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Buddy Baker

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By SCL Board Member Russell Brower:

Every composer recalls a music cue, often heard at a young, impressionable age, that changes the course of his or her life and career. Possibly one of the most sublime, pure and transcendent goals on their subsequent journey is to eventually compose such a piece that illuminates the path of another.

Buddy Baker did this for me. His musical score for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was a simple little theme, designed to repeat in various forms and arrangements throughout the attraction, and did so effectively. The cue that stood out, however, causing a wide-eyed six-year-old to literally stop himself and 40 other guests in mid-stride through the mansion’s corridors to listen, was the simplest and yet most uncommon of all: emerging from the audible storm of thunder and lightning, the illusion of which raged outside the windows, came Buddy’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts” melody, brought forth as if on the breath of the blustery wind itself. “But wait!” my young imagination cried; “The wind is playing the melody! How could such a thing be possible?”

Pictured: SCL Ambassador Richard Sherman, Russell Brower, Buddy Baker
And so another career began, right there in that faux musty corridor at Disneyland.

Thirty years later, Buddy told me he had recorded sound effects wizard Jimmy Macdonald shaping the sound of gentle rushing air from a small hose with his mouth, making the performance subtle, with human nuance. Careful mixing in of some hollow organ pipe voices as following tones, resulted in the right baleful quality. To maintain a simple, direct, timeless human communication via music in the midst of a grand display of technologically sophisticated entertainment art—this was but one of the myriad lessons Buddy taught me and countless others in his prodigious life and career, either directly, or via visionary musical examples.

While a gifted composer himself, Buddy was often called upon to create arrangements from the works of other songwriters and musicians. From a simple lead sheet or demo, Buddy transformed their core ideas into the works of art we all remember. It was Buddy who devised the signature sounds, the sonic hooks, the ear-candy, and the sense of humor and timing which imprinted so many classic tunes into our collective cultural memory. For example, “Heffalumps and Woozles” is a bouncy, clever song that is only fully realized because of Buddy’s whimsical arrangement of snarly woods, wheezy reeds, strange percussion, bass harmonica, two kazoos, and stylized vocal performances. Its unconventional sound is like an old friend to those of us who grew up on Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh, even as it haunts the dreams of the bear himself.

Buddy wrote and arranged some of the most stunningly beautiful music ever heard, as well. In creating the score for Epcot’s “Impressions de France” film, he wrote a great deal of score which was placed between some of the most important and brilliant French classical music of all time—often connecting two disparate compositions to maintain the flow of the story. Buddy wove deftly in and out of the established themes, often writing his own melodic thread that soared just as high over the spires of Mont Saint Michel as those of Debussy, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. Buddy truly could, and did, walk with the Masters.

And since “Those Who Are, Do and also Teach,” Buddy worked tirelessly with brilliant students and acolytes for nearly two decades as the head of the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at USC. Those and countless others who encountered Buddy on projects, like myself, were taken under his wing and benefitted from his wisdom, experience, encouragement and generous hands-on help which he always provided with an infectious enthusiasm and an energy that belied his years. Buddy could also be a bit ornery, but I loved him for it.

Ever the experimenter and problem-solver, Buddy embraced technology; he was one of the first to use electronic effects and synthesizers widely in his scores, defining roles for them in the orchestra alongside the other instruments, rather than as a mimic or replacement. His musical math for the Carousel of Progress rotating audience/stationary stage review that allowed 30-odd animatronic figures in six scenes to join together in song every few minutes was precedent-setting. The multi-channel, synchronized score for “it’s a small world” foreshadowed present-day techniques employed in the scoring of video games.

All of this, along with some of the most beautiful, original and entertaining film scores ever created, are Buddy Baker’s legacy to all of us, whether we aspire to create musical art, or just love to love it. Standing now, on a well-illuminated life and career path over 40 years after that fateful day in the Haunted Mansion, I humbly offer my sincerest appreciation, honor and tribute to a very special person, friend, artist and teacher—Thank you, Buddy.

By Jon Burlingame:

Norman D. “Buddy” Baker, Oscar- and Grammy-nominated composer who scored dozens of Walt Disney films and TV shows and who in recent years headed the film-scoring program at the University of Southern California, died of natural causes Friday morning, July 26, 2002, at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. A former member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, he was 84 years old.

Disney hired Baker as musical director on the original “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955. The five-day-a-week afternoon show on ABC frequently featured the Mousketeers singing and dancing, often to music composed, arranged or conducted by Baker. Baker stayed on at Disney for nearly three decades, scoring an estimated 40 feature films, 125 television shows and a number of Disney theme-park attractions including the long-running “Haunted Mansion” and “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland.

Baker received a 1972 Oscar nomination for his music for the Disney family film “Napoleon and Samantha.” In 1998, 15 years after the end of his full-time composing commitments there, the studio honored him as a “Disney Legend.” In 1985, Baker began teaching a class in scoring for animation at the University of Southern California. Three years later, he became director of the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at USC, which he headed until his death.

Baker was born January 4, 1918, in Springfield, Mo. He studied piano and trumpet as a boy and, after completing formal studies in music at colleges in Missouri, went on to become a professional trumpeter and an arranger for many celebrated big bands of the ’30s and ’40s, including those of Harry James, Stan Kenton, Jack Teagarden, Bob Crosby and Charlie Barnet. His arrangement of “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” became a top-10 hit for Kenton in 1944. He moved to Los Angeles in 1938 and began writing arrangements for such popular radio programs as those featuring Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor as well as Kay Kyser’s “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” and the “Standard Hour.” Later, he began teaching arranging and orchestration at Los Angeles City College.

George Bruns, a former student of Baker’s who was writing music for one of Disney’s early forays into TV drama, “Davy Crockett” starring Fess Parker, asked Baker for orchestrational help while that show was in production in 1954. The “Mickey Mouse Club” assignment followed and Baker remained with the studio, scoring TV shows, films and theme-park rides, through 1983. Baker scored both live-action and animated films for Disney, including the circus adventure “Toby Tyler” (1960), “The Monkey’s Uncle” (1965), “The Gnome-Mobile” (1967), the Oscar-winning “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” (1968), “Napoleon and Samantha” (1971) and “The Fox and the Hound” (1981). He also composed the scores for many segments of Disney’s weekly anthology series on ABC and NBC which ran under the titles of “Disneyland,” “The Wonderful World of Color” and “Wonderful World of Disney,” including “Texas John Slaughter,” “Swamp Fox,” “Johnny Shiloh” “The Golden Horseshoe Revue” and “One Day at Teton Marsh,” one of many nature documentaries that Baker would score for Disney over the years.

Baker received Grammy nominations for his work on an album of songs from TV’s “The Electric Company” (1973) and for “America Sings” (1974) featuring Burl Ives. He conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and London’s Royal Philharmonic in Disney music, and also did so at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and at the Hollywood Bowl.

In addition to his duties at USC, Baker three years ago inaugurated an annual summer film-scoring workshop at New York University. In 1999, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the ASCAP Foundation. He continued to score attractions for various Disney theme parks around the world, including EPCOT Center (the French Pavilion), Tokyo Disneyland (“Seven Voyages of Sindbad”), Walt Disney World (“Winnie the Pooh”) and Disneyland (“Innoventions”).

Baker is survived by his wife of 26 years, Charlotte; a daughter, Catherine CiCi Baker of Lake Tahoe, Nev.; a stepson, Scott Keene of Valencia; a sister, Noreene Doss of Springfield, Mo.; two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.