Charles Fox: Ready to Take a Chance

Charles Fox: Ready to Take a Chance

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri
May 27, 2011—10:30 a.m.
Audio and video recorded and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Frank J. Oteri, Molly Sheridan, Alexandra Gardner, and John Lydon

Over the past 12 years we’ve spoken to people who have created all kinds of music on these pages, but we’ve never met up with anyone quite like Charles Fox. There probably isn’t anyone reading this who can’t hum some of the music he’s written—at one point it was virtually ubiquitous. He penned the intro themes for three of the most popular TV shows of the 1970s—Happy Days, The Love Boat, and Laverne and Shirley—and if you flipped the dial around on the radio, you’d inevitably hear Roberta Flack singing “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” Jim Croce’s posthumous blockbuster “I Got a Name,” or Barry Manilow’s recording of “Ready to Take a Chance Again”—all songs by Fox. A cover story in Songwriter magazine at that time boasted that more than 300 million people listened to Charles Fox’s music every week. Though that was more than 30 years ago, those shows are still in syndication around the world, and those songs are still all over the airwaves. And when Lauryn Hill sang “Killing Me Softly” with the Fugees in the 1990s, it put the song back on the charts all over again.

But that’s not the whole story. In addition to the megahit records and TV themes, Fox has composed extensively for chorus, orchestra, and ballet. A favorite student of Nadia Boulanger’s, Fox planned for a career in classical music composition and initially only turned to the world of pop in order to earn a living for himself and his family in the early 1960s. He’s probably the only person on the planet who can boast connections to both Nadia Boulanger and Barry Manilow!

Even in the late 1950s, however, Fox started dabbling into other musical streams. He had a fondness for jazz since he was a teenager, and he even briefly studied piano with the great Lennie Tristano. His first paying gigs were in Latin music, a genre for which he felt a natural affinity despite not being able to speak more than a few words of Spanish. After working the commercial music circuit for a few years—he is the uncredited composer for numerous TV commercials, as well as the theme of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the first-ever evening sports program on television—he wound up in Hollywood. One of his earliest motion picture assignments was scoring the zany Jane Fonda sci-fi send-up Barbarella, which gave him an opportunity to show off the electronic music techniques he had learned under the tutelage of Vladimir Ussachevsky.

You might think that given the broad range of work he’s done that he is the ultimate post-modern polystylist, but that is far from the case. What is extraordinary about Fox is that while he’s completely comfortable working in all of these different genres, in his conception they are all distinct and he writes music that is completely idiomatic and true to whatever idiom he happens to be working in at any given time:

[E]very time, I approach music with an empty page; I have no preconceived notion about what I must do. There’s certainly not a Charles Fox sound. […] That’s because for the last 50 years everything that I’ve done for the most part has been on assignment, whether it was for a Latin band, for a film, or a commission to do a classical work. It’s just that simple. So I always start with nothing, and then I get into the work, and decide what it is that I want to do.

But don’t assume that means he writes music that’s cookie-cutter or made to order; everything he does is something that he becomes totally invested in, intellectually and emotionally:

I have a lot of fun playing Latin music. On the other hand, I love being in my studio and getting up and working on a long-form composition. And I love writing songs with people. […] I still enjoy it all. I still look forward very much to what I want to write.

Talking with him about how he has navigated so many different realms so effectively and successfully over the past half century was more than instructive; it was inspiring.


Frank J. Oteri: Nowadays we talk a lot about there being no such thing as genre anymore. All these young composers are now writing music that’s just as informed by pop music as it is by concert music; it’s a very exciting time. But you’ve worked in all these different styles for over 50 years and what’s different about it for you is that you stay within those specific genres when you are working in them. It’s not like you’re doing a concert work that has salsa or ’50s rock and roll in it. When you do ’50s rock and roll, you do ’50s rock and roll. When you do salsa, you do salsa. But are there certain things that you do no matter what you’re doing, that could be described as “Charles Fox’s sound”?

Charles Fox: It’s a harder question for me to answer than perhaps you, because every time, I approach music with an empty page; I have no preconceived notion about what I must do. There’s certainly not a Charles Fox sound. When I did my early television series Love American Style, people would say, “Oh, that’s your sound.” I can promise you, I was never after achieving a sound. It was never important to me. However I do gravitate toward certain things. I think most composers do. And in a period of time, there are certain things I really gravitated to more than others. It could be harmony, expectation, something more punchy, more legato, I don’t know what. That’s because for the last 50 years everything that I’ve done for the most part has been on assignment, whether it was for a Latin band, for a film, or a commission to do a classical work. It’s just that simple. So I always start with nothing, and then I get into the work, and decide what it is that I want to do.

I discovered Latin music early on when I was about 15-years old, and I heard my first Latin band in the Catskill Mountains. One night some fellows came over to the hotel who were with a band called Randy Carlos. They were playing in one of the bigger hotels in the Catskills, the Emerson Hotel, and that to us was like playing at Mecca. So we went to see it, and I fell in love instantly with those trumpets and guitars and Latin singing and all the action on the dance floor. And I said, “Wow, this is for me.” I really loved it.

Fox's First Band
Charles Fox’s first professional band, in the Catskills

At the same time, I was in high school, and I was studying jazz piano with Lennie Tristano, the great jazz pianist. I was also studying classical composition. I never drew the line to say if I do one thing, I can’t do the other, because it all appeals to me in different ways. When I went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, my life became much more embedded in the formalized world of classical music. I studied harmony with her during my whole time in Paris. It was very formal; we spent a year on triads before we moved to seventh chords. I was all the while composing, and she was offering comments on my work. She was an extraordinary person. But when I came back from my stay in Paris for two years, I needed to earn a living. Someone suggested to me that I get into pop music, but I really had no idea what was on the radio in those days. For me, the radio was Latin music and jazz.

