Memoirs of a Famous Composer
An Interview with Earle Hagen,
by Bruce Babcock (with thanks to Jon Burlingame for his interview question suggestions)
Earle Hagen entitled his recent autobiography “Memoirs of a Famous Composer – Nobody Ever Heard Of.” While it is true that most people outside of the music business may not know his name, anyone who has owned a television set at any time over the past fifty years knows his music. Earle composed some of the most memorable themes for some of the most acclaimed series in television history, including THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (whistled by Earle), THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I SPY and THE MOD SQUAD. Those of us in the business know that Earle literally “wrote the book” on what we do, SCORING FOR FILMS, in 1971, as well as its sequel, ADVANCED TECHNIQUES FOR FILM SCORING, in 1990. Over the years, more than 400 composers attended his film scoring workshops.
I had the privilege of working with Earle on two series, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and MIKE HAMMER. He has been my teacher, colleague, mentor and friend for almost thirty years. During a career which lasted more than half a century, Earle did it all. As a performer, arranger, composer, author and teacher, his career spanned the big band era, radio, recordings, films and television. His many honors include an Oscar nomination, an Emmy award and three total Emmy nominations, the BMI Richard Kirk Award for Lifetime Achievement, the BMI President’s Award, and the Irwin Kostal Award, given by the American Society of Music Arrangers & Composers. More important to Earle than any of these accomplishments was his marriage to his wife Lou, which lasted fifty-nine years and produced two sons, Deane and Jim.
BRUCE BABCOCK: While still a teenager, you had already played trombone with both Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. In 1939, while working with Ray Noble’s band, you wrote “Harlem Nocturne.” What is the story behind this song? How many artists have recorded it over the years, and how did it come to be used as the theme to “Mike Hammer” in the 1980s?”
EARLE HAGEN: One night, while on the road in San Francisco, Ray’s lead alto sax player, Jack Dumont, and I spent our night off listening to Duke Ellington’s band at the Oakland Ballroom. What a great band. After listening to Johnny Hodges all night, I was inspired to write an alto feature for Jack. I had taken a small portable pump organ on the road with me, and that night, filled with inspiration and Cutty Sark, wrote “Harlem Nocturne.” One of the guys in the band copied it the following day, and the next night it was in the book. At last count it had been recorded by 104 different artists.
In 1983, my neighbor and golfing buddy Lew Gallo approached me about scoring a movie of the week based on Mickey Spillane’s “Mike Hammer,” starring Stacy Keach. Not only that, Lew wanted to use “Harlem Nocturne” as the theme music of the film since Hammer was a jazz buff and a throwback to the 1940s. Stacy was a pretty good jazz piano player himself and he loved the idea.
I gave Lew a recording of “Harlem Nocturne” by Georgie Auld to temp into the picture for the execs to screen. A high ranking big wig at Columbia, “Mr. A” (name withheld to protect the guilty), didn’t like the idea. I met with him and he was of the opinion that “Hammer” needed a score similar to “Midnight Express” or “Chariots of Fire.” He said the public “didn’t like saxophones.” I asked him how he knew this. He said that the studio had “testing” from a recent pilot screening to prove it.
I asked him how he felt about Pat Williams’ superlative theme for the very popular “Lou Grant” series. Mr. “A” replied, “Unquestionably, that show would have stayed on the air another two years if it hadn’t had the saxophone theme.”
Before the movie ever aired, the studio decided that they wanted to go to series, with Stacy as the star. Stacy told “Mr. A,” “I’m happy to let Earle go with whatever he thinks is appropriate.” We used Bud Shank on alto sax. “Mr. A” was gone from Columbia shortly thereafter. Stacy later found out that the pilot with the theme which had tested so badly had, in fact, featured clarinet, and contained no saxophones whatsoever.
BRUCE BABCOCK: In 1942 you enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and were based with the Radio Production Unit in Santa Ana, California. Tell us about the band there, and how you used the opportunity to hone your arranging skills.
EARLE HAGEN: I was beginning to come to the conclusion that I much preferred writing and arranging to playing trombone. We had a killer orchestra of 65 musicians, among them Manny Klein, Felix Slatkin and Harry Bluestone. I began studying legit orchestration, harmony and counterpoint. I begged, borrowed and stole any scores I could get my hands on. The public library became a favorite hangout. I wanted more than anything to study with a great teacher but my newly wed wife, Lou, and I couldn’t afford it. I began to take on a few trombone students, including future Hollywood studio stalwart Lloyd Ulyate, then only sixteen years old. One day, after one of Lloyd’s lessons at the house, Lou said to me, “You never sounded better, honey.”
