The Hidden Story Of The Up With People Singers

UWPColwellslowres Failure Magazine examines the bizarre hidden story of “Up With People”, the gigantic 1970s singing ensemble which operated almost as a cult, performed at the Super Bowl and met with presidents and the Pope, and was quietly funded by corporations such as Exxon and Coca-Cola that were eager to put forward a youth-y alternative to authority-questioning counterculture:

Before there were yuppies, there were uppies—the term Up With People members use to refer to themselves. Most Americans over the age of 35 are vaguely familiar with Up With People, as its cast members have sung to more than 20 million people worldwide, and at the height of the ensemble’s fame it provided the halftime entertainment at four Super Bowls (1976, 1980, ’82, ’86). But many are unaware of the group’s cultish utopian ideology, its political connectedness, and how it was funded by corporate America, part of a deliberate propaganda effort to discredit liberal counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s.

Up With People emerged from the controversial religious movement Moral Re-Armament (MRA)—a cult-like organization that preached honesty, purity, unselfishness and love—so it’s no surprise that the groups bore more than a passing similarity. In fact, Up With People founder J. Blanton Belk was heir apparent to Peter D. Howard, a British journalist who succeeded Frank Buchman as MRA’s leader in 1961. But Belk broke away to incorporate Up With People as a non-profit after President Dwight Eisenhower urged him to distance himself from the dreary image of MRA.

It’s no surprise that President Eisenhower encouraged and supported Belk. As Mark Crispin Miller—professor of media ecology at New York University—notes during Smile, “The sixties were a time when a lot of longstanding pieties were being seriously questioned…. Students marched and there were race riots and we saw the first upsurge of feminism. This was …extremely worrying to the powers that be,” he says. It also explains why Eisenhower (and later President Richard M. Nixon) was thrilled to see Belk sending throngs of clean-cut, short-haired kids out into the world to sing upbeat, positive-minded songs, thereby countering the protest movement. “What we did was give young people a chance to express their views through music,” says Belk in a sequence from the film. It was a clever appropriation of the same vehicle—music—that had been embraced by demonstrators who opposed the Vietnam War and the establishment.

Of course, Up With People’s songs (“You Can’t Live Crooked and Think Straight” and “To Tell the Truth,” for example) bore virtually no resemblance to the popular music of the time. With simple chord progressions and childish lyrics, the group’s ditties can best be described as “insipid.” But good songs weren’t necessary to get Up With People’s message across, just as musical talent wasn’t a prerequisite to joining. The visceral power of a huge throng of smiling, exuberant and seemingly joyful young men and women rushing on stage and performing as one was enough to entice a reliable stream of new recruits. And thanks to the political connectedness of Up With People’s board members, Belk had no problem lining up gigs all over the planet, in front of audiences that often included presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders. (Up With People has performed for Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, and at the inaugurations of Nixon and George H.W. Bush, to name just a few high-profile engagements.)

But the financial lifeblood of Up With People was corporate America, which recognized that it could use uppies to promote a business-friendly image. Patrick Frawley Jr., a right-wing evangelical who owned Schick, was one of the group’s biggest supporters; he purchased television time and underwrote the first Up With People album, which had John Wayne, Pat Boone and Walt Disney on the cover. But Schick was hardly alone among multinationals. Companies like Exxon, Halliburton, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, General Electric, Coors, Toyota, Enron and Searle donated tens of millions of dollars to the organization, keeping it afloat until 2000, when George W. Bush became president and evangelicals could declare that their ideological war had been won.

The propaganda effort aside, individual members of Up With People certainly fomented their share of positive change, or at least spread good cheer wherever they went. In fact, most were just having a good time performing and traveling the world, oblivious to the agenda of the organization’s leadership and financial backers. “The members of the cast were like puppets. They never stopped to think about where the funding came from, or that someone had to open doors for them,” reminds Storey. Anyway, in some respects the group was surprisingly progressive. Up With People not only accepted members of all races and cultures, but deliberately placed minority cast members with Caucasian host families whenever the ensemble rolled into a new town.

