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Talking to Howard Lucraft, 1997
The English composer and conducter Angela Morley talks to Howard Lucraft about moving to America and her musical career.
Source: Jazz Professional
I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire in 1924. My parents had a shop that sold jewellery, silver plate, watches and clocks . My earliest musical memory was of sitting on the floor surrounded by records of the bands of Jack Payne and Henry Hall and playing them on our enormous wind up gramophone. My dad played the ukulele-banjo that he used to let me tune for him, using his pitch pipe, to either G-C-E-A or A-D-F#-B. My mother had a contralto voice and sang: ‘There is a Lady Passing By’ and, her favorite, ‘Big Lady Moon’.
When I was eight years old my dad bought a brand new Challen upright, that had pride of place in our over-the-shop Sunday sitting room, and sent me to an elderly lady a few streets away for piano lessons. Three months later, my dad became ill and very unexpectedly died at the early age of thirty-nine. My piano lessons were immediately stopped and never recommenced. They are the only piano lessons that I ever had. A year later, my mother, who had no head for business, sold the shop and we went off to live with her parents.
At age ten, I had a month-long love affair with the violin but my grandfather, a prankster who didn’t like the violin, smeared butter on my bow and very effectively brought my career as a violinist to an end. At eleven, I started to play the accordion, had lessons and won a couple of competitions. A judge from the BBC advised my mother that there was no future in the accordion, and that I should learn a band or orchestral instrument, for instance the clarinet or saxophone. My mother bought me a clarinet at the local pawnbroker’s for one pound ($4 at the time). It was built all in one piece; it was a simple system instrument that was ‘high pitch’ and had a broken mouthpiece. I had lessons on it and started to play in the school orchestra. Several months later, a doting mother bought me an alto saxophone that said ‘Pennsylvania’ across the bell. How could I fail with such an instrument? Quite recently, I was told that it was a cheap instrument made in Czechoslovakia. I started to play, unpaid of course, in a local semi-pro band. I left high school at fifteen and went on tour with ‘Archie’s Juvenile Band’ for ten shillings a week ($2 at the time). On joining the band I was asked to name my favorite band. ‘Ambrose’ I said. Whereupon they all laughed themselves silly and said: ‘What, you’ve never heard of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey? I confessed that I hadn’t, and my education was taken in hand that very moment as we all headed off to the nearest record shop. I started to take down arrangements from records about this time under the tutelage of the pianist, Eddie Taylor, who was an old hand at it.
World War II started and created a new dimension to my life that was anything but a hindrance. Suddenly, with all the bands starting to lose musicians to the ‘draft’, a fifteen-year-old musician who could sight-read was eagerly sought by every band leader in the UK. Before I was seventeen and a half, I’d gone from band to band in quick succession until I found myself playing lead alto with Oscar Rabin’s Band, still touring alas, but broadcasting and making records too. It was during this period that I graduated from taking down records to writing arrangements for pay. At twenty, I joined the Geraldo Orchestra, arguably the best band in the UK at the time. The Geraldo Band practically lived at the BBC doing several radio programmes a week. The great bonus for a developing arranger was that the band might be a ‘swing band’ on Monday and then be augmented to symphonic size on Tuesday and on other days be various combinations in-between and, sometimes even adding a choir. Since I got to arrange for all these programmes, was there ever a better arranging academy? I doubt that anything like that exists today.
During this period, I started to study harmony, counterpoint and composition with a Hungarian composer, resident in London, Matyas Seiber. I also was an enthusiastic participant in a conducting course taught by the German born conductor, Walter Goehr. Both Robert Farnon and Bill Finegan had written many of the arrangements in our repertoire, and I fell under the spell of both of these great talents and remain, today, greatly indebted to them.
At age twenty-six I decided to give up playing to concentrate on writing. I was busy from the start and three years later, at age twenty-nine, a lot of good things happened to me. I became musical director of the newly launched Philips Records (UK) arranging and conducting every week for all the contract artistes and occasionally for American ones like Rosemary Clooney and Mel Tormé as well as recording several instrumental albums of my own. I started to score films under my own name (I’d ‘ghost’-written two scores the previous year) and I was writing all the cues for a top BBC comedy show: ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and doing the same, plus conducting, for ‘The Goon Show’ which was probably the most successful BBC radio comedy show of the 1950s.
The 1950s was a very exciting time to be recording, because not only had tape taken over from direct to disc recording and advanced German microphones were in every studio, but stereo had magically added a new dimension to sound. However, these advances had not found their way into film studios and to go to a cinema to hear one’s latest score was absolute torture. I was so depressed by these experiences that by the time I was thirty-six (1960), I started to turn down any offers to score films.
During the 1960s, although I had a very busy and interesting musical life, including doing a lot of recording for Readers Digest Records, writing arrangements for Benny Goodman and scoring some documentary films about art for television, I regretted having turned my back on feature film scoring and tried my best to get back into it. Finally, starting in 1969, I scored ‘The Looking Glass War’ (from a John Le Carré spy novel featuring a very young Anthony Hopkins), ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ (another Anthony Hopkins movie) and ‘Captain Nemo and the Underwater City’. This led to my writing adaptation scores for ‘The Little Prince’ (collaborating with songwriters Lerner & Loewe) and ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ (collaborating with Robert & Richard Sherman). In 1977, I scored almost all of ‘Watership Down’. I was officially credited as the composer of this score but I had taken over the commission from indisposed composer Malcolm Williamson, who had written six minutes of very high quality music that is the first six minutes of music in the film, and who was given the not very satisfactory credit: Additional Music by Malcolm Williamson! In between scoring films I was also a regular conductor of the now, alas, defunct BBC Radio Orchestra and, from time to time, helped John Williams with the orchestration of his scores for ‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
I had been nominated for an Academy Award for ‘The Little Prince’ and ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ and went to California on both occasions to attend the ‘Oscar’ ceremonies. The wonderfully warm and generous way that I was made to feel at home there by my American colleagues and friends resulted in my being rather seduced by the California life style and I soon returned with intention of staying, if not for ever, at least for some time.
