After 19 years as one of the world’s great organ virtuosos at Manhattan’s Riverside Church and on the classical recital circuit, Virgil Fox began to fret that the more youthful flock was fleeing the fold—or never entering it. So he plugged his ears with paper and scouted a rival hall of worship: Greenwich Village’s rock cathedral, the Fillmore East. As it happened, that night Fox was an awestruck witness to a psychedelic light show. “Immediately I knew,” he recalls, “Johann Sebastian Bach would be the greatest composer of all time to put to lights.” That was in 1970, and within three months, Fox had rechristened his traditional recital “Heavy Organ,” commissioned a friend to create a custom light show as back up, and returned to the Fillmore—as headliner.
“Bach,” he exhorted the audience, “is proving to be one of the great inspirations of our inheritance. All we have to do is open up our pores and let him in.” The kids did just that. Turned on by Fox’s blend of earthy and evangelical, his flamenco footwork across the pedals and flamboyant Liberace-style costuming, they stomped in the aisles and screamed, “Go, Virgil, go.”
Today, at 62, Fox has bridged the octaves from E. Power Biggs to Little Richard, won reviewer raves from Rolling Stone and William F. Buckley Jr., and plays everywhere from Paris’ Notre Dame to London’s Westminster Abbey and the Northern Illinois University Field House in DeKaib, Illinois. Five Fox LP’s have cracked the bestseller charts. He has a new release with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is doing nicely, and his son et lumiere spectacles now earn him up to $8,000 per gig.
Predictably, the messianic and profitable Fox populi approach has riled the classicists. But with his red velvet coats, capes and rhinestone-studded patent leather pumps, Fox thrives on their charges of heresy. “Music is meant to uplift, inspire and cleanse,” he says. “Purists aren’t interested in these. They worship the limits of several hundred years ago. They’re so bloody authentic,” he chides that “one wonders why they don’t still ride in oxcarts and use outdoor toilets. They’d rather keep the organ under glass in a museum. My Bach is a redblooded, gutsy and he-man Bach. That’s what I play.”
But for all his on-stage glitter, Fox’s bachelor life today is still as disciplined and ascetic as it was growing up in the small Illinois town of Princeton. His father was a moviehouse owner and auctioneer who played harmonica at local barn dances; his mother was alto soloist in the church choir. Directed to concentrate on school homework at night, young Fox had to wake at 5 a.m. to squeeze in organ practice, and by the age of 10 he was playing for services in the local Lutheran church. At 14 he put on a recital in Cincinnati and later won a scholarship to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory. He still practices every day—but from midnight to 3 a.m. in his sumptuous 26-room stone mansion in northern New Jersey, where he houses some 14,000 pipes from famous dismantled organs. Then he swims laps in his private, 70-foot indoor pool for another couple of hours, and finally sleeps from dawn to late afternoon.
But the regimen has become a calling for the still devoutly religious but nonsectarian Fox. As he sits down to the “king of instruments,” engulfed by a tidal wave of sound and nearly lost in the lights, he knows there is musical communion with all his listeners. “I feel,” he says with romantic fervor, “like I am riding a thunderbolt off a great mountain range. The organ traditionally got you into church, led you out of church, married you and then buried you.” Concludes Fox, pulling out the stops in describing his personal mission, “I have taken the organ out of the woodwork, and brought it to the concert stage.”