It was 1959 when Fox went to Paris and immersed himself in the study of song with the same woman who taught Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Quincy Jones, joining the ranks of world-class composers.
His autobiography Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music goes into great detail about his life's work, but Charles was kind enough to tell us about some of those ubiquitous TV themes - like why they had to change the one for Laverne & Shirley - and if "Killing Me Softly" was really about Don McLean.
Charles Fox: Honestly, no. I fortunately haven't had that problem. But I see a show in its earlier stages. Sometimes nothing's been shot yet: I see storyboards, I see drawings, and sometimes I'll see the actual look of the main title. But in any case, it's a brand new show. And each time you go into a show hoping and expecting that it can have a long life - that it can be on the air for years. And I've had a number of those. So in the planning of it, the design of it, first of all you always want to capture what you think is the essence of the show and you want to make something that's bright and interesting and attractive. So if someone's in the other room doing something and hears the theme, they say, "Oh, I know that show, I like that show," and they come running in. And the other thing is you want to make it so that you can have elements from the theme that you can score within the body of the show, and then hopefully someday it could go on and be a hit record, also, and sound fresh all the time.
Songfacts: How interesting. So you're flying blind to some extent when you're creating these songs.
So that had to have a spirit of adventure, you know. And I will tell you something else, I don't know if I've ever told this story to anyone, but when I sat with Doug Cramer he asked me if I knew Murder on the Orient Express, the film. It was a big movie at the time, and I said I did. He said, "You know the shot of the train taking off - the Orient Express about to go from Paris to Venice and passing through the eastern block countries?" He said, "There's a shot at the beginning, at the main title, where the wheel started to turn little by little, and the smoke stack." And he says, "There's a sense of excitement and anticipation. If you could write the same kind of music for that, I think that would be great." So I said, "Well, I remember that very well, and John Barry did a wonderful job with that, but it was a waltz." I recall it being just a nice waltz which seemed to go very well with the period and all that. He said, "Well, then, maybe you could use that as a guide." Well, I went home and I looked at my show, and I said, "It really has nothing to do with a waltz." It was a big, elaborate film; it was Cinemascope with high shots of the train coming around bends. And ours needed to have more of an immediacy, it had more rhythm and more percussion. So I ended up writing the Love Boat theme with a disco beat. And Doug, when he heard it, said, "Perfect." (laughs) Said, "It's exactly what I wanted."
So it's always up to the creative person - in this case the composer - for any show, any television show or movie to try to decipher what's best for the film. And at the same time listen to what your collaborators are asking for. But in the end you have to do what you think is right, and hopefully it is right.
Songfacts: Back in the day, those TV theme songs were on the pop charts, right?
Fox: Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days were climbing up the charts at the same time. Actually, Happy Days was a number one record in countries in Europe, like France - I think it got up to number five or something here in this country, and Laverne and Shirley right behind it at the same time.
Songfacts: Now, that doesn't really happen that often, right? When was the last time there was a theme song to a show that made the charts?
Fox: Well, there was a little bit of an explosion at that time. There was a song by John Sebastian called "Welcome Back, Kotter," and that got on the charts and did very well. And my Happy Days theme song was on the heels of that one, and then Laverne and Shirley. I called the record company after Laverne and Shirley was on the air, and I talked to a friend of mine who owned Private Stock Records. I said, "This show, Laverne and Shirley, I've got this theme sung by Cyndi Grecco, and I think it would make a great record." Happy Days was climbing up the charts, and he says, "Great. Go on in the studio." He got me a budget right there. I was in the studio two days later and two weeks later it was on the charts. It all happened that fast. It doesn't happen quite that way anymore. For example, Friends was a big hit, I believe. I don't remember anything since then. But the television world these days, they don't even give you time to do a theme. You have ten seconds or fifteen seconds to introduce the show while they're running the credits of the previous show, and voiceovers for what's coming next week. And it's all so confusing, I think the networks don't trust the main title look and song or theme as a good way to start the show. One show ends, and they're afraid someone is going to turn the dial. We all have remotes now, you know. They're afraid to lose their audience, so they start another show right away. But to me it starts kind of colorless. It doesn't start with an explosion. You think of the beginning of Mission Impossible, for example.
Songfacts: Right, the music.