FJO: One of the things I found so fascinating in your autobiography is that before you began writing pop music, you had never really listened to it. You’ve claimed that you were even ashamed to listen to it. That’s an amazing confession from a guy who wrote hit songs for Seals and Crofts, Barry Manilow, Roberta Flack, and all these big pop stars who have performed your music.

CF: To be honest with you, I didn’t like it. I was really involved with classical music. I had an orchestration teacher in high school who said to me, “In order to learn to orchestrate properly, aside from learning ranges and abilities of the instruments, you need to know the sounds of the instruments as they merge together.” The sound of two flutes together, or a flute and a clarinet—what makes a difference in sound? The dynamics and attacks on an instrument—these were the things I had to learn. So he suggested I just get close to an orchestra and watch them play, watch the string players bow the instruments. The only place I could afford to go to get close to an orchestra was the Metropolitan Opera, the old one on 38th Street before they tore it down to build a parking lot or something. They had a kind of horseshoe standing room around the orchestra section, and if I got there early enough I could stand right behind the double basses. So I used to go at least once or twice a week. I would lean on the rail, if I got there early enough. I watched musicians, and as a result of all that, I also have a lifelong love of opera that I acquired by being there. My ears were telling me that what I gravitated to between opera and classical music was Latin and jazz. I just really had no time for the stuff that was on the radio when we’d go to dances and things in high school in the ’50s. I really didn’t find it interesting.

FJO: How did you learn how to write that stuff and eventually find it interesting?

CF: Learning to write anything is just a process. I had a friend who was in the record field and said, “If you would learn to arrange some of this music, you might be able to get some work.” And I needed the work. So I started listening to songs on the radio, records that just were really not my kind of music at that time. This was in the early ’60s. I’d listen in my car, driving into town; we lived in Queens that first year of our marriage. If the window was open in the car, and someone stopped next to me at the traffic light, I’d roll up the window so they wouldn’t see me listening to that kind of music. It was a lot of nonsense; it was a lot of angst for nothing. It was just a matter of listening.

However, I have to tell you what changed: the Beatles, Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David. They came along in the ’60s, and for me, they became role models. The Beatles wrote some beautiful melodies, which, in their own innocent Beatlesque style, became part of the landscape in the world. Burt Bacharach to me had a very musical kind of sound and style. So in my own writing, I got influenced by the fact that one could write in a more developed harmonic style. One could fuse more jazz language. One could fuse more classical elements. In “Yesterday” there’s a string quartet; George Martin used a string quartet. The pop music of the ’60s was an inventive period, I think much more inventive than now. Everything now has a tendency to sound more or less the same. In the 60s, if you were an arranger, you were trying to bring in bells, or some kind of exotic instrument: a piccolo trumpet or a tuba. You were looking for those sounds that became hooks. So it was a kind of a creative world in that innocent music style. And the arrangers, myself included, looked for ways to make a record sound unique.

But all of that was not necessarily influencing me in each of the genres that I worked. I was asked years ago, “Why don’t you devote yourself to one kind of music rather than do all these various things?” First of all, I really wanted to compose music, and arranging was just a step towards composing. I was trained as a composer, I know that my heart was in it, and I knew that I had a lot of music to write. But it was also a question of earning a living. So for example, if I had a choice between an arrangement to do or a short film, a short documentary film, I’d always choose the film. I’d always choose the short documentary. It gave me a chance to express new music. And I was able to keep all those things separate. For a while, I was still playing in Latin bands to earn a daily living, and writing for those bands. My early songs were in Spanish.

FJO: You don’t speak Spanish.

Playing Latin Music
Playing Latin Music in the Joe Quijano Band (Fox is on timbales on the far right)

CF: And I don’t even speak Spanish. But I had the feel. I did. I had the feel, and of course I got to know some of the words that I was dealing with. And I wrote for some of the big bands, some of the ones that I played for like Ray Barretto and Tito Puente. I did a lot of work for Joe Quijano and a number of other bands around the Los Angeles area. And I was accepted by those Latin players as someone who plays typicale. So, it was a real, a real Latin feel. Latin music is all based on the clave, that’s the essence of Latin music right there [snaps rhythm]. I still love that music. I hear that music and I still get into the rhythm of it. I think that might have influenced a lot of my future writing also, I can’t say. Did it influence my classical music? Perhaps. I know in the ballet Zorro, we had one big dance number that was done in front of the theater where Zorro‘s being shown and Michael Smuin, the choreographer, called me when I sent that piece of music in and he said, “Zorro meets Stravinsky.” Carlos Zorro, meaning me, meets Stravinsky because it was classical music that was angular, that sounded modern, but with that Latin infused beat.

FJO: So now you listen to everything.

CF: I still listen to mostly classical music. That’s still what I listen to. I don’t really turn on the radio to listen to pop music. I will if I’m studying something, if I want to know what a particular sound is. If there’s a particular artist I’d like to know about, I’ll get the record, Iisten to it and say, “Now I get it.”

