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Raymond Scott: Accidental Music For Animated Mayhem

We've all heard his unmistakable tunes time and time again in our favorite 'toons, but who is the man behind the music? Irwin Chusid portrays maestro Raymond Scott.

Raymond Scott in 1938 at work in his lab. Courtesy of The Raymond Scott Archive.

You've heard his merry melodies underscoring the antics of Bugs, Daffy, Porky and Elmer countless times since your childhood. More recently, his eccentric recordings provided counterpoint to the body-fluid fetishism of The Ren & Stimpy Show. His musical themes echoed across national television during 1967 in a now-forgotten cartoon series called Batfink. And in the 1990s, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and Duckman joined the cavalcade of animated programs that adapted his work.

Surprisingly, Raymond Scott never wrote a note of music for a cartoon in his life. According to his widow, he never even watched cartoons. Scott seemed oblivious to the fact that generations of video-glazed adolescents have been absent-mindedly humming his themes, which have been immortalized in a medium for which he cared little.Scott's hyperanimated instrumentals include New Year's Eve in a Haunted House, War Dance for Wooden Indians, Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner, Celebration on the Planet Mars, and Egyptian Barn Dance -- all of which evoke comic imagery. But Scott had more important things to do than synchronize his musical flavorings to the misadventures of a wascally wabbit, a crime-fighting bat, and a short-fused asthmatic Chihuahua.

An Unsuspecting Hero

The legacy began when Scott's Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals, originally recorded in 1937 by the Raymond Scott Quintette, was adapted by Warner Bros. Music Director Carl Stalling in Greetings Bait, released May 15, 1943. Eventually, almost 120 WB cartoons, including some late 1980s episodes directed by Greg Ford, employed Scott melodies.

Raymond Scott with his invention, the Clavivox, a keyboard that allows a player to glide from one note to any other over a three-octave keyboard without a break. Courtesy of The Raymond Scott Archive.

Raymond Scott was born Harry Warnow, on September 10, 1908, in Brooklyn. He was a child piano prodigy, with a natural flair for science. Over a half-century, he led two lives: as a pianist/composer/bandleader, and as an engineer/inventor/electronic music pioneer. Having risen to prominence during the 1930's Swing Era, Scott kept pace with music technology and was composing on a homemade MIDI system as late as 1987. That year, he suffered the first of six strokes, which left him unable to work and severely damaged his ability to speak. (He died on February 8, 1994.)

From 1937 to 1939, he led a quirky Quintette of six musicians called the Raymond Scott Quintette (RSQ). Sporting a lineup of sax, clarinet, trumpet, drums, bass and piano, the RSQ was immensely popular on the radio, concert stage, and in film. They were difficult to categorize, drawing on jazz, pop, classical, ethnic, and fourth-dimensional elements. Although the RSQ sold millions of 78s, they were not highly regarded by jazz purists, one of whom dismissed their offerings as "screwy, kittenish pseudo-jazz." (These 3-minute pop masterpieces were reissued by Columbia in 1992 on The Music of Raymond Scott: Reckless Night s and Turkish Twilights, a compilation produced by the author. In 24-bit remastered form, the album is being reissued by Sony Legacy in July 1999.)

Mitzi Scott, who married Raymond in 1967, said that before his strokes, Raymond rarely watched television, and "never, never" watched cartoons. Yet, in retrospect, Scott's ensemble embodied classic animation soundtrack fodder. Drummer Johnny Williams' .38-caliber rimshots were guaranteed to make Yosemite Sam dance; his artillery included cowbells, tom-toms and wake-the-neighbors cymbal crashes. Muted horns imitated toy trumpets, howling spooks and taxicabs. Scott's idiosyncratic compositions toodled along at Keystone Kop tempos, interrupted by hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts and over-the-cliff dynamic spirals; his catchy melodies evoked Turkish casbahs, alpine echoes and oil gushers, typewriters, moon rockets and robots. Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times described it as "music for mice that get hit in the head with an ironing board."

Old Familiar Favorites

Scott's most familiar and oft-used tune was Powerhouse, which contains two distinct, unrelated sections: the first, uptempo passage evokes a coyote-chasing-Roadrunner melee; the second, slower passage suggests a menacing assembly-line-gone-haywire. Both found their way into over 40 WB scores. Other Scott themes quoted in Warner productions include The Penguin, Twilight in Turkey, Huckleberry Duck, The Toy Trumpet, Siberian Sleighride, Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner, Singing Down the Road, and more.

