3 min

The pipe organ DJ

Bob Kerr had a particular passion for organs

Now that summer is nearly upon us—real summer, when rain and cloudy skies are something to look forward to as a welcome change after at least 14, maybe even 16 weeks of unbroken sun and warmth—our thoughts naturally turn to books. Books to read on the beach, in parks, while travelling.

Deep books, frivolous books, books with gloriously trashy covers extolling the fleeting pleasures of shopping, murder or alien invasions. Shiny new books or mauled old favourites hauled out for yet another tour of duty: Bill Richardson’s Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book in this instance.

On page 54, there is to be found a tribute to the creator of that particularly Canadian radio institution, Organ Thursday. Richardson begins thus: “There is always a special broadcast of organ music on Thursday afternoon; and while the feelings I harbour for organ music are only slightly more charitable than those I keep for organ meat, I am completely mad for the man who presents the program.

“In fact, I am so deeply moved by the unnatural passion he evinces for those shimmy ranks of perforated pipes, and for the hooty songs they squeeze from their constricted throats, that I find myself dragged against my will into something like a fleeting fondness for the music itself.”

He later compares the announcer to ” …a geyser, or a salmon run, or some other force of nature. You can’t credit that there was a time when it wasn’t there, or that it might one day disappear.”

The force of nature’s name was Bob Kerr, and he was to thousands of listeners and the 80 to 90 professional organists across this great land of ours, the best presenter of the FM persuasion in the history of CBC radio.

For 36 years until his retirement in 1996, and even for a few years after that, his was one of the most distinctive voices to be heard on air, with his show Off the Record, a mainstay of the FM schedule for decades.

Kerr began every program with “Good afternoon, friends,” and two hours later, ended it with “A fond good afternoon,” over his closing theme, the Pachelbel Canon.

A typical Kerr show might consist of a complete Mahler symphony, 90 minutes of Austro-Hungarian neuroses, followed by 20 minutes of Brazilian guitar music to cleanse the palate. If Thursdays were devoted to the organ and the men who wrote for it (Bach! Buxtehude! Vierne! Widor!), Fridays were given over to full-length ballets, frequently French and obscure. Thanks to him, an entire generation of listeners from coast to coast can boast of knowing the Act 1 music to Adolphe Adam’s Le corsaire.

It is this last programming feature that determined us to profile Mr Kerr in this column. That, and the faintest of rumours heard many years ago that he was gay. But when dealing with such evident greatness as was his, we’ll take what we can get.

What made him great? His producer of seven years, Neil Ritchie, feels that it had everything to do with spontaneity: “His approach was unique. He’d bring in a suitcase of records and wing it. He really had a great sense of rhythm and program savvy…[and] he was a great salesman.”

As for Organ Thursday, Ritchie explains, “Organs were his particular passion and I believe his passion first came about from the organs themselves, the pipes and the keyboards. It was sort of a one-man crusade because there were always listeners who dreaded Thursdays.”

Bob Kerr the man lived for music, or as Ritchie puts it, “Music was all he had in his own life.”

John MacMillan, of the CBC Vancouver record library, concurs: “He didn’t particularly like people. After each show, he’d go home and work on the next day’s show. He’d visit [the library] every day even when he didn’t need to, to talk about artists and new releases. He loved talking about new releases. He was charming and endearing.”

Tall and slender in his youth, he became mountainous as he aged, despite the many fad diets he tried. Agoraphobia prevented him from going out—he never actually saw the ballets he lovingly described on his show—and his life appears to have been a strictly circumscribed one: home, the Hamilton St CBC building where he parked his car as close to the building as he could, the small enclosed space of the broadcast studio, the record library and then home again, where he lived alone with his cat, a gift that did much to humanize him, according to Ritchie.

Born into easy financial circumstances, he was able to indulge in his passion for cars (buying one every year or even more often than that, according to MacMillan) and stereo equipment. And records, of course. His obituary mentions that his collection “filled two rooms and an entire hall at his home.”

He donated over 11,000 CDs to the CBC record library; they have their own Kerr designation and are shelved separately from the main collection. Bob Kerr died on Apr 10 2003, at the age of 84, after a lengthy illness. Organ Thursday continues to scare Canadians between 11 am and noon every Thursday on Radio 2, with Jurgen Petrenko as keeper of the flame.