This weekend's pops concerts by the Lexington Singers will be a tribute to longtime arranger and keyboardist Jay Flippin, although director Jefferson Johnson says, "Most of our pops concerts are big Jay Flippin shows."
From George Gershwin to Queen, Flippin has arranged more than 500 pieces for the Singers during his three decades-plus with the group. Some of those arrangements have gained notice. His work on a version of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is a standard in the choral catalog and used by groups including the Boston Pops Orchestra.
But, for the most part, Flippin isn't doing the arranging for money.
"We never commission him," Johnson says, "he just does it."
Whenever Flippin, 67, decides to step away from his Singers' duties, Johnson estimates it will take two to three people to take up all his tasks, including play a variety of keyboards, from synthesizers to concert organs.
It all came quite naturally to Flippin.
Growing up in the small town of Stuart, Va., Flippin was a church organist by the time he was 10. He was playing for three churches by the time he was in high school, including the local African Methodist Episcopal congregation. That, and a love of listening at night to a black radio station out of Nashville, helped Flippin develop a love of jazz and soul music.
It also necessitated arranging if he and his band were going to play any of those tunes.
"We had three horns," Flippin says, recalling that group. "Someone had to work up charts for those guys."
So he did. During his freshman year at Mars Hill College in North Carolina, he found himself drawn into an even bigger arranging world when a beauty pageant contestant needed an arrangement of Summertime for her and a big band.
"I was smitten," Flippin says of agreeing to do the arrangement. "But the first time I heard them play my arrangement ... what a moment. I said, 'This is way too much fun.'"
It's what he's been having ever since.
A distinctive aspect of his composing for the Singers is eight-part harmonies instead of the standard — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — "which you usually write for school choruses," Flippin says. But the Singers are more skilled, with vocalists who can sing above and below what's usually expected from their voice ranges. He takes advantage of that.
Sitting in a room adjacent to the sanctuary at Central Baptist Church, where the Singers were rehearsing Tuesday night, he heard the chorus finish a phrase. "Ah, when it's right, it just comes cascading down," he said. "They are so good."
Johnson says Flippin knows his own skill level, but he will never sing his own praises.
"He approaches his job like a servant," Johnson says.
And Flippin had numerous jobs.
Retired from Morehead State University, Flippin still plays nearly 200 nights a year with groups including Lexington-based RC and the Nightshades and a North Carolina-based beach music group, and he has been the choir director at Morehead's First Baptist Church since 1974. Until recently, he was touring with America's Got Talent season six winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.
"I loved it, but it was a lot of touring," Flippin says. "I needed to get off the road."
He has no designs on wrapping things up with the Singers, though. He says he wants to work with the group until he's at least 70, but even then, he thinks he will want to keep going.
He first worked with the group under original director Phyllis Jenness and then became the regular accompanist when fellow Morehead faculty member James Ross Beane took the baton. Johnson says that from the first time he saw the Singers, "it was obvious he was one of the keys to their success."
Flippin just says, "After 37 years, they've become my family."
IF YOU GO
What: Annual pops concert in tribute to longtime arranger and keyboardist Jay Flippin
When: 8 p.m. May 18, 3 p.m. May 19
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Learn more: Lexsing.org