Home » Uncategorized » Karl L. King: and Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite

Karl L. King: and Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite


Karl Lawrence King (February 21, 1891 – March 31, 1971) was an American march music bandmaster and composer who is best known for his “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite.”   King was born on February 21, 1891, in the village of Paintersville, OH, the only child of Sandusky S. and Anna Lindsey King. The King family moved to Xenia, OH, a short time later, and around the turn of the century to Canton, OH, when Karl was eleven, the year he used newspaper carrier income to purchase his first musical instrument, a cornet.  His early musical training was from Emile Reinkendorff, director of the Grand Army of the Republic Band of Canton on this instrument, and from William Strassner, director of the Thayer Military Band, when he switched from the cornet to the baritone horn, with Strassner instructing him on that instrument.  He also had four piano lessons and one harmony lesson from musical show director William Bradford.  Otherwise, he grew up as a self-taught musician with very little schooling of any kind.  He learned to compose by studying scores. He left school after the eighth grade at the age of fourteen to learn the printing trade, while composing music at night, but soon switched to playing in and composing for bands.  He also played in the Soldier’s Home Band in Danville, IL.  His first known composition still extant was composed for the Thayer Military Band while he was performing in it – titled “March T.M.B.” (1909). His first copyrighted work was “Moonlight on the Nile Waltz” (also 1909).

In 1909 King joined the Fred Neddermeyer Band of Columbus, OH, but shortly thereafter in 1910 began a short career for the next ten years playing baritone in and directing a variety of circus bands. That year, at the age of 19, he joined the band of Robinson’s Famous Circus Shows as a baritone horn player under conductor Woodring Van Anda (“Woody Van”). The next year he was performing in the Yankee Robinson Circus band under Theo Stout. In 1912, he performed in the Sells-Floto Circus under W.P. English (a famous march composer), and in 1913 in the Barnum and Bailey Circus band under Ned Brill. At the request of Brill he wrote and dedicated to Brill “Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite,” his most famous march and possibly the most recognizable American music written specifically for the circus. It would soon be adopted as the theme of the circus.  His first full-time conducting job was in 1914 through 1915 with the Sells Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show combined shows band. He became bandmaster for the Sells-Floto Circus in 1915 and was bandmaster of the Barnum and Bailey Circus band 1917–1918. In his final band, he included his wife Ruth (Lovett) as the calliope performer. He had married Ruth November 17, 1916.

Although he had no formal training in conducting, King became famous throughout the United States for his band conducting.  But he is even better known as a composer of band music. By the end of his career he had composed almost 300 pieces, including marches, gallops, rags, hops, waltzes, serenades, and other types of music. King rivals John Philip Sousa as a composer of band music, and actually composed more pieces than Sousa. Many of King’s pieces were for specific occasions or specific bands, such as “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite March” and “Iowa Band Law March.”  His compositions were intended to be played by a seated band, not by a marching unit, and he did not limit himself to military music but also wrote “good-sounding, easy marches for high school bands.”  As a baritone player himself, King was especially fond of writing music that featured low brass players.  King hoped to join John Philip Sousa at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station during World War I. With no openings on his staff at the time, Sousa suggested King apply to the army as bandmaster at Camp Grant. The war ended on his reporting date so King did not serve on active duty.  King remained in Canton as director of the local band. He began a music publishing business, the K.L. King Music House in 1919, the same year his only child Karl L. King, Jr. was born. The first publication of his new music company was “Broadway One-Step”.

After a year in Canton where he directed the Grand Army Band (1919), King settled down in Fort Dodge, IA.  During the summer of 1920, the conductor of the Fort Dodge Military Band left unexpectedly. In order to attract a new conductor, the band’s sponsor, the Fort Dodge Commercial Club, pledged to raise $5,000 for new uniforms for the 1921 season. Before the summer ended, King arrived in Fort Dodge and conducted a demonstration concert. The music he chose–including two of his own compositions, “The Royal Scotch Highlanders” and “Autumn Romance”—was challenging. The performance impressed the members of the band and the club, and he was offered a one-year contract. That contract was renewed, and King remained in Fort Dodge until his death fifty years later. By 1923 King had started his own music publishing business, and his wife, Ruth, had opened a music store. The couple entered into the social and commercial life of the city and rapidly became well known throughout the state.

