioned as a bass singer in 2013.
1950s a cappella has remained Blend’s core premise, but over the years they’ve sprinkled in classic country songs and contemporary pop numbers to appeal to younger listeners.
“We kind of try to give the feel of a Casey’s General Store — we want to have a little bit of something for everybody,” Estes said.
Blend honed their show, adding comedic elements to their performances, and watched their audiences grow in auditoriums from Minnesota to Florida. The group also performed as backup singers for country music star Ronnie McDowell on his album "Iʼm Gonna Dance with the Ones that Brought Me."
Two-and-a-half years ago, the singers quit their jobs — Estes was a schoolteacher at the time — and transitioned to touring with Blend full-time.
Estes said the decision to retire the group, which now plays out an average of 200 days a year, was a tough one.
“All of us will stay in music in some way, shape or form, but the biggest thing was that we wanted to retire because we’ve lived our dream,” Estes said. “How many people can say, especially starting out at a talent show, that you can build it all the way up to provide for your families and leave a full-time job? … Not everybody gets that opportunity, and we did, and we ran with it. There’s a time for everything. There’s a season for everything.”