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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gray Matters:Karl King

Monday, August 4, 2008

Everyone who has ever attended a band concert has probably heard one of Karl King's compositions for he turned out more than 400 of them. Following a toe-tapping rendition of one at a recent concert, a conversation was initiated about the man. I was raised in Karl King country (near Fort Dodge), so I remembered seeing this striking, dignified gentleman often. Perhaps even more vividly, I recalled shopping at the Ruth King Music Store. There, my sister and I would struggle over which of the wonderful pieces of sheet music we would buy with the quarter we'd been hoarding. However, when I was asked for more specific details about exactly what he did, I was at a loss. Happily, I was able to turn to the Internet and fill in the gaps.

King was born in 1891, in a small Ohio village where his father was a farm equipment salesman. He grew up in nearby Canton with no musical training and less than an eighth-grade education. Karl started playing a battered horn in the local band while still a pre-teen. He wrote and published his first march at age 17 and joined a circus band two years later. Background music was an essential of circus presentations and it was impossible to synchronize standard music for that purpose. King quickly mastered the skill of penning charts that meshed with the rhythms of various circus acts and he was on his way. By 1917, he had become the director of the Barnum & Bailey Band and had also worked with Buffalo Bill. In 1926 he married Ruth Lovett, also a Canton native, who played the circus calliope.

By the early '20s they had had enough of circus life. Upon seeing an ad in a musician's periodical for a director for the Municipal Band in Fort Dodge, Iowa, King made a quick visit. He liked what he saw, moved there and stayed for the next half a century. Under his leadership, the band became a favorite at regional fairs, rodeos and expositions. He developed a private music publishing company and his wife, Ruth, ran an adjoining company that sold records, sheet music and musical instruments--the store I remember so fondly.

The Municipal Band held weekly concerts year-round, in the Oleson Park band stand in the summer and at a city auditorium during the winter. From his Fort Dodge offices, he helped start both the Iowa and American Bandmasters Associations. He also played a leadership role in establishing the Iowa Band Law which allowed municipalities to levy a small tax to support municipal bands. King composed special music for the growing school band programs across America, and became a popular choice as a conductor when many marching bands performed together. At one of those huge "massed bands" on the U. of Michigan campus, 13,000 young musicians performed under his baton.

A list of Karl King's influence and accomplishments in the developing field of marching band music could go on and on, as could the honors he was awarded. I was delighted to discover the facts behind this almost mythical character I remember from my childhood and I was intrigued to learn of his humble beginnings. I hope you have been similarly delighted and intrigued.