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December 7, 2006
Shirley Walker: An Appreciation
Revered composer held her own in a male-dominated art form by Jon Burlingame
A list of credits doesn't always tell the story of who someone was. Or what she did.
Shirley Walker died Thursday, Nov. 30, of complications from a stroke she suffered while visiting her sister in Reno, Nev. She was 61.
She won two Daytime Emmy Awards – one in 1996, as music director of The Adventures of Batman & Robin, the other in 2001 as one of the composers of Batman Beyond. She was nominated for a 1996 Primetime Emmy for her powerful and exciting music for Space: Above and Beyond.
She was well-known for her work on Warner Bros.' acclaimed animated DC super-hero series, including Batman and Superman – right after doing a stellar job with weekly scoring duties on The Flash, Warner's live-action DC series in 1990-91.
Shirley Walker also made film-music history. She held the record for composing more original scores for major-studio feature films than any other American woman: Suspenseful music for all three Final Destination films, an offbeat score for Willard, edgy music for Escape From L.A., the symphonic score for Memoirs of an Invisible Man and others.
For that reason alone, she will merit attention in the record books. But she was also a mentor, a role model, a guiding light for many. She endured gender bias but wasn't thrown by it. She helped countless younger composers who went on to strong careers of their own, some of whom have reached the A-list of Hollywood music-makers.
"Shirley Walker was a great composer, period," says Paul Broucek, president of music for New Line Cinema. "There was never any worry that Shirley wasn't going to deliver a really rich score that was going to elevate any film that she was scoring. She was a dream."
Dan Carlin, currently executive director of the Henry Mancini Institute and an Emmy-winning music editor, remembers meeting Walker in 1979 during the troubled post-production of The Black Stallion – music that, while never acknowleged publicly, was well-known inside the business as a score that Walker saved. "Given the extraordinary political tension, Shirley's combined creativity, tenacity, sensitivity and humility was nothing less than heroic," Carlin says.
"It was Shirley's bad luck to develop remarkable talent in a field where, sadly, gender often remains a determinant of employment eligibility. But one heard her neither complain nor use this as an excuse for failing to land the biggest films – not that she didn't contribute mightily on such projects as a conductor, arranger and orchestrator. Those of us who had the pleasure and honor of working with her will remember Shirley's coolness under fire, her gracious mentorship, her joy in meeting the musical challenge and, quite significantly, her insistence on the fair distribution of remuneration and credit to her collaborators."
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Walker helped to make the music of a couple of Hollywood newcomers sound great and always complement the imagery. She orchestrated and conducted Danny Elfman's Batman, Dick Tracy, Nightbreed and Darkman, and did the same for Hans Zimmer's Days of Thunder, Backdraft, A League of Their Own and Toys. She never took credit for those scores – she always made clear that her efforts were about making the actual composers' work shine.
Recalls Elfman: "I remember getting to London to begin recording the score to Batman – my first time on a big film and my first time ever recording outside of L.A. I had asked Shirley to conduct. Walking in for the first session got a great reaction from the orchestra. I can't say whether she was the first female conductor they had seen, but it sure seemed like it. It was a great reaction!
"I think many of the musicians were not quite sure what to make of the situation, but Shirley quickly had everyone's attention and, by the time we were finished, their respect. She did a fabulous job under great duress doing triple sessions every day, meaning morning, afternoon and night. Grueling, to say the least. We worked on a number of other films together and always, without exception, she did exemplary work. I will miss her."
Zimmer calls her "truly one of the most incredible composers I've ever met. She didn't look down on me because I hadn't gone to music school. You have no idea how important that was. And the endless struggle she had as a woman, the valiant, righteous fight she had to put up to be recognized...
She not only orchestrated and conducted for Zimmer but hired him as a synthesizer player for sessions, "which was fun," Zimmer says. "It was great to have Shirley boss me around, because I would learn a lot. And the way she fought for the rights of musicians – she was really nice but she could have a real edge to her. I loved the edge."
Glen Morgan, who did half a dozen projects with Walker as a writer-producer or director (including the Final Destination films, Willard and, for TV, Space: Above and Beyond and The Others), says there was no doubt that she suffered gender bias from less astute executives. He discovered her music while searching for a composer for Space: Above and Beyond and didn't care what sex she was. That was the music he wanted.
"We had a full orchestra every week," Morgan recalls. "Each character had a theme. Shirley played at our wedding; she brought a couple of cello players and some violinists, and when Kristin came down the aisle it was to the Shane Vansen theme from Space: Above and Beyond. It was just beautiful."