The thing was, it was Lloyd’s playing she was admiring. I had not taken my horn out of the case. The next day I told my commanding officer that he could always pick up another trombone player, and that I wanted to devote myself to writing. Since he was short on arrangers, he agreed. After I came home that evening, Lou said, “Whatever you want to do is OK with me, but can you make a living at it?” I said, “I sure hope so, I just sold my horn.”
Having the 65-piece orchestra was a luxury I took advantage of. For example, I was once assigned to do an arrangement of “Moon of Manakoora.” I took the opportunity to write a four-minute intro based on “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” followed by a quick chorus of “Manakoora,” followed by an ending based on Ravel’s “Rhapsodie Espagnole, with a slight touch of Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps.” With the exception of Al Woodbury, who was already a professional orchestrator, the rest of us on staff were amateurs, so nearly every arrangement had everything but the kitchen sink in it. My life became a series of arrangements, and with help from Al Woodbury, I began to get a better understanding of the orchestra, and how to write for it.
BRUCE BABCOCK: When you were asked by Alfred Newman to join the staff at 20th Century Fox, you were 27. Tell us about your first six weeks there, and what you learned during that time. Tell us a bit about the other members on staff at the time.
EARLE HAGEN: My first staff assignment was six weeks off. I spent the time learning the mechanics of film from music editor Leon Birnbaum in exchange for helping him to learn to read music. I gained experience that benefited me throughout my entire career.
The staff there at the time included Cy Mockridge, David Raksin, Dave Buttolph, Eddie Powell, Maurice de Packh and Herbie Spencer. Others who worked on Fox pictures during those years were Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer, Leigh Harline and Hank Mancini.
My first official assignment was to orchestrate a film about horse racing for David Raksin. David’s sketches were a thing of beauty, containing everything he wanted from the orchestra in four staves. Working for David was a very fortuitous way to get started and I really enjoyed it.
BRUCE BABCOCK: During the early years of your career you worked with two of the biggest show business icons of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. What was it like to work with them?
EARLE HAGEN: Axel Stordahl, a friend from the Dorsey days, was conductor/arranger for Sinatra in the forties. Frank was doing “The Hit Parade” at the time. Axel had heard some of my charts from Santa Ana and asked me if I would like to do some arranging for Frank. I considered Frank the greatest singer of all time and jumped at the chance. I would hitchhike (in uniform, which made getting a ride the rule rather than the exception in those days) from Santa Ana to Hollywood every Thursday, stay up all night, and do a chart for Frank, and then hitch back to Santa Ana to stand guard duty at 8 a.m. I got about $50 per chart, and I hadn’t seen that kind of money in a long time.
I never actually met Frank until I was out of the service and Axel asked me to do a record arrangement for Frank. Frank was cordial, and appreciative, and extremely easy to work with. He had a genuine love and admiration for the players who worked for him. I was a guest in his house many times and I cannot remember working for anyone who was friendlier or more genuine.
With one or two exceptions, I believe I did every arrangement that Marilyn Monroe sang or danced at Fox. There have been many stories about how difficult she was. I think she was difficult with the people in management, but not the people working with her. With us, she was the hardest working lady I ever met.
BRUCE BABCOCK: You worked closely with Alfred Newman for many years. Tell us what he was like as a composer, conductor, department head and colleague, and what influence he had on your career.
EARLE HAGEN: The first time I walked onto the music stage at Fox, Alfred Newman was recording the end title to “Captain from Castile.” I was completely blown away. The orchestra included many of the same musicians who had been at Santa Ana, but the quality of the performance was at another level. I came to the conclusion it was Al’s perception of how perfection should sound that made the difference.
If there was ever the personification of the word “dynamic,” it was Al Newman. When he walked into a room, it came alive. Trying to describe him is difficult. An incredible musician, conductor and composer, he was also one of the most capable executives in the motion picture business. While on the podium, there was no such thing as rushing to beat the clock. Whatever time it took to do it right was the time he spent on it. Nothing ever left that stage without being polished to perfection.
One of his personal pleasures was to have a gathering of the department in the early evening. At about six o’clock it was time for a drink and a talk about the day’s work. I gained valuable insight into the business listening to Al, David Raksin, Hugo, and the rest of the gang.
BRUCE BABCOCK: What factors caused you to leave motion pictures for the blossoming new world of television in the early 1950s?