Fox: It's music, it still sounds adventurous and exciting. And there have been so many shows like that that tell you, Hey, here's an old friend. You're going to enjoy watching the show, sit down and enjoy. And I think they're afraid to do that. So now there's no longer that kind of style. It just doesn't exist anymore. And that's why a lot of people go back to the '70s and '80s to listen to those things, because they really don't exist anymore.
Songfacts: Now, another song that you're famous for is "Killing Me Softly."
Songfacts: Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but was that inspired by Don McLean?
Fox: The answer is no. I think that story is called an urban legend or something.
Songfacts: Oh, is it? Okay.
Fox: Yeah, it really didn't happen that way. Norman Gimbel and I wrote that song for a young artist whose name was Lori Lieberman. It was the tenth song we were writing for her A Thousand Dreams album - it was going to be released on Capitol Records. And Norman had a book where he would write titles of songs - song ideas and lyrics or something that struck him at different times. He pulled out the book and he was looking through it, and he says, "Hey, what about a song title, 'Killing Me Softly with His Blues'?" Well, the "killing me softly" part sounded very interesting, "with his blues" sounded old fashioned in 1972 when we wrote it. So he thought for a while and he said, "What about 'killing me softly with his song'? That has a unique twist to it." So we discussed what it could be, and obviously it's about a song - listening to the song and being moved by the words. It's like the words are speaking to what that person's life is.
Anyway, Norman went home and wrote an extraordinary lyric and called me later in the afternoon. I jotted it down over the phone. I sat down and the music just flowed right along with the words. We got together the next morning and made a couple of adjustments with it and we played it for Lori. She loved it; she said it reminded her of being at a Don McLean concert. So in her act, when she would appear, she would say that. And somehow the words got changed around so that we wrote it based on Don McLean, and even Don McLean I think has it on his Web site. But he doesn't know. You know, he only knows what the legend is.
Songfacts: How did the song get into Roberta Flack's hands?
Fox: Lori's record was programmed on American Airlines one month; it was like a promotional thing. You know, in these days, 2010, if we go onto a plane we bring our music and videos with us, MP3s and DVDs and and iPads. But in 1972, '73, if you went on an airplane, you were gonna listen to the stuff that was preprogrammed for you. So one month, as it happened, Roberta Flack was flying from Los Angeles to New York. She had just finished a concert with Quincy Jones in Los Angeles. She was flying back to New York, and she heard this song, she heard Lori's whole album. She was knocked out by the song, and she wrote the lyrics down. She said she listened to it ten times and she jotted the notes down on pencil and paper - she made her own lines and all that. And then when she came to New York she called Quincy, and said, "How do I meet Charles Fox?" So Quincy gave her my number. I was at Paramount Pictures one day walking through the music library, and someone handed me a telephone and said, "This is for you." And the voice on the other end of the line said, "Hi, this is Roberta Flack. We haven't met, but I'm going to sing your songs." So it was kind of magical at that - that thing just doesn't happen to people. She had just won the Grammy Award for "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Beautiful record. So it's kind of remarkable to get a call from her in the first place. And she did go on to sing other songs. And actually, she sang on the main title for me of a show that was called Valerie after Valerie Harper. Later on Valerie Harper left the show, Sandy Duncan came on it the second year and they changed the title to "The Hogan Family," and later to "The Hogans." It Ran for about 5 or 6 years in prime time, and it was a modest hit. I mean, 5, 6 years these days is really a good sized hit. But some of my shows have been on 10, 12 years. But anyway, Roberta Flack sang the song for me, and she was wonderful as always.
Songfacts: That's really interesting.
Fox: I guess it's lucky for me that she wasn't flying another airline that day.
Songfacts: Tom Bosley passed away recently. Did you have any interaction with the people on the shows, and did you happen to know Tom?
Fox: Of course I met him over the years. And he was just a really wonderful guy, a great actor, and beloved on the set. I think that some people thought he was really the father, you know. He spread a lot of warmth and cheer, and was very nice.
Honestly, I didn't have a lot to do with those shows. They were shooting while I was busy writing music, and I would stop into the set now and then and say hello to people, maybe at a cast party or something. But I did have more interaction with Anson Williams, because I was involved with him for a while producing a record for him. He sang a couple of my songs.
Songfacts: Now, was he Potsie?
