Missouri organist splits time between church and hockey

Erin Heffernan
Associated Press
Posted: Jan. 7, 2019 5:07 pm

Jeremy Boyer had a doubleheader with God and hockey.

On a recent Sunday morning, Boyer sat at a new organ in the choir loft at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Oakville, where he works as the music director. Mass was starting, and Bishop Mark Rivituso waved incense over the keys of the new instrument.

"We beg you Lord to bless this organ, which we dedicate to your service," the bishop prayed.

Then the organ boomed over the suburban churchgoers, sending hallelujahs to the rafters.

Just four hours later, Boyer played "Hallelujah" again — this time filling a 19,000-seat arena as the St. Louis Blues took on the Calgary Flames.

Perched on a platform in Enterprise Center's Section 328, Boyer pounded the keys for Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" to celebrate an impressive save from goalie Jake Allen.

"That one works for both jobs," he said.

Here, though, the followers drink Bud Light instead of holy wine, retired hockey numbers hang in place of stained glass, and a Stanley Cup would be the closest thing to salvation. Boyer, 38, is in his 12th season as the team's official organist and splits his time between these two worlds: sports and religion.

They're just about the last places you're likely to hear live organ these days.

Boyer said that might be because both value tradition and ritual. To many, a hymn or a round of "Charge" would sound wrong played on anything but an organ.

"It's about setting the tone," Boyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch . "Both places, there's joyous moments, there's somber moments. I need to make people feel both."

Boyer grew up in Potosi, and taught himself to play on an old organ in his family's dining room.

By 12, he was enlisted to play his first church service, and he began to listen for the sound of longtime St. Louis organist Ernie Hays every time he'd watch his favorite teams: the Blues and Cardinals.

Boyer would visualize himself playing the organ in a ballpark or arena like other kids might picture themselves hitting home runs, but it wasn't until he was a student at Southeast Missouri State University that he got the chance.

After getting permission from the university's baseball coach, Boyer would lug a little amp and keyboard up the bleachers each game. He sat on the roof of the press box, set his keyboard to organ mode, and played classics like the can-can and "Take Me Out To the Ballgame."

Fans quickly took notice, and a local TV station featured his unusual setup on the nightly news: "Organ guy? He's awesome," one spectator told the station.

After hearing his onetime idol offered lessons, Boyer became a protégé of Hays, who played organ for seven St. Louis sports teams over 40 years.

The young organist would drive two hours each way from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to St. Louis County once a week for lessons with Hays, who taught him how to hype up a crowd with simple melodies, pacing for different moments in a game, and the importance of making each piece of music your own.

Boyer graduated college in 2004, and worked as an organist and music director at a series of schools and churches. But in 2007, he jumped at a side-gig to play organ for the Memphis Redbirds, the Class AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. He would drive two hours each way from Cape Girardeau to play that season, and made $100 a game.

The next year, Boyer made it to the big leagues when Blues management spotted a video of his work at a Redbirds game. He had a tryout in which he performed "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners and "Holiday" by Green Day.

Boyer got the job and played his first Blues game Jan. 19, 2008, joining a long tradition of hockey organists.

The Blues' have had live organ music since the very beginning: In the team's original 1967-68 season, organist Norm Kramer was an early star for the team, known for his glittery silver jacket and playing the song "St. Louis Blues," the W.C. Handy tune that gave the team its name.

Kramer's music whipped up the crowd more than most teams at the time, prompting an opposing coach to say he was worth a goal a game, according to a 1968 story in the Post-Dispatch.

In Kramer's day, the organ was the only music you'd hear at a Blues game, but the team began adding recorded rock and pop music into the mix in 1994. There's less organ during games these days, but Boyer isn't worried about the future of hockey organists.

"Today only three teams in the NHL don't have a live organist," Boyer said. "That might be the most there's ever been."

Boyer said organists give a team personality.

"You play (a recording of) Metallica and it's going to sound the same in every single arena," Boyer said. "The organist is what makes the sound of every city's team unique. You can recognize the St. Louis style. We're reacting to what's happening live. Canned music can never do that."

Boyer always plays with one shoe off, even in church.

He learned to play at home in his socks and says a bulky shoe doesn't let him hit the pedals quite right.

So he sat at St. Francis of Assisi's new organ using both feet and hands to play the electronic instrument, which the church raised $99,975 to buy this year. That's actually the cheaper option compared with a traditional pipe organ, which can go for around $750,000.

The instrument looks more fit for a pilot than a musician, with rows of knobs and buttons (labeled in German), three keyboards and options to play in the sound of over 100 different instruments, from the flute or trumpet to the harpsichord.

"It's a one-man symphony," Boyer said.

At the Enterprise Center, Boyer's instrument is less intricate and is covered in the team's logo.

During games, he plays a mix of sports organ classics such as "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and newer hits such as "In My Blood," released this year by pop singer Shawn Mendes.

Boyer is directed through a headset by the game's producer, who follows a minute-by-minute schedule of game entertainment to make sure there's never a dead moment between the Noise-O-Meter chants, smash cuts of fights and blaring pop music.

But unlike some of the pre-recorded music, Boyer's organ acts like a real-time musical commentary on the game.

On a recent Sunday, the Blues were already down 4-0 to the Flames in the first period, calling for "Blame Canada" after a goal by Calgary, "Sick of You" by Weezer for another and, later, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

Boyer plays "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains for a penalty, "Sabre Dance" for a fight and songs such as Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" to pump up the crowd. He'll play a sound effect when the puck flies off the ice and might pull out the Beatles' "All My Loving" when a hurt player is helped off the ice.

Probably his most famous take, though, was in April 2016 when the Blues defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 in the playoffs. Boyer played the Blackhawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger," as a funeral dirge during the handshake line.

A video of the organ takedown got more than 30,000 views on YouTube.

"Please join us after Mass for coffee and donuts," the Rev. Anthony Yates said as the Mass a few weeks before Christmas came to a close at St. Francis of Assisi.

With a final flourish on the organ, playing Handel's "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," Boyer closed out the ceremony.

Soon his wife, Cassie, who he met through a church choir, and their three daughters gathered around the newly blessed instrument.

Their youngest, Eliza, 6, sat at the organ bench unprompted, and played a few notes of "Here Comes the King," a Budweiser advertising jingle and St. Louis sports staple that Boyer also learned song as a child.

Boyer played one more Mass that morning before adding a Blues pin to his lapel and heading to the game, which ended with a horn blare a few hours later.

As the Calgary Flames won 7-2, the Jumbotron switched to a live shot on Boyer's hands playing the Blues' longtime goal song, "When the Blues Go Marching In," which he plays at the end of every game, win or lose. Like the organist, the tune started out in church — a take on the hymn "When the Saints Go Marching In."

A few years ago, the team toyed with changing the song to "Crowd Chant" by Joe Satriani, Boyer said, but in a poll on the Blues website, fans voted to keep the organ tune by a landslide.

"St. Louis is not like other cities," Boyer said. "New folks come in to management and might not understand that this is a city that loves tradition more than most places."

As Boyer plays, dejected Blues fans file out. Some stop to wave at the organist as they pass.

Boyer soon pulls down the wooden cover on the organ, packs away his sheet music and climbs down from his platform, the arena now quiet as a church.

Game is over. Go in peace.

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