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Swingle Singers: the seventies generation

Swingle 2

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.

Swingles 2


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. 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); 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.

5 Responses to “Swingle Singers: the seventies generation”

  1. I thought our first Sinfonia in Paris had Luciano himself on the podium – may be wrong – but my most vivid memory of that evening was the time spent searching the stage after the gig for Amy’s contact lens which had made a successful bid for freedom during the second movement…

  2. John Potter says:

    Thanks Molly – I’d forgotten the contact lense episode. Berio gigs were rarely without incident. In The A-Ronne Italian premiere (the yellow flyer at the top of the blog) a fight broke out between those downstairs who had great fun hating it very noisily, and those upstairs who rained down programmes, ice creams etc in a bizarre (and fruitless) attempt to get them to shut up.

  3. eduard musson says:

    Hello John,

    Do you still remember me?
    As you know, I have always admired Swingle II, and your splendid tenor-voice. Also after Swingle II !! I understand what happened in the past, the differences between men, which led finally to the end of Swingle II. I do appreciate your positiv remarks on Ward Swingle, your honesty and a kind of regret! Ward is 85, has been a fantastic musician but an old man by now!
    I really hope that you sent your conciliatory words to him personally! Thanks…….
    Are you a happy man??

    Kind regards,

    Eduard Musson (Netherlands)

  4. John Potter says:

    I’m trying to remember…forgive me – it was a long time ago.

    I sent Ward a copy of my first book, Vocal Authority. I credited him in the acknowledgements with being a huge influence. He didn’t reply, but I hope he got it. One always regrets things that don’t turn out as you hope they will, but you always learn and move on. Ward has been a huge influence in the acappella world, and I come across singers who have been informed and inspired by him all the time. It was an extraordunary time, and we were all very young…

  5. rebecca lambe says:

    hello, Kate Bott was a family friend and gave my sister and myself an LP of swingle 2 in the late seventies. I cannot remember the nme of it but had wonderful songs on. The wanderer was one of them , and the entertainer. I would dearly love to get hold of a recording of those lovely songs. Can anyone help me?? !

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