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Att least one expert on the subject called Earle Hagen "one of the most important composers in the history of television, if not the most important", but despite that fact, Hagen felt justified in titling his autobiography Memoirs of a Famous Composer-Nobody Ever Heard of". And chances are that not one in a thousand people who'd recognize his best-known tune, "Harlem Nocturne", could name its composer.
Hagen took up the trombone as a student at Hollywood High in his early teens, he began working professionally after graduation, playing with Isham Jones, Benny Goodman, and Jimmy Dorsey. He penned "Harlem Nocturne" as a piece of radio mood music while working as a performer and arranger for Ray Noble.
Like Ronald Reagan, he spent his war years working in the Army Air Corps' Radio and Film Unit in Santa Ana, California, where he composed and arranged for the unit's 65-piece orchestra--mostly former studio musicians. After the war, he stayed in Hollywood and continued to work as a musician and arranger in the movie studios, while also picking up jobs doing arrangements for singers such as Dick Haymes and Frances Langford.
In the early 1950s, Lionel Newman hired Hagen for Twentieth Century Fox. At first, Hagen worked as a second-line composer on musicals and other films, but he grabbed the attention of TV viewers with his theme to "Perry Mason", which somehow manages to be heavy-handed and swinging at the same time. He began to get bigger jobs on bigger films, eventually sharing an Oscar nomination for best music with Newman for the score of the 1961 Marilyn Monroe-Yves Montand musical, "Let's Make Love."
While working for the studio, he teamed up with a former Fox arranger Herbert W. Spencer, and cut albums of light instrumental music--professional but forgettable--as the Spencer-Hagen Orchestra.
If anyone does recognize Hagen's name, it's because it appeared for over eight years in primetime--and decades thereafter--in the opening credits for "The Andy Griffith Show", for which Hagen wrote the theme. As Hagen later recalled, he struggled to come up with a suitable sound for what may be the most laid-back sitcom in television history. "[I]t finally occurred to me that it should be something simple, something you could whistle. With that in mind, it took me about an hour to write." That night, Hagen recorded a demo of the theme, doing the whistling himself as his son snapped his fingers alongside.
During the 30-plus years he worked in television, Hagen could probably compete with James Brown for the title of "Hardest Working Man in Show Business". He often worked on five or six different series simultaneously, racking up sixteen hour workdays. He provided the theme and most of the soundtrack work on the Bill Cosby/Robert Culp series, "I Spy", for which won an Emmy in 1968. Other Hagen TV themes include "The Mod Squad," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Gomer Pyle, USMC," and "That Girl."
Although he scored a few movies, including "Man on a Tightrope" and "The New Interns," Hagen's greatest influence has been as an educator and mentor to other arrangers. He has written two well-respected texts, "Scoring for Films" (1971) and "Advanced Techniques for Film Scoring" (1990). Among Hagen's later work is the theme and many of the scores for the offbeat Norman Lear soap opera/comedy, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
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