A Conversation With Emil Richards

Emil Richards at home in Hollywood, July 2012

Emil Richards at home in Hollywood, July 2012

(this conversation took place in July 2012, and was first published online in June 2015)


I first heard the name Emil Richards when as a teenager I was given a mixtape featuring the Joni Mitchell track ‘The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines’, on which he lays down the solid tambourine groove in the A-list company of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Peter Erskine and Don Alias. It was later, when I developed a passion for the 1970s film scores of composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, David Shire and Michael Small that I realised how prolific Emil’s work as a percussionist has been, and what a strong contribution he has made to Hollywood film music. He has been one of the most in-demand session percussionists in Hollywood for over five decades, performing on hundreds of film scores from the 1960s right up to recent scores by composers such as Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino. Almost everyone who has been to the movies or watched television will have heard his playing, from famous TV themes (the bongo part on the Mission Impossible theme or xylophone on The Simpsons), to blockbuster scores by virtually all of Hollywood’s biggest name composers. His career has been wide ranging, from playing jazz vibraphone with artists such as Charles Mingus and George Shearing in the 1950s, to micro-tonal percussion explorations with experimental composer Harry Partch; from performing for Stravinsky to touring with artists from Frank Sinatra to George Harrison. For me, however, his most important contribution has been the amazing range of sounds and textures that he has brought to Hollywood film scores. Emil was one of the first to bring the distinctive sound of the Waterphone to film music, used so effectively in Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score for Chinatown – just one example of the wide variety of colours that he has introduced to the palette available to composers.

Knowing that Emil’s playing has been integral to so much of the film music that I love and that has had a strong influence on me, I was keen to meet him and talk about his work. When I was in California in Summer 2012 I got in touch and Emil very kindly invited me to his home in north Hollywood, where this chat took place. We began by talking about how the film music studio scene in LA has changed from previous decades:

ER:            Well there’s a lot more musicians here now… And all competent, very good players. And there isn’t the work that there used to be. I mean I used to average four dates a day.

JO:            Wow!

ER:            Five and six days a week. In the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties. Even in the nineties. But then it just started to diminish, and more musicians came out here. I mean when I first got here – I got here in ’59 – most of the drummers were playing mallets. There were maybe two good mallet players here. So I got busy right away when I got to town. Mallets are my forte – I just got busy as heck from the beginning you know. And the drummers loved it – they said “I don’t want to have to play mallets anymore, I’m always afraid that I’m going to grab a part that I can’t handle”, you know. So little by little, more and more… You know, the teaching got better, the musicianship got better and… more guys than work.

JO:            So across the sixties, seventies and eighties was it quite a small group of musicians doing most of the sessions?

ER:            Not so much in other fields, but in the percussion field there were less. And then the teaching got better – and I started teaching a lot of guys… Then other countries, besides England, started to score more films and we started to lose a lot of the work. Plus there were more musicians that came here too.

JO:            So does that mean that you have fond memories of the period that I’m interested in, in the seventies? I mean the composers that I really admire are people like Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin and David Shire. Are those composers that you have fond memories of working with?

ER:            Yes, those are the guys that I worked with every day.

JO:            I’ll show you a list of the kind of films I’m looking at. I’ve put stars next to the ones I think you played on. It’s probably more than that. Those are the ones I’m fairly sure that you worked on  [I show Emil a list of 1970s scores that I’ve been listening to]

ER:            BullittAll The President’s MenThe Taking of Pelham – that was David Shire, yeah. Grusin, yeah. Don Ellis, The French Connection. Jerry Goldsmith – everything he did I did.

JO:            Excellent.

ER:            Also the Michael Small scores.

JO:            I really like Michael Small’s writing. I think he’s quite underrated.

ER:            Yes.

JO:            He’s not a name that people really mention that much these days.

ER:            Right. Because he was kinda laid-back and he kinda came from the rock-and-roll era, you know, and they didn’t look upon him as a serious composer you know. But he certainly was. He wrote really good music.

JO:            Yeah, definitely. Do you remember the score for Klute at all?

ER:            Yes.

JO:            That’s a really interesting one to me because the majority of it seems to be written for two pianists and three percussionists. I mean that’s the kind of thing I don’t think you get scores like these days. I’ve been trying to think about the reasons behind this and I think a lot of it is to do with everything being on the computer these days and with samples, and so people get used to having such a huge range of instruments at their fingertips when they’re writing at the keyboard. Perhaps in those days people had to think more about exactly what colours they were looking for.

