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Peter Stenshoel's album of the week -- Bach's Greatest Hits by The Swingle Singers

Kevin Ferguson

Bach's Greatest Hits by the Swingle Singers represents the start of a multinational phenomenon. Mobile, Alabama, native Ward Swingle moved to France to study with classical pianist Walter Gieseking. After work with the vocal jazz group, Les Double Six of Paris, Swingle founded his Singers originally to back up pop stars like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf. As a sight-singing exercise, he had his group scatting to J.S. Bach. Soon Swingle added jazzy bass and drum kit. Originally just for friends and relatives, the style caught fire and for many years became a hip soundtrack to the go-go sixties. It also inspired imitations like the album on the right. (I heard one such fraud was by an outfit called "The Single Swingers.")

The Swingle Singers projected a fresh and optimistic approach. The year was 1963 when my father and brothers played Bach's Greatest Hits over and over again. I may have gotten weary of it, but I memorized all the pieces, and in retrospect it was a great way for me to study Bach's counterpoint and fugues.

Not everybody thought Ward Swingle had done a good thing. One of our Sioux Falls family friends was Dr. Arnold Running, conductor of the Augustana College Choir. I was chagrined to hear that Arnold condemned the endeavor as a cheapening of Bach's music. Running was from a particularly artistic Southern Minnesota family, and I could not just dismiss his sentiments out of hand. 

My conflict introduced me to the nature of multiple points of view, and I grew more mature as a result. More of the Greatest Hits of Bach by The Metropolitan Pops Choir conducted by Robert Mandell is clearly marketed to lure unsuspecting consumers--like my family--into thinking it is more Swingle Singers. When we realized we'd been had, we wanted to hate the record, the darn thing actually doesn't sound too bad.

The arrangements are imaginative and the singers are good. But they lack the Swingle's finest asset: Lead soprano Christiane Legrand (the sister of celebrated composer Michel Legrand.)

As for the Running family, not only do I fondly remember the smooth way Dr. Running shaped the Augustana College Choir, I will always celebrate the fact that Running's son, Olaf, brought his Dave Brubeck records over when he babysat us.

Thank you, Ward Swingle AND Arnold Running.