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June 13, 2003
"Rifleman" Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert Dead at 85
by Jon Burlingame

Herschel Burke Gilbert

Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose themes for The Rifleman and Burke's Law are among the most famous TV themes of all time, died about 1 a.m. Sunday, June 8, at Cedars-Sinai Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 85 and died of complications from a stroke suffered March 23.

An active film composer in the late '40s and '50s, Gilbert was nominated for three Academy Awards in consecutive years: For his original score for The Thief (1952), his title tune for The Moon Is Blue (1953) and for his music direction on Carmen Jones (1954). It was Gilbert who gave later opera star Marilyn Horne her first professional job, singing the voice of Carmen. The Thief, a Ray Milland spy picture, relied heavily on Gilbert's music because the film had no dialogue.

He was a President of The Film Music Society – in its earlier incarnation as The Society for the Preservation of Film Music – from 1989 to 1992, and continued to serve on its Board of Directors until his death. He was among the most active and outspoken supporters of the Society's work in preserving film and TV music for future generations to hear and study, and was a 1998 recipient of the organization's Film Music Preservation Award.

Gilbert's biggest successes as a composer were in television. His association with producers Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy and Arnold Laven led to his music for the Chuck Connors family western The Rifleman (1958-63). In addition to his famous theme, he wrote a library of dramatic music for the series and recorded it in Munich.

Shortly thereafter, he became music director for Dick Powell's Four Star production company. While there, he wrote themes scores for such shows as Zane Grey Theater, The Dick Powell Show, The Detectives, The Westerner, The DuPont Show Starring June Allyson, The Rogues, The Gertrude Berg Show and others. His LP, Dick Powell Presents Themes from Four Star Television, was one of the first TV soundtrack albums to feature the actual music heard every week on the programs (as opposed to re-recordings, then commonplace in the industry).

One of his last assignments at Four Star resulted in another memorable television theme: Burke's Law (1963-66), with its breathy female voice and jazzy brass opening for the Rolls Royce-chauffeured police detective Amos Burke (played by Gene Barry).

Equally famous among TV buffs is an entire series of uncredited cues that Gilbert composed for background-music libraries in the early 1950s. Dozens of Gilbert-penned and -published orchestral pieces, all recorded in Europe, became the underscore of dozens of '50s classics including The Adventures of Superman, Racket Squad, Topper, Sky King and Ramar of the Jungle. Some of this music was recently featured on the Superman CD released by Varese Sarabande.

Gilbert was born in 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisc., and began studying the violin at the age of 9. By the age of 15, he had formed his own dance band. He attended Milwaukee State Teachers College and studied for four years at New York's Juilliard School of Music in the early 1940s.

A two-year stint with the Harry James band, as both viola player and arranger, eventually took him to Hollywood. He arranged and orchestrated for several composers, including Dimitri Tiomkin on It's a Wonderful Life and Duel in the Sun (both 1946) and went on to compose the scores for some three dozen films throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s, including films by Don Siegel (Riot in Cell Block 11, 1954) and Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps, 1956).

His other credits included The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Comanche (1956), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and Sam Whiskey (1969).

Gilbert joined Four Star in 1959, serving as executive music director and supervising the music of an estimated 1,500 TV shows over the next six years; two of the Dick Powell Shows he supervised were nominated for music Emmys.

In 1964, he became music director for CBS, supervising and sometimes composing the music for various shows including Gilligan's Island and Rawhide. He received the the Cowboy Hall of Fame's Western Heritage Award for "Damon's Road," a two-part episode of Rawhide that aired in 1964.

A few years ago, Gilbert estimated that his music was featured in all or part of 3,000 television episodes that aired throughout the 1950s and '60s.

Gilbert retired from TV work in 1966 to form his own record company, Laurel Records, which eventually produced more than 60 LPs and nearly 30 CDs, mostly of contemporary American chamber music. Laurel became one of the nation's premier classical labels, acclaimed for its eclectic repertoire choices – including the recorded debuts of dozens of chamber works – and outstanding engineering.

In recent years, Gilbert had devoted much of his time to industry organizations and civic activities. In addition to serving as vice president, and later president, of the Society for the Preservation of Film Music, he served as president of the Screen Composers Association and president of the American Society of Music Arrangers. He was a past governor of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and formerly served as a music-branch executive committee member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Trudy; four children and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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