The other thing is in film you’re called on to do so many different genres. I can’t tell you how many different periods of music I’ve had to write: big band, the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the 1890s—you know, the waltzes—and Hawaiian music and all kinds of ethnic music, African music. That’s part of the landscape of film, so as a film composer now, you really have to be very chameleon-like. You really have to know the genres. I just think it’s a part of the world of music that we have today. And, as you said before, the lines are now much more crossed between one genre and another. The avant-garde composers of the ’60s probably wouldn’t have had anything to do with pop music of the day. You know, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, and Boulez, but I can tell you that in the graduate composition class that I’ve taught for a number of years at UCLA, the kids come in and say, “You have to hear this new hip-hop record. It’s so great. It reminds me of something classical.” So they see more of a crossover, and I think it’s for the better. I think it’s for the better that music co-exists together. I mean, what we hear on the radio all kind of goes into our world, this world of contemporary sound where there’s a conflux of things going on at the same time. Why not draw from everything?

FJO: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Beatles and Stockhausen because the Beatles actually listened to Stockhausen. His face is even one of the faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

CF: I didn’t realize that.

FJO: And their “Revolution Number 9” that was released on The White Album the following year shows how they absorbed the influence. It’s a piece of musique concrète.

CF: Right.

FJO: But even before all this adventurous arranging you talked about getting exposed to in the 1960s, back in the ’50s, when you were studying with Nadia Boulanger, you were writing a composition for a weird instrumental combination as well as a very ambitious harp concerto. I’m wondering what your feelings are about those compositions now. Do those scores even still exist?

CF: They do. I’m putting together this new website, which will be online shortly, and in there, I’ve put a number of those early pieces also. They’re not recorded professionally, just from live performances, with a little tape machine in the late ’50s. I hadn’t heard them in years. Forty years maybe—I don’t know—is the last time I ever listened. I find it interesting to listen to something of mine I haven’t listened to in a long while. It’s a different part of my life, but I still relate to everything that I wrote. I don’t disdain anything I ever wrote. But frankly I don’t listen to my own music anyway. I listen to what I’m writing now, unless I’m conducting it. Then I have to get back into it. But all my projects bring back a moment in my life.

That piece you mentioned for an odd combination—in 1959 I came to Fontainebleau, France, to study with Nadia Boulanger, just for the summer. If you want to know the truth, at my first private lesson with her, when I saw the joy on her face while talking about music, I knew that all I really wanted to do in my life was write music. It was like a door that opened. It didn’t mean that I had to drop anything else; it just meant that this was going to be my life. And she took a great interest in me. She asked me to study with her in Paris, and I had very little money. My father was a window cleaner. They sent me there just for the summer, and even that was very difficult. She worked out a budget for me. She said, “If you can get your parents to send you a hundred dollars a month, you can stay.” And we worked out a budget, and I said, “Mademoiselle, you didn’t allow for lessons in the budget.” She said, “Oh, no, no. I can’t worry about that. I’m more worried that you have enough to eat.” So in fact, I never paid her in the years I was there for all the lessons I took, and that was because she saw in me a person with a great need to learn. And she wasn’t a scholar. She was a teacher who wanted to teach me, and I wanted to learn. In the years I was there, if I said I felt bad that I wasn’t able to pay her, she wouldn’t hear of it. She said, “Maybe one day if you can, you’ll do something for someone else.” You know. So that’s the kind of legacy I live with. But I’m getting off the point of your question, which I can do very easily.

That particular summer in Fontainebleau, which was a very large school, there were seven flutists, there was a string quartet, and there was a trumpet, and there was a clarinetist, maybe some other instruments. I don’t remember. She asked me if I would write for those specific instruments so that we could perform with them in a concert. So I did. I thought it was an odd combination—seven flutes. And actually there have been performances of that; the New York Flute Club has performed it over the years. But I don’t think about it very much. It was a very nice part of my life. I conducted it the very first time. When she said to me, “You have to conduct” and I said I’d never conducted, she said, “Well you must conduct.” I tell that to my students at UCLA when I ask them to conduct their own work. They bring an ensemble in and I just pass along the words of Nadia Boulanger: “You must conduct. A composer must know how to speak to an orchestra. They control his music.” Ultimately you want to get greater conductors doing your work, you hope to, you know. But it’s very important for you to be able to stand up in front of an orchestra and speak to them in terms of how to communicate what you want, tempos and all that. So I just taught myself quickly to conduct, and I did.

I will tell you one moment that I had. I had some anxiety in one of the early rehearsals of that piece. That concert hall that we had at Fontainebleau was originally the palace for François the First, and this was his indoor tennis court. It has now returned to being an indoor tennis court, by the way, and the local people in Fontainebleau now play tennis there again. But while we were there as students, while there was a Fontainebleau school, it was a concert hall. So I was on the stage conducting, and at one point, Mademoiselle Boulanger was standing right next to me, and she stopped me. I don’t remember the comment at the moment, but she says she thinks it might be better if I do something else. Faster, slower, louder, I don’t recall. And I know it was something that didn’t sound right to me, in my ear it had to be as I was doing it, not as she was suggesting it. And I said, “But Mademoiselle,” and she said, “Well, try it.” I knew it wasn’t in my heart to do it as she did, and so I turned to the orchestra and said, “All right, would you play it halfway between the way I said and the way Mademoiselle Boulanger suggests.” I raised my hand to conduct, and she pulled my jacket like this, and she said, “But my dear, compromise makes for very nice friendship, but for very bad music.” She says, “Play it the way you want, or the way I want, but don’t compromise.” I got a very good lesson in music right there, frankly.

FJO: And you wound up playing it the way she wanted it played.

CF: Of course! I wasn’t going to go against her.

FJO: In your autobiography, you talk about the struggles you had working on the harp concerto, but you never mention completing it.

