After 53 years, working under four conductors and a dozen or more choir presidents, J. Russell Scott has become the senior presence at Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsals and broadcasts, where he serves as timer, "floor manager" and general factotum. It's a job he has created for himself over the years, and he has become quite indispensable. And the end is not yet. He is welcome to stay as long as he is healthy and willing.
Three years ago, choir conductor Jerold D. Ottley presented Scott with a plaque commemorating 50 years of service, and asked him to conduct the choir in a hymn of his choice. He chose "Come, Come, Ye Saints."Since he joined the choir in 1935, only seven years after the broadcasts began, Scott has seen many changes in broadcasting, from horse-and-buggy methods to state of the art. And while he was a singing member until 1955, he has always been interested in the technical side of the broadcasts.
"Soon after I came in, they were experimenting with speakers dispersed among the choir members, like birdcages, so they could hear the organ," he recalled. "One of them flipped over and banged a girl's head, I went to help, and soon Spencer Cornwall asked me if I would like to help take care of problems around the building."
Among the first projects he was involved in was installation of a pitch system, delivering the organ sound to the singers to keep them from going flat. The same system, refined with present-day equipment, is still used.
One day preparing for the broadcast, Scott said that Cornwall asked him, " `Russell, will you time this piece for me?' I soon collected a paper bag full of timings. I began to get calls from KSL for timings, and if I didn't have them written down I would say, I'll sing it and you time it, since I knew about what Cornwall's tempos would be."
Scott fondly remembers Elder Richard L. Evans, for many years writer and narrator of the Spoken Word. Being a broadcasting man himself, Elder Evans did all his own timings. "Then he began to check with me, and sometimes he would say, we need another hymn to fill out such and such seconds, so I developed a list of hymns and their timings. (One time in New York, Spencer Cornwall gave away my hymnbook, with all the timings listed, to someone who needed one!)"
Nowadays, there are sophisticated mechanical timers with five-second increments on the conductor's podium, and with J. Spencer Kinard, with the organist and with Scott, who sits right in front of the conductor. If a program has potential to run 30 seconds long or short, the conductor or speaker can slow down or speed up to cover what is needed.
Scott married Joy Wilbur in 1955, a couple of months before the European tour of the choir. He took his bride with him on the tour. "We went in advance of the choir, with the baggage. Every time we stopped I got off to make sure the baggage car was still attached to the train!" he said.
He recalled an eastern tour in the late 1950s, the last by train. When he and some others went to a siding before daybreak to supervise getting the sound equipment and dress boxes on, they found the choir train had pulled out without them. They caught up with it on a local train.
The choir used to travel with its own risers, and in the close quarters of a plane's hold, packing had to be precise. On one trip to the East, they ran into difficulty with plane loading crews. "I told those guys that the risers wouldn't fit unless they went in a certain way, but they wouldn't let me touch anything until they got desperate," said Scott. "Finally, about 3 a.m. they agreed to let me supervise the loading."
Another time he recalled climbing through an attic five stories above the orchestra in a Mexico City auditorium, stringing wires. In San Antonio, Texas, 20 years ago, while preparing for a concert, he received news that his last baby was born, but he waited to see his new son until after the tour.
Years ago, when the choir successfully collaborated with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, Scott witnessed folklore in the making. Before a recording session, Ormandy was in Utah looking at the recording repertory through the eyes of a purist, and picked up Wilhouskey's arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
He said, what is this? I never saw it before. Isn't that corny!' He said it twice, in fact, and turned to Richard Condie and said,Are you going to record that?' Richard said,
Well, yes, I thought we would.' Ormandy acknowledged,It'll pay for your trip to Philadelphia.' "
Of course it has done much more than that, becoming the choir's unofficial signature piece, whatever individual conductors may think of it.
Scott's father died when he was 14, and he helped support his family. He began with a sign company in 1935, working up from 35 cents an hour to 75 cents by the time he left. He studied at the Salt Lake Electrical College, then worked for the Eitel-McCullough (EIMAC) electronic firm from 1942-63. He then bought and ran the Metropolitan Law Building, and he now owns and runs the Ambassador Plaza office suites.
After 53 years, how does he feel about the choir? "It's my life," he said with a gentle, warm smile.