ER:            Yeah. That’s the era I was collecting like crazy. I’m just selling off my whole collection now. I’m going to be eighty this year, and I just thought, you know… my wife was saying… we have one daughter, I have two sons from my other marriage, and none of them are musicians. So what am I going to do with the collection? My wife’s a lot younger than I am. We’ve been married forty years now. It’s just time. So, little by little… I’ve found one guy. He’s interested in a cartage company and renting of instruments and all and he’s very interested in the obscure sounding instruments. Because a lot of the ethnic instruments that I collected… A lot of composers will take an instrument and use it right out front because it’s so unusual sounding. But then a lot of those instruments started to get familiar with the ear, so what I started to do, and encouraged composers to do, was to marry the sounds so that you don’t know what the sound is. You’re mixing two or three obscure instruments to come up with sounds that nobody’s ever heard of. So that’s what Lalo did… Dave Raksin… there were about two or three composers. Michael Kamen.

JO:            He was working a bit later wasn’t he, more in the eighties?

ER:            Yeah. But those composers mixed and married those obscure instruments together to create sounds. You’d say, “What was that?” you know.

JO:            So you must have played a really strong role in introducing those sounds to those guys.

ER:            Yes.

JO:            So what was the kind of process behind that? I mean would they come to you to look for new sounds to incorporate into the music?

ER:            Yes. I took a lot of trips every year. So when I came home from a trip the composers would start calling, “Hey, what’s new? What ya got?”

JO:            That’s great.

ER:            So I’d say “I’ve got a couple of things”. It was harder and harder for me to find new instruments.

JO:            But you were always looking for new sounds?

ER:            Yeah, I was always looking for stuff. So when I’d come back, before I got with any composers I messed around with mixing the sounds to see what I could come up with. So Jerry Goldsmith loved mixing. Lalo – the daddy of mixing!

JO:            Yeah, I was going to say. The very beginning of the film Dirty Harry is a great example of that. There’s two drummers and three percussionists playing at once and just in that opening few minutes you’ve got a funk drum rhythm going on, a brushes drum rhythm going on, and it sounds like there’s waterphone, and tabla and everything going on at once. And it’s a great combination of all those percussion sounds.

Hellstrom Chronicles.jpg

ER:            Well Lalo started doing… We did a movie called Hellstrom Chronicle. It was a documentary film about bugs. The wasps fighting the hornets and the ants against the crickets. Wolper productions put it together and they did a lot of documentary films. And Lalo got the assignment for the music. And he said, “Bring a box of pencils. I want you to give them to the string players, they’re going to bang on their instruments.” So I called all my string player friends, I said “Don’t bring you’re best fiddle today, you ain’t bowing at all, you’re pounding!” They became the percussion section and we became the string section. He had us bowing on the end of the vibes, on waterphones, on everything you can imagine. We were the string section and the string section were the percussion.

JO:            That’s brilliant.

ER:            An amazing score. And all he did was like a downbeat. And directions in each bar of what you were to do in that bar. And you had to read like crazy. In fact we had to read the whole piece before we played, and then we had to read as we were going because there were so many directions of what to do. And we were bowing on everything you can imagine. I think Lalo was the daddy of really doing unusual stuff with scores you know.

JO:            Yeah, I love his work. And I’m not sure you get that kind of experimentation so much these days. I think the approach has changed slightly for composers, where the samples on the computer are often the starting point and so you wouldn’t necessarily have that experimental approach to finding sounds in that way.

Taking an instrument like the waterphone, that must have first started appearing in scores around the early seventies probably. Was that one of those sounds that you went and found somewhere?

ER:            Yes. A guy was living up near San Francisco and he put it together. And he came down because he had heard about me, and I freaked out right away because you could play it with mallets or you could bow it. And I turned Shelly Manne on to it, and I turned all the composers on to it.

JO:            So you were really the first person in the film world to come across it?

ER:            Yeah, and it’s just a wonderful bunch of noises there you know.

JO:            Do you remember which scores were some of the first to use it?

ER:            I’d say the things with Jerry Goldsmith… Lalo…

JO:            It seems to play quite an important part in the score for Chinatown, because that’s got the themes in the plot of water and so I think it works really effectively in that score. I’ve seen some of the notation for that score and it’s written into it.


