Saturday, August 27, 2005


(Run originally 3/6/04 on our old site)

Ernie Simpson

I loved Bobby Scott Fuller’s story about the choir in San Antonio, and I can’t imagine how wonderful it would have been to be there to hear that. I have a little story about a famous choir, but I don’t think even this one would match the glorious sound that came from the Riverwalk that night.

Greg Bennett was a good friend and distributor who worked at Hoj Engineering in Salt Lake City. It was a pleasure to have him come to Jonesboro, and it was good to visit with him on business when I traveled to Utah. He was a fun guy, and his wife could sing wonderfully, and even had made an album or two of religious music. I thought it was top quality work, and hoped she might have some success in professional music.

We often talked about our mutual love for music, and from our conversations, Greg knew of my background before coming to work at Hytrol, and how band directing had been a total way of life for me for over eighteen years. It must have come out in conversation that I had a minor in voice, too. I really hadn’t thought about that very much, but he knew about it. I do remember telling him the story of directing the Manila madrigal singers after Diane passed away, and the group was lucky enough to have won honors at the state choral festival in Hot Springs the year I was conductor with them.

Greg asked me if I had ever heard the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir in person, I said no, never had a chance to, but I was a great admirer of the group and they were truly legendary. I imagined all those wonderful singers, with voices like angels, that could inspire through music anyone who would listen.

In 1985, I had scheduled a trip to the west to contact distributors, do some training, and market analysis of territories, and one of my stops was Salt Lake City. I had set up the appointment with Greg some time earlier, and he told me we were going to have a nice dinner, and said he was planning for us to go to a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We were lucky the choir was in town, since they had several performances and tours scheduled.

I thought this was great, since the rehearsals were open to the public, and I had always heard about the famed tabernacle, with the acoustics so perfect you could hear a whisper from the front to the back of the auditorium. The benches were the original pine, and the ceilings were a type of curved dome that helped conduct the sound better than most studios. The organ had most of the original parts, and remains quite famous as a world-renowned instrument.

I arrived on Thursday, October 17th. We conducted our business, and headed to dinner. I was staying at the old Salt Lake Hotel, a really old and ornate hotel that I enjoyed whenever I came. Greg said he was glad I was staying there; since it was only a short distance to the rehearsal hall from the hotel. The majority of the buildings centered on the Temple Square, which consisted of the famous Tabernacle, the worship center and the administrative buildings and Museum.

There had been a serious crime in Salt Lake that week, with the murder of a broadcast journalist so, when we arrived at the auditorium, security was strict. I asked Greg why we were going in the back way, and he replied, “I have a surprise for you, I’ve got it set up for you to sing with the choir.” I said, “What?!?”

Well, seems Greg had written to the president of the choir, along with the director, and some of the officers of the choir and asked for special permission for me to sit in with the group. He said he had first asked permission for me to conduct one of the pieces, but they told him the only person outside the choir director who had ever directed the choir was Jimmy Stewart in 1939 in a movie. However, they would allow me to sit in with the group and sing with them during rehearsal.

I was astounded when he told me this. The famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and here comes me, among all those wonderful and talented singers. It was a thought I couldn’t comprehend.

Greg turned me over to a choir spokesperson as we arrived. He was expecting us, and introduced himself, and made me feel welcome. He then led me to the tenor section, where a complete folder of the evening’s music was on the seat. The men around me shook hands with me very politely and said, “Glad to have you here.” I was nervous as a cat.

The president of the choir called things to order, and made announcements about upcoming performances and a tour coming up they were working on, to Japan. They had some brief discussions, and introduced me before turning the choir to the conductor.

The president made the announcement to introduce me to the choir. He said, “We have a guest with us tonight, a good Baptist from Arkansas. Now, we don’t mind good Baptists, as long as they’re good singers. (Chuckle from the choir) His name is Ernie Simpson, and we’re glad to have him with us tonight.” I stood, and there was polite applause from the huge choir. I sat down, and took up the folder, the conductor stood and the rehearsal began.

The folder they gave me for the 2nd Tenor section was made up well, and had all the pieces they were working on. There weren’t really any hard pieces in the folder, technically speaking. We had sung much harder things in college. I guess I was a little surprised that the music was not strongly challenging.

I only remember singing two of the works, something from “The Sound of Music”, and “My Shepherd Shall Supply All My Needs.” I observed that I shouldn’t have been worried about the vocal gymnastics abilities I thought the people of the choir possessed. The men around me were not great technical singers, and I learned later that they don’t look for the finest singers, or soloists, they look more for voices that blend, and people with a strong work ethic and desire to perform with the group. They do not encourage mothers with small children, for example, because the rehearsals, performances and tours would take the mother away from her kids. Membership is limited in the choir, and there’s a waiting list to get in. Auditions are rarely held. There might be an opening .. IF someone dies or moves away.

Most historians date the choir’s beginning to the year 1847. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir first sang on August 22, 1847, twenty-nine days after the pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley. This performance was at the first General Conference to be held in Utah. The conference met in a 28’x40’ bowery with adobe walls, and with brush and earth roof.

At the break, I thanked those around me, shook hands with them, and left the group quietly. When the rehearsal began again, I had seated myself at the other end of the auditorium, so I could hear the group from an audience perspective. It was what I thought it would be, a wonderful sound, rich and beautiful. The organ was awesome, and added power to the group that gave me chill bumps down my spine. The acoustics of the famed tabernacle are renowned, and I found it to be exactly the way I’d heard they would be. Some experts believe one of the secrets of the famed acoustics were the builders’ use of cattle hair in the plaster.

There was an audience of several hundred people who came in to hear the rehearsal; I guessed three hundred or so. I understand that’s the way it is with each rehearsal. The choir’s fame draws many of the public to come hear them sing at the Thursday night rehearsal when the choir is in town.

I have always been a fan of the choir, and more so now. It was a grand experience to have had a chance to sing with this group, if only for a while. It added to the things I will remember, and I will treasure the efforts of Greg, my friend, who went to so much trouble for me to have had an experience like this, with The Choir, in October 1985.

Tom Pry

I’m constantly amazed by the things some of our classmates/friends have been into in their life. I never woulda guessed a good Baptist boy like Ernie in the middle of the MTC.

I’m a little envious. I used to tell people I was a member of the Norman Abersnackle Choir, of Norman, Oklahoma, a group under the direction of George Abersnackle. Now I’ll have to unfairly defame some other group.


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