When I attended the University of Iowa (1969-1972) as a music major, we had two very remarkable band directors – Tom Davis and Frank Piersol.
Both were amazing musicians in their own right, with both bringing to the table unique skills and interests that made them into the great music instructors they were. I’ve already written about Tom Davis, and will hopefully do the same with Mr. Piersol someday, but I mention him here to introduce you to Iowa’s March King: Karl King.
In high school, I recall our concert band at Iowa City High playing a Karl King march or two, but it wasn’t until I was around Frank Piersol when I heard about the amazing man behind the music. To Frank Piersol, Karl King was, indeed, the king of marches – far exceeding the talents of other well-known bandsmen like Patrick Gilmore, Edwin Bagley, Iowa’s own Meredith Willson, and yes, even exceeding America’s undisputed favorite – John Philips Sousa.
Yes, Sousa did compose 136 military marches – remarkable for their rhythmic and instrumental effects. They include the famous Semper Fidelis (1888), which became the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps, The Washington Post (1889), The Liberty Bell (1893), and, of course, everybody’s favorite – The Stars and Stripes Forever (1897). But now, allow me to introduce you to the bandmaster par excellence from Ft. Dodge, Iowa…
Karl King, who was born in Ohio in 1891, moving to Iowa at age 29, composed and published 188 marches and screamers (more on that a bit later), plus nearly 100 other compositions like waltzes, serenades, overtures and galops! In the world of band music, it’s been said that Karl King, who dedicated the latter part of his life barnstorming for community band programs, did for the circus march what Sousa did for the patriotic march. So, let’s go back to the beginning…
Karl Lawrence King was born to Sandusky and Ann King in Paintersville, Ohio on February 21, 1891. An only child, Karl’s father sold farm equipment and played tuba in the local town band. At age 11, his family moved to Canton, where Karl used earnings from his newspaper route to purchase a cornet and pay for music lessons. Like your humble author, Karl ended up playing the baritone because of embouchure problems. (That’s a nice way of saying his lips were too big for the trumpet!)
Karl left school at age 14, after completing the 8th grade, taking a job as a printer’s assistant with the local newspaper, and by age 17, he had two numbers – a march and a dirge – accepted for publication. One year later, Karl had two paying positions – The Thayer Military Band and The Neddermeyer Band – and at age 19, he joined the Robinson Famous Circus Band as a baritone player. After three years, hopping around from one band to another, at age 22 (1913), Karl had the dream job for a bandsman, he joined The Barnum and Bailey Circus Band.
If you’ve seen the musical movie, The Greatest Showman, you’ll better understand the impact Barnum & Bailey and others had on the entertainment business at the turn of the 20th century. For most Americans living in rural settings around the Midwest, when the circus – or Chautauqua – came to town, setting up their tent for a few days, life came to a standstill. So, when a musician made it with the circus it was one thing, but to be a part of The Barnum & Bailey Circus Band meant your time had come.
This would probably be a good place to explain the musical term “screamer.” As you recall, I mentioned that Karl King wrote nearly 200 marches and screamers. A screamer is just that. It’s a circus march that’s written in such a way that it’s meant to get people excited, stand up in their seats, and scream. Circus ringmasters, like Barnum & Bailey, knew the crowd-appeal of a “screamer” and pre-planned their program around thrilling circus events that would be preceded (and followed) with a “screamer” from the band. If you want to spend 24 minutes “screaming” – take a listen here…
In 1916, Karl married Ruth Lovett, and a year later accepted the lofty position as conductor of The Barnum and Bailey Circus Band. In 1918, he enlisted in the US Army, but the war (WW I) ended before he began service, so he returned to his hometown of Canton, serving as the director of a local band while forming his own music publishing business – K.L. King Music House. That same year (1919) his only son, Karl L. King, Jr., was born.
In 1920, Karl and his family came to Ft. Dodge, Iowa, and for the next fifty-one years, he was the conductor of the Fort Dodge Municipal Band – which over time became known as K.L. King’s Band (see pic above).
Karl King was instrumental in the passage of The Iowa Band Law in 1921, which allowed cities to levy a local tax for maintenance of a community band. Under the law, a local band would now become truly “municipal” in that it was actually a department of city government like the water department or the street department. No longer would a bandmaster have to beg support from a commercial club or a chamber of commerce year after year and never be quite sure if enough money was going to materialize. Funds for the maintenance of the band could be written right into the city budget.
The Iowa Band Law proved to be extremely popular, and hundreds of towns and small cities in Iowa took advantage of the opportunity to have a publicly-funded community band. The Iowa Band Law was copied by 33 states and at least three foreign countries. Despite government cutbacks in recent years, numerous municipal bands around the USA continue to thank The Iowa Band Law for their annual funding.
Karl King commemorated the passage of the law (1921) by writing one of his most famous marches, The Iowa Band Law. Thirty-nine years later, in 1960, Karl directed his march with the largest mass band ever assembled: 188 high school bands with nearly 13,000 musicians at a nationally-televised University of Michigan football game with over 80,000 in attendance.
Karl King was honored with many prestigious awards: elected in 1962 to the highest honor that can come to a band director, the Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts, elected in 1966 to the Society of European Stage Actors and Composers, given in 1967 the Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity Distinguished Service Award, and in 1971, the Edwin Franco Goldman Award – the first non-school band director to receive this coveted award.
At age 80, Karl conducted his 2nd to last concert – his birthday celebration – on February 21, 1971, dying on March 31 that same year of acute diverticulosis in a Fort Dodge hospital. He and his wife Ruth I. (Lovett) King (June 10, 1898 – July 4, 1988) are buried at North Lawn Cemetery in Ft. Dodge.
In an interview in the last year of his life, Karl stated that his proudest moment was conducting The Barnum & Bailey Circus Band in Madison Square Garden, concluding with…
I’ve sung my song. It was a rather simple one; it wasn’t too involved; I’m happy about it.
So are we, Karl King . . . so are we! Here’s a tip of the old hat to Iowa’s March King!
Allow me to close with this entertaining version of Karl King’s best-known march: Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite, as performed by the United States Army Field Band.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.