October 22, 2000

Virgil Fox:
An Organ Legend in Vivid Memory


Virgil Fox Society
Virgil Fox under the George Washington Bridge near his home in New Jersey, with Black Beauty, the electronic organ he used for touring.

HOW many musicians — performers, not composers — ever achieve reputations strong enough that even 20 years after they've gone, people will still pay up to $100 a ticket to hear a concert in their honor?

Virgil Fox, an organ virtuoso who died on Oct. 25, 1980, at 68, left memories that still reverberate today, as was shown by the presence of 1,500 people, many of them organists, at a recent pipes spectacular in his honor at Riverside Church, where he worked from 1946 to 1965. That is an extraordinary turnout for an organ recital these days, even for one that had eight performers and lasted three hours.

Fox could play the pipe organ like nobody's business, but that is not all that made him unforgettable to so many people across the country. He made classical organ music appeal even to audiences that normally wouldn't be expected to sit still for it. Other organists' recitals might be occasions when, as Fox once put it, "the fugue subjects entered one by one as the audience left two by two." Not Fox concerts. And so two groups, the Virgil Fox Society and the American Guild of Organists, presented the memorial recital as the flagship event for a flotilla of concerts, organ crawls and multimedia celebrations at music halls, churches and even outdoor pavilions across the country a week later.

Their aim was to attract as many as 200,000 people to hear the King of Instruments, something Fox did single-handedly over the 1950's. A romantic like Rubinstein and a popularizer like Liberace, with whom he appeared on television on "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1973, he did not shy away from show business or schmaltz if that was what it took to get people to listen to him play. Even his detractors conceded that his technique was peerless. They faulted him for bad taste, though what they were objecting to was actually camp, which can seem out of place in the churchly confines where organists are usually found.

Fox, who affected a beret and a crimson-lined black cape, and drove around in a pink Cadillac convertible, bitterly resented that kind of criticism. Otherwise, he didn't care what anybody thought about who he was. "How good to see you, Lawrence, Honey," one of his students, Ted Alan Worth, recalled hearing him address a Riverside Church dignitary from the organ console after a Sunday service. The reply was shocked: "I'm not your honey, and kindly never address me that way again." But as Worth noted in a memoir, to Fox everyone was Honey.

"To anyone who was gay, there was no question as to what Virgil was," Worth wrote, and Fox made no bones about being gay. "He was quite proud of what he was, and never once did he feel the slightest bit second class."

Unlike the "purists" who detested the lush liberties he sometimes took with Bach, Fox was not above forsaking pipes and using an electronic organ to get the music across. He dragged Black Beauty, a booming, blaring Rodgers electronic instrument, along with a light show and smoke and mirrors, to rock-concert halls, hoping to get young 70's listeners to trip out on the music of Bach.

The first of these Heavy Organ concerts, held at the Fillmore East in New York on Dec. 1, 1970, made an indelible impression on Fox's fellow organist and admirer Carlo Curley, whose 1998 memoir, "In the Pipeline," describes Fox and the scene: "He looked like the Elton John of the organ with an outlandish bow tie, paisley jacket accented in shimmering silks, and rhinestones on the heels of his organ shoes. Behind the console came the light show, the different hues swirling in all directions and even Bach's stern features popping up occasionally."

At the end, still playing, Fox disappeared as dense fumes rose up around the console. "Holy smoke!" the elderly lady Mr. Curley took to the concert whispered to her escort, who reassured her, "No, Dear, dry ice." Whatever, it worked, as Richard Torrence, Fox's last manager, recalled recently. "They turned 600 people away," Mr. Torrence said. "It was sold out, 2,650 seats. At the second concert, Dec. 13, there was a taxi strike, and we still had 2,000."

At Riverside Church, where the organ has 11,160 pipes, there were no electronic substitutes. Fox last played publicly there on May 6, 1979. He brought a full house to its feet with a program that began with Bach and moved through transcriptions of Debussy and Wagner; as always, he introduced each piece with a little talk delivered in the prairie accent of his native Princeton, Ill. He wound up with a pep rally, leading the audience in a soul-stirring rendition of the hymn "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." Yet bone cancer had already spread through his body, and a year and a half later it claimed him.

