At this time of year, we tend to watch a lot of football bowl games. Most of the attention centers on the coaches, the quarterbacks, and a handful of other star players like running backs, wide receivers, and occasionally kickers. While these positions influence the games, there is an entire team behind them which determines whether they get a win or a loss. This year I will be trying to look at some of the behind-the-scenes players in the television industry.
Today we look at three composers who often influenced shows, even though many viewers never heard of the song writers.
Frank Denny De Vol was born in West Virginia in 1911. His family moved to Canton, Ohio where he grew up. His mother owned a sewing shop, and his father was in charge of the pit orchestra at a local movie theater. He graduated from McKinley High School in 1929 and started at Miami of Ohio University but quit after six weeks. His parents were hoping he would pursue his law degree, but he was set on a career in music.
This wasn’t surprising because he had become a member of the musicians’ union at age 14. He worked for his father at the theater and played the saxophone and violin.
Once he left college, he joined Emerson Gill’s orchestra and traveled around Ohio. Later he became a musician with Horace Heidt’s band, and Horace let him try his hand at arranging. He would then travel with Alvino Rey’s band which led to a long-life friendship with the King Family.
During his career as a traveling musician he married his wife, Grayce McGinty in 1935. The couple’s 54-year-long marriage would produce two daughters.
During the 1940s, he would write arrangements for many of the country’s top performers including Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, and Sarah Vaughn. His version of “Nature Boy” for Nat King Cole went to number 1 in 1948.
In 1943 he moved to California and started his own band. He appeared on the radio on KHJ and accompanied many stars including Jack Carson.
In the 1950s, he moved into movie composing and worked on more than 50 film scores including What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Glass Bottom Boat, The Dirty Dozen, and several Herbie movies. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on Pillow Talk (1959), Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Cat Ballou (1965), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
During the 1950s, his orchestra also was frequently seen at the Hollywood Palladium as “Music of the Century.”
It seems natural that De Vol would ease into television work as well. He composed the jingle for Screen Gems’ “Dancing Sticks,” which appeared on all television series produced by Columbia Pictures.
Frank became the musical director on Edgar Bergen’s game show Do You Trust Your Wife? His orchestra was featured on a variety of musical shows including The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney.
Today De Vol might be best known for his work as a composer for television series. He wrote the music for My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, and The Smith Family. My Three Sons theme song was a hit single in 1961 by Lawrence Welk, more musically complex than many sitcom themes of the time. He would continue his work for My Three Sons for all 380 episodes.
Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, first turned to George Wyle to create the Brady theme. Wyle and Schwartz had composed the theme for Gilligan’s Island. With Wyle already committed to The Andy Williams Show, he approached De Vol. De Vol would provide music for 117 episodes of the original show, as well as music for The Brady Girls Get Married, The Brady Brides, The Bradys, and A Very Brady Sequel.
Frank was credited as composer for 37 movies and television series and listed as part of the music department for 87 total.
Not only was he musical composer for these shows, but you can see him acting in many of the shows he worked on as well. His first acting appearances were on Betty White’s Show, Life with Elizabeth where he played a variety of roles.
He then appeared on several television series including State Trooper, My Favorite Martian, The Farmer’s Daughter, Gidget, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Get Smart, That Girl, and I Dream of Jeannie (37 different shows in all).
While composing on My Three Sons, he would actually portray a bandleader on the show and a father on The Brady Bunch.
Many people will remember him as the dour-faced band leader Happy Kyne on Fernwood Tonight and America 2-Night, shows starring Martin Mull in the late 1970s.
One of my favorite roles of his was the head of the boys’ camp on the original Parent Trap.
His last acting role would be on Charles in Charge, the Scott Baio comedy from 1990.
When he was in his 80s, Frank was still active with the Big Band Academy of America. About this time, he married Helen O’Connell who had been a big band singer and actress. (His first wife passed away in 1989.)
Helen passed away in 1993, and Frank died from congestive heart failure in 1999.
Like so many of these stars of the classic television era, he was a multi-talented guy. He could sing, he could play instruments, he could compose, he could arrange, and he could act. Sadly, when he does his job right, the music is so attuned to the shows that we almost don’t realize it’s there but try listening to a show with no background noise. Thank you Frank De Vol for not becoming an attorney.
We also take a look at a song-writing team of the golden age, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Livingston was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania in 1915. After studying piano with Harry Archer in Pittsburgh, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in journalism but also studying composition and orchestration.
