Roy Webb was a Hollywood studio film composer whose reputation as a dependable workhorse -- he scored in excess of 360 films and served as musical director on about a hundred more -- has obscured the very fine qualities of his music. Born in New York, Webb was the younger brother of Kenneth Webb, a popular songwriter and silent film director. Roy Webb began his career as a songwriter and pit conductor for Broadway shows; along the way, it was Webb who gave instruction to the young Richard Rodgers in musical notation. Webb composed Columbia University's official football fight song, "Roar, Lion, Roar," in 1925, and a stint with Broadway producer Herbert Fields brought Webb into contact with composer Max Steiner, who would become an important collaborator and lifelong friend. Just as the bottom fell out on Herbert Fields' string of Broadway successes, talking pictures made their debut. Webb departed for Hollywood to work for Radio Pictures, later RKO-Radio, his first job being to work as musical director on the movie operetta Rio Rita (1929) with Bebe Daniels. Steiner came in soon afterward, but both lost their jobs when RKO decided to stop making musicals. Nevertheless, Steiner went to bat for the concept of atmospheric music to be used in dramatic films, and when RKO agreed to make him head of the music department, the first thing Steiner did was to rehire Webb. Although Max Steiner was to defect to Selznick International in 1936, Webb stayed on, and served as RKO's principal music director until the studio closed its doors in 1955.
Roy Webb scored an impressive number of distinguished films, among them Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), George Cukor's Quality Street (1937), Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938), Jacques Tourneur's Experiment Perilous, and Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Though he never won, Webb was nominated five times for an Academy Award. His signature work, however, is the moody, expressive music he composed for the nine films in the Val Lewton RKO horror cycle, starting with Cat People (1941). Never a proponent of bombastic film scoring, Webb was perfectly in tune with the low-key and atmospheric surroundings inherent in Lewton's horror output. Webb, along with Hugo Friedhofer, was considered by his peers as being the very best composer of music written to flow underneath dialogue. Webb also wrote a small amount of concert music, and was pleased to hear the piano concerto he wrote for the film The Enchanted Cottage played as part of a regular Hollywood Bowl concert in 1945. Although he worked on a few films and television shows after RKO folded, Webb was already retired by 1961 when his entire life's work was incinerated in a house fire. Devastated, Webb never wrote another note of music. However, Webb did find an admirer in musicologist Christopher Palmer, who interviewed him and began the process of reconstructing Webb's scores, work that continued under other hands when Palmer died in 1995.