Irwin D. Chusid – “Raymond Scott: 50 Years of Musical Mayhem”

December 6, 2009 at 8:39 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article by Irwin Chusid comes from the Raymond Scott website (www.raymondscott.com). I don’t know when it was written or if it originally appeared somewhere else. 
Scott was an electronic pioneer in the world of cartoons & television commercials, among other things. His recordings still sound ahead of their time… 

 

You’ve heard his merry melodies underscoring the antics of Bugs, Daffy, Porky and Elmer countless times since your childhood. More recently, his eccentric recordings provided counterpoint to the body-fluid fetishism of The Ren & Stimpy Show. His musical themes echoed across national television during 1967 in the soundtracks of a short-lived cartoon series called Batfink. And in the 1990s, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and Duckman have joined the cavalcade of animated programs whose ingredients included his work.

Now – would you be surprised to learn that Raymond Scott never wrote a note of music for a cartoon in his life? That, according to his wife, he never watched cartoons? Or that he may have been unaware that generations of video-glazed adolescents have been absent-mindedly humming his themes, which have been immortalized in a medium for which he probably cared little?

Scott’s hyperanimated instrumentals included “New Years Eve in a Haunted House,” “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “Celebration on the Planet Mars,” and “Egyptian Barn Dance” – all of which evoke comic imagery. But Scott had more important things to do than synchronize his musical flavorings to the misadventures of a wascally wabbit, a crime-fighting bat, and a short-fused asthma hound Chihuahua. Those jobs were left to Carl Stalling, Winston Sharples, and John Kricfalusi, respectively.

1998 marked the 55th anniversary of the first Scott musical quote in a cartoon. His  “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals”, originally recorded in 1937 by the Raymond Scott Quintette, was adapted by Warner Bros. Music Director Stalling in Greetings Bait, which was released May 15, 1943. (Directed by Friz Freleng, it was nominated for an Academy Award.) Thereafter, Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes regularly rolled out of the factory tinted with generous splashes from Scotts musical palette.

Raymond Scott was born Harry Warnow, on September 10, 1908, in Brooklyn. He was a child prodigy at the piano and had a natural flair for science. For over a half-century, he led two lives: as a pianist / composer / bandleader, and as an engineer / inventor / electronic music pioneer. Having risen to prominence during the 1930s Swing Era, Scott kept pace with music technology and was composing on a homemade MIDI system as late as 1987. That year, he suffered the first of six strokes, which left him unable to work and severely damaged his ability to speak. (He died on February 8, 1994.)

From 1937 to 1939, Scott led a quirky, six-piece Quintette. Sporting a lineup of sax, clarinet, trumpet, drums, bass and piano, the Quintette was immensely popular on radio, on the concert stage, and in film. They were difficult to categorize, drawing on jazz, pop, classical, ethnic, and fourth-dimensional elements. Although the Quintette sold millions of 78s, they were not highly regarded by jazz purists, who dismissed their offerings as screwy, kittenish pseudo-jazz. (These 3-minute pop masterpieces, out of print for over 40 years, were reissued by Columbia in 1992 on The Music of Raymond Scott: Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights; the compilation was produced by the author.)

In retrospect, Scotts ensemble embodied classic cartoon soundtrack fodder. Drummer Johnny Williams .38-caliber rimshots were guaranteed to make Yosemite Sam dance; his artillery included cowbells, tom-toms and wake-the-neighbors cymbal crashes. Muted horns (courtesy of Dave Wade) imitated toy trumpets, howling spooks and taxicabs. Scott’s idiosyncratic compositions toodled along at Keystone Kop tempos, interrupted by hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts and over-the-cliff dynamic spirals; his catchy melodies evoked Turkish casbahs, alpine echoes and oil gushers, typewriters, moon rockets and robots. One recent convert, Jennifer Harper, of the Washington Times, described it as, “music for mice that get hit in the head with an ironing board”. It certainly clobbered Stalling in a creative zone.

