Patrick Williams has enjoyed a charmed career, albeit one fueled by talent and hard work. Being in Hollywood at the right time didn’t hurt – he has been honored by the muses Emmy, Grammy, Oscar – and even Pulitzer. With multiple nominations and wins for his work in what this author considers the Golden Age of Television, Williams has written iconic TV themes and scores for landmark shows during the 1970s through the 1990s such as “Lou Grant,” “Columbo,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Williams worked as the ad hoc “house composer” for MTM Enterprises, which he recalls as “the [gold] standard of the industry at the time… with all sorts of hit shows, one after the other.” This body of work has helped to establish a creative model for many TV composers since, in writing music for programming that portrays the work and lives of detectives, journalists, and others whose professions have the elements of danger and moral ambiguity. At the core of these stories is often the responsibility of a main character or characters to improve the human condition.
Throughout his career, Williams’ work traverses seamlessly between the jazz, classical, and popular genres. The versatile arranger and conductor was chosen by Frank Sinatra as musical director and arranger for the Chairman’s final studio recordings, “Duets” and “Duets II.” Williams has also had a major role in shaping some of the most beloved and successful pop songs and albums by artists such as Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Gloria Estefan, Brian Setzer, and Barbra Streisand. His arrangement of Billy Joel’s Diamond-certified album (10,000,000 copies sold – yes, this is better than Platinum, which is only a paltry million), “The Stranger” was recognized by The Recording Academy for Best Arrangement and Record of the Year in 1977.
After graduating from Duke University with his bachelor’s degree and studying composition and orchestration at Columbia University, Williams arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. His first film score was for the 1968 rom-com, “How Sweet It Is,” starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. For 25 years, Williams worked prolifically in film and television, winning Emmys for his work on made-for-TV films “Yesterday’s Children,” “The Princess and the Cabbie,” and the mini-series, “Danielle Steele’s ‘Jewels.’” He won an Emmy in 1980 for “Lou Grant,” – which garnered five nominations throughout all five seasons of its 1977- 1982 run.
Williams’ original score and his adaptations of works by Mendelssohn and Rossini for the 1979 film, “Breaking Away” were nominated for an Academy Award. In addition, his 1977 opus, “An American Concerto” was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and featured jazz legends Chuck Domanico (b), Grady Tate (d), Phil Woods (as) – also featured on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”), as well as fellow TV composer Dave Grusin. The work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and released on vinyl in 1980.
Williams was the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA from 2001-06, and has been a guest lecturer at the Berklee College of Music, Indiana University, Duke University and Yale. He has also taught at USC, Texas Christian University, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the Canadian Motion Picture and Television Workshop. Williams holds an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado, and a visiting professor and composer-in-residence at the University of Utah, where he composed “An American Concerto.” He now arranges and produces for artists on his own label, Soundwings.
Over lunch at the Pacific Dining Car in Santa Monica, with a soundtrack of other conversations, the clink of glasses and flatware, and even a celebratory round of “Happy Birthday” at a nearby table, Williams shared his life’s work of enhancing cinema’s storytelling process through music, mentoring the next generation of musicians and composers, and how the arts can strengthen America.
What is the landscape for composing music for TV today, with the increased use of existing music and synthesizers that replace orchestras?
A music editor is called in before a composer is called, and they put together all this temporary music and shove it into the movie [or show]. The problem is in these times, that the composer comes in and the whole picture is filled with music. And whether it’s effective or not, good or bad, the director [has heard] it hundreds of times.
When I was doing the [TV] shows, they might want to hear the theme, so I’d play it on the piano or do a rough demo. That was about it. They didn’t need to hear the whole show filled with music. So [today], the composer comes in and he’s got serious limitations of what he or she can do. [Directors are] so hung up on the temp music that if you do too much that’s different, they’re not going to like it. So, with one hand tied behind your back in a way, you do the score. To me, that is the most significant difference between 25 or 30 years ago and what’s going on now.
Your theme for “Lou Grant” really captured the essence of the show but also the period of the late 1970s in which the stories take place. What was your process of creating music for each episode?
The fun part of the show which was unusual was that it was never the same score. I never knew where it was going to take me, so it was a lot of fun working on that show. I did almost everything in terms of the score. I wrote the theme, and we did 14 or 15 episodes a year. Every week was like a movie of its own; we could get involved in all sorts of different things. The stories were never the same. One [episode] was about people in an L.A. barrio and I did a whole Afro-Cuban thing.
The theme changed too, from season to season – it seemed like it got “jazzier” over time.
