14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 13, Everything King’s Singers (or, Yet Another Way I stayed Sane in Grad School)

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Tonight I have given myself the near-Herculean feat of trying to pick out the “one song” (lol, yeah right!) from the King’s Singers, the British ensemble I had sort of heard of in undergrad via singing a Beatles tune from one of their famous arrangement books. Karen even had one of their more unusual (for them)’90s albums with almost entirely pop songs and (gasp) orchestral accompaniment that we’d listen to every now and again. I had a gist of an idea that they were really popular because they classically trained singers who could also sing close harmonies well, even adding jazz and pop songs into their repertoire. [Turned out, it’s a bit more than that, but not a bad start to understanding their importance!]

But it wasn’t really until moving to Knoxville, starting grad school (which included a 10–15 minute commute to school by myself on a regular basis), and discovering some used King’s Singers CDs at McKay’s Used Books that I became obsessed (I now own something like 8-10 of their albums; not all are scanned in to my iTunes because the CDs living in the SUV and I’ve listened to all of a few more for free thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime Music).

This was, of course, around the same time as I was expanding my choral music horizons through my musical involvement all around Knoxville (discussed in the previous three posts), but the King’s Singers really pushed me in new directions, as I took a quick liking to singing in the countertenor range. My [reasonably good] success in that department actually began because the annual spring Knoxville Chamber Chorale concerts at St. John’s Episcopal always included some solo and duet numbers mixed in with the choir’s repertoire (to extend the concert time but also provide the choir with breaks beyond an intermission). In one of the early years—2011 or 2012, can’t remember which—one of the baritones got together a group of three tenors and three basses with the idea of pulling off some TTBB version of the King’s Singers “You are the New Day.” I’m not sure he intended for it to happen, but he gave us music for an SATB version and I attempted to sing the top soprano part in the first rehearsal without being a complete screw up, and we then decided another of the baritones (who also had a nicely developed upper falsetto register) could attempt the alto line.

[Thus began my brief, Knoxville-based career as a countertenor, where I sang with this small group a handful of times, and also went on to sing countertenor with the men’s early music/chant schola Orison, and even sang alto on Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices at a special service for a Catholic church, after having been recruited for that by one of the UT music profs. Alas, I haven’t had more than a couple of opportunities to use the countertenor range since moving to Michigan, aside from a couple of times filling in one of the alto parts at Mariners’…and you know what the say: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Or in my case, replace it with a much more developed lyric tenor register—so much so to the point where it’s actually become more difficult to “float things” and blend in choir settings now. I’m starting to get it…]

Anyway, back to the point! Although my love of the King’s Singers has not diminished, I’m afraid to say that around the time I finished up grad school also happened to coincide with the time when “my” King’s Singers (the six gents who comprised the group in the albums I had, from the ’90s to the early 2010s) started to retire from the group, so much now that I went to their website earlier this evening, and I hadn’t even realized they’ve replaced another counter-tenor and a baritone in the last year. My level of obsession through grad school was such [I feel like a teenager talking about movie stars or something…] that when Paul Phoenix [*gasp,* “oh no!”] and David Hurley [devastating!] left the group in 2014 and 2016, respectively, the group just didn’t feel like the same ensemble to me anymore.

So all that said, I give you some (just a taste, really) of my favorite recordings by the King’s Singers of yore (unlike a lot of previous posts, they haven’t composed much of a musical output, but it’s their specific, British-male-ensemble blend that has made their fame).

First up, the version of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” from the 1992 album Good Vibrations. This was another of the pieces (with “You are the New Day” and Lauridsen’s ” O Nata Lux”) performed with the male sextet in KCC. Just look at YOUNG Hurley and (bass who looks like Mr. Bean) Stephen Connolly are!
And now a live performance, “La peregrinacion,” which is nicely set up in the video by Connolly. Also, if I’m not mistaken—I believe this is recorded in the rehearsal/broadcast space of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?? If not, it looks a LOT like it—EMU Choir just sat in on a rehearsal on our 2020 West Coast Choir Tour. Wait, nevermind—that last pull back shot [4:07 mark] shows a crowd WAY larger than can fit into the space we saw in Salt Lake City…)
First track of the King’s Singers brilliant 2011 collaborative album with René Clausen’s Concordia Choir, I listened to this entire CD in the truck driving around Knoxville I’d be surprised if it still plays (don’t worry, I also have it copied to iTunes…) “Oculi Omnium” is not commonly found used in Latin, though translated it’s more well-known version in the English singing world would be in multiple settings (including my favorite by Jean Berger) of “The eyes of all wait upon thee.” This particular version was specifically composed for the King’s Singers by former member Bob Chilcott.

One last one before we go—the YouTube video that perhaps made me realize the King’s Singers sheer brilliance and nicely representative of what the group has been doing for decades now (the ensemble recently celebrated 50 years! not all the same singers, naturally, but the same spirit…)

These last two, I just realized, really are more old school King’s Singers… the new group still does some humorous stuff, but it seems like when they aren’t doing traditional classical genres, they mainly stick to pop and jazz like most mainstream a cappella groups these days. No wonder the group doesn’t really feel the same anymore. The humorous stuff, especially the parts where singers mimic instruments, has a clear descendance from MUCH earlier groups like the Comedian Harmonists, a group I learned about in undergrad German class of all things!

Juuuuuuust kidding. I can’t let you go without this one, too….😁

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