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October 31, 2014
Ian Fraser: An Appreciation
Hollywood mourns passing of beloved Emmy-winning music director by Jon Burlingame
LOS ANGELES—Ian Fraser, the most-honored musician in the history of television and the winner of 11 Emmys, died Friday morning, Oct. 31, at his L.A. home. He was 81; family members attributed the cause of death to complications from cancer.
As a musical director, Fraser was responsible for the polished, classy orchestral sound of dozens of television specials. Although he often worked for the producing team of Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith, his services were constantly sought by any producer with good taste in music.
He enjoyed long and musically stimulating associations with Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse and Julie Andrews, on Broadway, in films and on television. He conducted the Emmy Awards ceremonies in 1984, 1993 and 2002, conducted the Oscar telecast in 1984, and shared the podium with John Williams for "Liberty Weekend" in 1986.
Fraser's record of 32 Emmy nominations – all in the "music direction" category, since 1976 – is believed to be unsurpassed by any other composer, arranger or conductor in Emmy history. His 11 wins are also more than any other musician, including two for Julie Andrews specials (1988, 1990) and two for Christmas in Washington (1985, 1989), which he launched in 1982 and has conducted every year since then (earning another 12 Emmy nominations along the way).
Said Julie Andrews: "Ian was my beloved friend, trusted conductor, arranger, pianist and all-around musical genius. I will miss him very much, indeed. As a mentor, he encouraged me to try things that enhanced my knowledge of music and my singing abilities. Having him in my life, which he helped shape so much, was a gift he gave to me. My heart goes out to his family."
Leslie Bricusse recalled: "I met Ian Fraser and Anthony Newley on the same night: the spring of 1959, at the Decca recording studio in London. They were recording an album, and I had brought Newley, who at the time was a hot young pop star, a song that I had just written.
"That night was to prove one of the key moments of all three of our lives. The 27-year-old Newley recorded the song, with the 25-year-old Fraser conducting, we all became pals. Newley and I began a successful writing partnership, and from that day to this, 55 years and 40-plus stage and screen projects later, I have never worked on any show or film in which Ian Fraser was not in some way creatively involved with me.
"Throughout my entire working life, Ian has been the most consistent, loyal, ever-present perceptive, critical and professional friend and collaborator I have ever known or could ever have wished for. My debt to him is incalculable, and I've not been bad for his career either. Probably the best thing I ever did for him was to bring Julie Andrews into his life, since which he has been her musical director for 40 years. Four great pals who stayed close all the way."
Fraser was also deeply committed to the composing community of Los Angeles. He was in the middle of his 10th term as a governor of the Television Academy, and worked hard to improve both the music Emmys and the environment for television composers generally. He was also a past president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers.
As his fellow governor Michael A. Levine said, "Ian was an outstanding governor, a brilliant musician, and, above all, a great human being. We were blessed to have him." TV Academy chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum added: "Ian made significant contributions to the Television Academy.... [He was] a man of great taste and talent, intelligence and warmth, and a wonderful sense of humor and fun."
Fraser was the last person to conduct "White Christmas" for Bing Crosby, on Crosby's last holiday special in 1977. For that same show, he collaborated in the writing of the "Peace on Earth" duet for Crosby and David Bowie (as a counterpoint to "The Little Drummer Boy") which is now famous and was featured on a 2002 Christmas album that sold 2 million copies.
His television collaborations with Ben Vereen, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Linda Lavin won Emmys (in 1978, 1980 and 1981), as did his musical celebration of Richard Rodgers (1977), the Screen Actors Guild's 50th anniversary (1984), the American Teacher Awards (1991) and President Clinton's Inaugural Gala (1993).
Fraser's job as music director involved more than just conducting the shows; he chose the arrangers and orchestrators who helped to prepare the material that would be played or sung on all these shows.
"I've always been lucky that the best people have enjoyed working on these shows," he told me in 1997. "Like the late, great Billy Byers and, from the mid '70s through the '80s, Ralph Burns. Over the years, I've also had the pleasure of working with Chris Boardman, J. Hill, Angela Morley, Bill Ross and Bob Florence – and, more recently, Eddie Karam and Harold Wheeler, all wonderful arrangers.
"Generally, I act in a more traditional theater way, where the music director is really looming over everything and putting his stamp on it. Having people that I admire, I will lead them where I want stylistically, in some cases doing a full sketch, in other cases playing it over and discussing it at length.
"The other thing is, being from the theater, I've realized the importance of getting a great performance out of the orchestra. And the way I conduct gives it a certain style."
Fraser's musical sensibilities stemmed from a diverse and colorful background, beginning in his native England. After five years of Army service in the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra (as pianist, harpist and military-band percussionist), he worked as a pianist in London nightclubs and began arranging for popular artists for the Decca label – including the singer-songwriter Anthony Newley.
It was the Newley-Bricusse show Stop the World, I Want to Get Off that brought him to the U.S. in 1962, to orchestrate and supervise the hit Broadway version. He later conducted Bricusse's 1965 show Pickwick.
Bricusse also brought Fraser into films, beginning as "vocal supervisor" on Dr. Dolittle (1967) and as "associate musical supervisor" on Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), culminating in an Oscar nomination as conductor, orchestrator and musical supervisor on the Bricusse musical Scrooge (1970).
He composed scores for Hopscotch (1980, adapting Mozart), First Monday in October (1981, adapting John Philip Sousa), Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981, adapting Max Steiner), and the TV-movies Torn Between Two Lovers (1979), Life of the Party: The Story of Beatrice (1982) and Babes in Toyland (1986).
He first worked with Julie Andrews on her now legendary ABC variety series in the early 1970s. He became her musical director, recording two Christmas albums and doing five television specials togerther. In the 1990s, he arranged and conducted two more albums with her that were Grammy-nominated; conducted her starring role on Broadway in the stage version of the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse Victor / Victoria; and went on to compose the score for Andrews' reading of her 2003 children's book Simeon's Gift.
He worked, over the years, with dozens of leading artists, from Placido Domingo and Ann-Margret to Shirley MacLaine and Christina Aguilera.
Producer Gary Smith, in a 1991 interview, told me: "Ian is extremely proficient. He really shines on a show like Christmas in Washington, where he is called upon to work with great opera stars – who are incredibly demanding – plus pop stars, and regular television performers. But he also understands the studio situation. More than any other composer, he understands the technology and what it can bring, especially in post-production. He's very meticulous."
Fraser will be remembered, as former Academy governor Bruce Broughton put it, as "the last of the great, elegant music directors. His arrangements could be dazzling, and he always knew what to do, musically, with an act or a show."
Survivors include his wife of nearly 50 years, the former Judee Morton; three children; a brother and a sister; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Donations in his name may be made to the American Cancer Society or Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. A celebration of his life will be scheduled at a later date.
©2014 Jon Burlingame