by Frederick D. Fairchild
(b. Kinsman, Ohio, USA Sept. 1, 1912; d. Apr. 17, 1985)
Charles Owen had a distinguished career spanning 50 years. Raised in Youngstown, Ohio, he got his first drum when he was four. He attended Rayen High School and studied bassoon, trombone, and percussion. After high school he studied percussion with Malcolm Gerloch of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He joined the U.S. Marine Band in Washington in 1934 and studied timpani with Saul Goodman of the New York Philharmonic, attended Catholic University, and received a Bachelor of Music Degree.
Owen was Marimba Soloist with the United States Marine Band and timpanist with the U.S. Marine Band and Orchestra under the direction of Colonel Taylor Branson and Col. William Santelmann. From 1934–54 Owen was frequently featured as marimba soloist in concerts, on radio broadcasts, and nightly on the annual nine-week tours. He performed as marimba soloist on every annual tour the band made during his years as a member, performing in every state of the union.
I loved every second of those tour solos, even though I heard them for about nine weeks once a day, said Art Lehman, USMB Euphonium Soloist. How perfectly and artistically he played! What stage presence! He won the audiences immediately.
Owen was often in the dual role of performer and arranger. He transcribed and arranged an extensive solo library for xylophone and marimba. He published one of his solos, Chopsticks, in 1941.
After 20 years with the Marine Band, Owen became Principal Percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He performed on their subscription concerts in Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore for 18 years, under the leadership of Eugene Ormandy and many of the world's greatest conductors. He recorded the Creston "Concertino for Marimba" with the Philadelphia Orchestra on their album First Chair Encores, which then was the only solo work for marimba recorded by a major symphony orchestra. He also recorded a great deal of symphonic repertoire on Columbia and RCA labels. His recordings also include work with the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble and free-lance engagements for Capitol Records. He performed also with the Philadelphia Grand Opera, Lyric Opera, and Philadelphia Percussion Ensemble.
"Charlie will be remembered by all of us as a fine player and teacher, and to many of us as a good friend," said Owen’s Philadelphia Orchestra colleague and friend, Alan Abel. "Having spent many hours with him in rehearsals, concerts, buses, trains, planes, restaurants, even walking down the street together, one wonderful characteristic of his comes through especially clear to me. Whether he talked about world affairs, music, orchestra business, or anything else, Charlie always, but always, stressed the positive. He looked on the bright side whenever possible. He was encouraging to students and colleagues alike. He had a wonderfully constructive approach to life—something we can all live by."
Owen was equally at home in the college atmosphere as in the professional field. While a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Owen founded the percussion department of Temple University (PA) and also taught at the Ambler Music Festival (PA), the Philadelphia Music Academy, and the Saratoga School of Orchestra Studies (New York). Owen frequently conducted percussion demos and workshops for college music departments and was in demand as a clinician on all aspects of percussion playing. A master craftsman, he often made his own sticks and mallets.
As head of the Temple University percussion department, he conducted the percussion ensemble, which performed at the Academy of Music with the Philadelphia Orchestra (in a children’s concert), at Town Hall in New York, at U of PA museum concerts, and at numerous concerts at Temple University and at schools in the city. He held frequent percussion workshop recitals, gave students a constant flow of solo literature, and formed a percussion maintenance class.
"As a teacher, Charlie always stressed the making of music and the striving for perfection," said Temple University graduate Glenn Steel. "Charlie always gave students plenty of room to grow. Perhaps more importantly, Charlie did not just teach about music but about life itself. Charlie always lived life exuberantly. To him, percussion was great play, great fun, and I thank him for that."
In 1972, after 18 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Owen accepted the position as Professor of Percussion in the School of Music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In the summers he performed with the Casals Festivals in Puerto Rico and was head of the percussion department at Aspen Music Festival in Colorado for many years. He also taught at the Grand Teton Orchestral Seminar.
Many of his students are represented in leading symphony orchestras, on college faculties, and public school faculties through out the country. At University of Michigan his percussion ensembles put out records, one in 1984 called Re-Percussion and another with U.M Percussion and Tuba Ensembles.
At the University of Michigan in 1981 Owen received the Harold Haugh Award for Outstanding Excellence in Private Studio Teaching. He received a citation of merit from the University of Michigan, which reads: "We honor his long and distinguished career in both the concert and academic worlds. He was hailed as one of the foremost percussionists in the country. The University of Michigan was fortunate indeed to have him on the faculty. His national reputation as a performing artist, teacher, and gentleman attracted to the School of Music excellent students who in turn have had outstanding careers. He worked tirelessly and with great dedication far beyond routine teaching duties, making a profound impact on both students and colleagues. His unique expertise and the magnetism of his personality were an inspiration to all who were fortunate to know him."
In 1984, Owen was honored with the establishment of a large endowed percussion scholarship at the University of Michigan School of Music, in his name. It was established by his faculty colleagues, members of the music industry, and more than 80 Michigan percussion alumni. His fund also includes a Charles Owen Memorial Master Class Series at the University of Michigan. There is also a Charles Owen Scholarship at the Aspen Music Festival.
An active member of the Percussive Arts Society, Charles Owen served on its Board of Directors; was the founder and President of the Michigan PAS Chapter; and was the editor for years of the column "Symphonic Percussion" in Percussive Notes. Owen was elected into the PAS Hall of Fame in 1981.
"Charles Owen was admired for his musicianship, his touch and his willingness to share his musical secrets with others," said Frederick Fairchild, former PAS Historian. "Charlie Owen will be sorely missed by our society. His was a voice of wisdom and calm, respected by everyone. He was a consummate musician who had an extraordinary ability and willingness to explain and teach his art. He was a tireless contributor to the PAS in both time and talent."