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June 28, 2010
Emmy-winning Composer Allyn Ferguson Dead at 85
Notable TV themes included Charlie's Angels, Barney Miller by Jon Burlingame
Allyn Ferguson, who co-wrote the iconic themes for Charlie's Angels and Barney Miller but whose Emmy Award came for one of his many scores for classic-literature TV-movies, died Wednesday, June 23, at his home in Westlake Village, Calif. He was 85; death was due to natural causes.
Ferguson was partnered with composer Jack Elliott throughout the 1970s. Together they supplied a number of TV series with dramatic underscores, including The Rookies, Starsky & Hutch and S.W.A.T., but it was their theme and weekly music for Charlie's Angels – and their urban-jazz theme for the cop comedy Barney Miller – that brought them lasting fame.
Their simple but catchy theme for the private detectives played by Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Jaclyn Smith (and later, replacements Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts) in the Aaron Spelling-produced ABC series became one of the most familiar TV tunes of the 1970s. Henry Mancini's recording of the Charlie's Angels theme reached no. 45 on the Billboard charts in 1977.
They created the Foundation for New American Music in 1978, a groundbreaking attempt to create an orchestra devoted to symphonic jazz. It was called simply The Orchestra and performed several critically acclaimed concerts in Los Angeles. After the Elliott-Ferguson partnership broke up, the group morphed into the New American Orchestra, later American Jazz Philharmonic and eventually the Henry Mancini Institute.
"Allyn was an incredibly well-rounded musician," said composer Jack Smalley, who was part of the team who assembled those Charlie's Angels scores on a weekly basis from 1976 to 1981. "He was at home in jazz approaches as well as classical techniques. He was very opinionated about music, which made him interesting, and I treasured and learned from his opinions. I'll miss him for his high musical standards."
Chuck Berghofer, the veteran bass player who improvised the funky bass line that became the Barney Miller theme in 1975, remembered Ferguson as "a sweetheart." He recalled producer Danny Arnold at the original recording session explaining that the show was about a New York police precinct, "so I played that lick. I'd been fooling around with it a few weeks before," he said. Arnold liked it, he said; the composers added a bridge, Chuck Findley played a wild trumpet solo, "and it turned out to be a huge hit. I worked for them for years and years, on almost every single thing they did."
The Elliott-Ferguson partnership also produced many scores for other series, including Banacek, Police Story and The New Dick Van Dyke Show. Together they also scored the features Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972); Ferguson did Avalanche Express (1979) on his own.
Ferguson's solo career in television was highlighted by lavish orchestral scores for period adventure stories, many produced by Norman Rosemont: The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), The Four Feathers (1977), Captains Courageous (1977), Les Miserables (1978), A Tale of Two Cities (1980), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1980), Ivanhoe (1982), Camille (1984) and The Corsican Brothers (1985) were just some of the classic-literature remakes scored by Ferguson. He was Emmy-nominated for Ivanhoe and won for Camille.
Ferguson's other Emmy nominations were for the nine-hour Sidney Sheldon miniseries Master of the Game (1984), The Last Days of Patton (1986), April Morning (1988) and Pancho Barnes (1988). He also scored the six-hour Beulah Land (1980) and received two additional Emmy nominations as music director on the Kennedy Center Honors and the American Movie Awards. At various times he also conducted the Academy Awards, the Grammys and the Emmy Awards.
Allyn Malcolm Ferguson Jr. was born Oct. 18, 1924, in San Jose. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in music from San Jose State, and performed his own piano concerto while doing doctoral work in composition at Stanford University. He was a fighter pilot during World War II. After the war, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.
During the 1950s, Ferguson began exploring the idea of merging classical music with jazz concepts, resulting in recordings by the Chamber Jazz Sextet in the late 1950s and the recording Pictures at an Exhibition: Framed in Jazz in 1963. He arranged for Sarah Vaughan, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Andy Williams, and served as musical director for other artists including Johnny Mathis, Julie Andrews, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
He helped develop and taught at the Grove School of Music in the late 1980s. Later in his career, he arranged classic Duke Ellington compositions for the Grammy Award-winning 1998 album Count Plays Duke. He also created the Foundation for Contemporary Music Education (where donations may be made in his memory; 12941 Moorpark Street, No. 4, Studio City, CA 91604), which supplied thousands of dollars in scholarships for music students.
Survivors include his wife Joline; three children, six grandchildren, a sister, nieces, nephews and cousins. A memorial celebration will be announced at a later date.
©2010 Jon Burlingame