Earlier this week legendary, Emmy Award-winning television composer Earle Hagen died in Rancho Mirage, Calif., of natural causes at the age of 88. A prolific composer, he wrote many of the classic television themes that endlessly stick in our heads. Shows like Make Room for Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C, That Girl, The Mod Squad, and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, many of which featured his sense of humor and droll musical wit. Hagen also wrote the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne” when he was only 20 years of age.
Born in Chicago on July 9, 1919, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he left home at age 16 to tour with many of the Big Band giants of the day -- Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Ben Pollack and Ray Noble. While on the road with Noble in 1939 he wrote the classic instrumental "Harlem Nocturne." Inspired by the work and sound of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, this sexy/sultry tune has since then been recorded hundreds of times by artists such as Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller, Sam "The Man" Taylor, Stan Kenton, Earl Bostic (a major hit in 1956), Johnny Otis, The Viscounts (whose version is perhaps the raunchiest!), Edgar Winter, King Curtis and The Lounge Lizards. "Harlem Nocturne" was also used, years later as the theme to the television show Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.
But Hagen’s greatest fame probably stems from The Andy Griffith Show and its whistling happy-go-lucky theme written in 1960. This folksy-down home melody perfectly captures the opening credits, scene and feel of Andy Griffith and a young Ron Howard in character as the Sheriff and son Opie, walking down a country path towards the old fishing hole, poles on shoulder, in what must be the-life-idyllic. The whistling was done by Earle Hagen himself.
At the peak of his success during the 1960’s, Hagen was perhaps the hardest working, most frantic man in the biz. Writing music for as many as five different weekly shows simultaneously, this barrage of musical demands required 16-hour workdays, seven days a week, for at least 40 weeks a year. And this went on year after year.
Earle Hagen considered I Spy, the 1965-68 espionage series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby -- for which Hagen received three Emmy Award nominations, eventually winning the award in 1968 -- as his greatest musical challenge. He said, “It was like scoring an hour movie a week."
Retiring from television and composing in 1986, Hagen taught for many years at the BMI workshop for film and TV composers. He also wrote several books including 1971’s Scoring for Films and the 1990 book Advanced Techniques for Films, considered by many as the definitive textbooks on the subject.