Walker was a role model not just for young composers, Morgan says. "I know a lot of women in our circle who looked up to Shirley no matter what they did."
Vasi Vangelos of First Artists Management, Walker's longtime agent, admired her not just as "a groundbreaking film composer, but (for) her ability to reach out to any composer and guide them, give them advice without feeling threatened about taking her business away. She gave to fellow composers like no other composer I've seen – yet she still had this fierce competitiveness and toughness that it takes to be in this business."
For several years in the 1990s, Walker worked as supervising composer on Warner Bros.' weekly animated versions of DC super-heroes including Batman and Superman. Not only did these shows showcase her strengths as a composer – with music that was variously romantic, thrilling, moody or just plain fun – but it afforded her an opportunity to give more than two dozen younger, less experienced composers a chance to score network television shows and be paid industry rates for their work.
Says Jean MacCurdy, longtime president of Warner Bros. Animation: "Shirley was an amazing woman and an amazing talent.
"The depth of her musical soul was disguised by the simplicity of her nature and her being, and thus emerged even more powerful because of the deception. One was constantly surprised by the drama and the touch of insanity this woman – who appeared as a Sunday-school marm – could deliver. She really got it. Our animation never looked so good as when the sound of Shirley was behind it.
"We were lucky enough to have had the budgets and the time to provide full scores on our television animation when we were doing Batman and Superman. We were even luckier to have had Shirley Walker be the one to deliver them. She was awesome. She will truly be missed. She was a wonderful human being."
Several of the composers who worked with her remain in awe of her talent and generosity.
Shirley Walker "was all about making great music," says Michael McCuistion, a composer who received his first job as a professional film composer from her. "Shirley took me under her wing. She believed in me and, most importantly, told me so. Steadfast friend and patient mentor, Shirley was always available whenever I needed to talk with her, even if it was just to listen. Her beautifully crafted, sensitive and powerful music remains an inspiration to me."
Adds composer Lolita Ritmanis: "Shirley was my mentor, my colleague and my friend. Brilliant as a composer, her legacy reaches far beyond her musical talents. Shirley's determination to open doors of opportunity for aspiring composers is unrivaled in our industry. This is a huge loss."
Kristopher Carter, who began as Shirley's assistant and later orchestrated for her before gaining his own credits as a composer, explains: "Shirley was not just a trailblazer for women composers, but a true champion of our craft of either gender. She honored tradition while constantly innovating. Her music had so much depth and substance.... She was so generous in giving of her time to help younger composers understand the intricacies and pitfalls of our business."
McCuistion, Ritmanis and Carter – whose Emmy-winning work on shows that Walker supervised led to their current prominence as the composers for Warner Bros.' animated series Justice League, Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes – are just three of the composers whom Walker championed.
Fellow Emmy winner Laura Karpman remembers meeting Walker in 1987 as the only female fellow at the Sundance Institute. Karpman was the beneficiary of Walker's tutelage then and for years thereafter. "Shirley was the pinnacle of composers making music in Hollywood, and equally important, she was at the apex of the tiny group of the women composers in our profession.... Shirley's passing is a major loss. And although I am shaken, I am equally overwhelmed with the fortune I have had knowing this major composer."
Larry Rench, who orchestrated on several Walker films including the Final Destination series, Turbulence and Willard, adds: "Shirley was the consummate composer, never abandoning paper and pencil. At the podium she was full of poise and confidence. She broke down barriers while remaining firmly grounded in the love her family and community. She worked tirelessly for the unity of all musicians, even when this stance came at a personal cost to her."
Former Recording Musicians Association president Brian O'Connor, one of the town's premier French horn players, cites Walker's talent "to connect many people and orchestras in wonderful and uplifting ways. Shirley was able to put a new slant on many musical ideas. She was supportive, professional, helpful and understanding."
Society of Composers & Lyricists president Dan Foliart calls Walker "an unfailing champion of composer's rights. Her insight and devotion to our craft was unparalleled." ASCAP president Marilyn Bergman laments the loss of "a pioneer, as one of the very few women film and TV composers to have broken through the brass ceiling."
Shirley Walker will long be remembered not just as the composer of animated TV shows, or of a handful of suspense movies. She will be remembered as a trailblazer, a mentor, an inspirational leader. And because of her generosity to so many composers of the next generation, her influence will be felt for decades to come. Two of her proteges, McCuistion and Ritmanis, put it this way: "Her integrity and musicianship live on in all of us who have known her."
©2006 Jon Burlingame