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The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s path to prominence

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The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will add another memorable collaboration to its resume when it sings with James Taylor during the 30th O.C. Tanner Gift of Music Concert this weekend.

For more than 150 years, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been entertaining audiences with hymnal arrangements and patriotic music. During that time, the choir has received dozens of accolades, including Grammy awards and an Emmy.

But the choir wasn't always a household name.

Music played a large role in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The LDS Church organized a choir at early church locations — Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Ill. According to the choir's website, wagon companies traveling to Utah contained musicians to "lift the spirits of each pioneer."

So it was unsurprising when Brigham Young organized a small choir shortly after entering Utah. The choir first performed at a church conference on Aug. 22, 1847, just 29 days after the first pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

The Tabernacle on Temple Square, for which the choir is named, was completed in 1867, 20 years after the formation of the choir. On July 4, 1873, the choir had its inaugural performance in the Tabernacle and continues to perform there regularly.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has since established a national and worldwide presence. The choir completed its first tour at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and, today, tours across the world from North and South America to Asia. It has also produced more than 200 recordings, including five that achieved "gold record" status, according to the choir’s website.

Since 1911, the choir has sung for several U.S. presidents, starting with then-President William Howard Taft during a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. According to a Deseret News article, the choir performed at the inaugurations of five U.S. presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson (1965), Richard M. Nixon (1969, 1973), Ronald Reagan (1981), George H.W. Bush (1989) and George W. Bush (2001).

It was during Reagan's inauguration that the newly sworn-in president named the Mormon Tabernacle Choir "America's Choir," a title that has stuck to this day, according to the choir’s website.

While the choir has performed during several national celebrations, including U.S. Bicentennial tours in 1976, it has sung during days of mourning, such as national broadcasts honoring the deaths of U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

In a recent interview, Ann Sweeney, who has been in the choir for the past 13 years, spoke about participating in a previously scheduled concert on Sept. 11, 2001. When the choir learned of the deaths in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the night's concert became a memorial service.

"We started singing 'God Bless America,' and the whole audience stood simultaneously, reverently weeping," Sweeney recalled. "And we were weeping. The choir just is a healing thing. It brings people to God."

One of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's most famous traditions — "Music and The Spoken Word" — began with its first national broadcast in 1929. The weekly Sunday morning program has been broadcast continually since then, making it the "oldest continuous nationwide network broadcast in America," according to the program’s website. The program has produced more than 4,000 episodes and airs on 2,000 radio and television stations.

With the establishment of the choir's YouTube channel and other online access points, the choir has been able to reach a larger worldwide audience.

Shortly after the choir's YouTube channel launched in 2012, choir president Ron Jarrett told the Deseret News, “Before the launch of our channel, there was no way to listen to ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ if you couldn’t tune in live. … Many of our fans couldn’t listen because of time zone differences or scheduling conflicts. Today our music is accessible for everybody, anywhere and at any time.”

Contributing: Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: kharmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: harmerk