March 2, 2015
Emmy-winning Music Director Ian Fraser Remembered
Julie Andrews, John Williams, Leslie Bricusse pay tribute to close friend, colleague by Jon Burlingame
LOS ANGELES—Ian Fraser was eulogized as a brilliant arranger, conductor and composer for films, television, stage and records at a memorial service attended by approximately 300 Sunday afternoon at Vibiana in downtown Los Angeles.
Julie Andrews, composer John Williams and songwriter Leslie Bricusse were among the speakers, regaling the crowd of friends, family and fellow musicians with tales of Fraser's life and adventures in music.
Fraser – the most-honored musician in the history of television with 11 Emmy Awards and another 21 nominations – died Oct. 31 at the age of 81. A longtime governor of the Television Academy, he was also an Oscar nominee (for Scrooge) and musical director on dozens of hours of classic variety television from the 1970s on.
Williams recalled meeting Fraser and Bricusse at 20th Century-Fox in the mid-1960s, as the studio was about to undertake Bricusse's musical Doctor Dolittle. "Those of us who were fortunate enough to meet them became lifelong friends, and their talent was enormous," Williams said. He would accompany Fraser and Bricusse to London to work on the musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips later in the 1960s.
"Ian was such a great musician," Williams said. "What he had was a gift that you don't teach. His writing, arranging, orchestrating, composing – he had all the tools. But I really think that his greatest affinity was in conducting. He had an authoritative bearing, which orchestras will accept if you know your art. He knew where singers had to breathe, but he also knew where the woodwinds had to breathe, and where the strings had to change their stroke.
"It didn't hurt that, as he got older, he looked more and more like Gustav Mahler," Williams added, generating laughter from the crowd. "Of course, Ian was himself, genuinely and exclusively and permanently and lovably. We all loved him."
Bricusse, the veteran songwriter, recalled meeting Fraser and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley on the same night at a Decca recording session in London in April 1959. "That night was to prove a key moment in all our lives," Bricusse said. "Newley and I began a successful writing partnership and, from that day to this, 56 years and more than 40 stage and screen projects later, I hardly ever worked on any show or film in which Ian Fraser didn't play a major creative role."
Fraser was "the most organized man in the Western Hemisphere," Bricusse said to knowing laughter in the audience (which included dozens of musicians, arrangers and composers who knew and loved him). "And completely fearless. He'd take on anybody, especially the big boys," Bricusse added, sharing anecdotes about Fraser's run-ins with fabled Broadway producer David Merrick and Doctor Dolilttle star Rex Harrison.
Harrison, who quickly labeled Fraser "the schoolboy conductor" as part of his catalog of insults, "finally succumbed to Fraser's patience" and eventually relented, claiming both Fraser and Bricusse as his "discoveries." Fraser also helped train Peter O'Toole to sing in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and even won over Sammy Davis Jr. after firing Davis' longtime conductor during a revival of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.
"Throughout my entire working life," Bricusse said, "Ian was the most consistent, loyal, perceptive, constructive, professional friend, collaborator and critic that I have ever known or could ever wish for. And the most fun. In 55 years and a variety of circumstances, we never had one argument, a tribute to Ian's infinite patience. My debt to him is incalculable and I hope I wasn't bad for him either."
Bricusse introduced Fraser to Andrews as she was launching her ABC variety series in 1972. "He was a little cocky, with a caustic sense of humor and a wicked twinkle in his eye," she recalled. "I had no idea the amount of musical wealth contained in that amazing logical brain of his. I could not have guessed how huge a part of my life he was going to become. He became my mentor, my biggest champion."
And while "he wasn't always tactful," she conceded, "he was nearly always right" about musical matters. She spoke of the many songs and medleys that Fraser arranged, and often orchestrated, on her ABC series. "He encouraged me to try songs I never thought I could sing. He expanded my musical repertoire."
They later did a series of television specials in England, the U.S. and Europe together, Andrews said, including The Sound of Christmas, a 1988 hour that won five Emmys including one for Fraser. He also conducted for her on a cross-country tour, at the Hollywood Bowl and at London's Millenium Arena. "Ian was a wonderful conductor," she said. "He always sensed where I needed to go and I trusted him completely."
She spoke warmly of Ian's creative role in her albums, especially their 1994 Rodgers & Hammerstein collection. "He arranged a long medley of glorious Rodgers waltzes, putting them together in such a fashion that they traced the arc of love: love found, celebrated and lost. Thus I was able to act the medley as well as sing it. When we made the album in London with a huge studio orchestra I found myself in tears," she said, because of "the sheer beauty of everything coming together, voice, music, words, orchestra, all with Ian at the helm."
She also recalled Fraser helping to launch, and conducting the first several weeks of, her Broadway musical Victor / Victoria; his scoring of her book-on-tape Simeon's Gift, and its later transformation into a full symphonic work; and his encouragement of her to try and sing again after a disastrous throat surgery (that, coincidentally, happened not long after Fraser's own throat surgery for cancer).
"It is really impossible to sum up a lifetime of collaboration with someone who meant so much to me," Andrews said. "Fraser was simply unique and he was the best. I thank God for him, and for the legacy that he left me."
Fraser's sister Mary Sykes spoke about his younger years; arranger Harold Wheeler, producer Gary Smith and songwriter Larry Grossman talked about working with Fraser in television; wife Judee and children Neal and Tiffany offered more personal family reminiscences.
The nearly two-hour service was filled with music, including a song written by Ian and Judee titled "To Know You," performed by Jessi Collins and Antonio Sol; songs Fraser wrote for the weddings of both his children, one for guitar, another for string quartet; "Blue Blue Eyes" from his musical Simeon's Gift, sung by Jubilant Sykes; and two songs by Bricusse and Newley: "Who Can I Turn To" (from The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd), sung by Obba Babatunde, and "Pure Imagination" (from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), sung by Bobbi Page.
Music throughout the program was performed by violinist Belinda Broughton, violinist Alyssa Park, violist Vicki Miskolczy, cellist Andrew Shulman, pianist Tom Ranier, pianist Mark Rice, guitarist Greg Poree, and conductor Chris Walden. The memorial opened with a procession of "Lady Saltouns Air/March" played on bagpipes by Glen Thompson.
©2015 Jon Burlingame