A horse gallops through a meadow as an orchestral soundtrack swells with every hoof beat and you are already playing it in your head before the sentence is finished – the theme tune to Black Beauty. Composed by Denis King, it remains one of the most recognisable soundtracks on television even if you are not quite young enough to remember it first time around.
King’s autobiography Key Changes: A Musical Memoir (originally published in 2015) has been re-released with an updated and expanded edition for 2021 and is an entertaining gambol through his life story from the 1950s where King was in a boyband with his brothers to theme tune and musical theatre composer, swimmer and golf fanatic.
King is a genial host, welcoming the reader into his past as he gently muses on what it is like to find fame at a young age as one of The King Brothers whose big break coincided with the early days of television, and his writing often provokes a smile as he recalls the instant adulation enjoyed by… his parents in their hometown as a result of their children’s appearances.
This leads to a tour of regional venues with ‘Empire’ in the title as well as US air bases where he recounts comic but nostalgic stories about drab rented rooms, the reality of life on the road and being mis-sold events by incompetent booking agents. From the Windmill Club in Piccadilly to the wind-swept end of Blackpool Pier, King looks back fondly on these places with a tinge of regret that the business no longer works in quite the same way.
When celebrity eventually crosses King’s path, it does so in style, albeit with a degree of modesty about his own role and importance in the encounters he relays. There are tales of signing autographs with Howard Keel, being momentarily acknowledged in passing by his hero Frank Sinatra, trying to find the transition point between Barry Humphries and Dame Edna and – for theatre lovers – a friendship with Alan Ayckbourn in recent years, resulting in several musical theatre collaborations. There is even some advice from the legendary Stephen Sondheim by way of Jason Robert Brown.
King writes with generosity about the people he meets while musically explaining the process of creation which for beginners outlines the complexity of creating a score from scratch, the problem of writing separately for each instrument in the composition and only hearing their collective effect in rehearsal, creating a Motown album for Albert Finney that sank without a trace and the constant process of rejection, rewriting and repurposing material. It is extremely insightful, not least for King’s acknowledged reliance on a guide to composition written by Henry Mancini which is always close at hand.
As ever with an autobiography, the juicier material is between the lines, so if you are hoping for salacious details of King’s personal life or scathing critiques of fellow creatives then the cheery but still guarded nature of King’s reminiscences may disappoint. Yet, there is plenty to enjoy in what is, for the most part, a strictly business approach that charts the highs and lows of 60 years in the industry and King’s rise from baby brother to award winning composer.
Key Changes: A Musical Memoir published by Ledgewood Press and is out now