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The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra has roots going all the way back to the 1870s, but was not officially distinguished from its parent organization, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, until 1977.
The early Cincinnati orchestra society programmed popular music concerts and that continued with the Cincinnati Symphony, particularly under conductor Max Rudolf, who became its director in 1958. In 1965, Rudolf hired Erich Kunzel as assistant conductor and asked him to conduct the first "8 O'Clock Pops" concert. The "8 O'Clock Pops" series, held during the regular season, joined the CSO's summer "Concerts in the Park" series as the symphony's primary pops music vehicles, raising awareness of the organization through a broader audience. By 1977, the concerts were popular enough for the CSO board to create the subsidiary Cincinnati Pops Orchestra organization, naming Kunzel as its director.
Kunzel led the Pops to a level of fame to rival that of the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler and John Williams. In addition to sold-out concerts in Cincinnati and appearances around the U.S. in places such as Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ol' Opry, he led it on several international tours, including to Beijing for the opening of the 2008 summer Olympics, and together they made several popular PBS television specials. Kunzel and the orchestra made 85 recordings for Telarc, beginning in 1978 with Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (although the Cincinnati Symphony received the credit). Their last together, released in 2009 — the year of Kunzel's death — was From the Top at the Pops. A preponderance of the recordings appeared in the Top Ten of the Billboard charts, with some of the most famous being Star Tracks (1984), Ein Straussfest (1985) and Ein Straussfest II (1993), Round-Up (1986), Chiller (1989), Christmas with the Pops and Fiesta! (both 1990), and Masters and Commanders (2005).
In September 2011, John Morris Russell became the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra's director, taking up the baton to maintain Cincinnati's standing as a leader among the country's best pops orchestras.