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August 30, 2004
Revised: October 4, 2004
Dimitri Tiomkin & The Wild Wild West: The Untold Story
by Jon Burlingame

Dimitri Tiomkin

When it comes to music, TV people are essentially the same breed as studio executives: They want the guy who had the last big hit.

So when CBS bought a western called Rawhide in 1958 and decided to commission a song for its theme, the network went after the biggest name possible: Dimitri Tiomkin, whose songs for High Noon and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had been so memorable – especially as performed on records by Frankie Laine.

The network got what it wanted. Rawhide, with its indelible Ned Washington lyrics ("Keep rollin', rollin', rollin' / 'tho the streams are swollen / keep them dogies rollin', Rawhide!"), is one of the all-time great TV themes. It paid off for Tiomkin, too, who retained ownership of the music through his Erosa Music publishing company.

CBS came back to Tiomkin again and again. For Hotel de Paree (1959-60), he supplied a song for Colorado adventurer Sundance, played by Earl Holliman, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. For Gunslinger (1961), he reteamed with Washington and Laine for another memorable tune in the service of a forgettable show.

And when, in 1964, the network was mulling musical decisions about an offbeat western pilot called The Wild West, thoughts again turned to Tiomkin to supply a strong series theme.

It's become a kind of legend in TV-music circles: the unused, unheard, lost Tiomkin theme for the show that would eventually be called The Wild Wild West.

Robert Conrad and Ross Martin in "The Wild, Wild West"
Robert Conrad and Ross Martin starred as U.S. Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, fighting bizarre villains (notably the diminutive Dr. Miguelito Loveless, unforgettably played by Michael Dunn) from their private railroad car traveling the frontier in the post-Civil War era.

What no one knew until recently was that Tiomkin had, in fact, written two themes and that both were rejected. Thanks to the Tiomkin estate and the London-based Silva Screen label, the songs have been rediscovered, newly orchestrated and recorded. Now, at last, we can hear what Tiomkin wrote with lyricist Webster – and guess why CBS turned them down.

"The Ballad of Jim West" was the first attempt, written in December 1964. Because the pilot was still in production, Tiomkin and Webster either worked from a script or, possibly, a description of the show.

Herschel Burke Gilbert, composer of The Rifleman, was head of CBS music during the 1964-65 season. Although he knew Tiomkin and had orchestrated for him (including work on the 1940s classics Duel in the Sun and It's a Wonderful Life), he recalled in 1992 that hiring Tiomkin was not his idea but rather that of one of the producers. "It was a fait accompli," Gilbert said.

It was even front-page news. The Hollywood Reporter, on page 1 of the December 8, 1964 edition, announced that "composer-conductor Dimitri Tiomkin [will] compose a theme song and write the background music for a new telefilm series to be called The Wild West. Paul Francis Webster will be associated with Tiomkin in this venture...."

Daily Variety ran a similar story on page 8 the same day. This was the first indication that CBS wanted Tiomkin to score the entire one-hour pilot. The idea might be dismissed as a publicist's fantasy if not for a subsequent story that appeared in the December 23 issue of Variety.

The piece, headlined "'Wild' Zither Music," said that Tiomkin was "at work scoring CBS-TV series The Wild West" and that he was using 10 zithers in the orchestra. "The instrument has been laughed at in recent times," the composer was quoted as saying. "But, when played well, it was enormously versatile, a cross between a cimbalom and a small piano. It also was widely used in the Old West."

Ten zithers! It's an intriguing idea, and one that went absolutely nowhere. First, the pilot was still shooting when he issued this press release. He hadn't even seen the show, although perhaps he was making sketches and thinking about orchestrational choices. Second, he never actually composed the score he was talking about – although he had scored the entire pilot of Hotel de Paree five years earlier for CBS – because things didn't go so well when his initial theme song was unveiled a few days later.

Herschel Gilbert conducted the "demo" of the tune, recorded at CBS Studio Center on December 30, 1964. (Gilbert's voice can clearly be heard announcing "Wild West demo, take 5," on the acetate.)

