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Laura by David Raksin


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Hey older folks and jazz cogniscenti!

I love this tune as I'm sure you do too. Did it immediately become popular with the release of the movie? I had the feelling that Raksin had written this tune prior to the 1940s. The film of the the same name with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb came out 1944.

And furthermore, who brought that classical sounding theme into the jazz realm first? Was it Bird? Who gave it words? I don't recall ever hearing any singing in the soundtrack to the film....

What a beautiful melody! I love how it weaves in and out of the movie at different times with variations and reharmonizations. It is interesting that the theme music only plays where Tierney herself is in the frame or when the camera is on the stunning portrait of her over the mantelpiece (which Detective Lt. Mark McPherson initially falls in love with as he investigates the murder).

Any info on this song or Raksin or just discussion on the film would be marvelous....

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Was just listening again the other night to the Massey Hall Bird / Diz / Bud / Mingus / Roach recording, and Dizzy was clearly thinking about this song that night. He quotes from it at least twice, once on "Perdido" and then later during "Hot House".

My understanding is that the film was initially as famous for Raksin's theme as for anything else (i.e., Gene Tierney's otherwordly beauty). My favorite version may be the Jeanne Lee / Ran Blake rendition on NEWEST SOUND AROUND.

More "jazzed" Raksin on record...

"Slowly" on Harold Land's EASTWARD HO!

"Love Song From 'Apache'" on Coleman Hawkins' TODAY AND NOW

"The Bad And The Beautiful" on THE JOHN LEWIS PIANO


Davis Raksin interviewed

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Otto Premminger, the director of the film, wanted to use Sophisticated Lady. Raksin asked for the chance to write his own theme. He went home and got the news of some personal tragedy-- his wife or girlfriend had left him. Wrote Laura that night.

At least that's how I remember the oft repeated story.

I think the film was a hit form the beginning. One of Premminger's best. BTW He eventualy did hse Duke's music in a film: Anatomy of Murder.

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Incidentally, Raksin not only wrote a glorious, swaying theme for Laura but also introduced a striking electronic innovation. Everyone who's seen the movie remembers the scene in which Dana Andrews stares at Laura's portrait and falls under her spell. The mood is set by eerie shimmering chords on the soundtrack. What Raksin did — as he explained in an interview with Roy Prendergast, author of Film Music: A Neglected Art — was to record a series of piano chords with the initial attacks omitted. The engineer turned on the microphones only after each chord had been struck, and continued bringing up the levels until ambient noise saturated the ringing tones. Raksin then made tape loops from this spectral, disembodied sound. "It was the interplay of the partials without the ictus," he explained. Some years later, the Beatles used the same trick to create the massive piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life."

(from Alex Ross's blog "The Rest is Noise")

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Otto Preminger, the director of the film, wanted to use Sophisticated Lady. Raksin asked for the chance to write his own theme. He went home and got the news of some personal tragedy-- his wife or girlfriend had left him. Wrote Laura that night.

At least that's how I remember the oft repeated story.

You remember right -- at least according to a lot of obits, including THIS ONE.

Great quote from that article:

Hedy Lamarr was among those who had turned down the part taken by Gene Tierney. When asked why she had done so, she replied: "They sent me the script, not the score."

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Not accurate about the Beatles connection. On that, the attack of the piano (in fact, three pianos) is obviously there. What they did was boost the level as the sound died down, to make it last "forever". But it's hardly a "spectral, disembodied sound" created by divorcing the characteristic attack of a percussive instrument from its sustain portion.


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I have a wonderful version on Oscar Pettiford - "Orchestra In Hi Fi" with Oscar playing cello. On Paramount Records.

Oscar Pettiford: Orchestra In Hi-Fi, Volume 2

abc-Paramount 227

1. Now See How You Are [Oscar Pettiford & W. Harris]

2. I Remember Clifford [benny Golson]

3. Aw! Come On [Oscar Pettiford]

4. Somewhere [Ray Copeland]

5. Laura [David Raskin]

6. Little Niles [Randy Weston]

7. Seabreeze [Larry Douglas]

Gigi Gryce-asx, arr

Benny Golson-tsx, arr

Jerome Richardson-tsx, f

Sahib Shihab-bsx

Ray Copeland-tpt

Art Farmer-tpt (1-5)

Kenny Dorham-tpt (6-7)

Julius Watkins, David Amram-fr hn

Al Grey-tbn

Betty Glamman-hrp (2, 5-7)

Dick Katz-p

Oscar Pettiford-b

Gus Johnson-d

August 23, 1957 (1-3)

August 30, 1957 (4-5)

September 6, 1957 (6-7)


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I thought surely Mike Fitzgerald would come to the rescue on this one. What was the first recorded jazz version beyond the movie soundtrack which really isn't jazz at all.

I can't use Brian (the software he touts all the time) for some reason. Probably that I don't have user priveleges on these cluster machines I been using since my computer went to the hospital <_<

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This summary of a Terry Teachout piece seems to indicate that Herman's was indeed the first jazz recording of "Laura." I could've sworn that somebody else waxed it before him... not that that's worth much! What does Schoenberg say in the Mosaic booklet?

LAURA is coming out on DVD in March, btw (looks as if it will include commentary from Raksin). It was supposed to come out a year or two ago; rumor has it the hold-up had to do with the rights to the music.

