Ninety-year-old John Williams, who has hinted that his music for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be his last for films, still can’t seem to slow down. In December, he recorded a new three-and-a-half minute piece for ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship, airing Monday. I broke the story for Variety on Thursday and it quickly became one of my most-read pieces of recent months.
Music composed for television has, until recently, never been taken seriously by scholars or critics. Catchy TV themes, often for popular weekly series, were fondly remembered but not considered much more culturally significant than commercial jingles. Yet noted composers like John Williams, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin learned and/or honed their craft in television before going on to major success in feature films.
Oscar-winning film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Maurice Jarre wrote hours of music for television projects, and such high-profile jazz figures as Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Quincy Jones also contributed music to TV series. Concert-hall luminaries from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, and theater writers from Jerome Moross to Richard Rodgers, penned memorable scores for TV.
Music for Prime Time is the first serious, journalistic history of music for American television. It is the product of 35 years of research and more than 450 interviews with composers, orchestrators, producers, editors and musicians active in the field. Based on, but vastly expanded and revised from, an earlier book by the same author, this wide-ranging narrative not only tells the backstory of every great TV theme but also examines the many neglected and frequently underrated orchestral and jazz compositions for television dating back to the late 1940s.
Covering every series genre (crime, comedy, drama, westerns, action-adventure, fantasy and sci-fi), it also looks at music for animated series, news and documentary programming, TV-movies and miniseries, and how music for television has evolved in the era of cable and streaming options. It is the most comprehensive history of television scoring ever published.
“A remarkable history of music in American television from its infancy to the present day. The book connects every conceivable television genre with the composers who made these shows memorable to the viewing public. In each chapter, Burlingame creates compelling historical narratives while also spinning intimate portraits of its music makers. As informative as it is entertaining, this will be an invaluable resource for television studies for years to come.”
— Ron Rodman, author, Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music
“Part analog database, part rollicking scavenger hunt (you can find nuggets like Henry Mancini’s well-timed haircut, which led to the Peter Gunn theme and essentially Mancini’s subsequent career, or Yul Brynner’s surprising design skills), this fast-moving survey is a rich source of quick-fix facts, large-scale historical arcs, and more than a few enticing side trails for the rest of us to explore.”
— Robynn J. Stilwell, co-editor, Music and the Moving Image
Once in a while my editors at Variety will commission an essay on a topic of current interest. They asked for two in December, and I found both fascinating: A long piece looking at the progress, or lack thereof, that women composers have been making in film and TV music; and a second, somewhat lighter in tone, about the current popularity of television themes — mostly on the streaming services — and how they seem to be more memorable lately.
I don’t often get to write about one of my favorite jazz artists: Vince Guaraldi, once famed for his Grammy-winning “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” but now best known for his scores for more than a dozen animated Peanuts specials of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Charlie Brown Christmas album is said to be one of the best-selling jazz albums in history, and to our great surprise, the original 1965 recording sessions were recently unearthed. Craft Recordings, which owns the old Fantasy record label, has issued an expanded Charlie Brown Christmas album with extra tracks in a number of formats. My piece for Variety includes new interviews with Guaraldi biographer Derrick Bang and Jason Mendelson, the son of longtime Peanuts TV producer Lee Mendelson.
It was a miracle to pull this one off. When we launched the Quinn Martin Collection of TV soundtracks (including Barnaby Jones, Dan August, Cannon, Most Wanted, The Invaders, The Streets of San Francisco), we knew it would be difficult to include one of Quinn’s earliest successes, the World War II series 12 O’Clock High — because it was a co-production of QM and 20th Century-Fox, and clearing the rights was therefore complicated. But we had over 12 hours of music that Dominic Frontiere composed for the 1964-67 series and I really wanted to collect and release what I felt was Frontiere’s best work for television. Luckily, with QM defunct, Fox found a way to clear it, and we were able to assemble a “best of” 2-CD set. We also had the cooperation of Dominic’s family and were able to include some period photos of the composer in the booklet.
Werewolf by Night, which debuted on Disney+ in October, was among the best-reviewed Marvel projects in ages. It really was fun, and the surprise to many was the identity of the director: Michael Giacchino, Oscar- (Up), Emmy- (Lost) and Grammy-winning (Ratatouille) composer. He talked about the experience with me (he scored it, too!) for this story. Giacchino was later named Variety’s composer of the year — considering his massive recent success with the music for Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion and Lightyear — and the publication featured him in a conversation with his friend J.J. Abrams, which I recounted in this story.
Some of today’s most compelling scores are on television, and for science-fiction and fantasy projects. This year’s crop was especially interesting, and I explored several of them in stories for Variety: Bear McCreary talked about his grand-scale music for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power; Amie Doherty and Ramin Djawadi discussed their scores for She-Hulk and House of the Dragon, respectively; Laura Karpman regaled us with the complexity of recording Ms. Marvel; Natalie Holt and Hesham Nazih talked with us about Marvel’s Loki and Moon Knight; the composers of Severance, Foundation and The Book of Boba Fett chimed in on their special challenges; and Nami Melumad talked about the latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds. Nicholas Britell talked with us twice about Andor, first in announcing his involvement, long kept under wraps; and after the series debuted, although he was still reluctant to give away any secrets.
No sooner do we finish Oscar season than Emmy season is upon us. But it’s always fun if a bit of a scramble to see as many television shows as possible before interviewing their composers for Variety and the SCL. We looked at the superstars vying for Emmy song nominations here; the nominations in all seven of the Television Academy’s music categories were announced July 12. My analysis of the nominees, particularly the lack of superstars in the song categories, is here; more importantly, the diversity among this year’s nominees was notable. I discussed every nominee in all seven categories here; and the winners were finally announced on Sept. 3 and 4. My one regret: that my favorite TV song of the year, Mick Jagger’s Slow Horses theme, wasn’t even nominated — especially after I went to a lot of trouble to get him on the phone for an exclusive story.
This was a special one. We discovered that John Williams was writing a new theme for Lucasfilm’s Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi and broke the story for Variety in February. Then we got to sit down for lunch with British composer Natalie Holt, who galvanized us all with her Loki music and never stopped for minute, diving into the Star Wars world with her own take on music for the Jedi Master. That interview ran as the series was just beginning in May.
This was a real labor of love. When we decided to do a series of albums of music from Quinn Martin productions, The Streets of San Francisco was high on my priority list. I knew and loved Pat Williams, a dear friend and brilliant composer who won several Emmys for his TV music. And that Streets theme, with its distinctive clavinet and roaring big-band sound, just screams “1970s cop show” to me and millions of others. I decided to devote the entire 2-CD set to Pat’s pilot and nine episode scores (and it was a bear to track all of those tapes down!), but there was room enough at the end to include his fun pilot score for the short-lived QM spy show A Man Called Sloane.