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Gershon Kingsley, Moog-loving composer, dies at 97

NEW YORK — Gershon Kingsley, a composer who brought electronic sounds into popular music and wrote the enduring instrumental hit “Pop Corn,” died Dec. 10 at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.

His daughter Alisse Kingsley confirmed his death.

In the 1960s, Mr. Kingsley was an early convert to the Moog synthesizer. He used it to create music for commercials and to orchestrate perky melodies — most notably “Pop Corn,” an instrumental originally released on Mr. Kingsley’s 1969 album “Music to Moog By” that became a bestseller and was remade (usually renamed “Popcorn”) in hundreds of versions: by Kraftwerk, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Aphex Twin, and the Muppets.

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A 1972 version of “Popcorn” by Hot Butter made the song an international hit, and a 2005 remake for the animated character Crazy Frog became a major hit in Europe.

In a prolific career, Mr. Kingsley wrote a concerto for four Moogs, as well as musicals, operas, oratorios, cantatas, movie soundtracks, and a rock version of Jewish Sabbath services. Mr. Kingsley’s music was also heard widely without his name attached. His racing, seven-second synthesizer crescendo has accompanied the logo of the Boston public television station WGBH since 1971.

Gershon Kingsley was born Goetz Gustav Ksinski on Oct. 28, 1922, in Bochum, Westfalia, Germany. His father, Max Ksinski, was a carpet dealer and pianist; his mother, Marie Christina, was a homemaker and a Catholic who converted to her husband’s Judaism.

He grew up in Berlin but in 1938, a few days before Kristallnacht, he fled to what was then Palestine and later became Israel. (His parents reached the United States via Cuba.) He farmed on a kibbutz and served in the British colonial army in Palestine. He also taught himself to play piano and attended the Jerusalem Conservatory.

In 1946, he came to the United States and studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (now the California Institute of the Arts). He worked as a musical director for Los Angeles synagogues and a conductor for summer stock theater in Sacramento. He chose the name Gershon after the son of Moses, Gershom, which translates as “stranger there.”

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He moved to New York in 1956 and became a conductor for Broadway and off-Broadway theater. He was the musical director for Sir Laurence Olivier in “The Entertainer,” for Josephine Baker concerts at Carnegie Hall, and on Broadway, for a 1964 revival of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” for the Robert Joffrey Ballet, and for a television special with Lotte Lenya, “The World of Kurt Weill.”

Mr. Kingsley grew interested in electronic music while working as a staff arranger for Vanguard Records in the mid-1960s, accompanying Buffy Sainte-Marie, tenor Jan Peerce, and others.

French musician Jean-Jacques Perrey introduced Mr. Kingsley to music made by splicing together synthesized tones recorded on tape, from an early electronic instrument, the Ondioline.

Around the same time, Mr. Kingsley encountered the early Moog synthesizer, which he recalled, in an interview for the 1993 book by RE/Search Publications, “Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1,” as “this strange contraption that looked like an elephant switchboard and made sounds I’d never heard before.”

He met Robert Moog, the Moog’s inventor, who tried to explain its circuitry to him. In the RE/Search book, he recalled, “I remember saying, ‘Mr. Moog, I’m a musician, not a scientist,’” to which Moog replied: “Don’t you understand? This is the future!”

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He bought one with his savings — a major investment of $3,500, the equivalent of nearly $25,000 now — but he soon recouped it by composing music and sounds for commercials.

Collaborating as Perrey-Kingsley, Mr. Kingsley and Perrey made albums beginning with “The In Sound from Way Out!” in 1966. (The Beastie Boys reused that album title for their 1996 album of instrumentals; they also had Mr. Kingsley record a new, hip-hop-flavored version of “Popcorn.” )

Perrey-Kingsley’s 1967 album “Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Spotlight on the Moog” included “Baroque Hoedown,” mixing harpsichord and synthesizers, which has been heard daily at Disneyland since 1972, backing the Main Street Electrical Parade.