His music was an integral part of our young lives, a Christmas tradition in many households — watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and so many other holiday specials: Maury Laws was the unsung musical genius behind them all. As musical director for Rankin-Bass, the animation company that produced all of those shows (not to mention The Hobbit and Wind in the Willows), Laws was responsible for arranging the songs he didn’t write (as in Rudolph) and composing many of the songs in subsequent specials. He even earned a Grammy nomination for The Hobbit. Laws gave few interviews but, in later years, seemed genuinely surprised and grateful for the attention. He died on Thursday in Wisconsin; here is my obituary for Variety.
French composer Michel Legrand — the genius behind such unforgettable movie songs as “I Will Wait for You,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and others — died Jan. 26 in Paris. I adored his scores as much as his songs, ranging from classics like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Summer of ’42 to less well-known but no less stunning scores for films like Peau d’Ane, Wuthering Heights, The Go-Between and The Three Musketeers. Few composers could boast as many familiar movie themes as Legrand. I was lucky enough to interview him, I think, three times over the years, and to see him in concert (whether with a full orchestra or just a small jazz combo) was never less than a complete joy. My obituary in Variety was followed by a collection of memorable moments from his career visible on YouTube.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Nick Redman, a close friend for nearly 30 years and a collaborator on dozens of film and record projects, died on January 17. He was only 63, and while he had been battling cancer for the past two years, we all thought he’d be around much longer. He was a major presence on the film-music scene, having produced hundreds of albums (including first-ever releases of such classics as Laura and Dirty Harry and many of the brilliant scores of Jerry Fielding); and he was a formidable filmmaker too, earning a 1996 Oscar nomination as producer of The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage. He was best man at my wedding and many of the DVDs and CDs pictured on this website (projects I’ve contributed to over the years) were his productions. Writing his obituary for Variety was one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever faced.
We learned of the death of Francis Lai on Wednesday afternoon. The Oscar-winning French composer of Love Story and, a few years earlier, A Man and a Woman, was 86. I was especially saddened by the news because the composer had only recently, and very kindly, granted an interview for my next book and that work is still incomplete. I loved his music, especially his scores from the 1960s and ’70s, for their melodic invention and his penchant for classically-styled themes (especially “Concerto for a Love’s Ending” from 1969’s Love Is a Funny Thing and “Adagio for Organ, Choir and Orchestra” from 1968’s La louve solitaire); for TV, his themes for 1970’s Berlin Affair and 1974’s The Sex Symbol are favorites. I wrote this obituary for Variety and, the next day, talked to the Washington Post for their in-depth piece on the composer.
The Hollywood community was stunned last week by the death of Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer Patrick Williams. Not only among the most talented composer-arrangers of his generation, “Pat” Williams was one of the nicest guys in the business, one of the all-time great big-band leaders and a strong supporter of music education — a rare combination. I was lucky to get to know him over the past 30 years and it’s been hard to say goodbye. I wrote a fact-filled obituary for Variety and a slightly different version for the AFM’s Overture, but I also wrote an appreciation of the man and his music that I think conveys a bit more of who he was and why we all loved him.
It was a shock to receive word on Saturday morning that Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson had been found dead in his Berlin apartment. As Variety‘s resident film-music writer, it was my sad duty to talk with his manager and write the story as quickly as possible. Here is that obituary. I had known him since his Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything (the photograph of us is from a post-screening Q&A we did together in early 2015; our first interview was in late 2014) and we did a fascinating interview in late 2016 for the Directors Guild magazine that also included his longtime collaborator Denis Villeneuve; that story is here. I was a great admirer of his scores for Sicario (Oscar nominated in 2015) and Arrival (unfortunately disqualified for Oscar consideration in 2016; here is the full explanation of that). It’s been a tremendous loss for the film-music community, and the days since his death have seen an outpouring of emotion.
The composer of that unforgettable violin melody at the heart of Young Frankenstein, and so many more great scores for Mel Brooks movies, died on Thursday in New York. John Morris, twice Oscar-nominated (for co-writing the hilarious Blazing Saddles song and for his heartfelt dramatic score for The Elephant Man), had long ago retired from the business. But his themes for the movies of Brooks, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and others — plus a handful of major television scores including The Adams Chronicles and Scarlett — are among the most indelible of the last 50 years. His passing has brought a surprising outpouring of grief and appreciation from the Hollywood music community. Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety; we first met in the early 1990s and I last talked to him in 2006 when I was writing the program notes for a Chicago Symphony performance of Young Frankenstein and other Morris scores.
We got the sad news about Dominic Frontiere’s death through an offbeat source: a paid death notice that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It took an entire day (including calling every funeral home in the Santa Fe area) to confirm the news, and in that time I assembled an obituary that covered the high points of his long career. Frontiere composed several classic themes of 1960s TV — including The Outer Limits, 12 O’Clock High, The Flying Nun, Branded, The Invaders, and The Rat Patrol — as well as such memorable movie scores as Hang ‘Em High and The Stunt Man. He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and even his forgotten shows had great themes (I especially love The Immortal, Search and his miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors). Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety.
It was so sad to hear of the death of Marni Nixon, a wonderful lady with whom I’d just recently conducted a long, on-camera career history (for the Film Music Foundation, to be posted online soon). I wrote this obituary for Variety that talks a bit about her three famous “ghost singing” gigs: for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But she was much more than that, singing (from the late 1940s on) as part of the Roger Wagner Chorale, in many classical and opera performances, and even classic TV themes (she was in the choir for I Married Joan in 1954!).
We lost a beloved figure in the Hollywood music community on Sunday. Van Alexander, the bandleader and composer who (with singer Ella Fitzgerald) wrote the jazz classic “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”; who scored dozens of favorite 1960s sitcoms as well as several cult-classic films; and who wrote a seminal work on arranging for big bands that influenced dozens of arrangers in later years, died at the age of 100. I wrote an obituary for Variety that sums up his career, but I’d also like to point you to a story I wrote about his 100th birthday party just over two months ago that shows how strongly the community felt about him. Van was not only a fantastic musician, he was a sharp and very funny guy.