Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Belated Weekend Videos – Composer Of The Month Johnny Williams

I took a break from the Weekend Videos concept for a while, first because of the Emmy Polls and then out of lack of inspiration. However I'm not feeling that well right now and that gives one plenty of time to explore the Internet... when my head doesn't feel like it's bursting. Something I saw a while ago inspired this new theme for the Weekend Videos, and since it's the Thanksgiving long weekend (here in Canada; in the US it's the Columbus Day weekend and only Federal employees are sure to get the day off) I thought it might be time to star singling out the composers of theme music, starting with one who may come as a surprise to you, John Williams.

About the only TV theme that a lot of people would credit John Williams, composer of the scores for Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and a host of movies might be this.

That, of course is the NBC News theme. Or maybe you remember this theme from frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg's 1985-87 series Amazing Stories. (This is not the original opening sequence. While there are episodes of Amazing Stories available on YouTube, including the one of my favourite episodes, The Mission, they all seem to have clipped off the theme music, and no one has posted

Both of these themes have all the qualities that we usually associate with John Williams's movie music: lots of brass mixed with strings, and a certain heroic quality with – dare I say it – a side order of bombast. That's what we think of when we think of John Williams and his music. What a difference the years make. Maybe. Because back in the late 1950s and early '60s John Williams, or as he was known at the time Johnny Williams was doing TV themes. Pretty good TV themes in fact; some of them quite memorable. And there was one theme that could have become very memorable except for the fact that it was totally unsuited to the show. Let's start off with the earliest Johnny Williams theme that I can find, for a childhood favourite of mine, Checkmate starring Sebastian Cabot, Doug McClure, and Anthony George. In this case I'm going with the end credits, not only because they offer a glimpse of John Williams's onscreen credit but because it offers a more complete version of the theme.

There is a certain recognizable Williams quality in this piece, a little brassy and heroic although it doesn't reach the level of bombast in my opinion. Still I think it fits the swirling fog of the title sequence and indeed the show which, when you come right down to it, was a essentially a clone of such Warner Brothers private detective series as 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye.

The next theme that Williams composed for a TV show was this one for the Kraft Suspense Theater (I think this is the second version of the theme).

The Kraft Suspense Theater theme does have the brassy quality that we've come to expect from Williams but from there all bets are off. The theme has an eerie, haunted quality about it that is perfect for a suspense series. Coupled with the starkly angular and modernistic "stick figures" in the titles it becomes almost a minor masterpiece in terms of title credits.

We tend to remember John Williams's long, ongoing collaboration with Steven Spielberg, and through him with George Lucas, but before that he had a long association with Irwin Allen. Williams did the scores for two of Allen's disaster movies – The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno – but he also did the highly memorable themes for three of Allen's TV series. The first Allen series that he created the theme for was Lost In Space. Unfortunately it is impossible to find the actual opening credits sequences for most of the Irwin Allen series on YouTube. You can find it on Hulu...unless of course you aren't an American.

This wasn't the original Lost In Space theme that was used in the unsold pilot. That theme had a much more serious tone to it, and reflected the serious tone of the series itself. However the producers discovered that they couldn't sell the series to CBS unless it was played less seriously, hence the addition of Dr. Smith and the big role for The Robot. And a show with a less serious tone needed a theme with a less serious tone. Williams uses the combination of flutes and string basses (I initially thought a tuba, and there might be one in there, but repeated listening says string basses) as major elements in the score to imply that light tone of the series.

Williams did his next score for Allen for the more serious science fiction series The Time Tunnel (also my personal favourite of his series, though none of them hold up that well).

It has a bit more of what we think of as the typical Williams style, but he uses the ticking clock motif to immediately signal to us that the show is about Time. He leaves it to us to discover what Time is of such importance to the show, besides of course the fact that the show is called The Time Tunnel. At the same time you have the driving, vaguely exotic beat competing with an exciting, adventurous but more conventional beat. It's a nice blend that works in all of the elements of the concept.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of John Williams final score for an Allen TV project, which was for Land Of The Giants. I've never seen the show, and I'm not sure that I really want to, to be absolutely honest with you. I mean the year that Land Of The Giants started was the same year that Allen did The Great Vegetable Rebellion episode of Lost In Space, so I'm not sure I could handle another Allen series at this late date. I've managed to find a copy of the opening of the episode with the music. Unfortunately it appears to have been taken off a Brazilian station, and while the English language credits are intact and the music can be heard, there is a Portuguese speaking announcer jumping in with a translation of every credit, and in a very loud voice, obviously stepping all over the music. Still even this is better than nothing which is what I would have had if I hadn't found this.

I'm really not sure what to make of that theme. It is certainly the most bombastic of his TV themes and it seems to have a certain light-hearted nature to it, particularly with the Season Two theme (note the addition of the "cat sound effect," I suppose representing one of the dangers the little people faced), but as I say I really don't have a sense of how it really fits with the series.

John Williams received his first Oscar nomination for the score for Valley Of The Dolls in 1968, the same year that he did the Land Of The Giants theme, and it pretty much marked the end of his TV series work. His music was sometimes used in TV shows after that, most importantly his music for the John Wayne movie The Cowboys which was used in the TV series of the same name which was a continuation of the story, and just about anything Star Wars related, and he has done commission work, like the music for NBC's Olympics broadcasts. Some of his music was apparently used on Jack & Bobby but I suspect it was music that he had done for something else. However, there is one other TV theme that he did. Quite honestly I think that all of us can be quite grateful that the pilot for this show was reshot and a new theme used. Keep an eye on the end credits.

Yes, John(ny) Williams did write that. Well all except for the little bit over the end credits, which was the closing from the show's we're familiar with. My guess is that they didn't have the music for the credits on the unaired pilot. As for the song, what can I say? Totally unsuitable for a three hour tour out of Hawaii (where the pilot was shot) or even out of San Pedro, but the fact is that Calypso style music was hot in 1963.

Finally a real treat, the man himself in a situation totally unlike what one might expect from the composer of Star Wars and Superman and the former conductor of the Boston Pops. According to IMDB this is one of only two appearances John Williams made as an "actor." And while we all know how reliable IMDB is about cast appearance. This is the end of the first episode The Naked Truth. Keep an eye on the piano player that John Cassavetes as Staccato is jamming with and who takes over on the piano when he leaves. A similar scene is also seen at the beginning of the episode when Staccato leaves the piano and the same guy takes over for him.

That guy is John Williams. Red Norvo was on vibes (him I recognize thanks to the face fungus) while Shelley Mann is probably on drums. Also probable are Pete Candoli on trumpet. Barney Kessel and Red Mitchell but my ability to identify them is limited. According to the Complete Directory To Primetime Network And Cable TV Shows 1946-Present entry for Johnny Staccato: "Working at the club, and often featured in musical numbers, was the jazz combo of Pete Candoli, which included Barney Kessel, Shelly Mann, Red Mitchell, Red Norvo and Johnny Williams." (emphasis mine obviously). Apparently Johnny Staccato will be coming out on DVD. In fact, according to TV Shows on DVD it is supposed to be coming out on October 12 (ie the day that most of you will be seeing this because I couldn't get it finished on time). I think I might have to find a way of getting a copy. The first episode looked so hot it was cool man.

I used to listen to a CBC radio show host who didn't like John Williams. The kindest thing he could find to say about Williams was that he was a thief, who had stolen most of his "ideas" from the likes of Eric Korngold and Franz Waxman. I'm not sure he would have said that if he could have heard some of the TV work that John Williams did, and if anything a lot of what he was to do  later is apparent in this work.