According to documentation in the CBS Collection at the UCLA Music Library, composer Gerald Fried wrote the arrangement. Fried, who was working on CBS's Gilligan's Island that season, doesn't recall if Tiomkin or Webster were present at the session. But the demo recording, which was also discovered among Tiomkin's papers, appears to have been sung by The Wellingtons – the folk trio that recorded the first-season version of the Gilligan's Island theme a few months earlier. They are accompanied by guitars, not orchestra (although the recording was made at the end of a 17-musician Richard Shores session for The Cara Williams Show).

Based on the lyrics as sung, one can infer that Tiomkin and Webster either didn't understand the show's premise or ignored whatever they were told:
    Sing me a song of the good companions,
    Tell me a tale of the tall, tall men,
    Riding the wind on the snow-white stallions.
    When will we see their like again?
    Sing me a song of the distant canyons,
    Men who could climb to the eagle's nest,
    Men with their eyes on the far, far horizons.
    Such was the man they called Jim West...
The words – which go on to compare West to George Armstrong Custer, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody – suggest that he was some kind of pioneer hero, hardly an accurate description of the gadget-toting, smart-aleck government agent we came to love on Friday nights for four seasons.

Tiomkin and Webster tried again, with a song simply titled "Wild West." A demo recording of this one, referred in the CBS papers as "Wild West alternate main title," was made on January 18, 1965. Frank Comstock, who arranged several of Tiomkin's themes for the composer's 1955 Coral LP, wrote this arrangement and conducted it at the end of a Gunsmoke library-music date overseen by Gilbert. No recording of that demo has surfaced thus far, and Comstock has no memory of the session.

"Wild West," a lively folk-style romp, was even farther off the mark:
    Wild west, wild and windy sky
    And a little hill to bury you when you die.
    Wild west, land of lusty men
    We may never see those wonderful days again
    (Hallelujah, stranger)...
By this date, composer Richard Markowitz (The Rebel) was already composing the score for the pilot, then still called The Wild West. He recorded on January 22, 1965, including his own theme for the series (referred to in the paperwork as Wild West Main Title, Alternate, no. 3), and additional music (including Main Title, Alternate, no. 4) on February 9, 1965.

It is possible that "The Ballad of Jim West" was still under consideration when Markowitz first recorded his music – probably in instrumental form, the way NBC had treated the Bonanza theme by songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. But both Gilbert and Markowitz, also interviewed in 1992, recalled that no one in the executive suites liked the Tiomkin theme.

"It was old-fashioned, and the picture was sort of update-western," Gilbert remembered. Added Markowitz: "It just didn't have any of the fun in it." According to Susan Kesler's book The Wild Wild West: The Series, creator-producer Michael Garrison hated "The Ballad of Jim West" and Markowitz's now-classic theme won out. The second song, "Wild West," apparently was never seriously considered as a replacement.

Tiomkin's story, as related in a July 1965 story in Daily Variety, was that CBS "liked the melody but asked for a change of lyrics." Tiomkin refused, "so that deal fell through," the story said. Also for the 1965-66 season, he was approached to write themes for the western The Loner at 20th Century-Fox and the legislative drama Slattery's People at Bing Crosby Productions, but neither studio agreed to relinquish publishing rights to Tiomkin. Neither theme was written. (Jerry Goldsmith ultimately composed the Loner theme; Nathan Scott did Slattery's People.)

According to Gilbert, Tiomkin was paid $7,500, "which for CBS was like a million." Both songs went into the proverbial Tiomkin trunk and were forgotten. Tiomkin died in 1979, Markowitz in 1994, Gilbert in 2003.

Composer Patrick Russ, who has been working with the composer's widow Olivia Tiomkin Douglas in restoring and re-recording the composer's vast library of music, discovered the Wild West songs among the Tiomkin papers at USC. The composer's original pencil sketches, lead sheets and even some of Webster's many lyric revisions, were there. Russ created new arrangements for orchestra and chorus and both songs can now be heard as part of the four-CD box The Alamo: Dimitri Tiomkin, the Essential Film Music Collection.

Both, ironically, compare favorably with Tiomkin's other western songs and might have served a traditional big-screen western well. Perhaps, in revised instrumental form, "The Ballad of Jim West" might even have worked as a series theme.

The Tiomkin saga appears to have had a lasting impact in one sense: The lyrics of both songs feature the phrase "wild, wild west." Sometime between January 1965, when the second song was recorded, and September, when Jim and Artie began their four-year odyssey, the series title was changed to The Wild Wild West.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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