Another instrument that I was interested in – going back to Klute, which I mentioned earlier – a sound that runs through that score is the quarter-tone xylophone. Is that an instrument that was part of your collection?

ER:            Yes. I put that together from pieces of fence.

JO:            So you actually made it?

ER:            Yeah. Pieces of wood from a fence that we made at one of the houses that I was living in at the time.

JO:            That’s amazing!

ER:            And I put that together. It was even closer than quarter-tones. I went minutely next to the next.

JO:            Yeah, because it gets that amazing glissando effect.

ER:            Yeah. So I started building a lot of microtonal instruments. In the seventies I met and befriended Harry Partch. Now Harry had 43 tones to the octave in all of his instruments. When he was asked “How did you ever come up with something so new?” he says “I’m not doing anything new, I’m remembering the distant past”. He says “There were microtones in the distant past in music”. He says, “Twelve tone music is only two hundred years old”. There was ‘just intonation’. There are groups of 31-tone players that come out of Europe. Harry’s gone now but I met Erv Wilson through Harry Partch and Erv had 31 tones to all his instruments. I never understood 43.

JO:            So that’s a very specific number, was there some theory behind it?

ER:            It was really 41 with two auxiliaries – what he called it. But I never understood that system. 31 is beautiful. You could play 31 everything before you come back to ‘doh’. And you can spell it out numerically as well. Take the number 8. 8 is about a minor third in 31. 8, 16, 32. It’s one more than 31 so you subtract 31 and you get 1. So you had 8, 16, 1. Add 8 is 9, add 8… Everytime you get over 31 you subtract 31 and keep adding 8. And you get 31 numbers before the number 31 shows up. Every number does that. Every number. So you have 31 different scales that you can play.

JO:            That’s amazing.

ER:            Of course it would take 31 octaves to play it in sequence that way, but you can keep jumping the octaves. And that’s what we did. We had, maybe, two octaves of 31 made. And we’d just keep jumping the octave so that we could play… minor thirds… 31 minor thirds before the number 31 would show up! 31 tritones before the number 31 would show up! 31 everything! It’s just an incredible number.

That I understood. Mathematically I could understand it. Harry’s system? And we met a guy who had 57. Another guy that had 64…

JO:            So this was something you really looked into.

ER:            Yeah, I really got into microtones you know, and how they related to our music. I mean ‘just intonation’ is what barbershop harmony is. Four guys singing together with no vibrato, no beats, is barbershop harmony. African singers sing with no beats in-between. It’s not our scale. If you played our scale… You couldn’t fit our scale into the way they’re singing. So these are all distant principals that a few acousticians decided to elaborate on in our time, you know. So I became Harry’s disciple for the last twelve years of his life. He had lots of marimbas. Diamond shape… One bar, two bars, three bars, four bars, five bars, six… five, four, three, two, one. In a diamond shape. And if you went like this you got Otonality 13th chords, and this way was Utonality 13th chords. It was just amazing stuff.

JO:            And did you introduce this to film composers?

ER:            I tried to. Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin were the only two guys… and Dave Raksin… were the only three composers that came around. I paid for Harry’s move to Los Angeles. He was up in Petaluma, California – way up north. And only those three composers came around. Nobody else could understand it or want to. But Lalo and Jerry were very interested.

JO:            Were they always on the lookout for new ideas to incorporate into their music?

ER:            Yeah, but Harry wouldn’t let his instruments play with diatonic… I mean chromatic music. He just didn’t want that. He wanted only his instruments to play that music.

JO:            So it had to be quite a pure approach.

ER:            So we never got to do it. But with Erv’s 31-tone instruments I brought those a lot to the studios. But most of the guys used them as microtonal glisses. They didn’t know how to incorporate them harmonically.

JO:            So they were an effect rather than a fundamental part of the harmony?

ER:            They were an effect. And it was discouraging that they… They just didn’t have the time. They were busy composing and writing for scores. They didn’t have the time. And now I know for a fact there’s groups in Europe, 31 tone players, that know how to half-hole the trumpets, how to half-hole flutes. They play 31-tone music. Most of the baroque music was in ‘just intonation’. It didn’t have the same interval relationships that we have in twelve-tone music. Ours is just a little bit over two hundred years old. So you’ve got to imagine what music must have sounded like before two hundred years ago.

