Karl Lawrence King’s distinguished career as a bandmaster, prolific composer, and musician made him a legend in his own lifetime. All who knew him remember his quick wit and sense of humor.
Karl was born in the Ohio village of Paintersville and grew up in Xenia, Cleveland, and Canton. The local town band in Canton stirred his love and talent for music, so at the age of eleven he bought a cornet with money earned by selling newspapers and began taking lessons. He soon exchanged that instrument for a euphonium which he played in the Canton Marine Band (made up of boys his own age).
Karl’s only formal music instruction consisted of four piano lessons and one harmony lesson from a musical show director, William Bradford. Since his formal education ended with completion of the eighth grade, he then set about learning the printing trade as an apprentice. Composing at night, he worked at the printer’s shop during the day.
Karl L. King joined Robinson’s Famous Circus at the age of 19 as a baritone player. He joined the circus at a time when the acts were in great need of special music since the standard music did not fit. He was a master at matching the music to the rhythm of the acts. He quickly rose to lead some of the most famous circus bands in the country, including Buffalo Bill and Barnum & Bailey. He contributed more circus marches than any other composer. Aerial waltzes and circus gallops were his specialty.
In 1920, King gave up circus life and accepted the position of conductor of the Fort Dodge Municipal Band, a post he held for over 50 years. Under his leadership the band became a popular fixture at state and regional fairs, rodeos and expositions for the next 40 years.
King was one of the founding members of the American Bandmaster’s Association. He played an important role in the Iowa Band Law – legislation giving municipalities the right to levy a small tax to support a municipal band.
King was also one of the first to write special music for the growing school band programs in America. He composed marches especially intended for school bands as well as waltzes, overtures and other selections. As a result he was in wide demand as a massed band conductor and contest judge. When he finally put down his pen after 50 years, he had published 300 musical compositions – not counting the ones he had given away or not bothered to publish. Many of his works were written in tents by a flashlight or kerosene. He was at his best when music was needed at a moment’s notice.
King was honored with many prestigious awards:
1962 – Elected to the Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts
(The highest honor that can come to a band director.)
1966 – Elected to the Society of European Stage Actors and Composers
1967 – Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity Distinguished Service Award
1971 – Edwin Franco Goldman Award
(The first non-school band director to receive this coveted award.)
It is testimony to his talents that so much of his music is still played today all over the world. At his death in 1971, Karl L. King was one of the most loved and respected figures in American Music.