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Space Age Music Maker

Morris Stoloff

  • Born 1 August 1898, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died April 1980, Los Angeles, California

As musical director at Columbia Pictures from 1936 to 1962, Morris Stoloff nimbly balanced artistic freedom with production priorities, cultivating some of the best composers ever to score for film, while keeping producers and studio executives happy with their bottom line. Among space age pop fans, he's best remembered for his 1956 Top Ten hit that paired the swing era tune "Moonglow" with George Duning's love theme from the movie Picnic, creating an enduring new pop standard.

A child prodigy on the violin, Stoloff was taken under the wing of W. A. Clark, a millionaire who established the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. After studying with Leopold Auer for several years, Stoloff was touring the U.S. as a featured soloist at the age of 16, and joined the L.A. Philharmonic a year later as its youngest member ever.

When sound came to motion pictures, studios came looking for musicians to provide it, and Stoloff was one of the first to cross over from classical music to movies. He was the first concertmaster on Paramount's payroll, and he was a pioneer in setting up the mechanics of a system that had to provide a steady stream of music for everything from epic dramas to serials and comedy shorts.

In 1936, Stoloff moved over to Columbia, where he took the title of musical director, a new position unique to the studio system. As musical director, he was the chief executive responsible for providing musical production support to every film the studio released. This meant matching up composers, orchestrators, conductors, musicians, and recording facilities to meet the creative scope of each project as well as its schedule and budget. As he told the Los Angeles Times back in 1947,

In the final analysis, it is on the musical director that responsibility falls for the end result and the intrinsic importance of music in a picture. This importance may be little if the music is merely a backdrop to the action, but even in such instances its impact must be properly judged and proportioned and it must be timed for complete effectiveness. And is is the judgment of the musical director which must maintain the delicate balance between Bach and box office.
That he carried off this balancing act for nearly 25 years is a tribute to Stoloff's ability as a businessman.

But it says even more that so many musicians credit him for encouraging them to exercise their own creative independence in the midst of this production line environment. During his time at Columbia, Stoloff worked with composers ranging from Stravinsky (pairing him up with a young David Raksin to keep the old master contained within the limits of the click track) to John Williams (whose father, a former jazz drummer, was already working for Stoloff as a studio musician). George Duning said of Stoloff's era at Columbia,

It's the best time in a composer's life when you can create without a lot of restrictions, and at Columbia, Stoloff allowed the composers to work with a sense of freedom. His attitude was, yes, we'll listen to the producers and directors about what they want the music to be, but ultimately, when it comes time to sit down and write, we must put down what we feel.
Stoloff was not entirely selfless in his approach. He often took partial credit for a picture's score when he worked closely with a particular composer to work out a theme, motifs, and melodies. As a result, he ranks among some of the most-nominated individuals in the history of the Academy Awards. He won three Oscars for best scores, for Cover Girl in 1944; The Jolson Story in 1946; and Song Without End in 1960, and was nominated seven other times.

By the late 1940s, film music was beginning to be recognized on its own, and Stoloff began recording some of the more popular numbers as singles for Decca Records. When long-play albums were perfected, the studios ceased on the opportunity to market more than just singles to the listening audience, and soundtrack albums became a hot commodity. Stoloff exercised his privilege as musical director to record these soundtrack albums himself, working with material from the actual scores.

It was not until Picnic, however, that Morris Stoloff became a familiar name to the pop audience. The casting of William Holden, nearing 40, as a young drifter, and Kim Novak, just out of acting-by-the-numbers class, as his love interest, didn't bode well for the film version of William Inge's play, but in the end, Picnic was acclaimed as one of the best films of 1956. The pivotal scene in the movie is set at a summer picnic in a town park in Kansas, during which Holden and Novak begin dancing as a band plays the familiar tune, "Moonglow," with a gentle cha-cha beat. As they dance, the passion between them becomes palpable, and Duning's original theme comes sweeping in and carries the scene away.

The moment and music were so memorable that Stoloff recorded it exactly as heard on screen, and the cut quickly shot up the pop charts when it was released. It peaked at #2 for five weeks in the U.S., stayed in the Top 40 for over half a year, and did nearly as well in the U.K. A few months later, Steve Allen wrote lyrics to Duning's theme and the McGuire Sisters took it to the charts again as a vocal. Allen published the medley, and it went on to become one of the enduring space age pop standards.

When Frank Sinatra founded Reprise Records in the early 1960s, he hired Stoloff as musical director. One of Stoloff's most noteworthy achievements while at Reprise was the release of a set of re-recordings of great Broadway musicals, including "Kiss Me, Kate," with a studio cast. These albums have recently been reissued on CD.


  • Picnic, Decca DL-78320
  • Love Sequence, Decca DL-8407
  • This is Kim (as Jeanne Eagels, Decca DL-8574
  • You Made Me Love You, Decca DL-9034
  • Rock-a-bye Your Baby, Decca DL-9035
  • You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, Decca DL-9037
  • Fanny, Warner Brothers WBS-1416
  • 1001 Arabian Nights, Colpix SCP-410
  • Song Without End, Colpix SC-506
  • Finian's Rainbow, Reprise FS-2015
  • Miss Sadie Thompson, Mercury MG-25181

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