Gershon Kingsley, Synthesizer Pioneer, Dead at 97


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Gershon Kingsley, whose work with synthesizers helped popularize the instrument in its early days, has died. He was 97, according to Billboard.

Kingsley was most famous for his 1969 song “Popcorn,” which was one of the first electronic singles to hit the airwaves. The song became a hit for the group Hot Butter in 1972, and Crazy Frog revived it again in 2005. (Aphex Twin and Muse have covered it, too). Kingsley also co-wrote “Baroque Hoedown,” which was used as the theme song to Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, with fellow synth pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey. His song “Rebirth” has been sampled in multiple hip-hop songs, including Freddie Gibbs’ and Madlib’s “Soul Right.”

Kingsley was born Goetz Gustaf Ksinski in Bochum, Germany, in 1922. As violence increased against German Jews, Kingsley fled his home country in 1938 before immigrating to the United States in 1946. He landed in New York before relocating to Los Angeles, and he moved to New York in 1955 after earning a degree in music from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. In New York, Kingsley worked on Broadway and off-Broadway productions including La Plume de ma Tante, Porgy & Bess, and The Entertainer. He was nominated for a Best Musical Direction Tony award in 1958. He went on to work as a musical director for Josephine Baker, the Robert Joffrey Ballet, and the TV special The World of Kurt Weill, which starred Lotte Lenya.

Kingsley first joined forces with Perrey in 1966, and they released their collaborative album The In Sound From Way Out that year. In 1967, Kingsley staged a performance with John Cage where he improvised tape-recorder sounds while Cage read work by Buckminster Fuller. Inspired by rock operas, Kingsley wrote Shabbat for Today as an effort to draw younger people back into worship services. He premiered it at a New Jersey synagogue in 1968. Kingsley’s work with the Moog synthesizer in this period distinguished him as a pioneer on the instrument.

Kingsley went on to form the First Moog Quartet in 1970—the first ensemble of synthesizers. Their October 1970 performance at Carnegie Hall was the venue’s first live performance of synthesized music. In the 1980s, Kingsley moved toward New Age music and digital synthesizers like the Fairlight CMI and the Sinclavier II. He continued to work on music throughout the rest of his life, releasing multiple projects about the lingering trauma of the Holocaust and occasionally uploading new works to his Soundcloud page.

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