I was practicing the double fugue from J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor today, and suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia. As some of you may know, I took a rather unconventional path to a career in church music, one that led through 15 years in the vinyl siding business. My older brother Charlie owned the business, and I worked for him during my high school summers. When I graduated, I went into vinyl siding full time, eventually becoming his partner. Ours is a blue collar family, filled with auto mechanics, union laborers, carpenters and factory workers. No one I knew had ever made music their career, so I never considered it an option.
It was the mid seventies, and Charlie had installed an 8-Track Player in his pickup. He was a child of the 50’s, raised on Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Coasters, but by this time he was listening to a varied repertoire of tunes, Mountain, Cream, Uriah Heep, Yes, Chicago etc. One day, he popped in a home recorded tape, and I heard the opening fanfare of Bach’s Toccata in D minor, played on a pipe organ at ear splitting volume. The recording was “Heavy Organ” by the great Virgil Fox. At the time, Virgil was working for the Rogers Electronic organ company, touring the country with a four manual electronic pipe organ, 144 speakers and a professional light show. (Search Virgil Fox on YouTube) He played all the major rock concert venues, including the Fillmore East, where “Heavy Organ” was recorded. He also used the concerts to promote Bach’s music. A consummate showman and a brilliant player, audiences loved his evangelizing sermons about Bach and his music. The Passacaglia is the final track on the recording. I heard it once and said, “Man, I’d love to be able to play that stuff.” It took almost 30 years, but I’m finally there, thanks to Charlie and Virgil.
Charlie lost a long battle with multiple sclerosis and passed away in March of 1998 at the age of 56. I played the organ at his funeral, including a setting of “For all the Saints” by Leo Sowerby, which I dedicated to him in thanksgiving for introducing me to organ music and unknowingly planting the seeds of my future career. While he probably wasn’t familiar with the hymn tune, I’m sure he appreciated the volume level.