Born: July 19, 1919 | Died: May 26, 2008 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
Earle Hagen played trombone with the celebrated Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman big bands, and while with the Ray Noble Orchestra, composed one of the greatest standards of them all, Harlem Nocturne.
The Emmy Award-winning television composer who wrote the memorable theme music for The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy and other classic TV programs.
The precocious teenager, graduating from high school at only age 15, found himself within weeks of leaving school, playing trombone on tour under the baton of Jacques Renard, conductor for the top-rated Eddie Cantor Radio Show. He followed this with recording studio work and then toured with The California Collegians (a group featured in the film Roberta along with their star-to-be saxophone player, Fred MacMurray).
While playing in Isham Jones's band (composer of “I'll See You in My Dreams” and “It Had to be You”), in New York City, he was spotted playing at Jack White's Club by Tommy Dorsey. Dorsey had just received a call from rival band leader Benny Goodman, who needed a trombone.
Then in the middle of his stint with Benny Goodman, Earle Hagen received a call from Tommy Dorsey, whom he'd still not met, an invitation to join the Dorsey band. Because of union rules in New York, Hagen found himself playing simultaneously with not just the two greatest bands of the era, but that of Isham Jones as well, still only in his teens. First night with the Dorsey band, it turned out that the great trombonist was off on a short vacation, and young Hagen was expected to stand up at the front of the band, playing Tommy Dorsey's trombone part.
When the Dorsey tour reached Los Angeles, Hagen's home, he decided to leave the road, and joined the Ben Pollack band, which was then on an extended stay in California. Again there were recording dates and radio too, in this case, the Burns & Allen Show.
While still working with Ben Pollack on that program, Earle Hagen joined the Ray Noble Orchestra, not just as a trombone player, but as arranger too. Once again it was a tough schedule, including recording dates and radio.
Hagen suvered a severe, near-fatal illness. Following life-saving treatment by Earle Hagen went to work for CBS as staff trombonist on variety and drama shows until 1942 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he was stationed with the Radio Production Unit in Santa Ana.
While an arranger with the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1939, Earle Hagen composed the unforgettably sultry “Harlem Nocturne” which has lived on and on through various guises and performers. It was first taken up as the theme tune for the Randy Brooks Orchestra in 1941. Originally written as a tribute to saxophonist Johnny Earle Hodges.
While it became a staple of the rhythm and blues repertoire, the song has been recorded by a whole roster of artists. Earle Hagen used it as the signature theme for the television series Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.
His Hollywood career started with the position of Production Arranger for the 1947 film Down to Earth. He went on to become an orchestrater at 20th Century Fox, his films including the powerful Kiss of Death that same year.
His orchestration credits from the 1950's also include Under My Skin, Wabash Avenue, My Blue Heaven, The Jackpot, Call Me Mister, I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951), On the Riviera, Golden Girl (1951), Meet Me After the Show, The Frogmen, Don't Bother to Knock, Monkey Business, The I Don't Care Girl, TheFarmer Takes a Wife, Down Among the Sheltering Palms, Woman Obsessed and The Man Who Understood Women.
When the movie studios started to slim down their operations, Earle Hagen migrated to television where he was at the forefront of underscoring for that medium. He continued to work on occasional feature films, orchestrating such classics as With a Song in My Heart (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Man on a Tightrope (1953).
He also did ballets for Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Carousel (1956), as well as orchestrations for Compulsion (1959), The Best of Everything (1959) and the musical Flower Drum Song.
Ironically, it was long after he left full-time employment at 20th Century Fox and had become a pillar of the television community when Hagen achieved some of his greatest successes for the silver screen. He was appointed co-musical director for the Marillyn Monroe-Yves Montand blockbuster Let's Make Love, and moreover, garnered an Oscar nomination for his efforts in 1960.
As television became a mass medium, requiring more than just the novelty of pictures coming into the home, Hagen was on the spot to add original music to enhance programs. In 1953 along with his musical colleague from 20th Century Fox, Herbert W. Spencer, he had the foresight to form the Spencer Hagen Orchestra to offer a package of not only original compositions for television, but the finished musical product for the production.
In their very first year they did three pilots, and two were turned into series, one of which, The Danny Thomas Show, (then known as Make Room for Daddy) ran for 11 years. (Earle Hagen composed the music for another two Danny Thomas vehicles, The Danny Thomas Hour in 1967 and Make Room For Grandaddy in 1969 .) Hagen's side of the partnership included composing incidental music and conducting the orchestra, while Herb Spencer wrote the arrangements and some of the musical cues.
Their second hit was The Ray Bolger Show, and the list of successes went on and on. Earle Hagen's music has graced more than 3000 television programs. In fact, he became the busiest independent musical contractor in the medium. For nearly two decades he was resident musical director for the legendary television producer Sheldon Leonard.
And because Sheldon Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for situation comedies, each and everything he did was scored, and Hagen had 17 busy years creating background music and themes for Leonard's diverse productions. Among his instantly recognizable television theme tunes are those from the Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith shows. In fact, it was the composer himself whistling the catchy theme tune of the latter series.
Earle Hagen admited that he struggled for months, trying to come up with just the right theme for Sheldon Leonard's easy-going sitcom about gentle folk and their folksy sheriff. Explains the composer, “the creative process is like peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what's not.” To capture the happy, wholesome feel he was after, tons of ideas were tried and thrown out. The man who once scored five separate series at the same time freely declares, “Andy was the nightmare.”
An orchestral theme was even in the offing, until the brainstorm hit. He simply whistled the catchy tune which suddenly entered his head, and from the original tape came the infectious and remarkable tune which has become as much a part of Americana as apple pie.
One of his most unusual outings was the main title and background music for The Mod Squad, which not only included a punchy jazz theme, but also episode scores which were mostly based on Schoenberg's 12-tone scale, adding the note of tension which characterized that series.
He also did the music for such hit shows as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., Eight is Enough, Mayberry RFD, The Barbara Stanwick Show, That Girl, The Dukes of Hazard, The Don Rickles Show, and The Bill Dana Show, And who the late-night soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Although most of Earle Hagen's television work involved main themes, whole series or substantial parts thereof, he also did some individual episode scoring on such shows as Dobie Gillis and Planet of the Apes: The Legacy. Hagen continued to do feature-length films for television as well. Besides numerous scores for the “Movie of the Week,” he composed the music for Nashville 99, The Monk, Murder in Music City, and Stand By Your Man for which he received another Emmy nomination.
But, perhaps due to continuing revivals over the past 30 years and its recent release on DVD, Earle Hagen has received the greatest recognition for his scores and theme from the Robert Culp-Bill Cosby espionage series, I Spy. Of special note was the innovative multimedia title sequence for I Spy. The images were edited to correspond with the staccato tempo created by Earle Hagen in his main theme, synthesizing the series' mixture of fast action, whimsy and of course, ever-present threat.
His jazz/world music oriented scores for this series netted him an Emmy Award in 1967. His intense, imaginative and sophisticated music which gave the mood, tone and feel to that series. The first series to be shot on location around the world, afforded Hagen the opportunity to travel and collect indigenous music along the way.
During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time - some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles. The result was what has been deemed “the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series. “