JO:            That’s really interesting. So you made your own microtonal instruments but in film terms they were incorporated more as effects.

ER:            Just microtonal glisses. That’s all they had the time to utilise them as.

JO:            Was that something you found a bit disappointing then?

ER:            Well, understandably disappointing. I can understand. Composers, as you know, when you’ve got a movie project you’re on a deadline. And music is down at the end of the project usually, so it’s like they’ve almost run out of money by the time the music gets it. And they don’t have time, they want it out. Because music is near the end they want you to hurry up and get your score done. And a lot of movie makers don’t give a shit about the music. They just figure if you’ve got a reputation you’re going to come up with something, you know.

JO:            But do you feel that the seventies was perhaps a period where there was a bit more room for experimentation?

ER:            Yes. Don Ellis came on the scene…

JO:            Did you work with him?

ER:            Oh yeah, a lot.

JO:            Did you work on The French Connection?

ER:            Yes. We had a group together called the Hindustani Jazz Sextet and I was in that group at the beginning.

JO:            Didn’t he incorporate microtonal elements? Because he had a special trumpet made didn’t he?

ER:            Yes, he had a special trumpet that he had made, yes.

JO:            Looking at the lists of musicians that were on those sessions, it really seems like it would have been an exciting time to be part of the rhythm section. I mean there were some great players playing in film scores. Like you mentioned Shelly Manne earlier, and like Ray Brown on bass and people like that. I suppose a lot of people were coming from jazz, and I suppose in the seventies funk and other areas as well. Did you find that it was an exciting time to be part of that?

ER:            Yes. Shelly had a jazz group… he had a jazz club. He opened his own club. He said “Yeah, come on in and listen to West Coast Jazz”, and he named all the guys in his band and they all came from either New York or Connecticut or somewhere in New England you know, and he used to introduce his band as “Here’s my west coast band” and they were all from the east coast!

[we had a short pause at this point while Emil showed me some unusual instruments that he had at home]

ER:            I’m giving up the weird stuff [unusual percussion instruments] only because I just don’t want to be stuck with it all. I still want to play, I still do play. I play jazz a lot too you know. I play jazz vibes. I have a quartet and I have a 17-piece big band.

JO:            How often does the big band play?

ER:            Once every couple of months. It’s hard to get gigs with big bands too often. Sam Nestico is probably one of the best big band writers. He wrote for Basie for years. He sends me a lot of charts to play. Different composers say, “Hey, I’d like to hear this. Would you play this the next time you’re working?” So we get to do that.

JO:            Something else I wanted to ask you is about the size of rhythm sections in film sessions. It seems like there were quite a lot of players actually on the sessions in those days. I was wondering if now it’s moved more towards overdubbing things afterwards, so these days will you have the orchestral session and overdub percussion parts in a separate session?

ER:            No, not so much of that. It’s amazing that the synthesiser has taken its place as another member of the orchestra, it has not taken over. For a while we were afraid that it might, but it didn’t. It just became another member of the orchestra. And there may be one or two synth players on sessions for films, but they haven’t taken over at all. We’re still using 110- to 115-piece orchestras and it hasn’t made a dent.

JO:            So the percussion is being recorded as part of the orchestra in that way, live with the session.

ER:            Yes, we record mostly live.

JO:            So are there differences that you’ve noticed over the years in the way that things are recorded or is it just the same as it was in the seventies?

ER:            Most composers have their own synths, so they have pre-recorded tracks that they bring in when they’re doing a score. But when you’re doing a score and you’re as busy as James Newton Howard… James Horner. I just heard a score of his yesterday – Spiderman – really good score that James did. I used to work for James all the time.

JO:            James Horner?

ER:            Yeah. And James Newton Howard also. But I’m turning 80 and you’re supposed to not play when you’re 80! “He’s getting old”, I mean. I’m playing better now than I ever played in my life! You know, how can you not get better with age? Unless you had a bad embouchure or something and you just can’t blow anymore. But I’m playing better than I ever played. But you’ve got to give the younger guys a chance I guess, so I don’t work as often as I used to.

JO:            Do you have an idea of how many films you’ve played on in total?

ER:            Two thousand. About forty to go before two thousand. I have a list of all of them.

JO:            That’s amazing.

ER:            When I first got here I did records.

JO:            And that was in the fifties?