It did, depending on the players. But the music was the same. It was AFM policy to record the theme every year. A different cast of characters would put a little bit of a different twist to it, they would take it in another direction. I would just kind of watch they did, unless something bothered me. I don’t say much except, “That sounds good.” I say that a lot.
How much of a film is completed before you step into the process?
Most of the time, it’s completely done [or] in the final cut. I did a Western and they flew me to Durango, Mexico, so I’d get the atmosphere of this Western, especially the Mexican vibe and all. It was helpful, I guess, but that’s rare, it’s happened to me a dozen times at the most. Normally, I’d get [a show or film] when it was completely done.
What I like to do is watch it once myself, with no one, so that people aren’t telling me what they think is on the screen. I want to see what’s on the screen and see what I think about it before they start to say, ‘Now here’s what’s really going on, and here’s what we want.’ Because they’ve already made up their minds – they’ve seen it over and over and over.
I may look at it and say, ‘Look, just because we’re at a church, doesn’t mean we have to have an organ, because the story isn’t about the church. The story is about the guy who’s in the church.’ It’s that kind of thing you always have to deal with as a film composer – where’s the story? You’re following the story.
What happens next?
When I was doing [TV] shows, they might want to hear the theme, so I’d play it on the piano or do a rough demo. That was about it. They didn’t need to hear the whole show filled with music. Why? You’re hiring a composer to do that.
I also think and this is my opinion – directors, almost by definition, have issues with control. They want to feel like they’re in control and in a lot of ways, they really are. But a lot of that is hiring the right [composer] and communicating with them about what you want. And then he goes home and writes. That’s how I liked it.
As the composer, were you able to choose your own orchestra?
I pick the players, absolutely. The contractor actually makes the calls, but we talk about who we’re going to get, very carefully because players are like secret weapons. You can say, ‘Here’s a flute solo,’ but then you say, ‘Who’s going to play the flute solo?’ It makes a big difference, just the style… You think of a certain player and you think about what that player can bring. Almost like a director who casts actors – same idea. The players are extremely important.
When I did “Streets of San Francisco” for five or six years, I brought in Tom Scott to play the saxophone. He’d been on a lot of my records, I know what he plays. I know how he’s going to approach it. And “Lou Grant” as well – that was Tom Scott.
What do you expect most out of your musicians as the composer and as the conductor?
I’m careful about the dynamics I have when I write, so they see what I want. I don’t have to tell them anything – they look at the music and they know what I want. And the orchestras I get here, all these players are so experienced. They’ve done a lot of movie scores, they understand what’s going on. If it says, ‘mezzo piano,’ they know what that is, I don’t have to tell them.
I feel there’s a difference between a player and a musician who plays. The musician has to have an overview, looking from a hundred feet up, not down in the weeds.
Peter [Erskine] is a champ, he knows this. He asks, ‘What are we shooting for here? How am I going to get this to where it should be, as a drummer and as a musician?’ And he’s got a ton of experience. He can play anything he thinks of, there isn’t anything he can’t play. He has phenomenal technique, but he doesn’t overplay. He understands how to use that in a very musical way, not in a technical way.
What else was important to you when recording for film and TV?
I never fluffed. I didn’t want to take a lot of shortcuts. I wanted to feel confident when I walked into the studio that I was prepared, so consequently, we could record faster, which means you save money. We can record more music in three hours if everybody understands what’s going on and you don’t have a lot of political problems. We’re just [there] to record the music.
It worked out well for me because I could get more bang for the buck – I could get a bigger orchestra. To me, it made it possible for me to get the kind of orchestra that I wanted. We used real people. (laughs) I always liked real people.
TV themes used to become pop hits – why has it become less of a priority for a show’s budget to have really great music in the wake of less expensive, pre-recorded material or a one-composer-musician-and-a-synth theme?
There was a whole market for TV themes. When they’re a hit, the studio’s making money, everybody is making money. So, why not have a really good theme and make some money? If nothing else, it just makes good business sense. Mike Post changed a lot of things because he understood how that worked, and he had hit shows – three or four at one time – “Hill Street Blues,” big shows.
What does a great score do? And what are some of your favorites – yours and the work of other composers?
I have quite a few [favorites]. “Chinatown” by Jerry Goldsmith … there are so many. There was a generation between the [active composers] now and Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. There was Alex North, Henry Mancini – all these composers that I admired and had their records.
When I was first out here in 1968, I went to some dates [at] some of the soundstages so I could listen. I remember Alex North did a picture called “Cheyenne Autumn,” a Western. It was at Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood which was a wonderful stage – it’s not there anymore. He had 25 woodwinds. The highest woodwind was a flute. He had four alto flutes, four bass flutes, four bass clarinets. I never heard anything like that in my life.