CF: I never did complete it. I completed the first movement, but there’s a second movement and a third movement; the themes I’ve never forgotten. They still float around in my mind. Actually, I have just been offered a commission to complete that work. It’s very interesting to consider going back to something that I started 50 years ago. I’m very tempted to find the time to do that, and I probably will. It’d be an interesting experiment for me, because I remember the piece very well. The fact that 50 years later I’ve worked with so many different styles, that doesn’t trouble me. It doesn’t trouble me because it’ll be what it’ll be. And it’ll be with a 50-year difference, but I plan to finish it.

FJO: Would the goal be to try to get in the head of who you were then or be you now?

CF: I don’t think I’ll try to get back to that. No, I would just simply write the music as I hear it. It’s hard to go back and really think of myself like that. I have my memoir in which I’ve expressed my feelings for those days, but I can only live in the present, really. I can only write what I want to write today. There’s no need to adhere to something I wrote 50 years ago.

FJO: There’s one thing I’m curious about in the non-completion of that piece. You sort of alluded to it talking about the avant-garde composers of that time, and the walls that they constructed between popular music and concert music and all of these things. In your autobiography, you reproduced these letters you wrote back to your family. You talked about going to hear Boulez and Berio, and really not relating to that music at all. But by the end of the time you were there, you talk about how fascinated you were with Webern. So I’m curious, did you ever start writing 12-tone music? And is that what created a compositional block for you at that time?

CF: If you want to call it a compositional block. I don’t think it was really that. I was very immersed in formal harmony and my studies of it. Everything I had to do with Nadia Boulanger was very strictly formal. We did figured basses with voice leading. We had to be absolutely proper. She would make a correction, point it out, and I would have to go home and correct it. And, by the way, everything I wrote was in pen. She wouldn’t even look at pencil. So whenever I had to work out my harmony, it was in pencil. Then I’d have to re-write it in ink. And to make little changes, paste one on top of the other. I was so involved with looking into the scores of composers to see how they got out of problems, how they resolved a specific problem of developing something which didn’t quite go where it needed to go.

As far as the music of the period, there were a series of concerts that Pierre Boulez used to conduct. He conducted magnificently. All the music students in Paris came. And Nono was there, Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur, and Berio, and whoever was in town having a work presented. It was avant-garde in that period, very avant-garde. It was very kind of “Wild West”, in a sense. It was like all new things happening, kind of raucous. If people liked things, they screamed. If they didn’t like things, they’d boo. I myself at the moment was more into traditional work; I really was.

I never got formally into 12-tone music at all. On the other hand, little by little, I did absorb all those kinds of influences, to the point where I love that kind of music. Then it seemed to me the only kind of music that could exist. And then I myself had to make a break with traditional harmony. But there was a slow period where that happened. [Performances of] Wozzeck and Lulu and all those marvelous things were happening and Boulez’s new work. My ears were completely open, but at the same time, my writing wasn’t. I wasn’t into that. I was just listening and absorbing. And there were concerts of electronic music, musique concrète, where you’d see nothing but a tape recorder in the middle of the stage. And aleatoric music where the composer would be on the side of the stage and he would move a cart around and things would happen. You know, games of chance, all kinds of experimental stuff.

Charles Fox's Electronic Music Studio
The Moog sythesizer at Charles Fox’s home studio in 1968

When I came back, I went to study with [Vladimir] Ussachevsky at Columbia University. There was a Columbia-Princeton electronic music laboratory. I didn’t even like electronic music, to be honest with you, but I got into it because I learned what it took—the craft of making electronic music. And I got to be really very enamored with it. It was a long, hard process. This is before the synthesizer was invented. Eventually I got one of the first synthesizers that Robert Moog came out with. But it was a process for me. I really never did formal 12-tone music. It seeped into my music and I’ve written dissonant music, but never formal 12-tone. I always rely on my ear more than that, and I never worked with a system. I know composers have systems and sometimes different systems; it was never that for me.

FJO: Definitely your score for Barbarella has some very modernistic sounding things in certain scenes.

CF: Well, it was a film score that was meant to be futuristic; it was a spoof, you know. But I did get a chance to do electronic things mixed in with some classical things, too, actually. Next week I’m going to conduct some music at the Dorothy Chandler which includes some of my work from Barbarella actually. And some of it—like when Barbarella’s flying around with Pygar and the winged angel—is very Baroque sounding.

On Set For Barbarella
Charles Fox (left) and Bob Crewe (right) on the set of Barbarella

FJO: Then there’s that wild music during the confrontation with the sex machine.

CF: Oh, yeah.

FJO: That trumpet line sounds like something out of a Berio score. It’s that same sound world.

CF: I think I’m influenced by the world around me. And film gives many opportunities that were quite wonderful to have fun—especially with a film like that, where anything kind of goes. I haven’t listened to the score for a long time. I don’t even remember, if you want to know the truth, but I know I had fun with the score. I had the whole canvas in front of me to do what I wanted.

FJO: Before we get to the successes, one area that was very sobering to read about in your book were your experiences as a young composer getting taken advantage of in the field. These are things that many young composers have faced, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about that a bit, because to share accounts of these experiences with everybody helps to keep them from happening again, we hope.

CF: Right.

FJO: Like getting forced into signing work-for-hire contracts. Or that awful story with Dizzy Gillespie.

CF: Now, let me just say that all composers in Hollywood working with the studios are working for hire, which essentially is not a bad thing. But it means that the composer is no longer the legal owner of the work. Twentieth Century Fox apparently becomes the legal owner of the work. But they put your name on it, and they give you all the proper royalties. We would prefer to have ownership of our own music obviously, but it’s never going to happen in Hollywood. So “for hire” means that we work for them and they own and control it. So, for example, if they want to license it to themselves for another use, they don’t have to come back to us. They control it. They do that with every aspect of a motion picture. Otherwise they can’t put out a DVD or some other method that hasn’t yet been invented. But we get paid all the proper royalties and we get our name on it. So it’s almost the same as if we controlled it. The difference is all in the publishing.

