Stanley Wilson

Active - 1948 - 1970  |   Born - Nov 25, 1915   |   Died - Jul 17, 1970   |   Genres - Western, Action, Drama, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Stanley Wilson was never a name in film music to compare with, say, Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rozsa, or even for that matter, David Raksin. He seldom worked for any of the major studios and when he did, he wasn't in what might be called their "A" divisions. Born in New York City, he entered music as a trumpet player specializing in Dixieland jazz, which (along with its offshoot, swing music) was booming as he came of age in the mid-'30s.

He went out to Hollywood in 1945, initially joining MGM's music department, but a year later he jumped to Republic Pictures, the biggest of the Hollywood "B" studios. He spent the next eight years at Republic, scoring feature films, mostly B-Westerns and adventure films running under 75 minutes, which were the meat of Republic's release schedule in those days, as well as serials and short subjects. From Sundown in Santa Fe in 1948 through The Woman They Almost Lynched in 1953, Wilson composed, arranged, or orchestrated more than 80 films.

While audiences for these Western programmers and serials were often oblivious to his name (or any names other than those of their stars, heroes, or villains), his music came to shape the sensibilities and fill the imaginations of millions of filmgoers, especially audiences for John Wayne's adventure films of the era, such as Wake of the Red Witch, and the children who saw such serials as King of the Rocket Men, Zombies of the Stratosphere, The Ghost of Zorro, Government Agents Vs. the Phantom Legion, Radar Men From the Moon, and a dozen others, all of which he had a hand in scoring or arranging and orchestrating.

Although much of Wilson's work on the later Westerns and serials (and their cut-down "featurizations") consisted of assembling music from the Republic library, neither his employers nor the audience ever felt cheated. Material of his own, such as his main title music for King of the Rocket Men (the score for which included some brilliantly rousing action theme music), did double or triple (or quadruple) duty over the ensuing years, even making it onto television as the main theme for Republic's failed attempt to sell the Rocket Man character to television, as Commando Cody. It is no surprise to learn that, with these creative yet economical skills at hand, Stanley Wilson was snapped up by television as soon as its profitability was determined and its problems relating to original scoring (an ongoing dispute with the Musicians Union dating from the mid- to late '40s) were resolved. He became associated with Universal Studios' newly formed television division in the mid-'50s and it was there that his background in jazz manifested itself; Wilson was the music director for M-Squad, the police series starring Lee Marvin (later parodied by Police Squad starring Leslie Nielsen), and worked in collaboration with Benny Carter, such legends as Count Basie, and such future titans of film music as John Williams in bringing a jazzy beat to its stories of violent urban crime. A soundtrack album from the series proved extremely popular (and has since been reissued on CD) and Wilson, along with his Universal Pictures stablemate Henry Mancini (and his scoring for Peter Gunn), became one of the leading, popular creative figures in the sub-genre known informally as "crime jazz." He also recorded a handful of instrumental albums during this period, from the late '50s into the early '60s, that have become favorites of enthusiasts for "bachelor's den" ambience, most notably a jungle-inspired piece of LP pop-jazz esoterica called Pagan Love. Throughout the 1960s, Wilson's work as composer, arranger, or orchestrator could be heard weekly on any of a dozen or more television series made by Universal's small-screen production division. In collaboration with composer Juan Garcia Esquivel, he wrote the MCA-Universal television division signature theme that was heard after every one of those programs' episodes. At times, he had as much to say about the sound of a television theme as the composer, a case in point being the "big sky" main title theme to The Virginian, authored by Percy Faith -- Faith's own recording, on Columbia Records, sounds nothing like the music heard on the series, but Wilson's recording, on the LP Top TV Themes, has the familiar acoustic guitar, French horn, and horn-and-string crescendo played at the proper tempo. As the television and theatrical divisions at Universal drew closer together in the late '60s, Wilson frequently crossed over between the two, doing fill-in work on behalf of other composers, and he participated in the scoring of such films as Death of a Gunfighter and Colossus: The Forbin Project, among many others. He also wrote the scores to many made-for-television features (Universal's stock-in-trade in those days), including the cult favorite The Movie Murderer (1970). And his theme music for such series as It Takes A Thief, The Bold Ones, and The Name of the Game was also downright ubiquitous during this period. Although he was never respected by "serious" music enthusiasts in the manner of Herrmann or Rozsa, Wilson was one of the top men in his field, respected by his peers, and he had just finished addressing the Aspen Music Festival on the subject of film and television scoring on July 17, 1970, when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. As late as 1972, his work was still appearing anew on television schedules, such as his music for the network series Manhunter. In the early '90s, 20 years after his death, Wilson's reputation was on the upswing again as audiences not only began buying the kind of light programatic jazz that he liked to record, but record companies began re-recording the classic movie and serial music associated with Republic Pictures.

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