Scott's animation legacy was furthered in 1967 -- again, as with the Warner films, without his involvement, endorsement, or concern. Due to the popularity of the Batman TV series, a caped crusader craze was underway, which inspired a color cartoon parody called Batfink. Batfink was a pointy-eared crime fighter, with wings of steel and supersonic sonar, who tackled ruthless criminals with the aid of his Japanese sidekick, Karate. One hundred 5-minute installments were produced for Columbia/Screen Gems by Hal Seeger. (Seeger was a legendary animator who worked for Max Fleischer, Paramount, and Famous; he produced Popeye, Out of the Inkwell, Milton the Monster and Fearless Fly.) Almost four dozen episodes included quotes from five Raymond Scott tunes: Powerhouse, The Toy Trumpet, Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals, Minuet in Jazz, and Tia Juana. The show's music director was a craftsman many consider second only to Stalling in the annals of tunes for 'toons: Winston Sharples. A longtime music director for Paramount, Sharples (who died in 1977) wrote themes and scores for Casper the Friendly Ghost, Felix the Cat, and Little Lulu, and composed soundtracks for Superman and Popeye, among others.

The Raymond Scott Quintette in Hollywood, 1938. Clockwise from top center: Dave Harris (tenor saxophone), Raymond Scott (piano), Pete Pumiglio (clarinet), Johnny Williams (drums), Dave Wade (trumpet), and Fred Whiting (bass).

A Continuing Legacy

When the producers of The Ren & Stimpy Show licensed Scott's Columbia recordings for their series in August 1992, they were fully aware that his screwball pop was embedded in the musical montages created by Stalling for the cartoons which had mesmerized them since pre-puberty. "Nowadays, people think that all the music in Warner cartoons is Raymond Scott," noted John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy. "There isn't actually that much, but it's so powerful, that hearing eight bars in a 7-minute cartoon, it's what you walk away remembering."

Henry Porch, music coordinator forSpumco, the producers of Ren & Stimpy, wrote in Spin that Scott's music "screamed animation." Porch explained, "Ren & Stimpy dealt with abruptly changing emotions and attitudes, and Scott's music easily kept up, shifting gears at breakneck pace." Bob Camp, the show's creative director, told me, "I put it on a lot when I'm drawing to put me in the cartoon mood." Kricfalusi felt that, "Raymond had a cartoon sensibility, and a great sense of humor. If you could say there's color in music, Scott's pieces have a wild sense of color, just like cartoons."

Scott's Powerhouse has been used in three other now syndicated cartoon projects: The Simpsons ("And Maggie Makes Three"), Duckman ("Aged Heat 2: Women in Heat"), and Warner Bros.' Animaniacs ("Toy Shop Terror"). In fact, the entire 4-minute Toy Shop Terror episode was animated around Richard Stone's brilliant, Spike Jones-like arrangement of the complete Powerhouse (a feat Stalling never attempted). "It's a strangely wonderful piece of music," Stone told a BBC interviewer in 1996. "It's like it was written on Mars." Conducting it was a heavenly experience for Stone. "I must tell you," he confessed, "The opportunity of standing in front of 40 pieces and hearing them play Powerhouse was better than sex. It was the greatest moment in my entire life."

The Archives

Considering Stalling's extensive use of Scott, it's amazing how much of Raymond's surrealistic "cartoon-jazz" was overlooked: Here Comes the King, Bumpy Weather Over Newark, Manhattan Minuet, Yesterday's Ice Cubes, and Tobacco Auctioneer are hyperanimated gems that never made it into Stalling scores. There are dozens of additional compositions and recordings, equally idiosyncratic, awaiting 21st century animators.

The Raymond Scott Archives was created to oversee the legacy of this once-forgotten genius. Scott's private collection of recordings was donated by Mrs. Scott to the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri in 1994. (She retains all commercial rights.) Marr is undertaking a major preservation and restoration project on the collection, which includes 2,719 discs (from 1932 to the late 1950s), 602 open reel tapes, and various Scott papers, photos and memorabilia.

Plans are underway for a 2-CD set of Scott's never-released electronic music later this year on Basta Records; it will be entitled Manhattan Research, Inc., named after Scott's commercial music enterprise. A 1966 animated short by Jim Henson was rediscovered a few years ago; it contains a musique concrete soundtrack by Scott, who collaborated on several other (non-Muppet) projects with Henson.

Manhattan Minuet is © Gateway Music.

A listing of animated television shows and more that have used Raymond Scott's distinctive music has been provided by the Raymond Scott Archives.

For information on Scott projects, including licensing inquiries on masters and publishing, contact:

Irwin ChusidDirector, Raymond Scott ArchivesPO Box 6258 Hoboken, NJ 07030 Fax: 201-653-0209Email: ghostown@ix.netcom.com

Irwin Chusid is curator of the Raymond Scott Archives.

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