Jon Burlingame on Wild Wild West, other TV soundtracks

Cover to The Wild Wild West CD soundtrack

Jon Burlingame is a journalist, author and academic, writing extensively about movie and television music.

Over the past 15 years, he has produced a number of television soundtracks, including CD sets for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. His latest effort, a soundtrack for The Wild Wild West is now available from La-La Land Records.

The blog interviewed Bulingame by e-mail.

SPY COMMAND:  Movie soundtracks have been done for decades. But television soundtracks (actual music from TV shows, as opposed to new arrangements of TV music), by comparison are rarer. Why is that? Is part of it the notion that television work was more disposable than movie work?

JON BURLINGAME: That’s a very interesting question, Bill, and something not really understood by most outsiders.

Historically, TV soundtracks have generally been re-recorded because of the union rules involving music recorded for TV shows. In the past, the American Federation of Musicians demanded a full repayment to every musician who played on each score. If those rules were still in place (and the union relaxed that demand several years ago, making these “historical soundtracks” possible), the record label would have been responsible for repaying every musician (or his or her estate) for every recording session represented on the album; in this case over 200 individual musicians playing on more than two dozen scores over four years would have incurred a huge cost, possibly tens of thousands of dollars.

Cover to one of Jon Burlingame’s Man From U.N.C.L.E. soundtracks released in the 2000s.

I encountered this when I first proposed a classic MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack in 1990; the estimated union repayments alone were in the neighborhood of $80,000, making it prohibitive for any label attempting it. So it was always less expensive to just go back in the studio for one day and create a new recording of the various themes.

Also, the success of the show itself is always a factor — and, as you point out, a lot of TV music is just deemed forgettable.

SC:  The TV soundtracks you’ve produced have come out decades after the series involved. What are are some of the common challenges? (i.e., finding the music, etc.)

JON BURLINGAME: It’s always multiple challenges. First, does the music still exist? That alone can be a difficult problem (the Lorimar library, for example, is gone; there will never be a WALTONS soundtrack featuring those wonderful Jerry Goldsmith scores because all that music is lost).

Then, who controls that music? Is the studio that produced it still in business, and if so, will they license a soundtrack to an enterprising label interested in creating an album?

Then there are the creative aspects of producing: how to create an enjoyable listening experience featuring just the music, away from the images it was always meant to accompany.

SC: What’s the back story with your latest project, The Wild Wild West soundtrack?

JON BURLINGAME: La-La Land Records had a big success with its 6-disc MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE TV-score collection, which I produced for them in 2015. So when I asked if they’d like to follow it up with another classic 1960s spy show, THE WILD WILD WEST, their answer was an immediate and enthusiastic “yes.”

I knew it would be more of a challenge, but having already produced multiple MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and MISSION albums, I really wanted to do this. There had never been any commercial recording of that wonderful Richard Markowitz theme (much less any of the dramatic scores), and it seemed like a terrible oversight given the classic status of the Robert Conrad-Ross Martin series.

It was a different situation than the MGM-produced U.N.C.L.E. music or the Paramount-produced MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE music. Those studios retained copies of all the music on (mostly) quarter-inch tape, and once the deals were made, we simply accessed those archives, transferred the music to digital and went to work.

Artwork from the second-season Wild Wild West episode The Night of Big Blast.

WILD WILD WEST was different in that CBS (the original producer) closed its music-department doors in the early 1990s and donated its tapes to UCLA; unfortunately that collection was incomplete and many of the tape boxes were not well labeled, so finding individual scores was much more difficult.

I had very good documentation of who composed what and when it was recorded, so armed with that information I went looking for all of the original music. Some scores simply weren’t there or were impossible to find given the inadequate labeling.

I feel incredibly lucky, however, to have found nearly everything I really wanted for the collection in pristine condition at UCLA, including 10 of the original 11 Markowitz scores, all four of the original Robert Drasnin scores, and four of the six original Richard Shores scores. Add to those a handful of others by Harry Geller, Jack Pleis and Fred Steiner.

Four of the 26 scores we feature on the album — for which we could not find original tapes — had to be restored from the isolated music tracks from the shows themselves. But our restoration guy, the uber-talented Chris Malone, did such a brilliant job that you’ll be hard-pressed to tell which of those weren’t from tape sources.

I had great partners in the collaboration: Not just La-La Land executives Matt Verboys and M.V. Gerhard, but Film Score Monthly founder Lukas Kendall, who cleared everything with CBS and was my liaison on a daily basis; Johnny Davis, Chris Malone and Doug Schwartz, who transferred, restored and mastered all those 50-year-old tapes into the CDs you now have; spy-TV expert Craig Henderson, who looked over everything I did and helped ensure the accuracy of the booklet; and art director Jim Titus, who had never seen an episode prior to designing our cover and booklet, and yet created a spectacular, colorful, fun package that captures the spirit and look of the old show. He used some of the original art of the train and the opening titles and lots of great old photos of the cast and guest stars. It’s an eye-popping package, worthy of a Grammy if you ask me!

