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Wikimedia // Public Domain

Raymond Scott, Avant-Garde Creator of Classic Cartoon Music

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If you've ever parked yourself in front of the TV to watch Looney Tunes, The Ren & Stimpy Show, or countless other cartoons, the music of Raymond Scott should be instantly recognizable, even if you've never heard of the man himself. The musical mind behind countless Wile E. Coyote chase scenes (unwittingly) gave cartoons their signature sound, but his real passion was invention—especially when it came to the burgeoning world of electronic music.

Scott was born Harry Warnow in Brooklyn, New York in 1908, and was said to be composing his own music by 1924 in the "audio laboratory" he built as a kid. After graduating from New York's Institute of Musical Art in 1931 (now known as Juilliard), he got a job as a pianist for the CBS Radio orchestra, which was conducted by his brother, Mark. To avoid charges of nepotism, he changed his name to Raymond Scott (which he picked from a Manhattan phone book) and began his career in earnest, establishing a studio, Universal Recording Company, Inc., and a music publishing company, Circle Music, Inc. in 1935.

 

In 1936, Scott formed the Raymond Scott Quintette (which actually had six members, including the father of film composer John Williams) and his unique musical voice began to appear. Scott's style was a wholly different take on the music of the time—the manic energy and violent rhythms perfectly suited his weariness with modern swing and jazz, and his pieces regularly featured bizarre titles such as "Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," and "Harlem Hillbilly."

Scott's deconstruction of modern swing music made him something of an eccentric curiosity, but when Warner Bros. bought the rights to his music publishing company in 1942 and began pairing it with their Looney Tunes shorts, he forever became a part of pop culture:

 

Even though Scott never actually wrote music for these cartoons (and may never have even seen them), the pairing was a natural one. Warner's music director Carl Stalling thought so, too, because he used Scott's tunes in about 120 Looney Tunes shorts over the next 20 years, with the most popular piece being Scott's "Powerhouse."

The deal with Warner Bros. (along with numerous commercial jingles) gave Scott the flexibility to work toward his ultimate goal: invention. In the years after the Warner Bros. purchase, he renewed his focus in the nascent field of electronic music, receiving patents on a number of different instruments, including a sound-effects machine named the Karloff, an early electronic keyboard known as the Clavivox, and his now-legendary attempt at artificial intelligence, the Electronium.

Despite his wild sound, Scott was known for his expectation of perfection from his musicians during practice and a disdain for improvisation. This machine-like attitude toward his musicians helped him make strides in the electronic revolution, as he built an armory of instruments that were less about emotion and more about precision.

Scott spent more than 20 years working on the Electronium, which was conceived as an "Instantaneous Composing Performance Machine" that would compose music while performing it—dubbed by some as "Beethoven in a box." As advanced as this machine was at the time, Scott's vision of music's future ultimately entered the realm of the metaphysical:

"Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely 'think' his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener."

Scott's later career was marked with all manner of electronic experimentation, including a strange yet pioneering album of synthesized lullabies recorded in 1963 called Soothing Sounds for Baby—a three-volume forerunner to the minimalist movement, composed with his Electronium. His array of unique instruments, musical trinkets, and an inimitable sound led to a number of collaborations with a young Jim Henson, who brought Scott on board in the mid-1960s to provide the music for some of the creator's early—very non-Muppet-y—films:

 

However, as Scott's inventions and experiments became more and more idiosyncratic, his music began to move away from profitability. No longer writing music for commercials or mainstream projects, his later work very rarely saw the light of day, as he spent most of his time tinkering away on the Electronium and other projects—living as a recluse, according to some accounts. Scott reportedly sunk close to a million dollars into the development of the Electronium, but despite the investment—and interest from Motown, where he worked as Director of Electronic Music Research and Development in the '70s—it never became the commercial wonder he imagined, nor was it ever actually completed.

When speaking about Scott's unconventional mind, electronic music icon (and one of Scott's occasional collaborators) Bob Moog said:

"He had so much imagination, and so much intuition—this funny intuition that some people have—that he could sort of fish around and get something to work, and do exactly what he wanted it to do. Obviously not everybody could do this. It took a huge amount of money, and a huge amount of imagination. And an impressive amount of craziness too!"

Scott died in 1994, but since then his music has seen something of a rediscovery, at least in certain corners of the industry. To this day, you can still hear "Powerhouse" and other pieces in your favorite cartoons, and Scott's legacy as a trailblazing figure of electronic music is taking shape as a new generation has come along to add a modern flair to his work. Though people might not have been able to wrap their minds around his inventions and eccentricities at the time, his vision of the future of electronic music no longer sounds so far-fetched.

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The Unsolved Mysteries Soundtrack Is Coming to Vinyl
Terror Vision
Terror Vision

If you never missed an episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, just listening to the opening theme of the series may be enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Now, you don't need to wait to catch reruns of the show to experience the haunting music: The original soundtrack is now available to preorder on vinyl—the first time it's been available in any format.

Terror Vision, a company that releases obscure horror scores on vinyl, has produced two versions of the soundtrack: A single LP for $27 and a triple LP for $48. Both records were compiled from the original digital audio tapes used to score the show. Terror Vision owner and soundtrack curator Ryan Graveface writes in the product description: "The single LP version features my personal favorite songs from the ghost related segments of Unsolved Mysteries whereas the triple LP set contains EVERYTHING written for the ghost segments. This version is very very limited as it’s really just meant for diehard fans.”

Both LPs include various iterations of the Unsolved Mysteries opening theme—three versions on the single and five on the triple. Customers who spring for the triple LP will also receive liner notes from the show's creator John Cosgrove, composer Gary Malkin, and Graveface.

Over 30 years since the show first premiered, the theme music remains one of the most memorable parts of the spooky, documentary-style series. As Producer Raymond Bridgers once said, "The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on.”

You can preorder the records today with shipping estimated for late June.

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11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.

1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.

Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.

2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.

Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.

4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.

Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.

5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.

6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.

7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.

Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.

8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.


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In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.

9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.

Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.

10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.

In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.

11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.

“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

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