Phoebe Knox Binkley, Class of 1955
When Phoebe Brownell Knox entered West End High School she was
following two older brothers, Jack (1949) and Joe (1952) the children of Jack Knox,
editorial cartoonist for the Nashville Banner and Edith Towler (Speedy) Knox.
However, Phoebe followed a different path from the football playing Knox boys ---
music. According to her brother Joe she started playing the piano when she was
three years old! She was talented enough to begin piano lessons at an early age
with the same piano teacher her Mother had years earlier. She was a natural from
the start and rebelled at practice and the need to learn to read music when she
could play by ear just as she did as a toddler. But she did learn and won a state
wide piano competition when she was in high school. But, her musical interest
and talent also shifted from piano to voice and she began taking lessons which
ended her cheerleading career at Eakin and Cavert.
She was not surprisingly voted the “Most Talented” in her senior class at West (1955) singing the Bell Song from Lakme by Delibes at her graduation. She then attended Vanderbilt where she played the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience.” But it wasn’t just school performances where she displayed her talents. She began singing duets with her brother Joe when she was in the sixth grade and appeared on various radio and television programs in Nashville. The big break came in the summer of 1956 when she had an opportunity to sing with the St. Louis Municipal Opera and the National Chorus of America in New York for the next several years.
Her return to her hometown coincided with the tenure of Bob Binkley as musical director at Theatre Nashville. He had an emergency when he needed a soprano to fill in for the lead in La Boheme. Phoebe was quite familiar with the role, having first heard it while listening to her brother’s phonograph recording in the summer of 1951 while he rested between two-a-day football practices! Phoebe later joined Bob both in marriage and in his voice studio as an accompanist and teacher where they “trained some of the finest singers in the mid south” according to West High graduate Kent Cathcart (1954) who was on the McGavock High School faculty with Bob Binkley.
But, the studio (voicebybinkley.com) was not just for those aspiring to be professional singers, but to anyone who wanted to learn and improve their skills. In a town where there are always going to be opportunists looking to befriend an upcoming star, the mission statement makes clear the serious nature of voice training.
“If you are a voice teacher or aspire to be one, you will quickly become aware that this website is harder on teachers than it is on singers. Singers can take on singing as a hobby or can have a full-time career as an artist. Teaching someone else to sing assumes the responsibility for another person's voice. While you can teach part-time, it cannot be a hobby. You only have the right to teach if you know what you're doing. Just because you sing or perform doesn't mean that you know how to teach voice. By the same token, you don't have to have a DMA or PhD to teach voice. But you have to understand how the instrument works.”
Bob Binkley died in 2012, but the studio continued with Phoebe and their daughter Carolyn. Because of illness Phoebe’s public performances were curtailed in the years before her death on May 11, 2016, but the teaching and nourishing efforts for singers and musicians of all ages continued to the end. At the celebration of her life at Vine Street Christian Church on June 3, 2016 over a hundred people gathered to pay their respects. The crowd ranged from school classmates to Music Row celebrities, like Kathy Mattea who had voice problems and feared her performing days were over. But, it was Phoebe, her vocal coach for forty years, who helped her find her different (older) voice.
The gathering was less like a funeral and more like a musical and family celebration. Her grandson, Adrian Binkley, was one of the organists. Her younger brother, Britt Knox, read from Scripture, and her brother-in-law, Rev. Ben Binkley, also participated. The “Friends of Phoebe” choir, perhaps the most professional “non-professional” choir ever assembled offered several “gifts of music” to someone whose life was a gift to us all.
Phoebe also joins many talented alumni as a member of the West End High School Musicians Hall of Fame.