Up With People didn’t lose its way because it lost the ability to control its cast members’ behavior, or because the public suddenly came to recognize that its sickly sweet songs were insufferable. Up With People declined because it became irrelevant, especially after the Cold War ended and American corporations no longer felt compelled to send groups of singing young people overseas, hoping to sweep in behind them to do business.

In the face of diminishing corporate support, Up With People began relying more heavily on tuition fees to pay for its increasingly expensive stage shows. While the organization began charging tuition in the early 1970s ($2,400 in 1972), fees rose dramatically in subsequent years, up to $5,300 in 1982. By the 1990s, the organization found itself struggling to recruit youth capable of paying tuition rates that exceeded the cost of most private universities, a problem compounded by the mostly indifferent response to the group’s public performances.

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  • Anonymous

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFwFango_NI

    Clutch, 12 Ounce Epilogue:
    “This was always the last place I expected to be,
    Once upon an Apocalypse, better make the most of it.
    So I said to the Horsemen, have a Coke and a smile,
    So I said to the Horsemen, why not stick around for a while?
    But they said ‘You’ve got the wrong one, baby,
    the New Generation’s pushing up some daisies,
    and by decree of Rapture Inc., we’re closing this here market… permanently.’
    Coming down like a ton of lead, more bang for your buck, more pangs for the dead.
    Coca-Cola and Armageddon, I like it like it yes I do!
    So they tried to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony,
    but it was way  off key, so here comes Big RC!
    The melting pot boils!
    The Bible Belt breaks!
    And young America begins to sing!”

    Couldn’t have had Clutch without Up with People, I think. At least not this song.  Where’d we be without its awesomeness?

  • Anarchaeologist

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFwFango_NI

    Clutch, 12 Ounce Epilogue:
    “This was always the last place I expected to be,
    Once upon an Apocalypse, better make the most of it.
    So I said to the Horsemen, have a Coke and a smile,
    So I said to the Horsemen, why not stick around for a while?
    But they said ‘You’ve got the wrong one, baby,
    the New Generation’s pushing up some daisies,
    and by decree of Rapture Inc., we’re closing this here market… permanently.’
    Coming down like a ton of lead, more bang for your buck, more pangs for the dead.
    Coca-Cola and Armageddon, I like it like it yes I do!
    So they tried to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony,
    but it was way  off key, so here comes Big RC!
    The melting pot boils!
    The Bible Belt breaks!
    And young America begins to sing!”

    Couldn’t have had Clutch without Up with People, I think. At least not this song.  Where’d we be without its awesomeness?

  • Wanooski

    This is very creepy on a lot of levels. I think I’d like it better if they just sent jackbooted thugs out instead of some astroturf sellout choir. It would be very difficult to justify putting two in the chest and one in the head of some upbeat bought and paid for singing kid rather than some corporate stormtrooper. Damn moral ambiguity.

  • Anarchy Pony

    This is very creepy on a lot of levels. I think I’d like it better if they just sent jackbooted thugs out instead of some astroturf sellout choir. It would be very difficult to justify putting two in the chest and one in the head of some upbeat bought and paid for singing kid rather than some corporate stormtrooper. Damn moral ambiguity.

    • Redacted

      Those aren’t people, they are Capitalists. Hone your zeal and harden your heart.

    • Ronniedobbs

      “It would be very difficult to justify putting two in the chest and one
      in the head of some upbeat bought and paid for singing kid rather than
      some corporate stormtrooper.”

      Hell no it wouldn’t be.  They play the banjo for christsake, thats reason enough alone. 

  • Oddfellow8

    Smiling faces..

  • Oddfellow8

    Smiling faces..

  • Anonymous

    Awesome!

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Awesome!

  • Leefalk

    Saw them at (mandatory) high scool assembly.  It felt like a meeting of the Hitler Jugend. Also saw Synanon spokesperson and other “educational” assemblies. ” Young Life” (Jugend Kinder?) was allowed around entraces/exits of high school.

  • Leefalk

    Saw them at (mandatory) high scool assembly.  It felt like a meeting of the Hitler Jugend. Also saw Synanon spokesperson and other “educational” assemblies. ” Young Life” (Jugend Kinder?) was allowed around entraces/exits of high school.

