Karl Lawrence King Biography

(March Music Bandmaster - Composer of 'Barnum and Bailey's Favorite')

Birthday: February 21, 1891 (Pisces)

Born In: Paintersville, Ohio, United States

Karl Lawrence King was an American march music bandmaster and composer, renowned for his work Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, one of the most popular circus march music. Apart from being a brilliant composer, he was also an excellent baritone and cornet player as well. His march compositions became famous in circus bands, which seriously lacked standard march music till then. Many circus companies adopted his compositions and much of them are now regarded as classic works in this genre. His contributions to circus music earned him the title March King, which he shared with another stalwart, John Philip Sousa. Karl King’s compositions had a standout quality as it matched with the rhythm of the acts and he quickly rose to leadership positions in leading circus bands like Buffalo Bill and the Barnum and Bailey. He concentrated only in circus band music and contributed much more than any other composer. Aerial waltzes and circus galops were his specialty and these were in popular demand during his time and, even after several years of his death, no other composer could beat the popularity of his compositions. He was a humble man, who led a common life and was greatly respected and loved as a spectacular composer and a great human being.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Karl King

Died At Age: 80


father: Sandusky S

mother: Anna Lindsey King

Born Country: United States

Composers American Men

Died on: March 31, 1971

place of death: Fort Dodge, Iowa, United States

U.S. State: Ohio

Childhood & Early Life

Karl Lawrence King was born on February 21, 1891, in the Ohio village of Paintersville to Sandusky S. and Anna Lindsey King. He was the couple’s only child. The family first moved to Xenia, then to Cleveland, and finally to Canton.

He was interested in music from an early age. He began delivering newspapers as an 11-year-old and saved his income to buy his first musical instrument, a cornet. He briefly received training from Emile Reinkendorff, director of the Grand Army Band of Canton.

He played brass instruments in the Canton Marine Band, a band comprised of boys in his own age group. He quit school after the eighth grade when he was around 14. He enrolled for training to learn the printing trade.

In his mid-teens, he worked at a printer's shop during the day and composed at night. However, he didn’t pursue the printing trade as a profession for long.

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Karl Lawrence King knew that music was his soul’s calling and proceeded to join the Thayer Military Band in Canton, directed by William E. Strassner. Under Strassner’s instruction, he learned to play the baritone horn.

Soon after, he moved to the Neddermeyer Band of Columbus, Ohio, under Fred Neddermeyer, and he also played in the Soldier's Home Band in Danville, Illinois. During this period, he also began to compose marches and other works.

In 1910, he began his career as a circus musician. He joined the band of Robinson’s Famous Circus as a baritone player under conductor Woodring Van Anda ("Woody Van"). The next season, he moved to Yankee Robinson Circus band under Theo Stout.

Karl Lawrence King performed in the Sells Floto Circus under famous march composer W.P. English in 1912. By 1913, he had joined the Barnum and Bailey band under Ned Brill.

Brill requested King to write a circus march, and he honored this request by composing Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, which would one day become King’s most famous march. The musical piece became so popular that it was adopted as the theme of the circus.

In 1914, he took up his first full-time conducting job when he conducted combined shows organized by the Sells Floto Circus in collaboration with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He was made the bandmaster for the Sells Floto Circus in 1915.

He served as the bandmaster of the Barnum and Bailey Circus band in 1917-18. He recruited his wife to work as the calliope performer in this band.

World War I was going on at that time, and Karl King aspired to join John Philip Sousa at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. However, Sousa didn’t have any vacancy and suggested King apply to the army as a bandmaster at Camp Grant. The war ended before he could join active duty.

He decided to take a break from his touring career and chose to remain in Canton with his young family. He found a job as the director of a local band and also began his own music publishing business, the K. L. King Music House, in 1919. His company’s first publication was Broadway One-Step.

He moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1920. Here, he began conducting the Fort Dodge Municipal Band. Joseph Hermann, who would one day become the American Bandmasters Association president, was a clarinet player in the band at that time. Under King, the band became known as King’s Band. He would remain with the band for the next 51 years.

Karl King played a key role in the passage of the Iowa Band Law in 1921. This law allowed cities to levy a local tax for maintaining a band. He composed a march, Iowa Band Law, to commemorate this.

He was given a testimonial dinner in 1951. The event was attended by around 250 people, including band directors Glenn Cliffe Bainum, Paul V. Yoder, Albert Austin Harding, and William H. Santelmann. William S. Beardsley, the governor of Iowa, was also a guest at the dinner.

Karl King directed Iowa Band Law in 1960 with a large mass band consisting of 188 high school bands and nearly 13,000 musicians in a nationally televised football game at the University of Michigan. 

Major Works

Karl King is best known for composing the circus march Barnum and Bailey's Favorite in 1913This work is often referred to as The Granddaddy of Circus Marches. Like most standard marches, the composition consists of an introduction, a first strain, a second strain, a trio, and a break strain.

Family & Personal Life

As a young man, Karl Lawrence King fell in love with a girl named Ruth Lovett. Her parents disapproved of him as they didn’t consider being a “circus bandmaster” a worthy avocation. Nonetheless, the couple tied the knot on November 17, 1916. Their only son, Karl L. King, Jr., was born in 1919.

Karl King lived up to the age of 80. He died of acute diverticulitis on March 31, 1971. Ruth survived him by many years and died in 1988. 

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