ER:            I got here in ’59. Then I went out with Sinatra, messed around with him for twelve years. But also working in town, doing mostly records. We used to average nineteen record dates a week. Nineteen three-hour sessions a week.

JO:            That’s amazing.

ER:            It is amazing. I mean around the clock. So for some years I did mostly records. Then I got into TV. My first movie was with Alfred Newman. The best! In ’59, when I got here.

JO:            He was the head of the music department for one of the studios wasn’t he?

ER:            He was at Fox. Three brothers that were all musicians. Lionel Newman, Alfred Newman and Emil Newman, they were all composers.

JO:            And then there are the sons as well aren’t there?

ER:            Randy Newman is the nephew… [The son] of the other brother who was a doctor. He wasn’t a musician. Randy’s father was a doctor.

JO:            And then there’s Thomas Newman as well…

ER:            [Talking again about getting started in LA]. I’m a good mallet player. I started on xylophone when I was six years old, so I was always a good mallet player. So when I came out here there weren’t that many good mallet players. Like I say, the drummers where saying “Phew, the pressure’s off, we’ve got someone that can play the parts!”

JO:            And there were probably quite a lot of mallet parts in the writing around then weren’t there? I suppose there was quite a lot of jazz big band influence in the scores.

ER:            Yeah. And not only that, I mean cartoons. I did all the cartoons, all those xylophone parts. It’s the hardest shit to play, it’s really hard. Because it’s not 4/4 time anymore, it’s like half beats and one bar of 5 and two bars of 7 and you’re catching action all the time…

JO:            In terms of syncing with the picture what methods were used? Was it click track, or streamers, or…

ER:            We used click track and streamers, but mostly click track. Everything was spelled out, which made it easier for the composer and in a way easier for us too. Some of the tempos were ridiculous! But we got through it.

JO:            Have you seen the role of percussion changing in the time you’ve been working? I suppose in its more traditional role – it was just moving out of that role when you started working I think. Would you say that’s right to say, that it was expanding a bit more?

ER:            Yeah. I had symphony chops. I was with symphony since I was in tenth grade back in Connecticut so I had that. And I’d worked with George Shearing. I worked three or four years with George Shearing.

JO:            On vibes?

ER:            On vibes, yeah. So I had both backgrounds. I had classical and jazz, so I was ripe for when I got here to just do anything that they threw at me you know. And mostly they threw cartoons at me when I first started. The xylophone parts were ridiculous!

JO:            So how soon did you find that you were able to incorporate the instruments that you were discovering from your travels?

ER:            Pretty much right at the beginning, because I went around the world with Sinatra starting in ’62. And we went in his private jet. And I just started filling the belly of his plane with instruments wherever I went, and didn’t have to pay duty on them or anything you know.

JO:            And was it straight away, like you said earlier, that when you got back composers would ask what you’d got?

ER:            They’d call right away and say, “What’s new? What did you bring? What do you have? I want something. Don’t tell anybody, I want that. I’ve got a score coming up next week, you’re on it. What are you bringing?”

I’d say “What’s your score? What’s your picture?”

“Come to my house”

So I really got in on a lot of beforehand stuff.

“What would you do here? What could percussion do in this sequence?”

JO:            OK, so actually looking at specific sequences?

ER:            Oh yes. I really got in on all of that. The only dumb thing I did was not to compose myself.

JO:            Is that something you wish you had done?

ER:            I wish I did. I was just too busy. I was just too busy playing.

JO:            It sounds like it!

ER:            I wouldn’t have time to write a score. One score when I’m doing seventeen a week or something, you know what I’m saying! It was just like I didn’t have the time. And I wish I did. That’s where the big bucks are, in composing.

JO:            You’ve made a huge contribution in what you have done.

ER:            Yeah, I’m proud and happy of what I’ve done.

JO:            If I show you that list again of some of the scores that I’m looking at, I want to see if you have particular memories of any of them. We talked a bit about Klute. So you said you did play on Bullitt then?

ER:            Yeah… [looking at listDirty Harry.

JO:            Charley Varrick?

ER:            Yeah, I did that… Anything Jerry Goldsmith did I’m on. Most of Michael Small’s stuff. A lot of David Shire.

JO:            So did you say you did play on The French Connection then?

ER:            Yes.

JO:            So basically every film I’m looking at! Night Moves – do you remember that one? That’s a Michael Small one.

ER:            No, but I would doubt that I wasn’t on it. I did most of Michael’s stuff.

