Karl Lawrence King was one of the most prolific composers of American marching band music, penning almost 300 works. He was born in Paintersville, Ohio in 1891. The story is told that at age eleven, Karl bought a cornet with money he had earned selling newspapers. By that time, his family had moved to Canton, Ohio and he had been taking cornet lessons for a few years. King soon switched to trombone and euphonium and joined a youth band known as the Canton Marine Band. He was not formally trained in music, actually had little schooling at all, and learned musical composition on his own. By his late teens, King was supporting himself playing in local bands and circus bands. When King was in his early twenties, he had already performed and conducted a number of bands and was writing his own music.
He married the former Ruth Lovett in 1916 and three years later the couple had their son, Karl L. King, Jr. Ruth was a keyboard player and they had reportedly met while she was working as a calliope player in Barnum and Bailey’s circus band. The young family relocated to Canton, Ohio where Karl started his own music publishing company. They moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1920 and would be based there for the rest of Karl’s career. King served as conductor of the Fort Dodge Municipal Band for fifty-one years. The band became very well known, had a radio program on station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa and played at almost every Iowa State Fair beginning in 1920.
During his life, King composed many different styles of music in addition to marches, including overtures, intermezzos, galops, waltzes, rags and serenades while Ruth operated a business selling musical instruments.
Many of his pieces were composed during his years with circus bands, or were reminiscent of the circus band genre. He also composed works for universities of the old Big Ten Conference. One of his most famous works, “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” was also one of his earliest works, composed in 1913. Other familiar compositions included “Emblem of Freedom.” “The Big Cage,” “Cyrus the Great,” “Pride of the Illini” and many others.
The great composer died in late March, 1971. Ruth survived him until 1988 and both are buried in the North Lawn Cemetery in Fort Dodge. As a tribute to them both, Ruth’s epitaph reads as follows, “A matchless queen to keep him company. Truly a royal family.”
(King’s obituary in The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, 7 April 1971.)
An example of King’s work: Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite (Youtube).