The most familiar and oft-used Scott tune was “Powerhouse,” which contains two distinct, unrelated passages: the first evokes a cat-chase-mouse melee; the second, a menacing assembly-line-gone-haywire. Both found their way into over 40 scores by Stalling and his successor, Milt Franklyn (who orchestrated many of Stallings earlier scores). “Powerhouse” weaves maniacally through “The Swooner Crooner,” makes five cameos in “It’s Hummer Time,” and surfaces in “Baby Bottleneck,” “Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2 Century,” and “Falling Hare,” among others. Scott themes quoted in about 120 Warner productions include The Penguin, Twilight in Turkey, Huckleberry Duck, The Toy Trumpet, Siberian Sleighride, Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner, Singing Down the Road, and more.

Oddly, at the time of Scotts first stroke, his family – and the world at large – were unaware that Daffy and Bugs had been wreaking havoc to the tune of “Powerhouse” for decades, and that a dozen other Scott creations were genetically encoded in the culture. Mitzi Scott (his wife since 1967) insisted that Raymond never talked about the cartoons, and that he was seemingly indifferent to the fact that generation after generation of Looney Tunesters were being systematically brainwashed with his melodies. The deal in which Warner Bros. purchased Scotts publishing in 1943 seemed of little concern to Scott, who at the time was presiding over the CBS Radio Orchestra. Mitzi said that before his strokes, Raymond rarely watched television, and never, never watched cartoons. (The author attended a screening of WB shorts in early 1992 with Raymond’s first wife, Pearl, who was married to him from 1935 to 1950. Halfway through the program, she confided: I had no idea Raymond’s music was used in these cartoons.)

The crucial Stalling-Scott link was established by Steve Schneider, author of “Thats All Folks! The Art of Warner Bros. Animation.” Warnerphiles such as Schneider, Leonard Maltin, Will Friedwald and Jerry Beck were long aware of Scotts link to Stalling, but had never explored the subject. While researching his book in Spring 1988, Schneider called Scott in Los Angeles for an interview. Alas, he was too late: debilitated by the stroke, Scott could not speak. Schneider started asking Mitzi questions about the cartoons – and she was certain Schneider had the wrong number. “I didnt know anything about it”, she claimed. “I was totally in the dark. I offered him Raymond’s daughter [Cary]’s phone number so he could call Pearl, and I heard nothing more.” When the book was published a year later, it contained a full-page box about Stallings cribs from the Scott catalog. “Cary sent me the book with a marker on the page”, recalled Mitzi. “I thought, This must be the guy who called last year. He must have done a lot of research because I don’t think Pearl knew anything about the cartoons, and Cary was just a little girl, so she couldn’t have known.”

Scott’s contribution to the world of animation was enhanced in 1967 – again, as in the Warner films, seemingly without his involvement, endorsement, concern, or knowledge. Due to the popularity of the Adam West Batman ABC-TV series, a caped crusader craze was underway, which inspired a color cartoon parody called Batfink. One hundred 5-minute installments were produced for Columbia/Screen Gems by Hal Seegar. (Seegar was a legendary animator who had been hired by Max Fleischer in 1929, worked for Paramount, and later produced Popeye, Out of the Inkwell, Milton the Monster and Fearless Fly. At the time of this article, Seegar, 80, was still putting in a full workday at his Today Video studios, in Manhattan.)

Batfink was a pointy-eared crime fighter, with wings of steel and supersonic sonar, who tackled ruthless criminals with the aid of his Japanese sidekick, Karate. The show used cost-saving, limited-animation techniques in vogue at the time. (Seegar acquired rights to the series, and was preparing it for home video release.)

Of Batfink‘s 100 episodes, 46 included quotes from five Raymond Scott tunes: “Powerhouse,” “The Toy Trumpet,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Minuet in Jazz,” and “Tia Juana.” The shows music director was a craftsman many consider second only to Stalling in the annals of tunes for toons: Winston Sharples. A longtime music director for Paramount, Sharples (who died in 1977) wrote the instantly-hummable themes (and scores) for Casper the Friendly Ghost, Felix the Cat, and Little Lulu, and composed soundtracks for Superman and Popeye, among others. For Batfink, Sharples employed a medium-sized studio combo, who turned in fairly respectable renditions of Scott. The band probably recorded each of the five tunes once, and brief passages were tracked to the on-screen action. The pacing was impressionistic – almost haphazard – as opposed to Stallings note-perfect, on-a-dime orchestrations.

