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April 4, 2011
New Books Capture Film Music History
Killing Me Softly: My Life In Music by Charles Fox
Film and Television Music: A Guide to Books, Articles and Composer Interviews by Warren Sherk
by Jon Burlingame

Two new books have recently hit the shelves that deal, in very different ways, with music for film and television. One is a delightful memoir of one composer's adventures in popular music; the other is an invaluable resource for information about movie and TV music.

Charles Fox's Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music (Scarecrow Press, $34.95) is, quite simply, one of the finest composer autobiographies I have ever read. Fox is the Oscar-nominated, Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer of such songs as "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "I Got a Name"; films including Goodbye Columbus, Foul Play and 9 to 5; and such iconic TV themes as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and The Love Boat.

But this is not "And Then I Wrote..." Rather, Fox frames his career with the story of his youthful studies with famed French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones and Michel Legrand. The central section of the book is a series of letters that he wrote home during his stay in Paris (1959-61) that talk about his experiences there, his enthusiasm for her teaching methods and what he gained during that period.

"Fox's earnest, thoughtfully observed commentary on his own career...is fascinating, sometimes funny and even eye-opening."

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about her and appreciate what she gave to me," Fox writes. "Nothing less than a life in music."

Fox's earnest, thoughtfully observed commentary on his own career – which followed the Boulanger studies – is fascinating, sometimes funny and even eye-opening. He's quite candid about the sometimes shady business practices he encountered (having to write ABC's Wide World of Sports theme for $500 and no future royalties, for example).

Some of his most entertaining anecdotes deal with the process of creating TV themes. Fox – together with frequent lyricist partners Norman Gimbel and Paul Williams – penned songs for some of TV's most enduring series, including Love American Style, Angie and Wonder Woman. As he writes: "It helps to have a musical identification that the audience recognizes and looks forward to each week... The theme should feel like a good friend, an old friend who comes back each week to entertain you."

Fox, without access to a piano or cassette player, had to serenade producer Aaron Spelling with his own a capella rendition of his theme for The Love Boat; luckily Spelling liked it, even without accompaniment, and it became not only a long-running hit that everyone knows, but also a signature song for vocalist Jack Jones that he still sings in concert.

There are a number of surprises in the book, notably Fox's unhappy experiences on the movie version of Grease, which led to him leaving the project during production; the fun he had working with a pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger on his only film as director, the TV remake of Christmas in Connecticut; and his friendships with such notable colleagues as Jerry Goldsmith.

In a very different vein, is Warren M. Sherk's Film and Television Music: A Guide to Books, Articles, and Composer Interviews (Scarecrow Press, $75). Sherk, a "music specialist" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library, is also a composer and orchestrator who has worked on a number of Hollywood films.

He spent nearly 30 years compiling vast lists of practically everything of substance ever published on the subject of music for film and television, and the result is this remarkably vast treasure trove of information. It's a mind-boggling 586 pages of data (and another 80 pages of index!).

There has been one other attempt to do something similar: Steven D. Wescott's 1985 Comprehensive Bibliography of Music for Film and Television, but that was available in only a limited edition, is hard to find and now long out of date. Sherk's book not only lists tens of thousands of articles and books – in many cases the author provides a succinct synopsis of the content of each.

"Sherk's book not only lists tens of thousands of articles and books – in many cases the author provides a succinct synopsis of the content of each."

Sections on books, dissertations, composer and songwriter biographies, film and music periodicals with film-music articles are all included. But, in another unprecedented piece of scholarship, Sherk also indexes dozens of small-press magazines and newsletters – many of them fan-produced – that chronicled the field: Cinemascore, Film Score Monthly, Music for the Movies, Soundtrack! and others. These, together with the more professionally produced Film Music Notes, The Score, The Cue Sheet, Pro Musica Sana and others, form an entire core of movie-music scholarship, information and opinion that has never been chronicled in any form. These indexes alone are worth the price of the book. What's more, Sherk personally examined all of them in order to summarize their contents in a line or a paragraph in order to help the reader determine their relative value to research.

A section on film-music articles within music periodicals is equally helpful, including everything from Down Beat to Gramophone. Movie- and TV-music articles in places like Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and other general-interest magazines are also noted. (Newspaper articles, oral histories and soundtrack reviews are among the few arenas not chronicled in Sherk's otherwise all-encompassing tome.)

Film and Television Music is nothing less than a landmark reference work – an indispensable book for anyone who researches or writes about this field.

Both authors will be signing their books, and Fox will be performing, on April 9 from 3–5 pm at the Barnes & Noble bookshop in Westside Pavilion, 10850 West Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles, (310) 475-3138. For more information, read about the event or contact the event sponsor – The Film Music Society – at (310) 820-1909 or info@filmmusicsociety.org.

©2011 Jon Burlingame
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