Fox Conducting Wide World of Sports
Charles Fox conducting the theme he composed for ABC’s Wide World of Sports

At the beginning of my career, I didn’t have to, but I accepted some work where I was hired to write without getting future royalties. That was very consequential to me at the time to help earn a living and pay the rent. So, for example, Wide World of Sports was the first theme I wrote for television. And I wrote it for a company that really appreciated my work and used me in a lot of things. They did a number of Goodson-Todman game show themes. And each time I’d get a little bit more money, but I didn’t get the proper credit or any royalties. Would I advise anyone to do it today? I think everyone has their own path. I do get asked the question all the time by students and by other people. You have to have your own sense of what you need to do to get ahead. When I did Wide World of Sports, they publicized it. It was all over the trade papers that I did that. The fellow that hired me to do that used that as an audition piece to get me other work. And it did get quite a bit of work. Frankly, it was the only work I was getting on television in those days. I never regretted it. Now the curious thing is the world seems to know that I wrote that, and I get requests to have it performed all the time. I don’t even know how that happened. Are there stories on the Internet about it? Is there a true story? Whatever, it’s of little consequence to me now.

But Dizzy Gillespie, that was a real heartbreak for me. I was introduced to Dizzy Gillespie by his attorney with the idea that maybe I would write for him. I was 22-years old. Dizzy Gillespie was a hero to me. I loved his music. He himself gave me a stack of records to listen to. I’d go to Flushing, where he lived, and he used to rehearse his group in the basement with James Moody on saxophone. I became friends with Dizzy. I used to go to his house and play chess with him. I never beat him, by the way. He was very good at chess. He was very nice to me, very warm and welcoming to a young composer. I even dreamed perhaps maybe I might play the piano for him one day. Lalo Schifrin was his piano player for a long while and I thought Lalo was fantastic. But I sort of dreamed that maybe I could go in that direction, you know. I was 22, 23-years old, so I didn’t know where life was going to take me professionally, but I knew the areas that I was interested in pursuing. So I spent quite a bit of time with Dizzy, writing tunes for him all the while. Eventually I showed him about ten different tunes, and he chose four or five that he liked and asked me to arrange them for his quintet with James Moody. I forget the other fellows. They were very complimentary to me, a young composer, and I was thrilled about them in his basement playing my songs, my arrangements. Then he went on the road and he performed them all over the country.

When he came back, he said to me that when he got started the early things he wrote he had to sign away to other people, and he expected that of me, too. I wasn’t getting it. I said, “You mean you want to put your name on it?” He said, “It’s just the way it has to be.” So I was really heartbroken. More than anything, this was a loss of a hero. Dizzy Gillespie was one of the great musicians of all time. It was a big blow to me that he said that he had to put his name on my tunes. I never considered that. Why would Dizzy Gillespie have to put his name on it? He’s written “Manteca”; he wrote “A Night in Tunisia”. Maybe that was just the business aspect of it. In the pop music business, I’ve heard of that a lot, where singers would perform someone’s song and say O.K., but you have to include my name on the copyright. It’s happened to me a couple of times where one singer says the name has to be on the copyright. Sometime managers try. They call up and they say, “Didn’t he change your word?” or “Didn’t he add a sentence?” or something. Well, if you accommodate a singer who has a problem with a word or a line or a sentence, it doesn’t mean he’s a co-author. So in my professional work since, I’ve never done that. And I didn’t even with Dizzy Gillespie. As a result, they didn’t record the pieces. I ended up forming a jazz band myself, and I recorded them. They never got released or distributed, but it was the conclusion of that point in my life, and I think those tunes are still pretty good actually.

FJO: This raises a whole interesting question about your being a composer who works in many different styles and is able to do any assignment you’re given. Where does your ego live in all of this? It’s obviously very important that your name is on this music.

CF: Right.

FJO: Even if you can’t necessarily tell from the sound of the music that it is you.

CF: Right.

Songwriter Magazine
Charles Fox on the cover of the June 1979 issue of Songwriter Magazine

FJO: I was blown away seeing that cover of Songwriter magazine from the 1970s where the headline stated that 300 million people listen to the music of Charles Fox.

CF: Every week.

FJO: That number is unfathomable even today. Everything now is so splintered, it’s hard to imagine that many people agreeing on anything. But even at the same time that all these 300 million people were listening to your music on TV shows, most of them probably didn’t realize that they were listening to you. You were a name on the credits at the end, but they never saw your face on their TV screens. You’re not a celebrity in that sense. A composer is never a celebrity the way a movie star is, or a politician. We’re always these behind-the-scenes people.

CF: Right.

FJO: So what does it mean for your ego to have your name out there? What do you want in terms of recognition from the public? How does that play out in your mind?

CF: Well, first I would say that I identify with every project that I do. I don’t necessarily take every project. There was a movie called The Bad News Bears that was a fun picture. I was originally hired to write the music for it. Michael Ritchie was the director, and he asked if I would adapt the music from Carmen. He saw the baseball arena as kind of a bullfight ring, and he wanted me to literally adapt the music of Carmen. I thought it needed an original score. I was ready to write a song and do an original score. And he said no, it’s just not the way that I want it. I want [sings tune] and so I refused the job. I just turned it down, which is one example of not wanting to do something at that moment in my life. I just didn’t want to spend the next two or three months adapting music of Carmen for that film. It’s always a matter of getting into your own work.

FJO: You worked with Gilbert and Sullivan’s music in your soundtrack for Foul Play, so you’re not averse to working with pre-existing music.

