Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Earle Hagen (1919-2008)

Best known for composing themes for sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and That Girl, Earle Hagen died at the age of 88 on Monday.

Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times once mourned the death of the original TV theme song (he blames its demise on the CSI franchise and House, which both rely on preexisting pop tunes for their opening credits, and ER, which shortened its opening theme from 49 seconds to eight seconds in 2006). We've also lost many of the legendary Silver Age composers who wrote several of the best of these tunes (Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and now Hagen).

In a TV Guide article about TV theme composing that I fortunately saved to my computer before the magazine's site took it offline, Hagen recalled how he came up with his most famous theme, "The Fishin' Hole" from Andy Griffith, which went through several different orchestral incarnations that he intended for a 50-piece band until he settled on a more minimalist tune--the perfect opening for a small-town sitcom:
Composer Earle Hagen fiddled with the melody for months before genius struck: "I thought, 'Hey, I ought to be able to whistle that.'"

Why not go there in the first place? Because the creative process is like peeling an onion, says Hagen, 83. "Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what's not. For Andy, I sat at my desk, thought about [the music], worked it out on paper — and threw it away. That happens a lot."

Few composers have scored as often as Hagen, who, over 33 years, generated a trove of TV themes...

Yet none proved more difficult to deliver than the feel-good, finger-snapping tune that would put Mayberry on the map. "Andy was the nightmare," Hagen says. The man who wrote a rhythm and blues classic ("Harlem Nocturne") was stumped by a show about a down-home sheriff and his bumbling deputy. But by simplifying things, Hagen finally nailed it. With a tape recorder running, he whistled the theme as his then 11-year-old son, Deane, snapped his fingers.

Nearly half a century later, the song moseys along, on lips everywhere. "Andy says he still can't go anywhere without somebody whistling it," Hagen says. "It has become a part of America."
The same could be said about Hagen's other themes. My favorite Hagen main title themes are from I Spy and The Mod Squad.

Most hour-long '60s dramas either recycled their score music (Star Trek) or relied on library music cues (The Fugitive) to save money. The big-budget I Spy was different. It was one of the few '60s dramas in which every single episode received an original score from teaser to tag. Hagen once said composing the music for I Spy was like scoring an hour-long movie each week. He raised the bar for TV scoring--he was the '60s equivalent of present-day composers like Lost's Michael Giacchino and Battlestar Galactica's Bear McCreary, who stand out from other TV composers by writing an insane amount of original music each week and relying on 40- or 60-piece orchestras instead of less expensive (and less interesting-sounding) synths.

In 2002, Film Score Monthly released a terrific compilation that featured Hagen's never-before-released cues from I Spy, including the stereo version of the supercool main title theme.

The Mod Squad theme, which is often performed by the Max Weinberg Seven in between segments on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, is awesome too:

(Poor Julie can't run. Pete and Linc have to help her up. Despite her Roger Moore-like inability to run, Rashida Jones' mom remains the hottest hippie on TV.)

Hagen also penned the frequently covered 1939 jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne," which the '80s Stacy Keach version of Mike Hammer adopted as its opening theme. Here's one of my favorite versions of "Harlem Nocturne," done by Jim Campilongo & the 10 Gallon Cats:

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