[As for my scores], the best analogy for that is that they’re all like children – which one do you like better? They’re [all] different. You can have two daughters who are [at] opposite poles. They grew up in the same house [but] they can be extremely different.
And I think scores are the same way – you deal with what’s in front of you. I remember I did a picture at Warner Brothers called “Swing Shift” – Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. I did a lot of movies in the 1980s. He was a jazz trumpet player… it was a lot of fun.
What do you think of how jazz has been represented in film scores?
Johnny Mandel’s “I Want to Live,” was one of the first jazz scores in the mid-fifties. He had a nine or ten-piece band. Gerry Mulligan was in it, and it had a real jazz score. But it’s very difficult to pull that off because oftentimes, [film makers] don’t want real jazz. Their idea of jazz isn’t exactly what you might think – it’s theatre jazz, if you know what I mean.
What were some of the highlights of your teaching career?
I was at the University of Utah and at the University of Colorado for a few years as a visiting professor, and [taught] a professional approach to music, to give [students] the idea that if they wanted to go into this, what they needed to know and what they had to be prepared to do. They have to understand what being a professional means, how you behave.
I was the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute for five years. It ran from the end of July till the end of August. I went throughout the country auditioning … to Eastman, Julliard, University of Michigan, North Texas – all the top schools. We were looking for the best of the best. The ages were from 19 to 30. And musically, they were outstanding. We were recruiting from pretty heavyweight music schools, and it was a full scholarship.
We took over UCLA – Royce Hall, all of it. We had 85 musicians – a full symphony [and] a 16-piece jazz band. To play in the jazz band, you had to play in the symphony too – you had to play in everything. From the day [the students] walked onto the UCLA campus, they were treated as professionals. They were exposed to all kinds of new music. They had to know how to sight-read [music], they had to be able to play it effectively and in the right style. We weren’t playing repertoire, we were playing music that was being created there. You don’t play the trumpet the same way if you’re sitting in a symphony orchestra as you play the first trumpet in a big band, so they had to be able to know how to do that.
We had seven young composers and they got to write for the big band, for chamber groups. We had great faculty, top pros from the city. Peter was there a few times. So, the faculty was really seasoned – experienced, active professionals – not just teachers. [Students] got the chance to be exposed to something they never would have if they didn’t come to that institute. At the end of the month – it was like how one picture is worth a thousand words – they got it. That’s what we were shooting for.
How were you able to expand on a multi-genre perspective in your teaching?
The mixing of different genres… that’s what I liked to do. If a guy wanted to be a composer, I would say, “Why don’t you write a piece for string quartet and jazz saxophone and see how that works?” In other words, try to mix up the mediums.
We had a jazz course in improvisation [at the Mancini Institute], and I made it a requirement for the string players. They don’t know how to improvise, they’ve been playing Beethoven. This is how it works – here’s a D Minor 7th. You play these notes – Dah-dah-dah-dah. And then pretty soon, you say, “Okay, now play it this way: dada-dada-dada-dada…And they’d play it and all of a sudden, “Whoa, what is this?” They’ve never swung, it was the first time they’ve ever felt that.
What inspired “An American Concerto”?
I wanted to do a jazz quartet and a symphony orchestra and put them together. I wanted the symphony orchestra to be as virtuoso as the jazz quartet, so it was even-Steven. Now, a symphony orchestra isn’t going to swing, per se, but if you understand how the symphony orchestra works, they don’t have to swing like a jazz player. They can do what they do, the jazz players do what they do, and we put those two things together [to] see how it comes out.
I got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for that piece. But I [also] got some terrible reviews. I remember one reviewer – the guy said I was like a musical Pied Piper, leading musicians off a cliff. (laughs)
Gene Lees liked it.
Gene loved it. I think it had its impact in terms of stimulating young composers to try things – “Well, if he can do it, well, hell – maybe I can do it.” And that’s what I was most pleased with. I would go to colleges and [hear that the] piece made an impact, not only on the students but on some of the faculty. That meant a lot to me.
What are you looking forward to now?
I still keep my hand in it. I produced a Christmas album last year with an Italian singer, Laura Pausini, and a Christmas album for Martina McBride in Nashville. My daughter’s trying to get me back involved in the film thing. She found this guy who’s an electronic music, computer-kind of a genius. She said, “Dad, you do what you do and let him do what he’s does.”
So, we’re going to see what happens. The guy is incredible. It’s all computers, sampling. It’s what everybody is doing.
