Our salute to Morton Stevens

Before we proceed any further, let’s address the question some of you are asking. Morton who?

Morton Stevens (1929-1991) wrote one piece of music almost everybody knows, the Hawaii Five-O (or with the new show, Hawaii Five-0) theme. But that can explained away. He was just a one-hit wonder. Not really. Still, in the early- to mid-1960s, Stevens did a lot of episodic television along with Jerry Goldsmith, John (then Johnny) Williams and Lalo Schifrin. Goldsmith, Williams and Schifrin all became major film composers.

Stevens didn’t. He ended up, starting in the spring of 1965, taking a job as head of CBS’s West Coast music department. TV and movie music historian Jon Burlingame, in a commentary for the DVD set of the Thriller television series DVD set, says Stevens expressed some regret about that toward the end of his life. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, CBS dabbled in feature films. Stevens could have assigned himself to score The Reivers but assigned the job to Williams. That helped Williams achieve the status of a movie composer.

Still, Stevens shouldn’t be forgotten. The composer did at least one score for 11 of the 12 seasons of the original Five-O series (1968-1980). Here’s a clip from the ninth-season opener, Nine Dragons. Stevens provides the score staring around the 1:40 mark. It may be a trifle padded but that just gives the viewer more of an opportunity to enjoy Stevens’s work:

Three years earlier, Stevens scored the sixth-season opening episode, Hookman, for which he earned an Emmy. Here’s the “coming next week” preview and the start of the episode:

Stevens was also there was the original Five-O finished up its 12-year run. His music would be the best thing about Woe To Wo Fat:

Years later, CBS decided to do a new Hawaii Five-0 series (with the 0 replacing the capital O). When the pilot was produced in early 2010, it had a “rock music” version of Stevens’s theme. Before the network broadcast the show, the decision was made that a more traditional version was needed. Musicians who worked on the original show were called in:

On the Thriller commentary track, Burlingame quotes composer Bruce Broughton as saying that any Five-O composer had to be aware of the template that Stevens provided. In the commentary, Burlingame likens the situation to James Bond movie composers following in the steps of John Barry. That’s high praise indeed, but praise that’s earned. Arguably, Stevens is one of the composers that people don’t know but who should.

UPDATE: We can’t help it, but we have to include the end to a first-season episode (in fact, it’s one of the earliest filmed episodes), where Stevens’s score is a perfect match to McGarrett outfoxing a Hawaiian crime boss.

OK, one more clip, this one from the 1968 pilot:

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2 Responses

  1. It’s a shame the episodic scores for the new H50 are so godawful. They should follow Stevens original template, because the one they have now is “generic action music 101″ and it’s a bore. They seem utterly disinterested in using/referencing the H50 theme, even when the action on screen (like Moonraker sequence) would benefit enormously from it.. The producers just don’t understand the emotional connection viewers have to a theme…or how to use it to create transfer that connection to the new show. The producers have an extraordinary asset in the H50 and they are squandering it.

  2. @Lee: Agreed. The Five-O theme not only can be used for action sequences, but Stevens would on occasion slow it way down when the scene called for McGarrett to be quiet and reflective (the end of Part II of The Ninety Second War, for example). And, with the new show, it’s annoying they put Stevens’s credit in the end titles, which flash by so quickly you don’t have a chance to even see it.

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