I rented an apartment in Brentwood and set about getting permission to work. With this I was soon scoring television at Warner Bros. By 1980, I had bought a house and became futher involved with American TV. In the years from 1979 to 1990, I scored TV films and many episodes of TV series like Dallas, Dynasty, Hotel, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, Emerald Point, Wonderwoman, Island Son, Blue Skies and McClain’s Law. I conducted at most of the Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros., Paramount, M.G.M., Universal and 20th Century-Fox. During the summer, I used to write many arrangements for the Boston ‘Pops’ Orchestra during the fourteen years that John Williams was that orchestra’s conductor, in addition to helping him with his scores for ‘E.T.’, ‘Hook’, ‘Home Alone’ I & II and ‘Schindler’s List’. I helped several other very good composers with their scores such as: Milklos Rozsa, Alex North, David Raksin, Bill Conti, Laurence Rosenthal, David Shire, Ernest Gold, Johnny Mandel and Pat Williams. I was nominated six times for an Emmy Award for TV composing and won three Emmy Awards for arranging. In addition, I wrote many arrangements for Julie Andrews and Mel Torme and occasionally some for opera stars like Frederica von Stade, Barbara Hendricks and Placido Domingo.
I never really tried very hard to find feature film commissions. In Hollywood your recent track record is all important, and, in my case, on my arrival from England, what had it been? A film about ‘a little prince’; one about ‘Cinderella’ and an animated one (animated films were, at this time, something that children watched on Saturday morning TV) about ‘some rabbits’! No sex, violence, explosions! There had been lots in of those things in my earlier films but they had not been recent or high profile enough to count. In short, I couldn’t ‘get arrested’ as they say.
Big changes were taking place in film music. 20th Century-Fox was the only remaining studio that had a music department head, Lionel Newman, who regularly conducted music scoring sessions. A far cry from the ‘golden years’ of Hollywood when brilliant musicians like Victor Young, Alfred Newman, John Green, Ray Heindorf etc. etc. ran the music departments at all the studios. They had great power on the studio lot and used it to promote and to protect composers in their charge. I experienced this with Lionel Newman. With his passing, music department heads are now, generally, former producers or executives from the ‘pop’ record industry. Another big change has been the coming of synthesizers. Producers long, and understandably, frustrated by their inability to look into what the composer was up to and having to wait until the scoring session to find out what the music was going to sound like, discovered that the composer could make a synth. demo and play it with the picture. The first time I heard about this practice was in connection with the score for ‘The Color Purple’. I heard that it took twenty-seven music writers to create that score and that nothing could go forward to the orchestration phase until the producer, Steven Spielberg, had heard a ‘polaroid’ (synth. mock-up) of a cue and heard it played with the picture. Today, composers are given far less time to write their scores than has been the practice in the past, and to be distracted by the constant requirement to make demos of everything must be a giant headache. To get through some of these assignments must need a constitution of iron, one which, I will freely admit, I no longer have!
Another great frustration for composers is the ‘temp. track’. This is where the director chooses a piece of existing music, very often from a commercial recording of a classical work, which he dubs on to the sound track to accompany an important scene as a temporary measure until a composer is hired to write the original score. Very often the director falls so in love with his temp. music that he can’t be persuaded to give it up and accept the new original music. I remember one extreme example of this: The composer’s drawn expression suggested to me that he hadn’t been to bed for some time. In a weary voice, he told me that a very long cue that we had recorded two days previously, that he had very skillfully composed and that had worked wonderfully with the scene, had been rejected by the director of the film because it wasn’t close enough to the latter’s beloved temp. track! My colleague had now reworked the sketch which he offered me together with the pocket score of the classical work that the director had used as a temp. track. My friend gave me an imploring look that seemed to plead for my complicity as one thief in the night to another, apologetically mumbling:‘You understand what has to be done here?’ I understood, only too well, that I was being required to incorporate the mercifully dead master’s engraved, published notes into the new version of the cue. Only thus would the director be satisfied. The thought crossed my desperate mind that perhaps the plea: ‘I vos only obeying orders!’ might get me acquitted when the case came up. I don’t know if this cue ended up in the released film or whether cautious legal minds had prevailed to protect the company from a possible action by the trustees of the estate of the dead composer, but six months later my colleague won the Academy Award for Best Original Score for this film. As a composer, he certainly merited this coveted award. In his acceptance speech, he was most generous with his praise for all of us who had helped him through this nightmare and, now a free man again, pointedly ignored the director.
In the last six or so years, life in Los Angeles had became less and less appealing to me. As soon as the Cold War came to an end, we had a bad recession in L.A.’s biggest industry, aerospace. Then we had race riots followed by fires, then floods and very great demographic changes caused by immigration. Finally, on Jan. 17th 1994, we had a big, very scary, earthquake only six miles from my house. I decided that I simply had to go and live somewhere else. The ‘somewhere else’ had to be out of California, because there are earthquake faults all over the state. I came and had a look at Scottsdale, Arizona (only one hour’s flight time to L.A.) where there has been no history of earthquakes. I loved what I saw. Several months later, I bought a house here.
Almost end of story. John Williams still seems to like my arrangements. I wrote three in the summer that he recorded with the LSO in London and three more that he recorded in early December conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin solos. I’m very happy to be in that sort of company!