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    A friend of mine, a pot grower in Hawaii, was a member of Up with People in the 70′s. He was kicked out of the group twice for having sex with some UWP gyrls. He enjoyed his time there but obviously it had very little effect on his “character” since he became a successful pot grower shortly thereafter.

  • BuzzCoastin

    A friend of mine, a pot grower in Hawaii, was a member of Up with People in the 70′s. He was kicked out of the group twice for having sex with some UWP gyrls. He enjoyed his time there but obviously it had very little effect on his “character” since he became a successful pot grower shortly thereafter.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    Those aren’t people, they are Capitalists. Hone your zeal and harden your heart.

  • Anonymous

    What the fuck is a Bengals?

  • Redacted

    What the fuck is a Bengals?

  • Anonymous

    Even back then, I thought that “Up With People” would make a good motto for the hangman’s trade union.

  • robertpinkerton

    Even back then, I thought that “Up With People” would make a good motto for the hangman’s trade union.

  • Ronniedobbs

    “It would be very difficult to justify putting two in the chest and one
    in the head of some upbeat bought and paid for singing kid rather than
    some corporate stormtrooper.”

    Hell no it wouldn’t be.  They play the banjo for christsake, thats reason enough alone. 

  • anastasjoy

    Why are they back? They are performing here in Cleveland, Ohio tonight!  (Actually suburban Pepper Pike)

  • Anonymous

    Why are they back? They are performing here in Cleveland, Ohio tonight!  (Actually suburban Pepper Pike)

  • Anonymous

    Commies I say!

  • hawaiiguy

    Commies I say!

  • ….

    they all look about 30 in the pic… seems more like the hippies parents, or their scared neighbors about to start their family worried their kids would use the dread lsd and become permanently psychologically afflicted with reefer madness.

  • ….

    they all look about 30 in the pic… seems more like the hippies parents, or their scared neighbors about to start their family worried their kids would use the dread lsd and become permanently psychologically afflicted with reefer madness.

  • http://www.smiletilithurts.com Bari

    Thanks for this article.  It is in fact a wonderful synopsis of the documentary SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS (www.smiletilithurts.com) so anyone interested should buy the DVD from Filmbaby!  Thanks for the shout-out, Jacob!

  • http://www.smiletilithurts.com Bari

    Thanks for this article.  It is in fact a wonderful synopsis of the documentary SMILE ‘TIL IT HURTS (www.smiletilithurts.com) so anyone interested should buy the DVD from Filmbaby!  Thanks for the shout-out, Jacob!

  • quartz99

    This doesn’t match my experience with them at all. I didn’t travel with them, but only because a scholarship for a particular prestigious college came through and I had to matriculate to claim it. However, I have family who did travel with them. The kids are out there trying to promote a peaceful and integrated world where everyone accepts the differences of others and lives in harmony. They travel the world and exchange cultural knowledge with their hosts. As one of the dancers put it to me, they’re trying to change the world by meeting with people individually, hoping to start ripples of change where they go. Pretty idealistic, sure, but how can anyone claim that’s a bad message to be trying to spread? They’re not out there trying to convert anyone. They’re not pushing any particular religion or placing any particular culture over another. The only ideology they push is peace and accepting each other. Music is a language that everyone speaks, regardless of their home culture, so it’s the perfect medium for cultural exchange.

    And this wasn’t an “alternative” to anti-authority youth culture (or if intended to be so, not a very effective one). A lot of the kids who traveled went on to participate in other social movements as well because equal civil rights for everyone, everywhere, was a big part of their ideology.

  • Anonymous

    This doesn’t match my experience with them at all. I didn’t travel with them, but only because a scholarship for a particular prestigious college came through and I had to matriculate to claim it. However, I have family who did travel with them. The kids are out there trying to promote a peaceful and integrated world where everyone accepts the differences of others and lives in harmony. They travel the world and exchange cultural knowledge with their hosts. As one of the dancers put it to me, they’re trying to change the world by meeting with people individually, hoping to start ripples of change where they go. Pretty idealistic, sure, but how can anyone claim that’s a bad message to be trying to spread? They’re not out there trying to convert anyone. They’re not pushing any particular religion or placing any particular culture over another. The only ideology they push is peace and accepting each other. Music is a language that everyone speaks, regardless of their home culture, so it’s the perfect medium for cultural exchange.

