Gershon Kingsley, Moog Synthesizer Pioneer, Dies at 97

The composer's work won him an Emmy Award for the music of 'A New Voice in the Wilderness' and two Clio Awards for outstanding music in TV commercials.

Composer, conductor and electronic music pioneer Gershon Kingsley, who wrote the top 10 hit "Popcorn" and played a pivotal role in popularizing the synthesizer sound, died Tuesday in New York. He was 97.

The Emmy Award-winning composer recorded "Popcorn" in 1969, but it was a remake by Hot Butter that reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972 and No. 1 in at least six other countries. In 2005, Crazy Frog released its version, with the song again going to No. 1 in a number of countries.  In 2018, Kingsley released a yellow vinyl 12" of his trademark song for Record Store Day. 

Kingsley, who also composed "Baroque Hoedown," the theme song for Disney parks’ Main Street Electrical Parade, was born in 1922 in Germany. He came to New York in 1946 and then attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.

When Kingsley returned to New York in 1955, he became the musical director for a Broadway production of The Entertainer starring Lawrence Olivier. In 1958, Kingsley was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical direction in the Broadway hit La Plume de Ma Tante. He conducted and arranged for several Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including Porgy & Bess, Jamaica, Ernest in Love, The Cradle Will Rock and Fly Blackbird. Kingsley earned two Obie Awards for his off-Broadway theatrical work.

In the mid-1950s, Kingsley was also musical director for the Robert Joffrey Ballet, Joséphine Baker and the highly acclaimed television special The World of Kurt Weill, starring Lotte Lenya. As a composer, he also focused on theatrical works both religious and secular — inspired by Jewish and Hebrew texts — including Shabbat for Today and The Fifth Cup, both of which have been nationally broadcast and performed extensively throughout the U.S. Kingsley also wrote the popular choral anthem "Shepherd Me, Lord."

In 1966, while working as a staff arranger for Vanguard Records, Kingsley collaborated with French composer Jean-Jacques Perrey on a highly experimental pop album The In Sound From Way Out that combined dozens of intricately designed tape loops with live studio musicians to produce an altogether new sound that pushed the envelope of modern music, and Kingsley soon became one of the foremost artists of the Moog synthesizer sound. In 1969, he released an album titled Music to Moog By, which received enthusiastic reviews and has since become a classic among Moog connoisseurs.

In 1970, Kingsley formed the First Moog Quartet, a four-synthesizer ensemble that was a pioneering effort to bring electronic music into classical music venues. The group made history when it performed the first live multimedia show of synthesized music ever at Carnegie Hall. 

Soon after the show, Arthur Fiedler, then conductor of the Boston Pops, asked Kingsley to compose a work for the synthesizer quartet and symphony orchestra. "Concerto Moogo," as it was known, premiered in 1971 at the Boston Symphony Hall and was televised across the country. 

Kingsley also composed extensively for television and motion pictures. His music for the PBS WGBH logo continues to be used to this day, and his work won him an Emmy Award for the music of A New Voice in the Wilderness and two Clio Awards for outstanding music in TV commercials. Kingsley wrote theme music for the American game show The Joker's Wild and several German television shows. 

In the ‘80s, he released a number of New Age albums. In 1992, Kingsley composed two separate works to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to America: Cristobal, a musical performed at New York's Union Square Theater; and Tierra, an opera performed at the Gasteig Concert Hall in Munich. Voices From the Shadow, a theatrical concert piece based on the poetry of the Holocaust, had its premiere in 1998 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

In the 2000s, Kingsley finished work on several projects, including a new version of "Popcorn" released on Beastie Boys' Grand Royal record label, and Selma, a cycle of songs inspired by the Holocaust poetry of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. One of Kingsley’s latest works, Raoul, about Raoul Wallenberg, premiered in New York in 2004 and went on to full production in Bremen, Germany, in 2008. 

Survivors include his two daughters, Melinda and Alisse, his son-in-law and grandson. 

This story first appeared on Billboard.com