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April 24, 2017
The Rifleman Soundtrack Released
Herschel Burke Gilbert score long-awaited by fans by Jon Burlingame
HOLLYWOOD—The Rifleman, one of TV's most beloved Westerns, finally has a soundtrack album. It only took nearly 60 years to happen.
Starring Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford as rancher Lucas McCain and his son Mark, The Rifleman ran for five seasons on ABC (1958-63) and has endured for decades in syndication as a well-made family drama in half-hour form. The setting was fictional North Fork, N.M. in the 1880s; Paul Fix played their friend Micah Torrance, the town marshal.
The creator, and writer and director of a handful of first-season episodes, was famed Western director Sam Peckinpah (who would later make The Wild Bunch). The composer was Herschel Burke Gilbert, a three-time Oscar nominee who was then transitioning into television. The Rifleman theme is probably his most famous work (he later composed the themes for Robert Taylor's The Detectives and Gene Barry's Burke's Law series).
The series was produced by Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy and Arnold Laven, for whom Gilbert had scored the low-budget Without Warning! (1952) and Vice Squad (1953). Turmoil among Hollywood musicians, including a devastating strike in 1958, resulted in Gilbert traveling to Munich, Germany, to record a library of music for The Rifleman in August of that year.
What is fascinating about the new Rifleman album (2 CDs, Laurel Records LR-868) is how the producer, the composer's son John C. Gilbert, discovered exactly how his father managed to score 168 half-hours of prime-time television. In addition to the original Rifleman music (less than an hour, the producer estimates), the composer also drew upon several of his 1950s movie scores (music that he owned and controlled and could therefore license to the production company himself).
The 45 minutes of original Rifleman cues on the new album – largely variations on the original main theme, Mark's theme and music for the various bad guys who often challenged McCain – are familiar, effective and nostalgic. Rounding out the two-hour package are cues also used in the series, drawn primarily from Gilbert's music for The Naked Hills (1956) but also from 13 other Gilbert films from 1950 to 1956 (including such notable titles as The Jackie Robinson Story, Riot in Cell Block 11, and Gilbert's Oscar-nominated The Thief).
The album is filled with surprises, including what appears to be an unreleased single featuring a vocal version of The Rifleman theme (sung by Bill Lee, with lyrics by Alfred Perry and Ned Washington) and an amusing B side titled "Hey Pa" that features both Connors and Crawford. There are other songs: "Something Special," a Johnny Crawford vocal from a fourth-season episode, and another Bill Lee vocal, "The Ballad of Jake Pardee" from a first-season episode.
As music director for Four Star Productions, the company run by actor Dick Powell that made The Rifleman, Gilbert returned to Munich every year to record more music for the company's various shows, and so could record additional music for The Rifleman as needed. Included in the album are his later Irish-flavored theme for Lou Mallory (Patricia Blair) and his fifth-season update of the closing-credits music.
The 24-page booklet that accompanies the set goes into detail about how Gilbert accomplished all this, with notes on every track, its specific origins and use in the series. There is also a seven-minute "Rifleman Suite for Concert Band," recorded in 1960 by San Diego's Mount Miguel High School.
According to producer Gilbert (who took over his father's Laurel Records label upon the elder Gilbert's death in 2003), the composer had always intended to release a Rifleman soundtrack but never quite got around to it. "Herschel had so much energy," he says. "He was always more interested in the next project than in finishing the current one."
The younger Gilbert discovered the original Rifleman tapes 14 years ago and decided to make the music available for the first time. "I've always been a fan of The Rifleman," he says. "It's really great music." He worked with Steven Gardner, current CEO of Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions and owner of The Rifleman TV series, to make this long-overdue album possible.
©2017 Jon Burlingame