It’s a sad day for anyone involved with acappella singing. Ward Swingle – the Boss, as we knew him – has died at the age of 87. Almost exactly three years ago I wrote a blog post (which I like to think Ward read) about the 70s generation of Swingle Singers. A slightly edited version is reproduced below. We owe him a huge debt. I took part in a short tribute to Ward at the start of The Choir on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 24th January at 4.00.
Like almost all the important things that have happened in my working life, joining the Swingle Singers (Swingle II, as they were about to become) was a serendipitous accident (through meeting an old mate in a pub). I’d done quite a bit of microphone work but I was still set on becoming what we used to call an oratorio singer (and was still having the odd lesson with Walter Gruner). In no time at all, together with Olive Simpson, Mary Beverley, Linda Hirst, Amy Gunson, John Lubbock and David Beavan, I found myself doing Berio’s Sinfonia in Paris conducted by Pierre Boulez (or was it Luciano himself? I can’t remember). For a young singer barely out of vocal nappies that was quite something. I’d never heard of Berio, and Sinfonia and later A-Ronne became almost an obsession. I had no idea that contemporary music could be that visceral and exhilarating. These days Sinfonia for singers is a bit like the beginning of the Rite for bassoonists: what used to be barely possible after countless hours of work is now within easy reach of good students, but back then it took over our lives. The first gigs of the new group were all Berio as it took us about a year to learn the Swingle jazz technique well enough to unleash it on the pubic (in fact we junked an early attempt at recording Bach after more than 100 hours of rehearse/recording, once we finally discovered how to do it).
I learned a huge amount from Ward. It wasn’t always easy – he often found the English sense of humour quite baffling, which sometimes led to terrible misunderstandings. We were never very good at scat (the English choral tradition has its limits…) but through his previous immersion in jazz he was able to teach us how words work, and how they relate to rhythm and tempo; lessons I’ve never forgotten. The Berio gigs were always amazing, especially when conducted by the man himself. I seem to remember the poor Sinfonia pianist getting fired rather often, and between rehearsals the composer could sometimes be found looking in the window of what used to be called surgical stores. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We were once sitting in a cafe when a Gilbert O’Sullivan song came on the muzak. Berio was entranced: ‘I wish I could write tunes like that,’ he said. Which, actually, he could.
The pop gigs evolved and so did the personnel. Catherine Bott took over from Mary, Amy didn’t like to fly so gave way to Carol Hall, and Simon Grant replaced John Lubbock who was getting busy as a conductor. After three years some of us were clearly more interested in extended vocal techniques and developing the avant-garde side, and there was a big bust up when Linda, Simon and I left to form Electric Phoenix, along with the manager and sound engineer Terry Edwards. Kate Bott left at the same time to pursue her interest in early music.
What a fantastic time it was (in retrospect) – and how lucky we were to be in the right place at the right time; our unforgettable trips to Mexico (the Olympic village), Japan (that Frank Lloyd Wright hotel) and Israel (G&T with lemons from the tree outside our window), not to mention colour tv (the DG had to be summoned when A-Ronne ran over as the cost of colour video tape was draining the BBC coffers).
It was sad that it ended so acrimoniously: I guess we were just young and cocky, and wanted a group that was ours rather than Ward’s (we called him Boss, and were very aware that we owed it all to him); all of the members of that incarnation of the group went on to have extraordinary careers. It was a privilege to work with Ward, which I acknowledged in the preface to my first book, Vocal Authority.
The reason for this digression into ancient history is the story of the group that has appeared online at http://www.jazzhistoryonline.com/ which Olive Simpson drew our attention to. It starts with the French group and continues to the present day (our four mid-seventies years being a very small part of the 50 years the group has been going). If you’re a Swingle fan (or former member) it makes interesting reading.
The original version of this post from February 2012 (together with several comments) can be found here: