The neighbors Who sing for Canada
Don Wright, London, Ont., sorted out fourteen fellow citizens who liked to sing, touched them with his magic baton, and then from his spare room rose the rich close harmony that carries his name from coast to coast
ANYTIME seven housewives take off their shoes and gather around a piano to sing harmony with a fuel-oil salesman, an assistant plant manager, a dispatcher, two male schoolteachers, a shoe salesman and an advertising executive, most lease-conscious hosts will wedge the cork back into the bottle and trust the neighbors aren’t trying to sleep anyway.
There’s a host named Don Wright, in London, Ont., however, who twice each week invites precisely this assortment into his home and implores them to do nothing but sing. The result of his exhortations is a mixed chorus that is one of Canada’s most popular radio shows.
When the Don Wright Chorus kicks off its footwear, as most of the fourteen choristers do every Sunday night when they sing over the CBC’s Dominion network, Wright has no concern for the lease. His air billet has extended from coast to coast for six years and as yet there has been no hint that anyone wants to evict him.
Aside from the quality of the sounds it makes, Wright’s chorus is not much different from any other group that likes to wander down by the old mill stream. None of the singers is a professional in the strict sense and only Frank Rockwood, tenor, and Marg Adams, contralto, would be likely to get past the wings of the concert stage. The essential difference between this group and the ones that bring withering correspondence from landlords is Don Wright, whose own voice can barely grope from one end of an octave to the other but who has such a varied and thorough background in music that his ingenious arrangements can make the voices of fourteen other people sound like a velvety forty.
Wright has written three textbooks for the training of youthful voices which his Canadian publisher, Gordon V. Thompson, of Toronto, describes as sensational. The books have had a remarkable success in the United States and are
moving well in England. Publisher Thompson estimates that the first book has sold fifty thousand copies and says the other two books are following the same course.
The fourteen voices of the Wright chorus span an improbable four-octave range and, because of this, must be blended carefully by Wright in his arrangements so that they will appeal to a broad segment of listeners and not to an esoteric few. As director of a commercial programthe chorus is now in its fourth season of sponsorship by the Westinghouse company Wright seeks to appease the maximum with a minimum of musical cliches.
He can and has played almost every musical instrument and he regards the sounds made by his chorus, which is accompanied only by a piano and a Hammond organ, as “the product of all I’ve done.”
“And I’ve done it all,” he remarked without false modesty one evening recently, “from symphony to choral to long-haired string quartets to the dirtiest low-downest be-bop you ever heard.”
“Anybody can play the notes,” he said on another occasion, “but if you hear a string quartet playing something popular you hear it played exactly the way it’s written. It’s drab, it hasn’t the ride and there’s no improvisation. Same thing when you hand a jazzman a cello. He’s got no background to cope with it.”
Wright’s background and a resolute knowledge of what effect he wants enable him to make beautiful music out of comparatively untrained voices. This is not to suggest that the next traffic cop you meet is a cinch for the tenor section the instant Wright hears him growl, because a basic knowledge of music and the ability to read and hold a variety of parts are Wright essentials. But the end product of Wright’s particular method is a blending of all voices into four, five and sometimes six-part harmony, featuring the deepest of basses and the most lilting of sopranos.
Wright auditioned almost twelve hundred voices before he formed his chorus. The turnover is small because all members live in London. Occasionally a girl will marry and move away or a man may be transferred by his firm but these changes have been few. Consequently Wright keeps only a short waiting list—“six or seven at the most.” Even pregnancies are no problemmusically speaking. One Sunday night last fall Ruth Casier, a soprano, sang through the half-hour program and two days later had her first baby. She was still in hospital the following week so Wright phoned Muriel Deadman, a former chorister who had married and moved to Detroit. She drove to London for the two rehearsals Wright holds in his home each week, quickly readjusted herself and sang Mrs. Casler’s part on Sunday.
Some autocratic choirmasters rule their singers as though they were serfs but Wright effervesces informality and conviviality. During pre-broadcast final rehearsals and through the broadcasts he pads around in his sock feet with his coat off and his tie-knot several inches below his collar. He stands directly under a suspended microphone when he’s conducting, with the chorus ringed in a half-moon around him, the seven girls in the front row and the seven men behind them. Wright and the soloists remove their shoes so their movements won’t be picked up by the mike. If someone makes a mistake in a rehearsal Wright discusses it quietly and often jovially and when it is rectified in the next runthrough he beams and pumps his head in elaborate approval.
DON WRIGHT’S TUNEFUL "AMATEURS"
One time, nearing the end of a broadcast, Wright sensed the singers were tiring, so, during a commercial and while the group readied to sing None But the Lonely Heart, he suddenly began hopping around in his socks, double-thumbing his nose as though he were playing a hot trumpet. Everybody started to giggle quietly, turning away from the microphone to hide any sounds. “It was goofy, but it relaxed them,” Wright explained later. “Can you imagine singing None But the Lonely Heart if you’re not relaxed?” Even the program’s technical preparation is informal. When the singers line up in two rows around Wright they draw a bead on the suspended mike to determine if its position is correct. One of them will suggest it’s a little too high and another will advise it’s too far to the left. One time, over the protests of the others, Dylys Stace, a softvoiced soprano who takes solo parts in many of the selections, scrutinized the mike’s position and insisted it was too low. Bill Manning, a white-haired robust bass, looked at the girl, then at the microphone, then at the girl again. After a moment, his face brightened. “For Pete’s sake, Dyl,” he said, “you’re wearing your shoes!” Soloist Stace removed her shoes, looked again at the microphone and emitted an enlightened, “Gee, of course.”
Once the voices are on the air they seem just itching to sing. This reflects back to Wright who eggs the performers on like an agitated charades player, beseeching them with his hands, exaggeratedly mouthing the words of every song and adding the facial and body contortions of an apache dancer. Although the broadcasts are recorded in the privacy of a London radio studio Wright insists that all lyrics be memorized. That way, the singers have nothing to look at but the conductor. Wright admits he literally “drags the notes” out of his singers, and soprano Dylys Stace agrees.
“Honestly,” she said, her eyes wide, “I sometimes wonder if I could sing God Save the Queen if Don weren’t conducting.”
Arranger, conductor and occasional father-confessor, Wright also selects the program his chorus sings each week. This can be a trying business because he tries to make the numbers fit the theme of a narration by John Fisher, who talks about Canada for four minutes on each program. Fisher usually sends an outline of his talk to Wright in advance and sometimes they get together in Toronto to discuss it.
With no orchestra to relieve the voices through a half hour Wright must get contrast in his arrangements. And to provide contrast in each song, something different must be happening every eight bars. Basically, he has four parts to work with, soprano and alto, tenor and bass. All through the program the emphasis on each song is provided by a different section and the chorus’s tremendous range brings out the contrast and contributes to the illusion of a great many voices. When the emphasis is being provided by the basses and the deep baritones, for example, he’ll write little “fills”—the pauses between lines of the lyrics— into the arrangement to be sung softly and sweetly at key intervals by a high soprano. When the sopranos are carrying the song’s melody he’ll have a sudden and strongly contrasting roll from the basses.
The chorus spends about nine hours a week getting up a program, assembling at Wright’s house at seven-thirty
every Tuesday night for the first look at the following Sunday’s arrangements. Wright will already have drawn up eight or nine songs based on John Fisher’s talk and he will have had each singer’s parts mimeographed and ready for the first reading. They run through them a couple of times, ironing out early wrinkles and then they concentrate on one number at a time. After about three hours they break off until Thursday night when they return again, the words memorized and the parts pretty well established. After another three hours a rough dress rehearsal is held, mostly so the timing on the half-hour program can be nearly perfected. On the Sunday night there’s another hour or so of final rehearsals before the show is recorded, these at the London studios of CFPL.
Don’s wife, Lillian, sits behind the glass in the control room following a music score and checking the time on every number. She knows every effect her husband is after and when these fail to come through she puts a little tick on the score and then runs through them with Don, detail by detail, before the final rehearsal. As she calls each item through the sound system of the studio Don corrects it with the singers until the desired effect is achieved. The recording of Fisher’s talk is worked into the program by the engineer and the whole show is then recorded on tape to be broadcast over the Dominion network two weeks later.
Wright is an energetic, fast-talking, non-smoking, rarely drinking, fortyfour-year-old native of Strathroy, a town eleven miles outside London. He has blondish, thinning hair, light-blue eyes and wears glasses to correct shortsightedness. His father, now seventyeight and equipped with the boundless energy he passed along to his son, owned a music store in Strathroy and used to bring home musical instruments so that the four boys, Clark, Ernie, Don and Bill, would learn to play them and stay out of poolrooms. There was never any danger that sister Mary, now a doctor in the psychology department at University of Western Ontario would waste her time playing pool, but she learned to handle the musical instruments anyway. The boys formed their own band as they grew older, called the Wright Brothers Orchestra. They played at the Brant Inn near Hamilton and at the Embassy in Toronto to pay their way through college.
Don was playing the trumpet at the Embassy one night when he saw a girl dance by who attracted him as no other girl had done. “1 never experienced anything like it,” he recalls. “1 just had to meet her. And then 1 discovered her name was Lillian Meighen and that she was the daughter of the Ht. Hon. Arthur Meighen, twice Prime Minister of Canada. I knew I’d never get to know her.”
A few of his friends at Western knew Lillian, a co-ed at University of Toronto, and they decided to introduce them, just so they could revel in his embarrassment.
“Was I embarrassed?” Don says. “All I did was date her that night, the next night and the night after that.”
Now they’ve been married seventeen years, have three children, Timothy, fourteen, Priscilla, twelve, and Patrick, ten, all of whom are musical. They live on the outskirts of London in a large old house on three and a half acres of land. They have two female cats, called Mary and Henry, a dog and two horses. Timothy is an outstanding show horseman, and Priscilla and Patrick are becoming good riders.
Don was an outstanding athlete and scholar at the University of Western Ontario. His broad-jump of twenty three feet, eight inches is still an intermediate intercollegiate record. He led the university orchestra and organized the now famous Western band with its girl trumpeters and leggy majorettes. In his final year, 1933, he won Western’s highest scholastic award for all-round efficiency. He went on to the Ontario College of Education and then began teaching classics and history at London’s Sir Adam Beck Collegiate.
Wright gained the everlasting gratitude of Latin students at Beck when, observing that they had trouble with irregular adjectives—for “big, bigger, biggest” they simply couldn’t remember magnus, major, maximus—he introduced the jabberwocky song Three Little Fishes, but substituted the Latin adjectives for the “ump, iddy-wuddy, bump im boo” of the refrain. There are still people around London who have forgotten all the Latin they ever learned except the irregular adjectives.
Wright wrote his first textbook on singing after he became director of music for London schools in 1940 when he ran into the problem of boys’ changing voices. He finally evolved the theory that boys should sing right through the voice-changing period but that they should never sing beyond their range. When voices dropped from the treble clef to the bass clef there were times, he discovered, when a boy could hit only t wo or three notes. What he did was write arrangements using ! only those two or three notes. Thus, his students retained their interest in music and, when their voices began to settle, their scope was broadened. Wright built his conclusions into the first two textbooks, called Youthful " Voices and Youthful Voices, Book Two. His third book, more advanced than the other two, is called Let’s Read Music and like its predecessors, bids fair to have a profound effect on the accepted methods of training adolescent singers in Canadian, American and English schools.
Wright’s own best instruments are the cello, which he strokes with warm affection, and the trumpet, which he can sizzle. During the war he organized and conducted three separate i entertainment units and gave the troops popular ballads, novelties and I brassy rides. Near the close of each show he’d hold up his hand for silence. “All right, you guys,” he’d say, “you’ve been getting what you want all night. Now how about being quiet for a minute while we play something for the music-lovers?” He’d sit down with his I cello then and solemnly play a Bach fugue or a semi-classic and he was usually surprised by an attentive j reception.
