Jerold Ottley, who led the famed Tabernacle Choir to even greater heights, dies of COVID-19

His 25-year tenure is remembered for boosting the group’s fealty to the LDS Church and for its performances at Christmas and presidential inaugurations.

(Tribune file photo) Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley at a rehearsal at the Tabernacle in October 1999.

Jerold Ottley — who directed The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for a quarter century and led the renowned singing troupe to even wider fame with tours to dozens of nations and performances at presidential inaugurations — died Friday of complications from COVID-19.

He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Allison Ottley.

The choir, called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during Jerold Ottley’s 1974-1999 tenure leading it, is the showcase performance group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its name was changed in fall 2018 as part of the Utah-based faith’s effort to remove the “Mormon” nickname from references to its members and operations.

Ottley began working with the choir as a part-time assistant director, a news release noted, until he took over as the 13th music director.

“I have heard from many people that his tenure was their favorite iteration of the choir,” his daughter said, “and frankly I have to agree, but I’m not biased at all.”

She said “his shock of beautiful white hair” was something that people often recognized. “The back of his head was more famous than, I think, his face.”

(Tribune file photo) Tabernacle Choir director Jerold Ottley at a rehearsal with his group at the Tabernacle in October, 1999.

Ottley extended the streak of the weekly “Music and the Spoken Word” by leading the choir in 1,300 broadcasts. After nine decades, the program remains the longest continuously running network broadcast in radio history.

But he also made a number of changes as musical director.

He started the choir’s annual Christmas concert, for instance. Those shows remain a highlight of the winter season and are recorded in Utah and telecast to a broad audience. They also attract well-known actors and recording stars. The December 2019 performance featured Broadway star Kelli O’Hara and actor Richard Thomas of “The Waltons.” In 2018, Kristin Chenoweth, best known for originating the role of Glinda in “Wicked,” drew raves for her appearance with the choir.

Last year’s concert, however, was canceled because of the pandemic.

(Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Temple Square organist Bonnie Goodliffe performs her final organ recital at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.

Ottley appointed the first female organist, Bonnie Goodliffe, to accompany the choir in 1988. Goodliffe told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2019 that Ottley was “very forward-thinking.”

Membership rules became tighter for the choir under Ottley’s leadership, according to The Tabernacle Choir Blog. He is credited with making the group a more spiritual organization by making it a requirement for members to have a recommend from their local lay leaders to enter Latter-day Saint temples.

Auditions became more structured, and an attendance policy was put in place after Ottley took over. He also helped develop the group’s sound with the goal of appealing to a broader audience and representing middle America. The choir produced dozens of commercial recordings.

Ottley also began in-service training for members of the choir to help improve their singing.

U.S. presidents lauded the choir under Ottley’s baton. Former President Ronald Reagan dubbed the group “America’s Choir” when the singers performed at his 1981 inauguration. Former President George H.W. Bush called the choir a national treasure at his 1989 swearing-in ceremony.

“The choir would not be what it is today without Jerold Ottley’s contributions,” choir President Ron Jarrett, who sang as a tenor under Ottley, said in the release. “...He was a visionary who put in place protocols that refined the choir organization and ensured its future success.”

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Logo for The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Thursday, April 23, 2020.

Before he began working with the choir full time, Ottley was assistant chair of the University of Utah Music Department. He had completed a doctorate at the University of Oregon, the release stated, and had attended the Academy of Music in Cologne, West Germany, on a Fulbright grant along with his wife, noted soprano JoAnn Ottley.

Ottley never sought out a place at the helm of the all-volunteer choir, but he was asked to direct it and agreed to do so.

“Jerold Ottley was not only a wonderful musician but a great person who, like those before him, laid a foundation for today’s choir,” current choir director Mack Wilberg said in the release. “His legacy is a gold thread in the tapestry of the choir’s past, present and future.”

Allison Ottley said her father continued to serve his community after retiring from the choir. She said he did everything from volunteering to clean his church to teaching at church-owned Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

Ottley and his wife also volunteered to direct the newly created Choir Training School, according to the release, and Ottley revised the choral library database, which holds more than 800,000 pieces of sheet music.

“Nothing was beneath him,” Allison said. “Whatever needed to be done he would do.”

After the pandemic struck, she said, he would check up on other residents at the Salt Lake City assisted living facility where he resided. He could never hold still, she said, and always looked for ways to care for others.

Allison said both her parents were diagnosed with COVID-19 in November. She said her father was healthy before contracting the virus. Her mother has almost recovered, but her father succumbed to it.

“It just ravaged his body,” she said, adding that the virus is a “deadly, awful thing.”

Knowing his time was drawing near, the daughter and several family members got together to sing to Ottley on Thursday at the assisted living facility.

The whole family is musical. Allison and her mother are singers, while her brother plays keyboards. There was always music in their home.

Allison said listening to his family sing comforted her dad and helped him pass the time through his illness.