If you were in the UK in the 1970s and spent any time watching TV on a Saturday night you will have seen a musical act containing the word “Swingle”, “The Swingle Singers” perhaps, or “Swingle II”. They would appear on shows like “The Two Ronnies”, performing a cappella versions of, well, I can’t remember exactly. For me, their contributions were always an unwelcome interruption from the comedy, and I don’t recall anyone in my family welcoming their appearances. None of the “Swingle” acts ever had a UK hit single, unlike Barbara Dickson for example, who also appeared on “The Two Ronnies” in the 1970s. She sang songs that we recognized, and her singles reached the Top 20. My mother and I had also seen her in a stage production of “John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert” by Willy Russell, so we were more interested in her performances than those of the “Swingle” bands.
I was reminded of all this by a recent episode of “Desert Island Discs”. Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer and newly-appointed Master of Trinity College Cambridge, chose Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, first movement, from an album called “Bach Hits Back”, credited to The Swingle Singers. You can hear or download the show here. The clip, featuring assorted voices going “dabba-dabba-dab” in place of regular instruments, took me right back to those 1970s Saturday nights, and did not make me want to check out any more recordings. It was the kind of thing that BBC Radio 2 played back then, in place of pop music from the actual singles charts. Our radios were generally tuned to Radio 1 or Capital, but we would switch to Radio 2 when John Peel was broadcasting on their FM band between 10pm and midnight. If I left the radio tuned to that frequency I would hear all sorts of things that never made the Top 40, and none of it featured guitars. A version of “Life on Mars” by The King’s Singers (another act that featured on entertainment shows in the 1970s) made a strong impression on me, and not in a good way.
Although I am not tempted to explore any more of the “Swingle” catalogue I was fascinated to read about the origins and history of the act. They took their name from their founder, Ward Swingle, an American musician and singer based in Paris in the early 1960s, and were originally called “Les Swingle Singers”. When Ward and his family moved to England in the 1970s he promised that he would use a different name, so in Britain we had Swingle II and later the New Swingle Singers and the Swingles. You can read all about it in this Guardian obituary from January 2015, which followed Ward Swingle’s death at the age of 87. The obituary describes him as “vocal ensemble director” and informs me that he and I share a birthday. I generally warm to people born on the same date as me, so even if I’m not ready to immerse myself in the recordings I am happy to celebrate the achievements (including five Grammies, and his appointment as Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) of another person born on 21 September.