CF: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, normally I get involved after the film is shot. As a film composer, you come in and usually the composer sees the first cut of the picture. Directors are more prone to wanting the composers to see the picture even before the studio to get some kind of feel, some kind of feedback. When I worked on the film Foul Play, Norman Gimbel and I were asked to write a song, because Goldie Hawn, the star of the picture, was going to sing along with the supposedly big hit song of the day. And so we wrote a song, based on the title, “Taking Chances” that was in script. Norman wrote “Ready to Take a Chance Again” for Barry Manilow hoping he would sing it because he was the big hit singer of the day. We didn’t know him then, but all those things came into play, and Barry loved the song. It became the big hit record of the day. And then Goldie Hawn was sitting in a car singing along with it.

The other thing was the ending of the film has to do with someone attempting to kill the Pope at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. And the whole end of the film is a chase to get to the opera house to stop him. On the stage, The Mikado is going on, so I actually worked with the New York City Opera company and Julius Rudel, told him which parts of the opera we needed to record, and ultimately to film because we had to start with the overture and then follow the progression of the first act of the opera. By the end of the first act of the opera, our movie was over. So I had to work with him in terms of how many minutes and how many scenes. I didn’t do any writing for this, by the way; I just sat next to him. I produced it, you might say. I did produce it. Then they brought the whole New York City Opera company out to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, where they filmed it. They inserted that into the War Memorial Opera House through the magic of Hollywood. But when it came to this big chase scene at the end, Colin Higgins, the director, before he even shot the film, said, “How do propose to handle it?” Because we have all the opera music and chase music in between. So I said, this is a real challenging work for me; I’m going to have a lot of fun with this. This is going to start with the Overture to The Mikado, and then wherever you cut away from it, I’ve got to pick up and go to my own music that pertains to that set of characters in that chase scene. I think it was John Denver in one, who was kind of a movie cowboy, and then there was an Asian couple in the back seat, driving down the hills of San Francisco with cars flopping around, and Kojak lovers with an American flag. There was just a lot of fun stuff going on. All the while, there was tension because they had to get to the opera house to stop the murder. So my challenge there was to take the music of The Mikado and lead to my own music so they were seamless, so that Arthur Sullivan himself could have written it that way. The last ten minutes in the music of the film was this one steady stream that went back and forth between Mikado and my music. And each time it was different. As a result, because of that, I used some motifs of The Mikado in the film. I had good fun with that. I had no problem with that. With Bad News Bears, I just didn’t want to spend two-and-a-half months doing that when I thought I would write the original score.

FJO: So then in terms of what you want people to walk away from, in terms of your identity, where your ego is invested in the project, obviously it’s important for your name to be there. But it isn’t necessarily important that they walk away saying, “This is what Charles Fox’s music sounds like.”

CF: I don’t feel the need to have an identifiable sound in my music. People have said to me they recognize my music. If so, then so be it. I don’t start to do that. I don’t start to say: this is my sound; I always use trombones this way; I always develop motifs this way; or I always try to do this in the counterpoint. I don’t always try to do anything. I just do it as it comes. I don’t usually have any grand scheme of things. If I’m working on a composition for performance with an orchestra, I may not necessarily start at the beginning. I may start at the end. And my ideas, however they come to me, they come to me. And then I work them. But I don’t start with a preconceived notion at all that I’d like to retain these elements. The work I’ve done is so varied and disparate that I’ve just become used to working within that genre. However, in some of my Latin records, for example, my own music, I do have a “Tosca Pachanga” where on the beginning I emulate the chords of the opening of Tosca at the piano. I did one album with a fantastic pianist, Ben Lanzarone early on in the ’60s. Bob Crewe, the great pop and rock and roll songwriter who I did Barbarella with, came to me and said he always wanted to do a pop record that mixed classical music and jazz and Latin. He said, “You’re the perfect person to do it.” So I took themes from the classical repertoire that I liked, and I turned them inside out, and I made new compositions, or I developed them. And they led to some songs and really probably a different style. I didn’t just take a classical piece and arrange it. I used the motif to lead me to someplace else, so it all became original compositions. So I was able to use a lot of background that I had. I don’t really think of that so much. It’s all a part of what I’ve done in my life.

Song For Dead Warriors
A production still from the Charles Fox-Michael Smuin ballet A Song for Dead Warriors

FJO: But in the world of classical composition, when you’re writing a ballet score like A Song for Dead Warriors, or the opera on The Grapes of Wrath, it’s a very big deal when somebody says, “Oh, that’s what a Charles Fox score sounds like.” All these composers who are out there, whether it’s Beethoven or Stravinsky, they have a certain identifiable sound. And maybe this is one of the lies in this music: this great person wrote this and it’s always this way. Classical music is very much caught up in the ego of a person that has this very specific, stylistic sound to the point that I think a composer develops a sound, and maybe gets a little trapped in it. They have to write stuff that sounds like their other music. Now that you’re doing the concert music that you do—it’s something that you’ve always done but it’s become a more important part of your public persona—does that becomes an issue in that music for you? But you say there isn’t a Charles Fox sound.