JO:            Do you remember any of those in particular as being exciting sessions to work on, or was it just a great time in general?

ER:            I remember the titles, but no. They all run together man, I mean there’s just so damn many of them.

JO:            Yeah, well if you were doing seventeen a week! And what about memories of working with those individual composers? Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith…

ER:            Lalo and Jerry were two very diligent composers that really really would come to my house almost before every film, and talk to me about what the film was about, what they were doing, and “What would fit here?”, “What would really work here?”

JO:            So you were the first port of call in percussion terms who they would talk to.

ER:            Yes.

JO:            So they would go away and incorporate what you’d talk about into the scores?

ER:            Yeah. I even got some cues from a lot of the guys. They’d say “This is a fight scene, I want you to turn around, watch the scene and just play to it”.

JO:            And then they would record that?

ER:            They would record it and then take it home and score to it, and then give me the cue for my ASCAP.

JO:            The publishing of it?

ER:            Yeah, so I got in on that kind of stuff too you know.

JO:            In the way that you said that when you came back from your travels with different sounds and different instruments and composers would really get interested in that, did the same happen with new rhythms at all? Would you introduce rhythmic ideas that you’d come across?

ER:            Definitely.

JO:            So composers would come over?

ER:            Not so much the composers. They did a little bit. More musicians did that part. I do clinics on different rhythms and stuff and that’s a different thing. I’m into rhythms like very, very heavy. Especially odd time rhythms, you know.

JO:            So would you be able to work that into your film score work, when you came back from places and had discovered new rhythms?

ER:            Yeah. When Mission Impossible first came out the theme was in five. And I played on the first Mission Impossible, on the main title and stuff. And I was so into rhythms that I was permuting the rhythms, so I’d double the rhythm to ten, and then double it to twenty. How many threes are in twenty? How many fours are in twenty? How many sevens are in twenty? And what’s left over? You’d have two sevens and a six. First you’d play six, then seven-seven. Or seven-six-seven. Or seven-seven-six. I would just keep messing round with turning the time around you know.

So when I first did Mission Impossible I really messed up, because I was permuting the rhythms in my head, and I was playing the bongo part at the beginning. So I say “Lalo, I’ve gotta have another one. I’m sorry, I messed up.”

He says, “Why, we’ve gotta go.” He never liked to do anything over.

“Lalo we’ve gotta take another one, I screwed up”

Ok, so we did another one. Now, three or four years down the road, we rerecorded the main title again. Even though I don’t think Lalo was doing all of the Mission Impossible daily, or weekly, TV shows, he did the main title, because that played every week and got his composer’s credit for that. So again I was messing with the rhythm and I screwed and I said, “Lalo, I need one more”.

He said, “It ain’t mine anymore. It’s my ex-wife – she’s getting the money on that. I ain’t doing it again, I don’t need this shit!”

“Lalo, you’ve gotta do it, I can’t listen to that every week for a year”. So he did one more take.

JO:            Something else I was interested in is in terms of how heavily notated the final percussion parts would be, as opposed to how much improvisation would be involved in the session.

ER:            Well, like I told you, The Hellstrom Chronicle, it was all improvised. Just notation for every bar – direction for every bar – of what to do in this bar. And that’s the way Lalo had an 87-piece orchestra improvising. And it was wonderful. What we did on that score could never have been written out. You know, just too much music went down. It was brilliant, really came off great.

JO:            So in other scores could it be a complete spectrum from that to really fully notated?

ER:            Everything was notated.

JO:            But were there ever times when it was a more free form of improvisation in a score?

ER:            Yeah. Jerry Goldsmith gave me a lot of freedom. Dave Grusin. Dave Raksin. You see Don Ellis comes in and he would be the logical guy to give you space but he wanted to prove himself as a writer so he wrote everything! They didn’t know him as a film composer so he wrote everything out. It wasn’t that he wanted anyone else to take credit for what he wanted to accomplish you know. But, he talked to some of us and said “You know, in this section, if you feel something else just throw it in there”.

JO:            You said about how, with the role of the synthesiser and the computer side of things, there was a time that you were worried that it would take over but it’s just become another part of the orchestra. Has it changed what composers expect from the percussion section? I mean composers do a lot of demo tracks where they’ll do mock-ups of the percussion using samples.

ER:            It’s not only percussion it’s the whole orchestra.

JO:            Yes.

