American showman organist Carlo Curley dead at 59

Carlo Curley in Leeds a few years ago.

Carlo Curley, an enthusiastic concert organist and born showman, died yesterday at his home in Melton Mowbray, England, less than two weeks shy of his 60th birthday. No cause of death was given.

The North Carolina native was student of legendary American organist Virgil Fox, and spent much of his adult life careening around the world, sharing his love and curiosity about pipe and, later, digital organs. He had a popular touch, and was not shy about mixing pops repertoire with classical warhorses.

There is a Toronto connection with Curley: He was 30-year-old rising star when invited to perform at the newly built Gabriel Kney organ at Roy Thomson Hall in 1982. He loved the city, the instrument and the hall so much that he decided to make an album here. He also asked the Roy Thomson Hall board if they would consider making him a permanent curator of the instrument, in exchange for paid accommodations nearby.

The board politely said no, so Curley went on his way, making 15 commercial albums over the course of a career that included being the first organist to play in the White House.

Here’s a sample review that says everything we need to know about this unique and unusual artist, written by William Dart of the New Zealand Herald, in Sept., 2010:

Carlo Curley is marketed as the Pavarotti of the Organ. However, his Saturday night concert suggested there is also some debt to be acknowledged to Liberace and P.T. Barnum.

For nigh on three hours, including a riotously amusing pre-concert conversation with the suave Kerry Stevens, the American gave the King of Instruments the full showbiz treatment.

In interviews which were more like triggered monologues, Curley had us chuckling over such phenomena as the “legitimate leg massages” that the large vibrating organ pipes can bring.

He paid tribute to organists who had gone before, remembering the manic driving skills of Virgil Fox and the arthritic suffering of E. Power Biggs – “Your heart goes out, no matter what style he played in.”

In recital, Curley gave the Town Hall instrument a major work-out.

Pulling the tempi of the Londonderry Air like taffy to accommodate relentless registration changes may not have been to everyone’s taste, but myriad many magical colours were our reward.

Yet colours did not always run true. Some of the tonal palette brought out for his transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod seemed not so much high opera as homely funeral parlour.

Then there was the richly eccentric gimmick of an automaton of singing birds chirruping away during a John Stanley voluntary – warranting, as one might have expected, a humorous account of his tangles with customs over the bizarre twittering machine.

While purists may have shuddered at Handel’s Largo, signing off with what sounded like a revved-up Harley-Davidson somewhere in the pipes, John Ireland’s Elegiac Romance was a rare opportunity to sample a lesser-known gem of the repertoire, sensitively rendered.

And, for all the rip-roaring fun of the fair, Saint-Saens’ Marche Militaire Francaise filled the bill magnificently.

Best of all, this gentleman could not stop telling us how much he loved our new organ, a glorious specimen of “Empire organ-building gone bananas”, an instrument which “speaks with utter conviction but needs a stern hand to guide it”.

Curley’s guidance was not limited to the keyboard. As a closing gesture, he led us in a folksy sing-along to Goodnight Irene – the perfect showbiz envoi.

And here is the showman himself, loving the sound of his mellifluous voice as much as that of his organ:

John Terauds


10 thoughts on “American showman organist Carlo Curley dead at 59

  1. I was fortunate enough to produce two live broadcasts with Carlo Curley. I can honestly say that I have not met a more cooperative, more professional, more cheerful participant in a radio broadcast than Carlo Curley. What he could not do with, to, or on the organ wasn’t really worth doing.
    I recall that with ten minutes to go at the end of the first live programme he cam off stage and I informed him when we were off air. He simply said, “Don’t worry, Tom, I’ll play you out.” And he did.
    RTH missed a bet, I think.
    He will remain one of my fondest memories of “Live from RTH”.

  2. What a terrible loss with Carlo’s passing. Anyone who happened to be in attendance in Grand Rapids for the inaugural on the rebuilt/enlarged/Austin-Allen was in for a treat not to be forgotten. And his playing at Wanamaker’s was also a once in a lifetime treat for me. He had what it took and always left us wanting more and more. RIP

  3. Carlo also appeared on CBC’s The Nature of Things in an episode entitled, “Voices in the Wind”, which chronicled the installation of the Karl Wilhelm organ at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on King Street. He is heard playing this instrument as well as the Wilhelm organ at Christ Church, Deer Park, and the Kney in Roy Thomson Hall.

  4. Please correct the obituary on Carlo Curley. He was born and raised in Monroe, NORTH Carolina and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts. I have known Carlo for 21+ years and am a former Allen representative in the Tidewater Virginia area. I, too, as the rest of the organ community has been dealt a stunning blow. I hope he realized how much he was loved and admired for all his many qualities. RIP my friend Carlo!

    • Hi Tay,
      This is a devastating loss to the organ world. Do you know if the organ arrangements of Carlo will still be published? I was looking forward to purchasing them.

      • Hi Jimmie, I have no idea what the answer is to your question. Are you referring to Carlo’s arrangements and transcriptions? The only person I know personally who MIGHT have an idea or where to direct your question is Keith Pendergraft of Hopper Music in Raleigh, NC, the Allen rep in that area. Keith was also Carlo’s North American manager. Sorry for the delay in answering as I returned Tuesday, Aug. 21 to my home outside Houston, TX after a two week trip.

      • Thanks for your response. Before Carlo Curley died he was working on a three volume collection of his organ arrangements to be published. I really hope they still publish his arrangements. Were you the Allen representative for the Tidewater area when a beautiful 3 manuel Allen was loaned to the Virginia Funeral Directors convention for their service of remembrance? I played for that service and I think I met you at that time. If I remember correctly you had an association with the Girard Chapel in Philadelphia. Maybe you were friends with the organist there.
        Take Care

  5. In addition to his huge talent and ability to professionally entertain his audiences around the country (Great Britain) and worldwide, he possessed warmth and the personal touch, meeting and forming relationships with his many fans. What a loss to the real world of organs and entertainment – we always looked forward to his concerts – we shall miss him dearly.

  6. I am so saddened to learn of Carol’s death. He had a hugh impact on my life as an organist. I heard him a number of times in the US, to the point that he actually remembered me from one concert to the next. Thank you, Carlo, for not being “a purist!” There are more than enough stuffy orgnists to last an eternity. You will remain fondly in my heart.

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