In 1959, when he was 10 years old and growing up in Cody, Wyo., Keith Finlayson heard a song on the radio that shaped his musical destiny.

No, it wasn't Elvis doing "Hound Dog." It wasn't even Pat Boone doing "April Love."

It was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The song rocketed to the upper echelons of the national pop charts (this was 1959, remember), won a Grammy and got plenty of airplay on Cody's only radio station.

About this same time, Keith noticed an article about the choir in a coffee-table book his parents owned. It showed a picture of members of the famous singing group in action, along with a caption that explained that housewives, doctors, lawyers, farmers, plumbers — basically anybody and everybody — made up the all-volunteer choir.

"I thought to myself, 'Hey, I can do that,"' remembers Finlayson, who moved to Salt Lake City, graduated from medical school, got married, started a family, became a doctor and joined the choir, in that order.

We bring this up now because just before noon on Sunday, after the choir's perennial Sunday morning national broadcast from the Tabernacle — it was No. 4,101 in a row since 1929 — and after a short retirement ceremony, Keith Finlayson's great Mormon Tabernacle Choir adventure came to a close.

He concluded his 20th year as a member of the choir, and he's about to turn 60. In the MTC world that amounts to double jeopardy. Either one means mandatory retirement.

Finlayson exhales a deep sigh — and deep means deep; he sings second bass, the lowest notes on the page — and manages a what-are-you-going-to-do? shrug.

"I'd never leave on my own," he says. "They've gotta throw me out."

From the outside looking in, you'd think it wouldn't be like this at all. You'd think people would be kicking and clawing to get out of the choir. Choir members put in at least eight hours on the lightest of weeks, and on Sundays they're up and going well before 7. They average 140 events a year, counting practices and performances, and the pay is way below minimum wage. They don't get paid anything. When they travel their expenses are picked up, and they can buy CDs and DVDs — the CDs and DVDs they record — at cost, but that's about as indulgent as it gets.

Plus, they have to have an annual letter from their LDS bishop attesting to their fine moral character just to stay in the club.

You'd think the whole group would have mutinied or unionized by now. These are, after all, musicians.

But Finlayson details all of the above hard duty with only one lament: that he can't do it for another 20.

"I have enjoyed every single minute of it," he says.

He remembers when they told him about the 20-year maximum after he auditioned and made the choir back in the fall of 1987.

"It didn't even register," he recalls. "I thought, 'This will be amusing for four or five years, and then I'll do something else."'

But it not only never stopped being amusing, it became a passion.

"I'm not that great of a singer by myself," says Keith. "Music isn't something I could do on my own and be successful. But in the choir I can be part of something great."

He's been around the world with the choir. He's sung in the great concert halls of Europe, huge amphitheaters in the South Pacific, the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia and in virtually every major city in North America. He's sung at inaugurations of both Bush presidents. He's been part of 1,066 Sunday morning broadcasts and performed in every LDS Church general conference for the past 20 years except for once when a family reunion got in the way.

As an ear, nose and throat doctor, he has administered to his fellow choir members in ways too numerous to mention ("Singers like to be coddled," he confides).

And two Decembers ago he was part of the choir Christmas broadcast with Norwegian singer Sissel that was nominated for two Grammys and rocketed to the top spot on the classical charts.

So the 10-year-old who heard "Battle Hymn" not only fulfilled his dream of joining that great, unpaid, all-volunteer choir in Salt Lake City but also became part of a chart-topper himself.

"I just find it hard to believe it's ending so soon," says Keith. "This Thursday (the choir's regular practice day) will be the first Thursday night I'll be home, other than Thanksgiving, in 20 years."

A comment to which his wife of 31 years, Barbara, adds, "I complained the first three years that he was gone all the time. Now, for the past three years, I've been thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do, he's coming back?"'

Retiring can be so difficult.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.