Ray Evans was born in Salamanca, New York the same year. He also ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a degree in Economics.
Livingston organized a dance band at the University that played on campus as well as at local nightclubs and even cruise ships during their summer breaks. One of those band mates was Ray Evans. Evans and Livingston became a partnership and they wrote some of the most iconic songs from film and television.
After their graduation in 1937, the duo moved to New York City to work in Tin Pan Alley. They wrote for Broadway productions, including special material for Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.
Livingston joined the Army when World War II began while Evans went to work for an aircraft company. When Jay came back home in 1945, he and Evans decided to try their luck in Hollywood. They received a contract from Paramount Pictures, and the team would stay with the company for a decade. Their first film was To Each His Own, starring Olivia DeHaviland, and they were nominated for an Academy Award.
During this time at Paramount, Livingston married Lynne Gordon. It must have been a happy marriage because they were married until 1991 when she passed away.
The exact same year, Evans married Wyn Ritchie. They were married until her death in 2003.
In 1947 the team began writing for Bob Hope for his personal appearances. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, they would write many tunes that became jukebox favorites and popular songs. In Warren Craig’s book The Greatest Songwriters of Hollywood, he called them “the last of the great songwriters in Hollywood.”
The year 1948 brought them their first Oscar win for “Buttons and Bows,” from Bob Hope’s western comedy, The Paleface. The jukebox version was recorded by Dinah Shore.
In 1950, they scored their second Academy Award for “Mona Lisa,” written for the movie Captain Carey, USA but made famous by Nat King Cole.
Evans and Livingston would appear in Sunset Boulevard this same year at the New Year’s Eve party scene.
We can all smile and thing of Livingston and Evans each Christmas when we hear “Silver Bells.” The song, originally titled “Tinkle Bells” was written for The Lemon Drop Kid in 1951, also starring Bob Hope. Thankfully, they decided “tinkle” had other connotations and “Silver Bells” it became. (Some sources credits Jay’s wife Lynne with the name change.)
When their Paramount contract ended in 1955, they became free lancers and wrote both individual songs and complete scores for a variety of movies. They would receive ten additional Oscar nominations during their career.
Doris Day had a huge hit in 1956 with “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and that hit would win them a third Oscar. The song would also become Doris’s theme song for her television show in 1968.
In 1957 they began writing the music for the Tammy movies that would be a staple of that era, beginning with Tammy and the Bachelor.
Jay and Ray would return to Broadway in 1958. They were nominated for a Tony for Oh, Captain! They also wrote songs for Let It Ride in 1961, a musical comedy adaptation of Three Men On a Horse, and Sugar Babies in 1979.
Though most of their work was in the film industry, the team is probably best known for their television compositions. In 1959, they were asked by Desi Arnaz to write a song for a Western show being developed. The show, thought likely to last a year, didn’t have money for a weekly salary, but he allowed them to keep the rights to the song. Luckily for them, that show, Bonanza, made them millions, and would be on television until 1973.
In 1960 they composed the theme song for The Bugs Bunny Show, “This is it.”
In 1961, Mister Ed debuted. Livingston and Evans not only wrote the well-known song, but Livingston is the one singing the line “I am Mister Ed.”
After Lynne’s passing, Jay would marry Shirley Mitchell in 1992.
Livingston and Evans were presented with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in 1995.
In 2001, at the age of 86, Jay Livingston died from pnuemonia. Ray Evans lived until 2007 when he passed away from heart failure.
It’s fun to see a friendship and partnership span six decades and be so successful. Although they were born in the same year in the same area of the country and married the same year and their marriages would last decades until the death of a spouse, the two men were very different. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985, Evans said “I’m nuts about sports, play baseball and tennis every weekend. Jay couldn’t care less. He’s restrained and quiet. I’m more outward going. Jay is a marvelous musician. I have a tin ear. But our tastes are similar, and we both like good music and song.” The duo had 26 songs that sold more than a million records and their total record sales has exceeded 400 million dollars.
Michael Feinstein released an album in 2002 devoted to the team. He said, “they had a strong work ethic and they wrote a lot of plays that have wonderful and sophisticated songs that are quite different from movie songs.”
Like Frank De Vol, most viewers today have probably never heard of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, although they recognize much of their work. It’s good to look behind the scenes of and dig deeper into the television industry to learn more about all the pioneers who made the era so great.