Fox: He was Potsie. Norman Gimbel and I wrote a couple of songs for him and I produced the record, so I had more interaction with him. They were all really great guys. Henry Winkler and I have the same birthday.
Songfacts: You talked about how Norman Gimbel wrote the lyrics to these songs. Do you write lyrics as well?
Fox: You know, I don't write a word of lyric. Which is kind of odd, because I wrote a book. My memoir. It's just that I have no leanings that way. However, what I think I do well is that I choose great lyricists to work with. Because I've written with some of the greatest lyricists in the last 50 years. Hal David and I have written many songs together. We have a new project coming up together, a theater project. And I've written a lot of songs for Paul Williams. He wrote the lyrics for Love Boat. We did some movies together, Paul and I. But along the way I've worked with Carly Simon and Sammy Cahn. Sammy Cahn and I did a number of songs together. So with a lyricist I'm working with, I have a good feel and a flavor for what's working and how it flows with the music. So I can offer good comments on the lyrics. Just as I would expect a lyricist to offer good comments on the music. It's a real collaborative process.
Songfacts: Now you say you're working with Hal David on something?
Fox: We are about to start working on a new project, yeah, a theatre project.
Songfacts: What can you tell me about that?
Fox: Well, first thing is we're still securing the rights. I can't tell you the name of it. But it's based on a very popular film from the '70s. And it's a wonderful project. I would love to tell you the name of it, but ask me again in about two weeks. We're both excited about it. It's a project we had started some time ago, but now we're about to get the clearance on the rights and I expect it's going to be important for both of us.
Songfacts: Paul Williams was pretty famous as a comedic character actor. So I imagine that we, as the viewing public, didn't see his talent as a songwriter. But you did. What was he like to write with?
Fox: Well, first of all, Paul Williams is one of the great songwriters. And long before I got a chance to work with him, I was a big fan of his songs "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days And Mondays." Long before I got to work with him on the film called One on One, a movie about a young basketball star with Robbie Benson.
Songfacts: Right, I remember that.
Fox: And Paul and I wrote a number of songs for Seals and Crofts, so we got to be friends and we spent a lot of time together hanging out with Seals and Crofts - it was great, we all became friends, and I co-produced that soundtrack album. And Robbie Benson, too, we spent a lot of time in the studios together, all of us, and Robbie was the star, but he's also a songwriter. He used to perform as a songwriter, as a singer, so we all had a nice little bond during the making of that movie. And we wrote a lot of songs, I think five or six songs for that picture. But Paul Williams was a major, major songwriter before I ever got a chance to work with him. And if you want to know how working with him is, it's delightful. Paul is one of the genuinely most talented people, most delightful, one of the funniest original creative minds. I mean, you say he played in all these comedy pictures, he has a great comedic mind. And he's just a sweet guy, and really I count him as one of my good friends.
Fox: I'll tell you a little story about Quincy Jones. I came to Paris at age 18 (in 1959) to study with this extraordinary composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger. She was Aaron Copeland's teacher 40 years before me. I came just for the summer to take this conservatory in the Palace of Fontainebleau; it was the conservatory for Americans. In the Palace of Fontainebleau, Nadia Boulanger was head of it, and that changed my life. I had composed before that - I'd written music, I'd written songs. But when I had my first lesson with her, I knew that music and composition was going to be my life's work, if I could make it so.
So she asked me to stay on and study with her in Paris, and I ended up staying there for two more years. And one day in the middle of a lesson, she asked me if I knew Quincy Jones? I said, "Well, I know who he is. He's a great jazz artist, and great musician, great composer, arranger." And she said, "You know, he's such a lovely man. He plays jazz." She didn't quite understand jazz, you know, she was in the classical world. Her teacher was Fauré and her friend at the conservatory was Ravel. Stravinsky was her closest friend, so that tells you the kind of world that she came from that I hadn't had a chance to rub shoulders with. So she asked me about Quincy Jones, and told me that when he goes on the road, he always sends her cards and postcards. And every time he comes back for a lesson, he brings beautiful flowers to her. She loved flowers. So I always remember that story. And for years until she died, whenever I would be in Paris, and I saw her, I would bring her flowers. And many times I couldn't see her, because literally she taught at the piano bench from like seven o'clock in the morning until like ten or eleven o'clock at night. Take a break for dinner, not even lunch. For lunch she had a plate in front of her at the piano bench. Except if she was going to a concert or something like that. She was an extraordinary person.