He finds London, a city of ninety-six thousand, an ideal place to live and work. He is only eight minutes’ drive from downtown. He has formed a company called Don Wright Productions through which he handles a good deal of commercial business. He writes advertising jingles and has members of his chorus record them — those repetitious off-beat tunes that implore people never to go around “half safe.” He has turned one of the large rooms in his house into a studio in which he writes his arrangements, composes commercials and rehearses the chorus.
Wright’s income is estimated to be ten thousand dollars a year for the thirty-nine weeks the chorus is on the air. His choristers currently get thirtythree dollars a broadcast and make extra money for personal appearances and recording commercial jingles.
The fourteen members get along well together, with an occasional flash of temperament. One of the strongest complaints is that they’re required to broadcast in a restrained half-voice
manner because of the limitations of the microphone. “It would be easier technically to move the mike back and let them sing all out,” Wright explains, “but then we’d miss the humming effect and the ‘fill’ notes; we’d lose our ‘presence,’ the feeling the listener gets that we’re right in the room.” The singers, nonetheless, feel they’re more effective on personal appearances where they sing full voice and with extreme versatility.
Once during a concert at Woodstock, Ont., Harold Wildgust and Bill Page, tenors, peered apprehensively at Muriel Deadman, a last-minute replacement for a soprano who had become ill. Mrs. Deadman was herself recovering from an operation. Through the singing of My Heart Stood Still she had grown pale and had swayed on her feet. Wildgust and Page moved closer behind her as the chorus began Auf Wiedersehen. Then Muriel fainted. As she did Wildgust and Page placed a hand under each of her arms and moved her gently back. Two sopranos beside her moved into her place. Not missing a note the tenors moved slowly toward the back of the stage. Muriel’s husband, Dr. AÍ Deadman, also in the chorus, backtracked too, singing lustily. The tenors placed the inert soprano behind the curtain and returned to their places. AÍ examined his wife, revived her, left her with stagehands and then returned to the line. Two songs later Muriel rejoined the sopranos. Not many people in the audience were aware of anything unusual.
Wright formed the chorus by accident. In 1946 Walter Blackburn, president of the London Free Press which owns radio station CFPL, asked him if he’d become manager of the station. Blackburn had been impressed by the way Don had run three shows a week for service camps. Listener interest had been sagging so Wright took live shows into the surrounding area for the broadcasts. “If you’ve enjoyed yourself,” he’d tell the people after a show, “listen to the program again next week over CFPL.”
Hoping to develop a network show Wright figured one of the things local talent could best do was sing. He settled on a mixed chorus because it was novel and because he could write arrangements and conduct it. From twelve hundred auditions he selected the CFPL Chorus, fourteen voices with a four-octave range. After a few months, with the name changed to the Don Wright Chorus, the CFPL group went national. Then the Mutual Broadcasting System in the United States heard the chorus on an exchange of programs with the CBC. Response from U. S. listeners was gratifying Mutual requested the program be continued on an exchange basis for a second season. The chorus sang for forty-four weeks over Mutual’s fourhundred-and-fifty-station network and the exchange was discontinued only because a Canadian sponsor, Westinghouse, took the program off the sustainer list in the fall of 1949.
Now well established, it will likely go on and on. Each week, Wright gives his singers two new songs, and spends his summers when the program is off the air writing new arrangements on a tiny portable four-octave organ. He goes to the family’s summer cottage at Stony Lake, near Peterborough, strips to shorts, parks the portable on a rock in the sun and writes arrangements that range from low C to high C.
While he pumps the organ he sings, groping for the low notes, straining for the high, bursting out noisily on the baritone and the contralto. Just like his singers, he does it with no shoes. Unlike them, however, he also does ff with no voice. ★