THAT concert at Riverside Church 20 years later was as loud and as charged with rhythmic energy as Fox ever was, but it concluded reverently, when Frederick Swann, his immediate successor at Riverside, played Fox's harmonically plush arrangement of Bach's "Come, Sweet Death," in darkness lighted only by a portrait of Fox in full cry at Symphony Hall in Boston; the evening ended with all six verses of the hymn.

Mr. Torrence, who founded the Virgil Fox Society before the artist died, said it was still going strong. "I think it's amazing, for an artist who in general didn't have that much impact on the musical world but in his own field was as influential as Stokowski or Bernstein were in theirs," he said. Today, the group claims 500 to 600 members, who pay $10 a year for an occasional newsletter called the Clarion.

"We have a guy in jail, a state senator from Pennsylvania, a policeman," said Marilyn Brennan, the society's archivist.

Ms. Brennan and two other New York organists, Len Levasseur and Steven Frank (who was on the card at the memorial recital with a Fox signature piece, the Toccata from Joseph Jongen's "Symphonie Concertante"), also maintain a Web site (www.virgilfox.com), and the society has issued CD remasterings of Fox recordings. Mr. Frank said the society would become a nonprofit corporation, using proceeds from the memorial recital to create scholarships for young organists.

Fox himself never ran a nonprofit operation, earning enough in the 1950's to buy a vast mansion in Englewood, N.J., with a swimming pool and, eventually, an organ with pipes in the attic, the sun porch and the basement.

His greatest American rival then was E. Power Biggs, an English-born organist and another popularizer of Bach's works, who in his followers' eyes was the antithesis of everything Fox stood for. To "purists" who looked to Biggs as their idol before he died in 1977, classical pipe organs with clear sound capable of articulating Bach's contrapuntal music were the ideal, not vast, orchestral organs like Riverside's that could blast you out of your seat. Electronic instruments were anathema.

"Most of you know what I think about the purists," Fox sneered during one of his concert narratives "the ones who talk about it all the time and can't do it." So intensely did the two sides war that one of Mr. Curley's fellow organ students at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem in the late 60's raked deep scratches across all the Fox LP's in the school library to make them unplayable.

But "Jimmy" Biggs was not all starch. He made an LP of Scott Joplin rags on the pedal harpsichord he acquired in the 1970's, and Carol Williams's inclusion of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" in her part of the Riverside Church memorial program could have served as a backhanded tribute to Fox's archrival, who probably enjoyed the banter more than Fox did. Once, when Biggs was running an organists' convention in Boston, he assigned his rival to play on an organ Fox considered inferior. Fox wanted to refuse, driving one of his earlier concert managers, Roberta Bailey, to exasperation.

Eventually Bailey told Fox she thought his stubbornness was so disgusting that she was going home rather than staying to have dinner with him. The next day, he conceded, more or less. "Let's go to lunch and send Biggs the telegram that I'll play on junk," he said, according to the notes on her career that Bailey left before she died a few years ago.

In 1962, Fox, Biggs and another American organ virtuoso, Catherine Crozier, appeared together at Lincoln Center to dedicate the Aeolian- Skinner pipe organ in Philharmonic Hall, as Avery Fisher Hall was then called. "Biggs opened, then Crozier played, and Virgil wanted to be the last one," Mr. Torrence recalled. "It was a Saturday afternoon, and the concert ended at 6 or 6:30, and by then half the audience had gone."

A few years later, that organ was gone, too. But the Virgil Fox Society has organized a second memorial concert nearby, on the pipe organ in St. Paul the Apostle Church, at Columbus Avenue and 60th Street, on Saturday evening. The performer, Hector Olivera, originally from Argentina, is one of the legion of Fox admirers around the world.

"He plays 300 concerts a year," Mr. Torrence said with a laugh. "Virgil never did more than 60, but Hector worships him."