I've been to Paris many, many times over the years, I still love it, and my path has gone there many times. And if I was in England, for example, recording, I'd always fly over to Paris just to see her and just to come. And if I couldn't see her, I'd send her flowers. There was a little flower shop downstairs from her house, which is still there, and I used to go there and send flowers just so she'd know I was in Paris, even if I couldn't see her. And that was all influenced by Quincy. Of course I told Quincy this story, and he got a big kick out of it, too.
Songfacts: How did you get involved in doing theme songs? Because that seems like a specialized field. Was there one project that kind of just opened the door for you?
Songfacts: I used to love that show.
Fox: Yeah, it was a great show. But in 1965, ABC had no idea if an anthology of sports could be successful on the air. Well, it turned out to be so successful that two years later they decided to put football on the air on Monday night. You know, football was always relegated to Sundays for the pros and Saturdays for college. So they decided to go Monday night with football, and I was asked to do that theme, because they asked the same group of people who did Wide World of Sports to come back. So that was the second theme I did.
But one of the very good breaks for me, I must say, was when I came out to California in 1968 to do the music for Goodbye Columbus, which was a wonderful, wonderful film, and at the conclusion of that the head of music for Paramount Pictures said to me, "We have a new pilot for a series that we think is going to go on the air." They said, "It's new, it's exciting, and it's romantic and all that, and it's called Love American Style." So I was asked to do that pilot, and I composed the song. I wrote the song with Arnold Margolin, who was one of the creators of Love American Style. In fact, we wrote about five or six songs for the first pilot. Well, that went on the air, was a big success, and I won the Emmy Award for it, for Best Theme. So that gave me a really good start right away.
And then that lead to Happy Days, which was actually from an episode of Love American Style. Love American Style had three separate segments, totally unrelated to each other - different stories, different casts. They were always called "Love and the..." something. I remember "Love and the Eskimo," I remember "Love and the Stuttering Cowboy," I remember all kinds of silly things. But this was called "Love and the Happy Days." And ABC made it a pilot at the same time, because it was a good way for ABC to develop a pilot and use it as part of the cost of Love American Style. They loved that show, but they decided that they weren't ready to re-visit the '50s, so they put it in the can until a year or two later when George Lucas's picture American Graffiti came out. And then they went back to what they already had in the can as a pilot, and the rest, as they say, is history.
By the way, speaking of that, the song that we wrote, they printed one 45 record, and that's the one that appears on the jukebox in the show open; you can see it flipping onto a jukebox, and it starts, "Sunday, Monday, Happy Days." If you could slow that down or stop it, you would see that there's a record that says "Happy Days, music by Charles Fox, lyrics by Norman Gimbel." Well, I've had that record in my possession; they gave it to me as a gift. It was the only one made like that. The singular pressing of that song. And they gave it to me in a frame - it's been sitting in the back of my studio for years, and only recently the Smithsonian asked if I had any singular object that they could place in their new music wing. So that is going to be what they call inducted into the Smithsonian, and it's going to sit in the box with the Fonz's jacket. It's his leather jacket, so it's really a nice thing for me to know that it has that place in history.
Songfacts: How cool is that?
Fox: It's cool. I must say I think it's pretty cool, myself. (laughs)
Songfacts: You have a book out, and you're working on a super secret confidential Hal David project.
Fox: (laughs) Well, I'm into a lot of different things. The book is very significant to me, because I really set out my life in music. And it only came about because we found, in my mother's apartment in the Bronx a number of years ago, the letters that I'd written home when I was a student in Paris. They were in a shoebox in my mother's dresser. She saved it. And when we were cleaning out her apartment, she was in California living with us, and it was clear she wasn't going back to the Bronx, and we took that home. And then those letters became kind of the focal point of the book, because it's all about my study with Nadia Boulanger and a record of my studies with her for people who are interested. I don't know that anyone ever wrote about her from a daily perspective, practically. That gave impetus to the writing of the rest of the book, which then follows my life from the time I came back to Paris. So that's exciting to me.
We spoke with Charles Fox on November 18, 2010.
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