The definitive story of the Mastersingers, the Weather Forecast, and the Highway Code
Month after month, the Google searches that consistently bring visitors to this site have nothing to do with Tulsa or Oklahoma or Republican politics. This BatesLine entry is currently the number one result for any combination of two of the following four terms: "Master Singers," "Highway Code," "Weather Forecast," "Anglican chant."
The entry is about two delightful novelty tunes recorded by a group called the Mastersingers in the '60s, setting Britain's rules of the road and a typical BBC weather to the beautiful a capella four-part harmonies of Anglican chant.
What I wrote recently attracted the attention of Helen Keating, the wife of Geoffrey Keating, one of the Mastersingers, and she was kind enough to send me what I think should be considered the definitive history of the Mastersingers, the Highway Code, and the Weather Forecast:
'The Highway Code' set to psalm chants was devised by a schoolmaster at Abingdon School, John Horrex, in the late 1950s. It was sung at numerous church socials etc as entertainment, using whatever singers were available (including me!)
In 1963, to celebrate the school's Quatercentenary a record was made which contained a lot of the Highway Code set in different styles - a pub song, Gilbert and Sullivan style and a jazzy version etc. The singers were John Horrex, George Pratt, Geoff Keating and Barry Montague.
A copy of this record was sent to Fritz Spiegl who gave it to the BBC, who used it on a lunchtime programme introduced by Winston Churchill (jnr) and was played at its last edition as ' our most requested piece.'
George Martin then recorded it, the group calling itself the Mastersingers, on a single, with the pub song on the B side. This actually got to no 22 in the charts (then the top 20) and the group was on standby for 'Top of the Pops'!
Cliff Richard then invited the group (called for the purposes of the disc ''The Carol Singers') to back an EP of Christmas carols, which were arranged by George Pratt and Geoff Keating. One number done by Geoff was 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' but it was never used as it was too short for a whole side but too long to put another carol with it.
The tape of this number was played to the Kings Singers and they immediately asked Geoff to rearrange it for them, which they subsequently recorded and sang everywhere. Geoff also arranged 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen' for them, both of which appear on their LP 'Christmas with the Kings Singers'. (The latter number, in 5/8 like Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five', inspired George Shearing for his his version on a Christmas disc.)
All the four schoolmasters moved on from Abingdon, John Horrex to Glasgow, George Pratt to Keele University, Geoff Keating to Cheadle Hulme School, and Barry Montague to Australia. The latter's place in the group was taken by Mike Warrington from Cheadle Hulme and that began a series of performances of both the original 'Highway Code' and the new 'Weather Forecast', (also recorded by George Martin) together with lots of local television performances of things like 'Rules of Wrestling' and other silly things. George Martin also recorded 'The London Telephone Directory' (started at 'A', speeded up then slowed down as they got to 'Z's) which the group didn't think was funny and thankfully was withdrawn when the directory was deemed copyright.
We understood that Princess Margaret (a fan of the group which she had met at the Abingdon Quatercentenary celebrations) was given a copy of the disc but the group never got one.
The group did the backing for George Martin's record of Peter Sellers' 'A Hard Day's Night' (as a Richard III type soliloquy), music arranged by George Pratt, and 'Help' (as a sermon), music arranged by Geoff Keating.
The Mastersingers were invited to do the Highway Code on the Ken Dodd show (live) on BBC TV and then the enthusiasm (caused by over-exposure and problems of distances apart) rather dried up.
The Kings Singers, by now good friends with the group, were often told that 'The Highway Code was the best thing they ever did' (!) and they are always incredibly generous in their acknowledgment that they weren't responsible (mind you, hearing the four amateur singers on the original it's not surprising they say that!)
Hope that clears up all the misapprehensions!
I wrote Mrs. Keating back to ask what her husband Geoff and the other Mastersingers are doing nowadays. She replied:
Having retired after 17 years with Geoff as Director of Music at Millfield School in Somerset (and me as Director of Music at Millfield Prep School) we had three years at Sherborne School for Girls where I was Housemistress (and Geoff was half time teaching photography and sailing!) then we retired - well, you might call it that but we're as busy as ever! - to SW Scotland. you we have seven concerts between March 25th of this year and this next June 10th, that shows you. Geoff conducts the Solway Sinfonia plays jazz with his group 'Gentle Jazz' (piano and saxophone), sails, fishes and sells landscape photographs. Not bad for a man who's 70 in a fortnight! Not that he looks it, or acts it, as you will see from the photo on the above website.
John Horrex, the 'founder' of the Mastersingers is now retired in Canterbury, where he ended up teaching, Professor George Pratt, retired from Huddersfield University, is down in Exeter when he's not broadcasting or doing talks on cruise ships, while Mike Warrington is a retired headmaster in Oldham.
A happy 70th birthday to Geoff Keating and many thanks to Helen Keating for setting the record straight about these beloved pieces of music.
MORE, MORE (30 October 2008): Brien K. Meehan has produced a transcription of the Mastersingers' Weather Forecast with words and four-part music. (Links have changed -- see below.) UPDATE: (29 December 2009): Lulu.com has changed some URLs. Here are Brien K. Meehan's transcriptions of the Mastersingers' Weather Report (Anglican Chant) and the Mastersingers' Highway Code (Anglican Chant). Both are available for free download.
UPDATE: 3 November 2012: I've found Brien K. Meehan's transcriptions of the Mastersingers' Highway Code and Mastersingers' Weather Forecast, on the website of St. James Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They are also posted to Google docs: Mastersingers' Weather Forecast, Mastersingers' Highway Code, linked from Brien K. Meehan's YouTube profile.
UPDATE: 18 March 2013: Keith Webley writes: "It is with great sadness that I report that John Horrex (my wife's uncle) passed away this evening." Our condolences to Mr. Horrex's family and friends.
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