EARLE HAGEN: After the Supreme Court had essentially divorced the studios from theater ownership, the studios started cutting costs. Lots of people were let go or laid off, including Herbie Spencer and I. The financial head of the music department at Fox (not Al Newman) offered me work on “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” but that was six months away. They made the same offer to Herbie, trying to play one against the other. We decided to team up and look into other possibilities. We got a meeting at William Morris and tried to work out a deal where one of us would remain exclusive to Fox and the other non-exclusive, so we could take whatever came along. William Morris had three television pilots ready to go right away so we signed on, while they continued to negotiate with Fox. Fox wouldn’t go for the arrangement. Al was convinced that things would return to normal eventually. They never did.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Through your long association with Sheldon Leonard you composed music for some of the most successful and popular shows in television history. How did your relationship with Sheldon begin, and what was your working relationship like?
EARLE HAGEN: One of the three pilots brought to us by William Morris was “The Danny Thomas Show.” Sheldon came on as director after about six weeks. When we met, I gave him my stock speech: “We’re a service. Anything you need, holler.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. Hagen, do you know your business?” I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “Good. You will never hear from me.”
In some seventeen years of working with him on hundreds of shows, he never went to a spotting, a recording session or a dubbing session. What was even more important to me, he never second-guessed me. It was Camelot.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Tell us about working on “I Spy.” Composers don’t usually have the opportunity, as you did, to scout locations on a trip around the world with the executive producer. Plus, not many composers get to travel to locales such as Mexico, Greece, Japan, Marrakech and Hong Kong, study the music indigenous to those cultures, and then score episodes shot on location in those countries.
EARLE HAGEN: By 1963, Sheldon Leonard was the most successful director/producer in television, with four weekly series, all comedies. Sheldon came up with an idea for a new drama series, “I Spy,” about two undercover American operatives who become involved in international intrigue in a variety of exotic locales. The show would be shot on location. Robert Culp was cast as one lead but Sheldon had to fight with NBC to cast Bill Cosby as the co-lead. The network was afraid of negative reaction from southern network affiliates. Sheldon stood up for his convictions and Cosby was cast.
The Leonards and the Hagens went on a 52-day around-the-world tour scouting locations for the series. I recorded a variety of local musicians in each country we visited and incorporated some of these recordings and ideas into my orchestral scores. “I Spy” was the first real challenge in television for me. I had been working on comedy shows for ten years with Sheldon. It never occurred to him that I might not be able to deliver that kind of product. But then, it never occurred to me either. It was a fun show for music. An adventure. Sheldon gave me full reign and we never looked back. That kind of show will never happen again in television.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Which years were your busiest in television?
EARLE HAGEN: The years 1960-66 were the busiest of my career. I had five or six shows a week during those years. Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, Bill Dana, “That Girl,” and “I Spy.” In addition, I had to break these shows down, and somewhere in the week, conduct the recordings. Fortunately, I had lots of help. Herbie Spencer and I did Danny Thomas. On the rest, I had Pete Carpenter, Carl Brandt and others pitching in. Hugo Friedhofer did about 30% of the “I Spy” episodes. We generally had two weeks to do a one hour drama, and one week on a half-hour comedy. Later on, when we did “Mod Squad,” I asked Billy May to compose many of the episodes. On “Mike Hammer” I split the series with J.J. Johnson. Every composer who worked with me received full cue sheet credit, and screen credit when appropriate.
BRUCE BABCOCK: In 1944 you studied with Ernst Toch, and in the 1960s and ’70s with serial composer George Tremblay. What influence did these studies have on your writing?
EARLE HAGEN: Ernst Toch taught at USC and was a successful concert composer in his own right. He charged $22 per lesson, which was almost what I made in a month. I hitchhiked from Santa Ana to Santa Monica for the three-hour lessons. He kept me on two-part writing for the better part of a year. He also assigned me to write twenty unaccompanied melodies every week, as well as a weekly assignment. My writing began to take on a different dimension. I was far more cognizant of line writing, and how important it was. I kept studying with Toch for over a year, until I ran out of money.
Studying, as well as teaching, was always part of my personal stimulus. I enjoyed it, and I felt it kept me contemporary. I loved the idea of trying something new suggested by George Tremblay, recording it a few days later in a television score, and then playing it back for him at the next lesson. I think the constant study was absolutely necessary to continue to expand and look at new ways of writing.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Your book, SCORING FOR FILMS, has been used in countless schools across the country, yet it was first used in the class you taught in your home. What prompted you to write the book?
