Composer Fred Steiner, best known for the “Perry Mason” theme, has died

Legendary composer Fred Steiner passed away on June 23rd at the age of 88. The prolific composer (and musicologist) worked on many series including Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Star Trek, The Bullwinkle Show, and Gunsmoke. He also received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Color Purple. Fred was interviewed by the Archive of American Television in 2003. Here are some excerpts from his 4+ hour interview:

On composing the theme for Perry Mason.

CBS Music Director Lud Gluskin assigned me to it…. I have found some old sketches for the Perry Mason theme, some old pencil sketches, and they have no resemblance to what I finally came up with it. So it’s a complete mystery to me.  But apparently he liked it.  The original title was “Park Avenue Beat.”  And the reason for that was that I conceived of Perry Mason as this very sophisticated lawyer — eats at the best restaurants, tailor-made suits, and so on — and yet at the same time he’s mixed in with these underworld bad guys, murder and crime.  So the  underlying beat is R&B, rhythm and blues. And for the crazy reason that in those days, even to this day, jazz or R&B, whatever, is always associated with crime.  You look at those old film noir pictures they’ve always got jazz going for some reason or other. So it’s kind of a piece of symphonic R&B.  But since then, it’s been known as the Perry Mason theme.

On the opening of Gunsmoke.

I came up with the logo where you see him with the low angle shot of Matt Dillon. Well, first you see him from behind with the legs, it’s a face-off with the villain, the bad guy.  I wrote that.  And it ends up with the two gunshots, [HUMMING], bang, bang.  I wrote that. Now it seems like an obvious thing to do, set up the gunshot.

On writing the second theme for The Bullwinkle Show.

The first theme was written by Frank Comstock. Frank had kept the copyright to that music, and it was probably some lawyer, excuse the expression, who advised [creator/producer] Jay Ward, “hey, you’re losing money by not keeping the copyright to the music.” That’s when I got called in, and I got assigned to write, not only a new theme, but also about an hour’s worth of incidental music, and that’s what he used in various segments. The music editor was Skip Craig, who was very good…. The only thing Jay Ward told me that he wanted what he called a show biz theme.  But I wrote several themes for it.  I wrote the first one that you hear with Rocky flying around, he’s going back and forth.  Then you got the other one with Bullwinkle and the top hot strutting.  But he told me he wanted a show biz theme.  Jay was a marvelous guy.

On composing for Star Trek.

I had a conference with [series creator] Gene Roddenberry, and he said I don’t want any “boops and beep stuff,” like I guess they were having on some of the other science fiction shows.  He wanted, I think the term he used was “Captain Blood in space.”  And oddly enough, that was exactly the kind of thing that I had thought of.  They had shown me the pilot film, which Alexander Courage had scored, and he was of the same mind, although he had a little bit of kind of strange sounding stuff in there.  So the first one I scored, wow, it was a weird assignment as I recall. But I got assigned to, instead of scoring a whole episode, because Star Trek was very heavily scored with library, Bob Justman, who was the line producer, associate producer, line producer, whatever you want –  had things rigged so they’d use mostly library in a sequence.  But whenever there was a certain new character on the screen, or some new twist of a story that would demand new music.  So my first assignment there was writing special music for three — three different episodes in one session.  That was quite a way to break in.

Watch his full Archive interview here.

Link to his New York Times Obituary.

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