The Swingles: Winter Tales @ The Kay Meek Arts Centre, Sunday, Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m. $29-$59. For more details: kaymeek.com/events/the-swingles.
Robert Goulet won it in 1962. Two years later it was the Beatles. But between lounge thunder and the first beat of the British invasion, the Grammy for Best New Artist was awarded to a jazz octet that married Bach and bebop: the Swingle Singers.
Seven of eight singers were from Paris. The group’s toccata-scat sound was coloured by both Leipzig, Germany and New Orleans. However, the roots of the group, which is still rolling after half a century, are in Mobile, Alabama.
Born between hometown baseball legends Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron, Ward Swingle grew up during the Depression when, from time to time, his music-loving father accepted instruments in lieu of cash.
He learned the clarinet, oboe and piano, not venturing to the movies or the baseball field until his father was satisfied with his playing, according to a Washington Post profile.
Versed in classical music as well as the burgeoning jazz scene, Swingle eventually combined the two genres as an antidote to what he saw as the dullness of the era’s pop music.
More than 50 years later, Swingle’s influence is still being felt, notes current tenor Oliver Griffiths.
Like Menudo and GWAR, the group has renewed itself by having fresh talent cycle in and out. But while the faces may change, every single member of the group can still sing in “that very quintessential Swingles sound that has been in existence since the group formed,” Griffiths notes.
Speaking during a rare and “very welcome” quiet moment in a busy tour, Griffiths reflects on a performing career that started when he was a child in a choir.
“I’ve sung since I was five or six,” he says. “It’s always been something that I’ve loved doing.”
While his sister is a fine musician, his parents were strictly appreciators, he notes.
“I’m a bit of an anomaly in my family,” he says. “I’ve sort of come out of nowhere.”
He had never heard of the Swingles as a kid but, when he was trying to parlay his musical passion into a career, his friends tipped him off to an audition.
“I had no expectation that I would get the job,” he says.
Hopeful it would at least be fruitful as an experience, he showed up and sang a piece from West Side Story, a Billy Joel ballad, and “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone.
Much to his surprise and delight, the group sent him a pile of Swingles arrangements to memorize and sing with the group. And then another pile. And then there was an interview. And then he was in.
Asked what it was that set him apart from the other hopefuls, Griffiths turns reflective.
There are always a few singers who have the technical skills to honour the group’s history, he explains. But what distinguishes the successful candidates is something in their solo voice, Griffiths says, something “new and exciting” that adds a character and sensibility that can help forge the group’s future.
The group is tied to its legacy. But that legacy, Griffiths is quick to point out, is based on constant evolution.
“We take as the main DNA sampling point of the Swingles this idea of always trying to be innovative and always trying to be on the front end of what you can do with vocal music,” he says.
Recently, that’s meant a good deal of originals.
“We’re writing the music now for the voices that are actually in the group rather than singing arrangements that were written for other voices.”
The group also melded folk sounds with world music for their Folklore album and incorporated a raucous Irish jig into a beloved Christmas carol.
The Kay Meek concert is bound to feature a musical journey, Griffiths promises.
“We have everything across the map from really cheesy, festive, brilliant, mystical, soundscape-y electronic music to classical music,” he says. “There is literally something for everybody in our show.”