Legends of Songwriting: David Raksin

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The songwriter of “Laura” composed over 400 movie scores

It was 1999 when David Raksin met us at Froman’s Deli in Encino for an interview. He’d been working daily on his memoirs, he said, and was up to 500 pages and wasn’t past his childhood yet. This was a man with many stories to tell.

He died in 2004 at 92 after completing his book, entitled If I Say So Myself, although he didn’t live to see it published.

What he did see in his long lifetime is the stuff of legend. He worked closely with Charlie Chaplin, studied with Schoenberg, knew the Gershwins and Stravinsky, wrote songs with Johnny Mercer and composed so many great film scores – over 400 – that he was dubbed “the Grandfather of Film Music.”

His most famous song was “Laura,” from the 1944 movie of the same name. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it’s one of the most recorded songs of all time. 

He landed the job of scoring Laura when both Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman turned it down. Raksin distinguished himself by writing the entire score around a single haunting theme song, an unprecedented, powerful use of melody in a score which has rarely been matched since. He cunningly never used the melody in its entirety, which created a fleeting sense of musical yearning. To Raksin, it was about using the music as a connection between  “the ephemeral girl and the interrupted melody.”

Frank Sinatra, “Laura,” written by David Raksin.

He was born in 1912 in Philadelphia. His father, Isidor, was a composer and conductor, and gave his young son a clarinet. David taught himself to play and organized many bands as a teen.

He became an accomplished arranger early on, and did an expansive orchestral arrangement (with horn and string sections) of the Gershwin classic “I Got Rhythm” for Jay Savitt’s band. The arrangement became famous, and so impressed was the composer, Oscar Levant, by its ingenuity that he told his friend George Gershwin about it. Gershwin invited Raksin, who was only 19 at the time, to come out to Beverly Hills to meet him.

“George did not make me nervous at all,” said Raksin over a brisket sandwich. “He recognized that I was a colleague who knew what I was doing. He was eager to play me his new songs. He played me ‘Love Walked Right In.’ He didn’t sing, he would just play the melody.”

Gershwin recommended Raksin to the music publishing company Harms Music, who gave him his first break: He was drafted to be Charlie Chaplin’s musical assistant on the landmark film Modern Times.

Chaplin composed his own scores, but like even some modern composers, was a “hummer,” unable to transcribe his scores by himself, instead humming or singing them to a transcribing musician. Chaplin was notoriously tough on those who took this job, not one of which lasted for more than a single movie.

It was from this score that an American standard was born-the song “Smile,” with a melody attributed to Chaplin and lyrics, later added, by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.

Chaplin had “little notions for the music,” Raksin said. “Sometimes he’d play three-fingered chords, sometimes a melody.” Raksin, though only 23 then, was vocal about his opinions on how to enhance the music. Chaplin didn’t appreciate his input, to put it lightly, and summarily fired him.

That’s when Alfred Newman (Randy’s uncle, the legendary film scorer) came to Raksin’s rescue after seeing the musical sketches he’d made. He told Chaplin he’d be crazy to fire Raksin, and convinced him. Charlie hired him back (after a private meeting between the two men in which Raksin refused to be a musical “stooge”), and together they completed the Modern Times score.

It took four months, which Raksin said “was not that long, considering the movie was 100 percent music.”

Though Chaplin received total credit for the score-and for the song “Smile” that was adapted from it, Raksin said he wrote much of the music in the score and many of the melodic phrases in “Smile.”

“I didn’t get credit on the song,” he said, “but there was no point in making anything out of it, ‘cause that’s how things were done in those days.”

Like”Smile,” his most famous song, “Laura” was adapted from an existing movie score. This time Raksin got to choose his own lyricist, and so he chose the greatest there was: Johnny Mercer.

“I gave Mercer a record of the music and he went home and wrote the lyric,” said Raksin. “He wrote it very quickly. He was a highly skilled professional. I made two changes in the lyric where he wasn’t sure which word to use. I told people I made suggestions about how to write a lyric to Johnny Mercer and they thought I was crazy.”

Raksin, who had studied with Schoenberg and wrote an arrangement for Stravinsky, wrote what many in Hollywood considered to be avant-garde music, and for that reason was relegated for many years to scoring horror films. He went uncredited on the first 48 films he scored. The gloriously melodic score of Laura changed everything for him, and he went from uncredited to being heralded as one of Hollywood’s premiere melodists.

From then on he worked with legends. Hitchcock was one of the first. His comeback to Hitch provided a famous Hollywood anecdote. Hitch told Raksin that for the oceanic Lifeboat there should be no music at all, no score, because he felt audiences would wonder where music was coming from in the middle of the sea.

Raksin said, “Ask Hitch where the cameras are coming from.”

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