There’s this wonderful new group called Accent. I’m going to work with them. It’s six guys, [who] met online – this is a 21st Century thing. They found me online. They’re all from different countries, but they all like The Four Freshmen, they like the Hi-Los. And, they’re extraordinary. I had a meeting [here] and they were all around the table. I didn’t ask them, but I wondered, can they do this live or is this completely a studio thing? So, I said, “When you do a recording, you can overdub, but you can’t do that when you do it live…” They started to sing. In the restaurant, and everybody’s looking around wondering what’s going on…
They want to do it with a big band. All they do is a capella, their harmonies are very rich. But now, they want to [sing] with a big band, and a rhythm section. We looked at old R&B hits – “River Deep, Mountain High.” I thought, let me see what they could do with something like that. We’re going to go into the studio later this month and see how it goes.
I just arranged and produced an album with Arturo Sandoval. It’s all my originals – the idea is Arturo Sandoval and strings. There’s a pop ballad, a classical piece, a piece that combines classical and jazz. It’s quite extraordinary. I re-recorded “The Witch” from [my album] “Threshold,” with Arturo. It’s from 1976 or so, but he comes in and sounds fresh as a daisy.
In today’s political climate, the arts will most likely suffer, with everything from cutbacks to education to fewer performing and visual art opportunities for the public. Why is it important to a society to ensure that the arts thrive?
When I was really busy in the 1980s and 1990s, [studios] all wanted to send me to Prague. It was like I [always] had to renegotiate my deal. I’d talk to the director and say, ‘You know what? I can do it here, faster and better. It’s not going to be wildly more expensive [here] because by the time you fly me over there, you put me up, and I have to deal with musicians I don’t know, I’m dealing with a studio I don’t know, and a language [barrier] – if you can, let’s just do it here.’
I was doing a date at Weston’s recording in Hollywood. This was in 1997, 1998, something like that. It had a really big orchestra. We’d just taken a 10-minute break and everyone had come back. These four people came wandering into the studio, and they’ve got suits on. Who the hell are they? I’m thinking. They come up to the podium, and the whole orchestra stands up and applauds. They gave me a plaque: “Thank you for helping to keep the work in Los Angeles” from the Local 47. It meant a lot to me, because it was from the players.
Have you had much experience performing overseas?
There’s a few big bands in Europe that are very good. One is in Cologne, and one is in Amsterdam. I actually had a full symphony too with the Metropole Orchestra. I worked with them on an album and a number of other projects. I was going to Amsterdam two or three times a year, and they’re really good.
I really enjoyed working with the Metropole. They’re completely state-supported. The players all live in the suburbs, come to work. They’ve got three studios, one big one for the orchestra. They’ve got a choir and a big band, and they all have their own studios. Unfortunately, it’s all being cut back, I’m told because of the economics. What they did [previously] was they didn’t have to make any money, it was state-supported.
Apparently now, that has changed. They have to do some concerts that make money. That changes everything from kind of an artistic thing to having big names and all of that. They had big names, but they did creative things, not exactly what you’d plan for a popular TV show.
I remember, I went to a house and they had a party. Vic Mendoza was the artistic director over there, a composer. We went to this party and a lot of the orchestra was there and I’m talking to the players. They all speak English – I certainly don’t speak Dutch. At any rate, I sense this atmosphere of insecurity from them. They don’t know what’s going to go on here. They don’t know how the orchestra is going to survive and if it is going to survive, what’s it going to look like if they cut the funding back, what’s going to happen?
I think it’s a matter of someone coming in and saying, ‘Why are we spending so much money on this orchestra?’ When it becomes that, it changes everything. This is their whole livelihood, playing in this orchestra. If they don’t have this orchestra, what are they going to do? So, it’s a big deal over there.
Despite these developments, what can we learn from other nations in their support and greater participation in the arts?
When you would go over there and do a television special –I did two of them – they had the best cameras, the best [equipment]. The sound was always terrific, and they had a sold-out audience. They would get people like Herbie Hancock.
There are [approximately] ten symphonies in London, not just one, and they’re playing all the time. So, when you go to London, you can get orchestras that are so used to playing together that the sound is automatically like one [musician], except there are 85 of them. They immediately get it balanced, those English strings are out of this world. A lot of scores are done with the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Philharmonic. They have very good results over there, I’ve always loved recording in London.
They use the concert hall in Amsterdam, a beautiful hall for three concerts a day, not just one at night. They’ll have 2 p.m., a matinee, and then a concert at 8 p.m. It’s very impressive, the sound, the hall, and the whole thing, is just baked in history. They have two symphonies in Amsterdam – it is part of the fabric of everyday life.
© MMXVIII Joanie Harmon
From the forthcoming book, “Making Life Swing: Jazz on TV and Other Unexpected Places”