    And this wasn’t an “alternative” to anti-authority youth culture (or if intended to be so, not a very effective one). A lot of the kids who traveled went on to participate in other social movements as well because equal civil rights for everyone, everywhere, was a big part of their ideology.

  • steve tanton

    Do you have experience in the group to rip and remark with such authority and nastiness?  Me thinks you know not of what you speak…

  • Steve Tanton

    Only a socialist would say something demeaning as you said.  There’s nothing wrong with a zeal for happiness and love for humanity.  As for your perceived negative comment on capitalism…”Despite its faults and its problems, capitalism, the
    free market system, is the only economic system ever devised by mankind to
    allow the common man to rise up.” – Milton Friedman    And on your being a socialist, you might want to reconsider after checking out the empirical evidence:  “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant
    that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”- Thomas Sowell

    • Jin The Ninja

       thomas sowell and milton friedman, two of the more notable/notorious advocates of capitalism, are also notable advocates of US interventionism in third world countries- through which they perpetuated genocide, mass displacements, corporatism, and military rule. so as to  your citations, they are not even  passingly familiar with socialism, much less human rights or social justice issues. something to think about.

  • Steve Tanton

    The banjo is a nice instrument, what’s your real beef?  Did the group turn you down?

  • Steve Tanton

    Cute perhaps, but Up With People (from my personal recollections) were mostly ON KEY!
    I was there, were you?Never heard of clutch, don’t much care for anarchy except for the current Christian, Tea Party, resurgence of the Reagan/Gingrich Revolution against the tyranny of the “progressive” liberal, fascist left in America.  Viva la Bible!!!

  • Steve Tanton

    Agreed.  There’s a lot of truth in the article, yet the impression left by the tone of many of the comments beneath is way off base.  It was a terrific experience in my life, was not goody-two-shoes and was not excessively controlled.  However, as an alum, I no longer support their mission for these reasons.

    “Freedom Isn’t Free” (one of the old original songs) has been replaced by a song, named by accident or out of coincidence(?) for the mantra established by “socialist” Hillary, “It Takes A Village”.  Today, rather than simply performing wonderful, contemplative, contemporary family music and getting a broad social education on the road by interacting with all kinds of different people, they find time for “forced” community service, a la Michelle Obama (I suppose).  Thomas Sowell writes: “The
    arrogance of commandeering young people’s time, instead of leaving them and
    their parents free to decide for themselves how to use that time, is exceeded
    only by the arrogance of imposing your own notions as to what is or is not a
    service to the community.”

     
    Some good things are best left alone.
     And a message to confused readers and UWP alumni:  Progressivism
    isn’t necessarily progressive.    

     

     steve tanton, 69A, 70A, 71B, 74C

  • Steve Tanton

    a rather bizarre comment…you on something?

  • Steve Tanton

    Mostly conservative back in the day, but most alums seemingly are “progressives” (i.e. liberal whacks), fascists and perhaps commies too!!!!

    Calling Up With People communist would have been like calling America the same…ironic how they are both drifting…

  • Steve Tanton

    Yes, we had a great time.  I performed in nearly all fifty states, three continents and over a dozen countries with a positive message of peace, sharing and happiness…what’s not to like?

    • Daump

      I spent a year with Cast A from July, 1969 through June, 1970. It was a great experience in my life. Before joining Cast A I was a part of Sing-Out Los Angeles. I played bass and sang. The songs were not insipid with simple chord progressions. I am a classically trained bassist. Some songs were pretty simple, others had great accompaniment.
      I saw most of the eastern half of the US, Mexico, Ontario and Quebec Canada. I had a great education about other people. And I came out still conservative.
      Steve, I think I remember you. You were pretty slender then with lots of dark hair. I was pretty slender then, too. I still have hair but it ain’t as dark as it once was.
      I’m thinking about the days ahead, way past my days – a long, long time from now. I guess liberals have forgotten about the law of unintended consequences.
      Dave

  • Steve Tanton

    Wonder what you mean by that?  What has Up With People to do with illicit behavior of mob killing or racketeering unions?  It was/is a positive musical show with social education benefits for the performers and the people they come into contact with.