EARLE HAGEN: The book came about as a result of a proposal by then-BMI president Bob Saur in 1969 to create a film composer’s workshop along the lines of the Lehman Engel Broadway Workshop in New York. At the time there really was no up-to-date or appropriate text for such a workshop. I offered to write one. I decided that the book needed three parts. First, the mechanics and vocabulary of film composition; second, the psychology of creating music for films; and third, the responsibilities of the composer. I also conducted an experiment about individual composer’s ideas on the psychology of writing music for film. I framed four questions that couldn’t be answered with a “yes” or “no,” and put them to five composers of vastly different backgrounds and film experience. The composers, Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer, Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Shifrin and Quincy Jones, answered questions such as, “How do you determine where to start and stop music in your film?” Their answers illustrated their individual views on the psychology of solving dramatic problems. This set of interviews was done in 1971. I am firmly convinced that every word stated by these outstanding composers is as valid today as it was then.
I began using the book in the class in film scoring I taught out of my home. The tuition was three-dozen golf balls. The BMI Workshop finally got started in 1986, and it was attended by more than 300 composers over the next ten years. Teaching was part of the fun I had in the business.
BRUCE BABCOCK: One of the foundations of your philosophy on film scoring is that the picture completely dictates the obligations that the score must fulfill, and that if one understands the mechanics of film, there is always a technical solution to any creative challenge imposed by the picture. I’m thinking of a particular episode of “Mod Squad,” in which you used sampled percussion played backwards. “Mod Squad” was unusual to begin with in that you employed a rock rhythm section along with an atonal serial approach.
EARLE HAGEN: In one episode, I ran across a problem I had never experienced before. The editor had used a series of flash cuts to move the film into flashback sequences. He started with an 8-frame cut, then a 16-frame cut, then a thirty-frame cut, and then into the flashback, which could last a minute or longer. There was no visual effect used with the flashback cut, so the musical treatment became of the utmost importance in telling the audience that we were in a flashback.
Because of the brevity of an 8-frame cut, 1/3 of a second, there is almost nothing you can play outside of a bleep of some kind. I thought that if you reversed an effect, you could have a crescendo to a peak, which is the reverse of an impact to a die-away. My son, Deane, a percussionist and drummer, and I spent the better part of a day hitting everything he owned, reversing the tracks and appraising the results. We were able to get rid of the “phhtt” sound that a reversed impact gives you by bouncing the reversed track into an echo chamber. With the increasing length of the flash cuts, I could write short phrases that contained time values as well as musical values. I was able to devise a string of reversed effects that shot the music track into the main flash back, which I could treat with deep reverb or distortion, to differentiate the flashback from reality. This show was done in the late sixties, long before there were samples. I was able to use this technique many times after that.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Another example of a creative solution to a technical problem was the Floating Gardens of Xochomilco sequence from an “I Spy” episode.
EARLE HAGEN: In the establishing shot of a scene in which Cosby is searching for Culp in the Floating Gardens of Xochomilco, Mexico, there were seven different boats with seven different ensembles of entertainers: accordion players, Mariachi bands, dancers, and a marimba band in which Culp is hiding, while playing abstractly with the group. The sound man attempted to record the overall but it was cacophony.
What to do? I suppose one way would be to get a Mariachi track and play it over the entire sequence, ignoring the close up of boats going by, and Culp banging away at the marimba. I never considered it.
My plan was to record seven different types of bands, with whatever instrumentation called for by the picture, and accommodate what you saw, including what Culp was playing. We pre-dubbed the seven tracks, matching the perspective of the seven audio tracks with the visuals of the seven boats. On overhead shots of the Gardens, all seven tracks were going in equal volume. I must say it worked. You had this continuos kaleidoscopic effect that had been shot by our director, and the music matched. Was it worth it? For me, it was.
BRUCE BABCOCK: You scored over 3000 episodes of television during your thirty-three years in television, and all of them were scored in Los Angeles, with union musicians. What caused you to retire, and what are your thoughts on the current state of film and television scoring?
EARLE HAGEN: I think that the basics of good film scoring haven’t really changed much. The application of good film scoring procedures has changed. There seems to be less of a point of view being expressed by today’s contemporary composers. Whether that is being dictated by the director, producer, or studio, or whether it is the composer’s idea that all that is necessary is “wallpaper” to provide a neutral background that doesn’t get in the way of the picture, is moot. To me, with this approach, the music is less effective, and so is the picture.
I retired after “Return to Mayberry” in 1986, and no longer consider myself a voice in the industry. I stopped working, not because there wasn’t work, but because it was no longer rewarding. There were too many accountants, and not enough Sheldon Leonards. At 66, it was time to hang it up. I had enjoyed the best years of the big band era, the best years of the film business, and the best years of television.