Edited by ghost of miles
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From Filmscoremonthly:

Laura - David Raksin

David Raksin scored 1944's Laura (D: Otto Preminger), in which a beautiful young "murder victim" becomes a "prime suspect" (Charles L. Granata, VideoHound's Soundtracks, 1998, Visible Ink Press, p. 245). As detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) questions suspects and later searches for clues in the victim's apartment, we realize that he is falling in love with Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), the murder victim. This is less than subtley suggested by one of Laura's suitors, columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who asks: "Have detectives who buy portraits of murder victims a claim to privacy? [They] told me that you already put in a bid for it." This dialogue line, however, is not what tips the audience to McPherson's growing interest in Laura. Nor is his behavior the telling clue as he searches her apartment and gazes at her portrait.

Rather the detective's emotional state is conveyed by the haunting melody that is the main and all-pervasive theme in Raksin's original score for Laura. This melody, wrote one reviewer, may be described as obsesssive "since the protagonist...becomes increasingly obsessed with her and the case and eventually falls in love with the "dead" woman. "Laura's Theme," the very icon of passion and romance, appears in virtually every cue, whether it's one of the many source cues or a part of the dramatic underscoring. Her theme is omnipresent, as in her character--even when she's not on screen" (Roger Feigelson, Soundtrack!, Vol. 13/No. 49, March 1994).

While many instrumental and vocal versions of "Laura's Theme" were recorded over the years, the score itself was not available on record until RCA's 1976 release of a 5'52" version of "Laura" on David Raksin Conducts His Great Film Scores (CD: RCA Victor 1490-2-RG). Raksin recalls in the LP's liner notes that, upon receiving the assignment to score Laura,

"I liked the picture at once but was disheartened to hear [producer Darryl] Zanuck immediately zero in on an essential scene in which...the detective assigned to solve the ostensible murder, wanders disconsolately around Laura's apartment at night. I gathered that the sequence had already been severely shortened, and now it was about to be reduced still further. . . . There was a horrified hush when I was heard to interject, 'But, if you cut that scene, nobody will understand that the detective is in love with Laura.' Zanuck turned toward me, then ... told me that he was about to trim the sequence again precisely because he felt that as it stood the audience would not understand it. . . . I persisted. 'This is one of those scenes,' said I, 'in which music could tip the balance--tell the audience how the man feels. And if it doesn't work, you can still trim the sequence.'"

Raksin met a few days later with the film's director. While Raksin was not aware at the time that Preminger had been unsuccessful in getting George Gershwin's Summertime' for the film, he told Raksin he intended to use Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" as the theme. Raksin replied that he felt this song was not right for Laura because of the associations a familiar song would evoke in the audience. That day being Friday, Preminger agreed to give Raksin until Monday to come up with an alternative to "Sophisticated Lady." Raksin tried that weekend to compose a new melody, interrupted only by a letter he received on Saturday from his wife:

"All I could make of it was that it said something I didn't want to hear, so I put it into my pocket and hoped it would go away. By Sunday night I knew that my big chance was fading fast: I didn't really believe in any of the themes I had written. . . . From the time I was a boy, when the music wouldn't flow I would prop a book or poem on the piano and improvise. ... I took the letter out of my pocket, put it up on the piano and began to play. Suddenly the meaning of the words on the page became clear to me: she was saying Hail, Farewell, Better Luck Next Life and--get lost! Knowing that, I felt the last of my strength go, and then--without willing it--I was playing the first phrase of what you now know as Laura."

It was not until nearly 50 years after Laura's release that Raksin's original score finally became available as a 27'16" suite as the premiere CD release of the Classic Film Score Series (20th Century Fox 11006-2). Ironically, Laura is paired with 1943's Jane Eyre, scored by Bernard Herrmann who, a year later, would turn down the opportunity to score Laura, opening the door for the studio to turn to Raksin to devise his own musical "time-travel" machine. When the detective falls asleep in a chair below Laura's portrait, it is as if Raksin's haunting "Laura's Theme" has the power to bring the "dead" Laura back to life as she enters her apartment, surprising the detective who thinks, as he rubs his eyes, that he's still asleep or seeing the ghost of the woman with whom he has fallen in love but never met until now.

The late Tony Thomas wrote that Raksin made "Laura's Theme" "speak for the detective's strange obsession--the image of the beautiful girl haunts him, irritates him and moves him to anger at the killer and a determination to solve the crime. Raksin's score is one of the foremost examples of the power of music on film" (Music for the Movies, A.S. Barnes & Co., 1973: p. 163). As a small piece of trivia, and a comment on Laura's power over men, Raksin's score is supplemented by a 1938 song, "You Go To My Head" (J. Fred Coots/Haven Gillespie), used as an instrumental during the film's dance scene.

In James Ellroy's memoir MY DARK PLACES, he writes that LAURA is the favorite movie of many real-life homicide detectives.

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I was fortunate enough to be in London for a concert Elmer Berstein gave at the Royal Albert Hall. He conducted scores by others as well as by himself and when they played The Bad and the Beautiful he had Raksin at the other end of a phone line in LA! I think this was shortly before Raksin's death.

(Elmer was a friend and sadly I think seeing him after the concert was the last time I saw him alive.)

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