Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Virgil Fox

A few decades ago, if you asked people on the street to name famous concert organists, they could tick off maybe three: J.S. Bach, E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox (1912-1980) These days, younger people have likely never heard of the latter two, but those who were attending organ concerts in the 1950s-60s-70s will never forget Virgil Fox. I was just starting to study classical pipe organ when Fox’s career was ending, but his legacy endures decades after his death.

In addition to having prodigious talent and technique, Fox was an outrageous showman who alienated purists right and left – and he loved every minute of it. Virgil wore a red satin lined cape and a beret while performing, and he drove a pink Cadillac. The heels of his organ shoes were embellished with rhinestones. He insisted on being visible to his audiences (tough, if not impossible in most churches back in those days). He was also temperamental and demanding – organ tuners dreaded working for him.

Virgil Fox was the Liberace of the pipe organ, and the comparison is apt, because both were attacked for having lurid taste – in clothes, repertoire, personal flamboyance and performance practice. Fox was in-your-face gay and didn’t care who knew it, and his over-the-top, camp personal style was often at odds with the staid church where he performed. It was his practice to speak to the audience from the stage, discussing the music and thus bringing a new dimension to recitals. All that said, few people were neutral about Virgil Fox. You either loved him or hated him. His arch rival was English-born E. Power Biggs, a conservative historically correct performer who was the antithesis of Fox’s personal and musical style. Both were known for their performances of music by J.S. Bach, yet their interpretations were light years apart.

From 1946-1965, Fox was organist at Riverside Church in New York City, where he presided over one of the largest pipe organs in the world. His lover, Richard Weagly, was the Choir Director, and the acrimonious end of their relationship was played out in front of everyone. Worship at Riverside Church was often merely an accessory to the star of the show, which was Virgil’s organ playing, especially his flamboyant hymn interpretations. His fans showed up in droves on Sunday mornings. In the mid 1960s, however, Fox was asked to resign from his job at Riverside, because he had gotten “too big” for the church.

Virgil then took the pipe organ outside the church, going on countless tours with an electronic organ he called Black Beauty, playing recitals in concert halls, schools and on television, replete with light shows, smoke machines and mirrors. No lie. His shows at the Fillmore East, a NYC rock concert venue, were legendary. It was not uncommon for 2,000-3,000 people to show up for his live performances, and often hundreds were turned away. I kid you not.

Fox loved his audiences and would spend hours greeting his fans after every performance. He called everyone “honey” – men and women alike – and loved giving autographs. While seated at the organ console he once greeted a staid Riverside Church dignitary, “How good to see you, Lawrence, honey." The shocked and offended man replied, “I'm not your honey, and kindly never address me that way again.” Fox was not the least bit intimidated.

His records sold like hot cakes, and Capitol signed him to a lucrative six-album deal (a pipe organist!). Sixty recordings were to follow, and many of them are still available as reissues. Fox earned enough from concertizing to buy a 26-room mansion in Englewood, N.J., complete with swimming pool and – you guessed it – an organ whose pipes filled the attic, sun porch and basement. When a much younger lover, David, moved in, alienating many of Fox’s friends, fans and managers, Fox made no apologies. After receiving an honorary doctorate from Bucknell University, Virgil insisted on being called Dr. Fox, claiming that he got better service from hotels and airlines.

I first heard Fox in the late 1970s, when he played an electronic organ at Wolf Trap (outside Washington, DC) to an audience of more than 6,000. In a concert at the Kennedy Center in 1978, I witnessed his pipe organ and harpsichord recital of French music played in alphabetical order, arranged by key: from A-flat major on down to G-minor; he called it “A Gallic Gamut.” Some of the overflow audience was seated on the stage.

Fox spent his last months at his estate in Palm Beach, FL, Casa Lagomar, where he died of prostate cancer in October, 1980. He was 68 years old. Virgil had performed in public just six weeks before his death, and the New York Times obituary estimated that he had performed before more than six million fans during his 50-year career.

Perpetuum Mobile for Pedals Alone (Middelschulte): the video quality is crap, but this gives an accurate representation of Virgil’s technical mastery and flamboyant style. The composer, a brilliant German organist who lived most of his life in Chicago, was Virgil’s teacher. Fox frequently played this show-stopper as an encore.



Toccata (final mvt.) from Symphonie Concertante by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. The last 40 seconds of this clip are thrilling. Fox often performed his own organ solo transcription of this movement at recitals.



A one-man symphony orchestra, Fox was known for his transcriptions of symphonic music for solo organ. Here he performers Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 on the huge Wanamaker organ inside Philadelphia’s downtown Macy’s department store.

10 comments:

  1. What a truly enjoyable presentation. It captures the personal history of the man and his great skill and joy in music!

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  2. Thanks - we're just listening to A Virgil Fox Christmas, and I wanted to show my son a picture of Virgil Fox at the console.

    Very interesting writeup and photos. Have a great Christmas.

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  3. I attended one of his concerts in the mid-1970s, a few years before you. I loved every minute of it! Thanks for the video of the pedal solo; it's just how I remember it.

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  4. The man was truly one out a kind. I doubt there will be another like him on our lifetime. I had the hojor of knowing him when I was very young and struggling with the organ myself. His friendship was one of the best I ever had. Here is truly missed.

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  5. Virgil Fox was indeed an inspiration to our society. Will there ever be another Virgil Fox, that remaines to be seen. I attended several of his concerts which I will always remember. He had a precious gift and I am thankful he could share with all. I know people who love classical organ such as myself will always remember Virgil Fox. May he rest in peace.

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  6. Grew up with him as my next door neighbor in Englewood, NJ...Many a night you could hear the music through the woods between us,.

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  7. Grew up with him as my next door neighbor in Englewood, NJ...Many a night you could hear the music through the woods between us,.

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  8. In addition to his extraordinary performances of demanding, music scores, Virgil Fox drew out the tonal variations of the organ! He was adept at gorgeous registrations! While most organists follow expected, traditional (often mundane) stop registrations, Virgil tapped and utilized the full array of voices, appropriately, and achieved far greater tonal variety, expression, and captivating aural beauty! This is the purpose of the organ--to provide vast tonal variety. When organists fail to use these tonal resources, it is tantamount to playing the piano (which granted is beautiful--but more limited, tonally).

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  9. Stephen Knapp (grampsrn@yahoo.com)August 23, 2016 at 9:47 PM

    Detractors aside, Dr. Fox brought classical organ music to the masses in a way that no purist ever did. Though I respond with tears to a recording by E. Power Biggs, I leaped my feet, blinded by tears, after the enormous performance of Dr. Fox at the Black Beauty at a small University (Alfred) in upstate New York. Discovering this site made me feel as a young man again (now 70). The video, a little distorted, brought to my memory the frozen enchantment I felt that night. Oh yeah, "Joe's Lights" were there.

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