We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.
Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.
At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.
During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.
In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.
In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.
When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”
The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.
Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.
Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.
He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”
His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”
He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.
Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.
This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.
On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “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.’ ”
Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”
Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.
Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”
“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence. We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.
But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass. How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!
Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds. It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”
I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”
The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.
Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.
During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.
In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”
Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.
2 thoughts on “Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune”
He seems like he picked up the trombone quickly in junior high to leave and start touring with big time bands at age 16.
I don’t know much about TV theme songs but I have to imagine The Andy Griffith Show one has to be one of the most recognizable. The whistle is a great touch.
Love the name of his autobiography. Seems to sum up the theme of the last few weeks nicely!
It’s been fun to learn about some of the behind the scenes guys. I can’t imagine coming up with a new score for every half hour show. I wonder what type of royalties they got. Do they get anything from reruns or not.