ER:            The last time I worked for James Newton Howard he said “Take out cue M17, version 47”. And he says, “I’m not kidding guys, this is the 47th version that I’ve written!” Now this has happened since I’ve been in this town. In the old days – Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman days – they would play the themes on the piano for the film writer and director. “Here’s where I’m going to have the strings play here”… “and this is the theme” and he’d sing along. Then came along all the synths that all the composers had to have now at home, and they have to audition every cue for the director. That was never [the case previously]. You’d listen and say “Oh I can’t wait to hear the strings do that”.

JO:            I spoke to an editor once who had worked on a film with John Barry as the composer and he said that John Barry would phone up the edit suite and play the piano down the phone!

In the research I’ve been doing on these scores that’s one of the things that I thought was a fundamental change over the years, that that’s now the system, where composers have to demo things in that way and go through rewrites.

ER:            They’ll [the producers] come to you and say, “Why do you need an orchestra? That’s good enough” [the sample-based MIDI demos]

And you try to tell them, “An oboe doesn’t do that” you know. “I just gave you an idea of what it could be, but the oboe has to breathe”.

“Well then why use an oboe? Use that”

“No I don’t want that, I want a score, I want human sounds”. And it’s harder and harder to talk some of these people into that shit.

JO:            Absolutely. That’s why I’m wondering if, because it wasn’t like that in the seventies, it gave composers a greater freedom to be experimental and try things out.

ER:            Absolutely, absolutely.

JO:            And then I suppose the first time that the producers and directors would hear the score would be actually on the scoring stage.

ER:            Absolutely. And to them it came to life, it was like “Wow”.

JO:            There were a few occasions you read about where it didn’t go to plan and then I suppose in those cases the composer would get fired.

ER:            I’ve been on the stage with a producer who says “That sounds ok”, you know on the loudspeaker into our room, “That sounds ok but can’t you get them to play a little higher?”

“Well the French horn doesn’t go an octave higher”

“Well then take it up a half octave higher”

And the guys are laughing you know. They don’t know man, you know. But they have taken over the say.

JO:            In terms of the atmosphere in the sessions did it make it more enjoyable in the sixties and seventies when it was a more experimental atmosphere in the music?

ER:            Absolutely. John Williams can get away with it now, even after all this time, because he works for…

JO:            Spielberg

ER:            Spielberg. So he can call the shots on anything he wants to do, you know. He’s respected, and he gets points. He’s getting points – he’s making money in the back end. More than the front end, and the front end ain’t so bad!

JO:            Outside of the film work, who have been the main people that you’ve played with on several occasions over the years?

ER:            I went out a lot with Frank Zappa. George Shearing, before I even got in the studios. I got out of the army – I was in Japan for a year and half, in a band and had fun there – and went out with Shearing for three years. And worked around New York a bit. I came from the east coast and it was too cold – I didn’t want to do that anymore so I came out here.

JO:            You said that at the beginning you mostly got the mallets roles. But did that extend to a lot of hand percussion as well like bongos?

ER:            Yeah. Everybody out here started to become specialists. There were some Latin players who only really played Latin. And when they wanted somebody really hot that’s who they would call. I used to play congas and bongos on all the live TV shows. I went through a whole era of that saying “Let me out of here, I don’t want to do this anymore”, you know. But as a percussionist you’ve got to do it all. I played timpani for a lot of scores, and a lot of television I did timpani. I love timpani, it’s a great sound you know. But mallets are my forte. It’s what I grew up with. If there’s ever mallet parts and I’m on the gig I get them, they throw them to me all the time. That’s my forte. It’s just like a drummer – even if it’s stand-up military drumming or something – they’re going to give it to the guy whose forte is that, you know. We put the best guys on each best role you know.

There’s some good tabla players now that are playing. I started it for a while. I spent a lot of time in India, and I said “Wait, I don’t play tabla”

JO:            It’s a hard instrument

ER:            It’s your life man, that’s a life. You know if you get stuck with a part you do it, but if there’s a tabla player you say “Give it to him”.

JO:            There’s quite a lot of tabla on Lalo Schifrin’s stuff in the seventies. Were there tabla guys around then?