Ironically, Scott’s melodies were not chosen for their animated qualities, according to Winston Sharples, Jr., who worked alongside his father as film editor. It was a financial consideration: Sharples & Seegars Scroll Music controlled Scotts publishing for a short time, and they used his themes because they would generate royalties. I didn’t feel his music was particularly cartooney, Sharples, Jr. explained. We simply had something to gain. It was a very common practice in film. In fact, despite the Warner association, he felt that Scott’s compositions were, if anything, a notch above most cartoon music.

When the producers of The Ren & Stimpy Show licensed Scott’s Columbia recordings for their series in August 1992, they were fully aware that his screwball pop was embedded in the musical montages created by Carl Stalling for the cartoons which had mesmerized them since pre-puberty. “Nowadays, people are starting to think that all the music in Warner cartoons is Raymond Scott”, noted John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy. “There isn’t actually that much, but its so powerful, that hearing eight bars in a 6-minute cartoon, it’s what you walk away remembering.”

Henry Porch, music coordinator for SpumCo (the original producers of R&S), wrote in Spin that Scott’s music “screamed animation”. He explained, “Ren & Stimpy deals with abruptly changing emotions and attitudes, and Scotts music easily keeps up, shifting gears at breakneck pace.” Bob Camp, the shows creative director, admits that, “I put it on a lot when I’m drawing to put me in the cartoon mood.”

Though negotiations between Spumco, Sony (which owns Columbia), Nickelodeon, and Scott’s foreign and domestic publishers dragged on for almost a year, John K. and his post-production supervisor, Frank Saperstein, were determined to clinch the deal. Their determination paid off: with the August 1992 release of the “In the Army episode”, which included Scott’s “The Toy Trumpet,” the composer’s magic was introduced to a new generation of toon-heads. And though Scott never intended his music for such kid stuff, John K. felt that Raymond had a cartoon sensibility, and a great sense of humor. “If you could say there’s color in music, Scott’s pieces have a wild sense of color, just like cartoons. And like Ren & Stimpy, they’re intensely emotional – which I love.”

Considering Stalling’s extensive use of Scott, it’s amazing how much of Raymond’s surrealistic cartoon-jazz was overlooked: “Here Comes the King,” “Bumpy Weather Over Newark,” “Manhattan Minuet,” “Yesterdays Ice Cubes,” and “Tobacco Auctioneer” are hyperanimated gems that never made it into Stalling scores. There are dozens of additional recordings, equally idiosyncratic, on rehearsal acetates and radio transcription discs, sitting on shelves in the Scott garage, awaiting 21st century animators.

Since this article’s original publication, Scott’s “Powerhouse” has been used in three other nationally syndicated cartoon projects: The Simpsons (“And Maggie Makes Three”), Duckman (“Aged Heat 2: Women in Heat”), and Animaniacs (“Toy Shop Terror”), the last being another Warner Bros. property.

In fact, the entire 4-minute “Toy Shop Terror” episode was animated around Richard Stone’s brilliant, Spike Jones-like arrangement of the complete “Powerhouse” (a feat Stalling never attempted). “It’s a strangely wonderful piece of music”, Stone told a BBC interviewer in 1996. “It’s like it was written on Mars.” As Music Director for the series, Stone had been prevented from using Scott quotes because Warner no longer controlled the publishing. Then “Toy Shop Terror” came along and, according to Stone, “The show’s producer decided, ‘Let’s just buy it for this one time. We’ll pay the money.”‘ It was a heavenly experience for Stone. “I must tell you”, he confessed, “The opportunity of standing in front of 40 pieces and hearing them play “Powerhouse” – was better than sex. It was the greatest moment in my entire life.”

Irwin D. Chusid

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