  • Steve Tanton

    Sounds like my experience, except that I had sex with everyone, was always stoned on one thing or another and never got kicked out…yet grew up to be quite normal…Hmmm….

  • Steve Tanton

    Offensive to say the least…were you a member of the Nouveau Hitler Jugend?

  • Steve Tanton

    Thank you.  Well stated and factual.  My experience exactly!

  • Steve Tanton

    They are back for the same reason Journey reorganized as did Petra and many other orgs.  The basic principles are sound and the style of music is enjoyed by many.  What’s not to like? Hope you went to see them.

  • Steve Tanton

    Creepy?  Are you demented?  Moral ambiguity?  There’s nothing ambiguous about Up With People…oh maybe today with that “It Takes A Village” mentality…ok, I’ll buy it a bit – but not when I was in.  But creepy?  Did you mistake their show for one of Obummer’s speeches?

  • Floridacoastdude

    As a former cast member I guess I need to set some facts straight here.  First UWP started in 1965, not the 70′s.  I was a member of a local sing-out and Cast B, 1969. True, we had cast members who got stupid, and were removed violating the cast rules. It happens everywhere. I have nothing but fond memories of UWP. Fact.  It was started and launched in Michigan. Fact. It was supported by a religious group Moral Reamament.  UWP broke it’s ties with that group in 1968 and also that same year, stopped supporting local Sing-Outs.  In 1970, a huge change and dress code change came about and the traditional shirt and tie and blazers and the red and blue jumpers of the girls went bye bye. Longer hair , facial hair and short skirts were the new “look” so the kids fit in more. The only original songs kept in the new  show was Up With People with a new rewrite and the last verse dropped and “Gods Skin” . Fact: UWP did continue to thrive but rack up mounting debt until 2000. The organization did fold and cease to function for a while. Corporate was moved from AZ to CO and a more streamlined educational approach was done to get the group going again. After a focus of education, the musical show was brought back in a edited format and today that traveling show is still going. Even local Sing-Outs some using a different name are still going doing the old songs of the 60′s and early 70′s. I am an alumni and proud of it. I agree we had issues, I disagreed with some of the polices, and being from the old school, I very much did not like the changes of the 1970′s show but looking back, I see why. I was a young kid then and didn’t “get it”. To say it was a cult or a vehicle for propaganda is ridiculous. In the 1960′s we simply were trying to say America is OK and we have a positive message to say about it. A cult you are programmed to do, think, and say what the leader says. UWP you could either join or not join. You could leave whenever you wanted. You were interviewed as they are today to be accepted.  

    • Marcdrussell60

      Are you my brother, Mike Russell?  He joined cast B in 1969 and lives in Tampa. I,Marc Russell, was with cast A during 1970, joining cast C during the summer and finishing the year with cast C. The following summer,about 25 students from cast C rented a house in Hartford, Conn. to finish their college courses and I moved in with them because I missed them and the group. Mike and I both belonged to Sing-Out Canton, Ohio. I also live in Tampa, but can’t locate you – you can e-mail me at marcdrussell60@gmail.com. I work at Busch Gardens, very similiar to UWP. During training, we are tought the corporate mission is to promote “happiness and memories.” Can there be any greater mission than that, and yes, I get free tickets.

  • xSassySusiex

    As a kid I remember seeing them perform in 1967 or 1968 in the Bloch Arena and they put on an awesome show. I’m not sure why being funded by ‘corporate America’ is considered such a bad thing in this instance and I don’t recall ever reading that anyone had to be ‘deprogrammed’ because UWP was a cult. The show I saw was upbeat and energetic and had lots of catchy songs and it was fun. I guess if you’re want to look for the dark side of anything then you will certainly find it.

  • guac

    Up with People performed at my public elementary school in the mid-70s. I found it to be very entertaining, very memorable, and very inspirational. I only hope my own children could see a similar performance in their public school…But, unfortunately, my kids are too busy practicing for their next standardized test. Despite this article, I’ll retain fond memories of the “old school” Up with People.

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