SC: While working on The Wild Wild West soundtrack, was there one moment that gave you more satisfaction than the rest of your work?

JON BURLINGAME: It’s always fun working with classic music from the era in which you grew up. WEST was filled with challenges, but a few moments stand out: Discovering that we had Markowitz’s original pilot score in three-track stereo; hearing Malone’s remarkable restoration of Dave Grusin’s delightful waltz from “Night of the Puppeteer”; and re-discovering Richard Shores’ thrilling action music, especially from the third and fourth seasons.

Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979)

We knew that Dimitri Tiomkin had written two different songs for the series that were eventually rejected. The question was, which were recorded and could we find those? I knew that the Tiomkin estate had a full-length vocal demo of one and sheet music for both. Especially satisfying during the search process was the discovery that an instrumental version of one of the themes had been recorded (in a last-ditch, ultimately unsuccessful, effort to salvage the Tiomkin deal for CBS) and that lyricist Paul Francis Webster actually wrote three lyrics for the two tunes, parts of which we reproduce in the booklet. Webster’s papers are currently being archived and preserved by the Film Music Society, and that’s where that discovery was made.

Robert Drasnin (1927-2015), who delivered memorable scores for The Wild Wild West

Very late in the process (in fact, the album was nearly finished), it occurred to me that former CBS music director Herschel Burke Gilbert retained many, many tapes from throughout his career. A glance at his inventory revealed that he had kept various mixes of the Tiomkin vocal demo; our mastering engineer Doug Schwartz did his magic and what’s on the CD actually sounds better than the version owned by the Tiomkin estate!

And one final thing: composers Markowitz and Drasnin didn’t live long enough to see this album reach fruition, but their children have, and it’s been a pleasure to be able to work with Kate Markowitz and Michael Drasnin, both of whom have been supportive and supplied materials (photos, scores, tapes) that enabled us to put together a package that honors their music and their memories.

Richard Shores (1917-2001)

SC:  I personally find it interesting that some of the composers who worked on The Wild Wild West (Robert Drasnin and Richard Shores) also worked on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Specifically with Drasnin (who composed the de facto theme for Dr. Loveless) and Shores, their names aren’t that well known among the general public. What makes their work special?

JON BURLINGAME: These guys were great composers and great human beings; I met both of them while writing my first book back in the early ’90s.

Drasnin could score anything, drama, comedy, Westerns, science fiction, you name it; he was the perfect composer for television, which requires not only immediate inspiration but also enormous craft. Plus he was tremendously witty (look at some of his amusing cue titles on the box).

Shores had an immediately recognizable style, and an unique rhythmic sense that inevitably brought a smile to your face (whether you were listening to his music for U.N.C.L.E., WEST, IT TAKES A THIEF or HAWAII FIVE-0).

A sampling of Richard Markowitz’s title cards.

SC: Finally, I wanted to ask about Richard Markowitz, who composed The Wild Wild West theme (and did a number of scores for the series, including the pilot). He did a lot of television work but probably isn’t that well known among the general public. From what I’ve heard on different series, he was pretty versatile. What made him stand out?

JON BURLINGAME: You’re right, Bill, he was incredibly versatile. He had a big record hit with the Johnny Cash vocal of THE REBEL, but if you listen to his music for episodes of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE FBI, POLICE STORY, MURDER SHE WROTE; or his themes for HONDO, JOE FORRESTER, THE LAW & HARRY McGRAW, you’ll hear a composer with a wide range and ability to work in any style. He worked consistently for more than 30 years in television. But I think THE WILD WILD WEST may be his most memorable theme.

SC: Final question. If you could only produce *one* more television soundtrack (and any pending rights situations were resolved), what would it be?

JON BURLINGAME: Hahaha! I guess I’d most like to round out my spy-TV experience by doing another I SPY album (there are two out there, and I only wrote the notes for one, but I’d love to produce one too), or a first-ever IT TAKES A THIEF soundtrack. I have a special fondness for THE GREEN HORNET at Fox, and if rights could be ironed out that would be fun too.

I have a long-range, hoped-for plan to do HAWAII FIVE-0 one day (have it all mapped out on paper) but there are legal issues that may preclude that from happening for some time. We’ll see. For now I am delighted to have been able to create soundtrack albums for some of my favorite shows as a kid.

Jon Burlingame also is the author of The Music of James Bond.

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