CF: I don’t know. If so, I don’t do it intentionally, I can tell you that. My commissions have been rather different and have come from different places. About two years ago, I wrote this piece based on the words of Pope John Paul II—the [Latin] words that he inserted into the Wailing Wall. He was the first pope to visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and only the second to visit Israel, by the way. These were the words of apology that he wrote to the Jewish people and that he put into the Wailing Wall. It wasn’t written in English, but I actually set them [in English] and asked for them to be translated into Hebrew and Polish. Polish because he was Polish, and also because the premiere was to be performed by the Poland National Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra. That, too, was a very important work for me; I got to express a lot of feelings that I had within me about the significance of those words. I knew those words had to be taken with great depth, because they were really monumental words—simple but very monumental in terms of their impression. So I started off the piece with a chorus, full fortissimo, calling to God in three languages—a powerful statement, then a quiet statement. Then it went off into sort of an airy space, almost 12-tone like, but very simple. As I say, I don’t deal with 12-tones literally, but it’s almost 12-tone like in terms of the aural sounds. Very spatial, and then it goes into a kind of undulating sound underneath, a kind of a string pad with baritone soloists. At the end, I wrote a fugue because I needed to combine the expression in three languages. I needed people to sing in Hebrew, English, and Polish—some of this is quite harmonic and some of it is quite dissonant, although the quieter portions are quite tonal.

Of course, we had to have approval from the Vatican, contractually, with my publisher, Peters. Anyway, I conducted that piece with the full National Opera company, plus a children’s choir of 40 voices. Then the Minister of Culture asked me if I would write a piece commemorating the 200th birthday of Chopin the following year which, of course, I gladly accepted. They have a fantastic jazz as well as classical pianist Leszek Możdżer, and they asked me to write a piece for him with orchestra and come and conduct it in Gdansk. It was the 30th anniversary of the Solidarity movement, last year, 2010. So I wrote quite a different work, Hommage a Chopin. But because he’s a jazz pianist as well, for a long time I had been telling Eddie Daniels, who’s a fantastic jazz clarinetist, that I would write a piece for him one day. So I asked if he’d like to be involved in this with me, and included the piano and the clarinet. I wanted to do that also because I was going to write a piece that was somewhat Chopin-esque, but was my music, too, whatever that means. I thought that if I added a clarinet to the piano, it would take it away from being strictly in the fingers of Chopin, so to speak. I wrote some music, as I say, that might be Chopin-esque to the point where some people said to me, “Which piece was that? I forgot.” I said, “No, it wasn’t.” I didn’t have to study the music of Chopin; he’s very much in my ears and my fingers. Nor did I want to step on anything, so it just was stylistically in Chopin’s style. But then it fused with some jazz and more modern elements, some very different, dissonant elements. As you said earlier, I think we have all those tools at our disposal now, and I love that. I love where we are with music. There was more of a boundary in the ’60s you know. If you wrote dodecaphonic music, you stayed with that; you weren’t interested in your audience having a melody. I think obviously we have to please ourselves first as composers. But the question is, stylistically, are we in a period where we can reach out with melodies that an audience can absorb as a melody, or are we trying to do the opposite and have something that doesn’t become melodic and tuneful. Nothing against those composers—they are fantastic. I love the works of Nono and Berio. I adore Boulez and all that he’s accomplished. It’s just that we’re in a different period of music now. We’re in a period of music where music can be more sensible. Maybe accessible is not a bad word, whereas in the ’60s, accessible was a bad word. That’s all I’m saying.

FJO: What’s interesting, though, is that in the ’60s there were already composers working in film who wrote accessible music and also explored very advanced techniques. I’m thinking of Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote strict 12-tone music for The Planet of the Apes.

Film Composer Royalty
Four of Hollywood’s top composers play through some music on two pianos, eight hands (left to right): James Newton Howard, Jerry Goldsmith, David Newman, and Charles Fox

CF: It’s a 12-tone score. No question. Jerry also has a wonderful eight-minute 12-tone piece called Music for Orchestra. Jerry and I were good friends. When he got sick at the end, he asked me to conduct for him a few times, so I did some concerts for him in Los Angeles and Japan, and know a lot of his scores very well. I didn’t conduct The Planet of the Apes, but I’m very familiar with it. I spoke about Jerry one day not so long ago at a symposium in Morris Hall in Los Angeles, and at the end I made the comment that I don’t think of Jerry as a film composer. I think Jerry’s a great American composer who spent his life devoted to film. I don’t draw any difference between someone who writes music for film or someone who writes music, because, given the opportunity, most people would write for film today. I think Mozart would probably write for film if he were alive today. He’d have a blast. He’d be charming and wonderful and add to films. Jerry Goldsmith was a great American composer who devoted his life to writing film music. He wrote beautiful melodies also, very jazzy tunes, and fun upbeat music. You can use the tools of 12-tone music if that’s your bent. In my film music, some of my more dissonant, 12-tone-like music just was appropriate. Like for example in Foul Play, I talked about the chase scene before with The Mikado, but there are moments where Goldie Hawn’s life is threatened, and there are bizarre things going on, and it’s some of the more dissonant music that I’ve ever written—for this comedy picture!

FJO: Early in this conversation you talked about needing to know a variety of musical styles when you work in film—1890 waltzes, Latin music, African music. There are all these languages you need to know. And we talked about how in so-called concert music, people go off and do their own thing but it still has a basic frame that audiences for that music will identify with. It’s the same thing with all the different subgenres of popular music, whereas film music really can be anything. But is that really true? Might there be certain things that you can’t write for film?

