Sir Paul McCartney turned 70 last week and the acclaim is only now beginning to fade. Clearly beloved, the British composer and performer continues to push his artistic envelope, drawing adulation from fans and the music industry alike.
Guinness World Records gushed: McCartney is "the most successful composer and recording artist of all time."
Really? Hmmm. Want to reconsider?
A century ago, John Philip Sousa was at the height of a long and active career which yielded more than twice as many original compositions as McCartney wrote. He conducted thousands more public performances than Sir Paul ever dreamed of, and left a body of musical work that continues to involve and delight people 80 years since his death.
His great-grandson and namesake, John Philip Sousa IV, calls him "America's first rock star."
In a fascinating new book, John Philip Sousa's America, (2012, GIA publishers, 212 pages, $34.95), Sousa's great-grandson reveals a choice selection from the rich Library of Congress archive, working with musicologist and musician Loras John Schissel, to document the astounding output and amazing popularity this dapper, small man generated during his long and productive life.
"He conducted 14,000 concerts. He appeared before 60,000 people each week, in person. He had three Broadway plays running at the same time. He wrote five novels," Sousa IV said in a phone interview.
Reaching every heart
The enterprising ancestor even commissioned a new brass instrument whose sound would carry from the back of a band -- the serpentine Sousaphone. It's most noticeable during Ohio State University football games when a select OSU Marching Band musician dots the I in Ohio playing the Sousaphone.
All music was live for Sousa and post-Civil War America, typically via any of the 10,000 or so community bands performing in concert halls and outdoor stages. Sousa marches and other compositions were programmatic mainstays.
"My theory was to reach every heart by simple, stirring music; secondly, to lift the unmusical mind to a still higher form of musical art," Sousa declared at the start of his illustrious career.
"I wanted to make music for the people, a music to be grasped at once."
During his heyday, which ran from 1880 to the day of his death, March 6, 1932, at 80, Sousa, son of poor immigrants, was the face of musical entertainment in the United States, a spit-and-polish representation of all things exciting, memorable, and musical.
The New York Times wrote: "Sousa's face is more recognizable to most Americans than that of the President of the United States."
He provided ceremonial music for many of those presidents: Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison. For Garfield, he also composed a dirge for the funeral procession after his assassination.
Doing it with gusto
Like McCartney, Sousa certainly didn't invent his musical form, but he definitely capitalized on it. Ever since men have gone to war, they have ordered musicians to play stirring music to inspire and encourage brutality in the name of some grand vision.
What Sousa did for the march was to make it appealing to a much wider and more peaceable audience. And he did it with gusto.
He wrote 136 marches, from "The Washington Post March" which brought him initial recognition, to "The Stars and Stripes Forever," America's national march (so designated by President Ronald Reagan.)
The book bursts with images of Americans from coast to coast embracing the "March King" and his bands. (Sousa disliked that title; his dreams reached beyond the march form).
He also composed 17 light operas and wrote countless suites, songs, concert pieces, and solos. Some 100 of his tunes made 19th century hit parades.
"His philosophy was, give the people what they want and make sure it's the very best," his great-grandson said.
"A Sousa concert was not just the music," he said. "In many ways, he was as important to America as the founding fathers, bringing patriotism, art, and renewal to the country he loved."
Sousa, a well-trained instrumentalist as well as composer, knew how to give the people what they wanted and made the most of the technology of his time. Often, his concerts were the only live music available.
A Sousa program included marches, but offered a great variety as well.
"He played what was popular at the time. He played (German composer Richard) Wagner years before it was played in Carnegie Hall. Sousa brought a real major dose of culture to the tiny little towns all around America.
"His train would pull into town in the morning and the local band would be there to meet them," explained Sousa from his home outside Hartford, Ct.
Pages of the book pop with the kind of photos -- massive cheering crowds jamming huge halls, spread over hillsides, and cramming city streets -- that would make any press agent's heart leap.
He led the Marine Band, "The President's Own," beginning in 1880, taking it on its first U.S. tour. He then formed his own eponymous band which he took on groundbreaking tours: two to Europe and one around the world.
Sousa's typical concert attire was a black suit of vague military styling, sometimes embellished with medals and braid, or topped with a shako hat. He had lifts built into his shiny black shoes. He insisted on new white gloves for each and every performance.
His somber, tidy bearded visage became a favorite subject for cartoonists looking for a break from the usual political intrigues, and press shooters looking for the next photo op. He employed managers and press agents and, though he never spoke to audiences, Sousa showed public figures who would follow, including McCartney, how to play the fame game.
Off the podium, Sousa and beloved wife, Jane, were sporty -- riding, trapshooting, and raising animals at their various homesteads. They raised three children, including John Philip Sousa, Jr., grandfather of the book's author.
Sousa died suddenly on March 6, 1932, after conducting his band for a commemorative concert to take place the next day in Reading, Pa.
America's band master was laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery, with a parade down the streets of his Washington hometown. But his legacy has continued. Sousa marches are a mainstay of concert and symphony band programs, particularly during the summer season.
And talk about covers, Sousa's music, well constructed and irresistibly lively, is a constant in music education across the country and an inspiration for new generations of composers.
There are schools named for Sousa, awards given annually in his name, a major statue at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, and the priceless archives at the Library of Congress.
Fortunately for newer generations, Sousa and his family made sure that the vast collection of his music, writings, and memorabilia were safe and accessible.
Telling the story
As a youth, born 15 years after his great-grandfather's death, Sousa IV says he had little first-hand contact with family lore. His involvement started with retirement from a career in financial services.
One day, checking out in a store near his home, Sousa met a clerk who seemed to recognize the famous name. "What's it like being related to such a famous baseball player?" she asked innocently, according to the author in his preface.
Sousa realized that his ancestor's public image was blurry, so when Schissel invited him to visit the Library of Congress archive and to speak at a band concert the musicologist was to conduct, he jumped at the chance.
Sousa started meeting people, hearing stories about his great-grandfather, and looking over the programs, photos, articles, and other memorabilia. He says he wishes he had started earlier, when there were more people around with direct memory of his great-grandfather.
But the book that Sousa and Schissel concocted from the archival materials will refresh many memories and perhaps introduce a new generation to America's 19th century musical star.
"We decided to do it with images. . . a picture book. Every illustration would have a caption," said the author, adding, "we wanted to put in a lot of quotes of Sousa's, so people would come to know him by reading his own words."
The book is available at the usual sources including the publisher, 800-888-4741 or ipgbook.com.
Contact Sally Vallongo at: email@example.com.