Alexandra Palace, Allen Organ Company, BBC World Service, Carlo Curley, chorus, Coca-Cola, Decca, George Thalben-Ball, Girard College, Handel, In the Pipeline, kitsch, Luciano Pavarotti, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, North Carolina School of the Arts, organ, piano, Richard Baker, rock and roll, Thora Hird, Virgil Fox
Carlo Curley, born August 24, 1952, died August 11, 2012, was the self-styled “Pavarotti of the organ” – an entertaining figure with a phenomenal keyboard technique whose oversized personality drew large crowds.
Like Pavarotti, Curley was an enormous bear of a man, standing six feet tall and almost as wide, wearing a floppy, multicolored tie and beaming behind his beard. He also shared with the tenor an irrepressible degree of showmanship; he could work a crowd into frenzy – dancing in the aisles and weeping in the pews were reported at some concerts – by blasting away with the fortissimo range of his powerful instrument.
“Bach invented rock ’n roll,” he would insist, adding that a work by Handel was a “real toe-tapper.” A typical Curley program, whether in the concert hall or the cathedral, was as likely to include the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus as it was the classics. Such kitsch would have purists sneering about his lack of taste, but Curley was unabashed, instructing his audience to fasten their seat belts before pulling out all the stops to ensure that they got their money’s worth.
In a profession known for its relative anonymity, Curley cut a brash, ebullient and outspoken figure, collecting almost as many musical enemies as friends, particularly in Britain. When the purists became too vociferous he would challenge them to a “battle of the organs,” in which he would pit his portable Allen instrument against the finest British cathedral consoles, a form of musical bloodsport in the nave.
Naturally his preference was for bringing the organist out of the organ loft and on to center stage. When the keyboard itself could not be moved, he would insist on a camera and a video screen so that “the audience can all see me flying,” as he once told the journalist Mark Pappenheim.
In the 1970s he was resident organist at Alexandra Palace, introducing each work to audiences of up to four thousand in recitals compèred by Richard Baker or Thora Hird. He was also the first organist to play at the White House (for President Carter), and liked to recall how he had performed for several European royal families. Prince Henrik of Denmark was a particularly close friend, but Curley found the Danish organ world “extremely narrow.”
Although a man of devout faith, Curley railed against the instrument’s association with organized religion. “I have to oversell the organ because it has been relegated to accompanying church services for so many years . . . people forget that it can be a very viable concert medium.”
Curley played most recitals from memory, mercilessly mocking those performers who needed both a page-turner as well as assistants to pull the stops. “It looked like a typewriter convention,” he said of one colleague’s recital, adding, “I’d like to see the organ put back where it belongs: in the forefront of the concert world.” No Curley recital would end without him kissing the instrument and shamelessly plugging his recordings from the stage.
Carlo James Curley was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on August 24, 1952, into a Methodist family of Irish descent. He was as mystified as anyone about his Italian name. “Perhaps they went out for a great pasta meal on the night I was conceived,” he would joke. His mother was an orchestral violinist in Florida and his grandmother a professor of piano in Massachusetts. Carlo was soon playing the piano and singing in the choir. However, his desire to explore the church organ was persistently rebuffed by a choirmaster, who regarded the instrument as his “own personal fiefdom.” Aged six, Carlo “took a Coca-Cola bottle, broke a back window [of the church] and pulled myself through.” Although he required twenty-five stitches to his arm – and was soundly thrashed with a belt by his grandfather – he had found the instrument of his dreams. “I thought I was in heaven.”
He attended North Carolina School of the Arts and, by the age of fifteen, was organist at a large Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia, before studying privately with a number of teachers, including Virgil Fox in America and Sir George Thalben-Ball in Britain. At eighteen he was director of music at Girard College, Philadelphia.
Thereafter he lived a somewhat peripatetic life, moving between the United States, Scandinavia and Britain, eventually settling in Melton Mowbray. Unlike many musicians he was disdainful of academia, always refusing to teach or take on pupils. “I don’t have the patience,” he told the Buffalo News in New York.
In 1998 he published his autobiography, In the Pipeline, which regaled readers not only with his taste in musical instruments but also a detailed account of his predilection for Danish blondes. He also made several recordings for Decca, many of which were accompanied by his own idiosyncratic sleeve notes.
On one occasion he reportedly had to be rescued from an organ loft where he had become stuck because of his massive physique. A master of the double entendre, he regaled listeners to the BBC World Service with the tale of how he could “erect my organ on any stage in less than twenty minutes.”
In the Christmas 1991 edition of Private Eye, Curley advertised for a romantic partner. “One-off, good-humored, handsomely statuesque Yank teddy bear . . . seeks a prospective Mrs. Bach,” he wrote.
He remained unmarried.