CF: You know, I think you can do anything for anything. I do. I think you can use any sound, any texture. The difference is when you write for a character or a dramatic situation, you have to understand the needs of that dramatic situation. We know there’s a difference between music that’s made to be performed independent of any visual substance. Some of the greatest music ever written is the Bartók string quartets. If you place a Bartók string quartet against a scene in a picture, it’s too much, I will say. Just to pick something based on your question. It’s such fantastic music from the inside; it’s so involved that if we were to place it against a dramatic scene I think you’d be drawn so much to the texture of the music that you might not see the scene that needs to be brought out. But if you’re writing to that scene, and you wanted to use the language of Bartók, if you had the ability to do that—and some composers do and some composers don’t—and if you have the ability to place yourself in the scene, you understand what the nature is of the scene and how the characters have to interact and what the message is. Am I underscoring some sort of subtext that they’re thinking about? That tone, or what could have been. If you understand all that, then I think the language you can use can be the same language. But it has to move with the film, and I guess there’s a kind of mystery to that. How do you make someone do that? I have a class that I’ve taught at UCLA in film composition. As any teacher could help a student, you can kind of direct them to something, but you can’t make them feel the needs of that picture.

I think to retread the composers of the past on films is nonsense. But to try to emulate some composer that came before you, I think that’s true in all music. The purpose is not to emulate them. The purpose is to move ahead and, as you say, establish your own sound, or your own identity, whatever that is. I feel the dramatic needs of the film, and I relate to that. I take those characters with me. I don’t just write music, I’m a dramatist. In film, I’m part of the drama. My music is winding its way through the film, and it helps them to make the film be properly understood as a dramatic work. As long as you have that concept, I think the language doesn’t matter. It can be dissonant. It can be harmonic. It can be what you like. It just has to be of that film.

FJO: Television is a different medium in some ways. Jerry Goldsmith can compose a 12-tone film score, you wrote some really wild things in Barbarella and Foul Play and even in 9 to 5—I’m thinking of those dream sequences. But could you have a really dissonant TV theme? Maybe not, since it’s something people hear every week and having an easily memorable theme song is part of what brings you into the program. We didn’t really talk much about the difference in writing for film and television.

CF: Same thing. No change for me when I’m home working on a score; they all come up on the same screen. There’s no difference. The only difference is where you have a shorter time span to write the music. Maybe a budget difference, you have to use a smaller orchestra. It’s not so much movies and television; it’s drama and drama. I never have seen a difference. No one ever said to me, write that because it’s television. You don’t have to make it so “whatever” because it’s television. Television has been good to me. My themes and my music have been on the air for many years. I see it as just another form of film making, just shorter. Television series—comedy shows—have different needs. There’s music that plays into scenes and out of scenes. I’m not really talking about that. That’s a very specific thing when they have laugh tracks. Laugh tracks supply what people at home are supposedly laughing along with. Basically, I didn’t really do a lot of shows. I started those shows off. I did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat. And I didn’t stay with those shows. I established the musical identity. I wrote the theme. I maybe did a couple of episodes. I maybe did some music, and then I recommended other people to take over the shows. Love American Style actually was the only show that I did show after show after show. It’s what brought me into Hollywood. And, actually, each show was a different challenge because within every hour, there were three separate stories and three separate casts. And I got to choose the ones I wanted to do, the ones I thought were most interesting or the most challenging. [There were] I think 22 episodes a year; I did 11.

FJO: So considering all the different kinds of situations your music has appeared in and all the different areas of music that you’ve worked in, is there an ideal context for hearing your music? What do you want in a listener hearing your music?

Grammy Award
Receiving the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Song (left to right): Norman Gimbel (lyricist), Charles Fox (composer), Lily Tomlin (presenter), Robert Flack (singer), and Isaac Hayes

CF: I enjoy being in the audience watching someone listen to my work. A very important part of my life was working in ballet. I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet Company that was based on American Indian motifs that [choreographer] Michael Smuin and I researched. Then it was picked up by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and they performed it around the world. I went to see it last in London a few years ago at Sadler’s Wells. It’s been a great thrill for me to see my ballet performed around the world. But I can’t tell you that I enjoy it any more than I do hearing one of my songs coming up out of an elevator if I’m in Budapest, or someone whistling my song on an airplane as I’m flying someplace. It all makes me feel terrific. I love the idea that my music is out there some place. You mentioned all those people in the world listening; at one time I had six or seven shows on the air at the same time that were prime time. Plus all my songs. They still reside some place in the world. They’ll sit in some radio or television station. I know they’re out there. I see my statements and I know they’re performed and I hear new records of my songs all the time. I can only tell you that it’s a marvelous feeling to know that my work is being performed and enjoyed.

The last decade or so, I seem to be doing more classical music, which I love, and I have lots of thoughts for new pieces that I want to do. I’m commissioned to write music for the opening of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw—a huge museum; it’s going to be the first of its kind. And the great lyricist Hal David and I are writing a show that we started years ago. We’d finally gotten the rights back to a musical based on The Turning Point, the great film from the ’70s about ballet dancers. What we’re going to do is hopefully a Broadway musical. And I’m planning to do another salsa record. I have an idea for a big band salsa record with Spanish lyrics, with some American lyrics, and I think it’s going to be a new sound. I think it’s going to be very energetic. I’m going to play the piano, and I’m going to have a lot of fun. And I love it. I really do. Because when it comes down to it, I have a lot of fun playing Latin music. On the other hand, I love being in my studio and getting up and working on a long-form composition. And I love writing songs with people. Tomorrow night, Jane Monheit and I are going to talk about writing some songs together for her. She’s a fantastic singer. I still like all those different worlds; I don’t want to separate myself to any one kind. It takes me a lot longer to do classical. It took me a year, for example, to do Warriors. It took me a year to do Zorro. But on the other hand, I had a commission last year for the Young Musician Foundation, which I conducted, called Arabesque for Orchestra. That’s up at probably three or four months, same with my piece for Chopin. But I love to sit down and write a song that someone can sing and perform in a nightclub or record. I still enjoy it all. I still look forward very much to what I want to write. I have lots of ideas and hope to see them come to fruition.

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