ER:            There were a couple of guys that had studied tabla. They weren’t the greatest but they were sufficient to do what Lalo needed. If Lalo needed really a specialist then we would tell him, “Lalo you’ve gotta call somebody else on this”, you know. Somebody who doesn’t read music who knows how to play. There’s a lot of percussion instruments that are like that. I mean steel drum. Unless you play steel drum a long time… I mean I get by. I get by on a lot of instruments but if you really need a specialist you’ve gotta call the right people for that. You’re not going to waste time, you’re going to get it done. Because that’s another thing – as you know – we’re on deadlines man. We don’t have the luxury of a lot of days anymore on a film.

I think the last film we really took a long time was Doctor Zhivago. We had 25 snare drummers on one sequence. We had a balalaika orchestra. We had 4 cimbaloms.

I started playing cimbalom. That’s the most bastard keyboard that ever existed! I went to New York and played for Stravinsky’s 83rd birthday. Don’t quote me on the year because I don’t remember. He was near death. And he came – we did a concert in New York. Two percussionists from here went to play cimbalom. I was one of them. And we got two from New York. And we had to rent cimbaloms. I had my own cimbalom after that but we rented cimbaloms from these old Hungarian gypsies that played on Third Avenue in New York and they came to hear us play because they could play the shit out of their gypsy music but they couldn’t read for beans you know. And we played for Stravinsky. He was in a wheelchair, he could barely move. And he said, “Oh, how wonderful you play”.

I said, “No maestro, I just learned your music on cimbalom, I’m not a cimbalom player.”

He says “But you did so well”.

I said “You know what? On paper your music looks so difficult but on the instrument it lies so well. So comfortable to play”

He says “I had a cimbalom in my studio in 1902 when I wrote those pieces.”

JO:            That’s amazing.

ER:            Yeah, and he’d never heard them performed.

JO:            Really?

ER:            Four versions of, I think it was, Les Noces. We did four versions of Les Noces that he had never heard played, because it took four cimbalom players and he never found four cimbalom players that could read.

JO:            That’s really interesting.

ER:            So we surprised him with that.

JO:            So it probably hasn’t been performed since then!

ER:            Probably not.

[Talking about Doctor Zhivago again]

ER:            That was off and on maybe three weeks. That’s the most I have ever worked on a film. That was Maurice Jarre, and Maurice was new to town. And he had four harps playing in unison. He kind of jived everybody. And he had the biggest orchestra anyone had ever seen you know.

JO:            There haven’t been situations like that since then?

ER:            Not like that. That’s the biggest fiasco I ever worked on! It was good, it was good stuff you know. He had a basso Russian choir, I mean he pulled out all the stops man – he had everybody on that stage! He was new to town and he just laid it out.

JO:            So working with people like Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin, on a single project roughly how many sessions would you do in those days?

ER:            Both Jerry and Lalo – I’d say the most would be five days, for a big score.

JO:            With, what, two or three sessions a day?

ER:            Two. Ten to one, two to five. Maybe an hour overtime.

[Talking about the studio scene] You know, every so often – it seems further in between – radio was there and then the movies took radio out, and then television kind of didn’t take the movies out but made a big dent in what was happening with film. And so we’re just hoping maybe something else will come along that’ll keep musicians working.

Or live playing you know. That’s my other regret, is that I got so hung up in the studios that I’m known among musicians pretty much everywhere, but not the public. If I wanted to go out – I mean I’ve got a great quartet, I’ve got a great big band – my name is beans as far as the public is concerned. So I could never get out there and draw. I’d have to be on somebody’s shirt tail to make it.

JO:            That’s a real shame.

ER:            Yeah, so you know there’s a couple of downfalls of having been a studio musician for so long you know. But wherever I go I do clinics. I love doing clinics. And I do stuff like that – it’s really gratifying.

I’m not going to stop playing by any means, but I’m looking for another outlet. We’re going to China at the end of September. We were in Korea forty years ago but it’s changed a lot so we’re going to China and Korea, in Seoul. Yamaha’s going to try and help me get some clinics and do some stuff through them. I’m just feeling it out to see what I want to do, because I certainly ain’t going to retire. I feel… I had a theory teacher that, even through high school, I learned so much about music from this guy, and he used to say “I’ll be a student until I die”. And I said if Asher Zlotnik could say he’ll be a student until he dies, I think I could say the same thing you know. I love continuing to learn, and finding stuff. I mean microtonal music is one area… Rhythms, different rhythms from different places. There’s such a world of stuff that there’s not enough time in one lifetime.

Jonathan Opstad