Earle Hagen Autobiography Shows Why He Knows the Score

Posted in MusicWorld on March 26, 2002 by

Earle Hagen was being only somewhat facetious when he titled his autobiography "Memoirs of a Famous Composer... Nobody Ever Heard Of."

In fact, Hagen is famous - among musicians, at least, for composing the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" (which would, many years after its 1940 debut, become the theme for Stacy Keach as TV's "Mike Hammer").

And his name has crossed the screen literally millions of times - as the composer of some of the most memorable themes in television history: The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, Make Room for Daddy, Gomer Pyle, USMC, That Girl, The Mod Squad and many others.

But, Hagen figures, it's the melodies that people remember, not the composer's name. Now, Hagen has set down the stories behind many of those great themes, as well as the rest of an eventful life that has included stints playing trombone with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Ray Noble; arranging and orchestrating movies for Alfred Newman at 20th Century-Fox; and pioneering the field of original music for television, including a long collaboration with leading producer Sheldon Leonard.

"Memoirs of a Famous Composer" is actually Hagen's third book. His first two, "Scoring for Films" (1971) and "Advanced Techniques for Film Scoring" (1990), have long been considered the definitive textbooks in their field. Why an autobiography? "It was raining in the desert and I couldn't get on the golf course," he says, tongue-in-cheek, from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "I'd already written two textbooks, so I just thought, what the hell, I'll start putting down my memoirs."

Asked what he discovered during the two-year process of reviewing his life for the book, Hagen says: "In looking back, I seem to come off as a smartass who was competent. I was very positive in my judgments, based on instinct and experience, and most of the time it paid off. I never hesitated to tell somebody the truth when I thought it mattered."

Hagen also originated the BMI workshop for film and TV composers. As Doreen Ringer Ross, BMI's Vice President, Film/TV Relations, points out, "Earle has been extremely important not only to BMI, but to the community of budding film composers everywhere." His books helped dozens of young writers cope with the technical challenges of scoring, and in conducting the workshops for a decade beginning in 1986, "he was a real boon in terms of helping us find and grow new talent," Ringer Ross adds.

"Teaching was part of the fun that I had in the business," Hagen says, noting that he actually began instruction on an informal basis many years earlier, accepting golf balls as payment for lessons at his home.

Hagen's book has been published by and is available in hardcover, paperback and electronic editions. It is dedicated to his wife of 59 years, Lou, who sadly passed away on Feb. 14, shortly after its publication.