During his fifty years as a conductor in Fort Dodge, King led the band in concerts at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD; at dozens of county fairs; and numerous times at the Iowa State Fair. Through his compositions and guest conducting contracts, King became nationally and internationally famous, and the Fort Dodge Military Band became one of the most popular in Iowa. He was a charter member of the American Bandmasters Association and the Iowa Bandmasters Association and was second president of the latter group. After the Iowa Band Law passed in 1921, the Fort Dodge Military Band became the Fort Dodge Municipal Band, a name it retained until after King’s death. During his career, King received many awards. In 1949 he was inducted into Phi Beta Mu, the National Bandmasters fraternity. In 1951 he was named Iowa’s Outstanding Citizen. Phillips University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Music degree in 1953; in 1959 the American Bandmasters Association presented him with its Distinguished Service Award; and in 1961 it granted him Honorary Life Presidency, an honor he shared with John Philip Sousa and Edwin Franko Goldman.

In 1960, King directed his “Iowa Band Law” March with the largest mass band ever assembled: 188 high school bands and nearly 13,000 musicians at a nationally televised University of Michigan football game.In 1962 the Iowa Department of Transportation named the new bridge over the Des Moines River in Fort Dodge the Karl L. King Bridge.  On his 80th birthday, the American School Band Directors Association presented King with the Edwin Franko Goldman Award, its highest honor.  The concert King conducted for his own 80th birthday included five pieces he composed, including “Iowa Centennial March.”  King died on March 31, 1971, of acute diverticulitis at age 80 in a Fort Dodge, IA, hospital. His legacy lived on after him when the Karl L. King Municipal Band of Fort Dodge appeared twice in Washington, D.C., in the Kennedy Center and on the steps of the Capitol–on “Iowa Day” during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. To celebrate Iowa’s sesquicentennial in 1996, the band performed a series of concerts on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

On October 22, 2006, a life-sized bronze statue of Mr. King was unveiled on the city square in Fort Dodge, as a testament and monument to the city’s most famous musician and citizen.  His Fort Dodge band was subsequently renamed the “Karl L. King Municipal Band” in his honor.  King the composer published more than 300 works: galops, waltzes, overtures, serenades, rags, and 188 marches and screamers. It could be said that King did for the circus march what Sousa did for the patriotic march. He seemed to like composing under pressure and often composed in tight spots (such as by oil lamp in cramped circus tents). His name appeared on the sheet music as Karl King, K. L. King, and sometimes Carl Lawrence. King’s marches for circus bands are usually composed at a high difficulty level (grade 4–5 typically) American march music. He also contributed greatly to the school band movement with numerous compositions at various levels of difficulty.   “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” (1913) remains his best-known composition, but other pieces retain their popularity among fans of band music.

My collection includes the following works by Karl L. King:
The American Way.

Attorney General (1921).

Auld Lang Syne March.

Aviation Tournament March.

Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite (1913).

Bolivar (1927).

Bombadier March.

Broadway One Step Two Step.

Call to Victory March.

Canton Aero Club March.

Carrollton (1909).

Columbian (1912).

The Defending Circle March.

Diplomacy March.

Emblem of Freedom (1910).

Fete Triumphal March.

Garland Entrée (1912).

Glorious America.

The Home Town Boy March.

Iowa Band Law (1923).

The Joy Riders March and Two Step.

The Kentucky Derby.

The Lieutenant Commander (1934).

Loyalty March.

Mountain Trail March.

Mystic Call (1913).

Neddermeyer Triumphal (1911).

New Corn Palace (1923).

On the Warpath Indian War Dance.

Our Heritage.

Ponderoso (1910).

Prestissimo Galop.

The Purple Pageant (1933).

Robinson’s Grand Entree (1911).

Samson (1927).  T

Sells-Floto Triumphal March.

Step On It March.

Sons of Veterans (1909).

Thumbs Up USA March.

Trombone King (1945).

United Nations (1942).

The Victor March.

Viking (1911).

Voice of America.

We Stand United.

Wings for Peace.

Woody Vans (1911).

Yellowstone Trail March.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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