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Rugolo's parents emigrated to the US in 1920 and settled in Santa Rosa, California. He followed his father's example and started in music playing the baritone, but quickly picked up other instruments, including the French horn and piano. He took a bachelor's degree in music at San Francisco State College and then studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland (as did Dave Brubeck after the war). Veteran jazz trombonist and studio musician Milt Bernhart has said that "Pete is without question Milhaud's prime disciple. To call what Rugolo has written 'jazz' would be somewhat off-base. I would call it 'good' and leave it at that.
After graduating, he was hired as an arranger and composer by guitarist and band leader Johnny Richards. Drafted in 1942, he spent most of his time in an Army band at Fort Scott in San Francisco, playing alongside later Brubeck cohort Paul Desmond. He went to work full-time for Kenton after his discharge in 1945, and in the following 4 years, wrote some of Kenton's most famous and innovative arrangements.
In 1949, he was hired by Capitol Records to be its East Coast music director, and had great success as an arranger and A&R man, backing Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, June Christy, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, and others. He also produced serious jazz recordings by Lennie Tristano and others. He came up with the title for the legendary Miles Davis/Gil Evans/Gerry Mulligan recording, "The Birth of the Cool."
Rugolo left Capitol and moved to Hollywood, where he served as a staff composer and arranger for MGM studios and as musical director for Mercury Records. His main focus became scoring for movies and television, but he briefly attempted to lead a touring band as well. Like Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, he was in constant demand by the studios, but like Mancini, he was also able to negotiate a recording contract--with Mercury in his case--that allowed him to release a series of LPs featuring his own arrangements and compositions. In his own recordings, Rugolo was enjoyed experimenting with odd combinations of instruments, as the titles of his Mercury LPs suggest.
Rugolo's TV work ranks up with the best of his era. Among the series he scored for were "The Thin Man," "Richard Diamond," "The Stranger," "The Fugitive," "Run for Your Life," "Lie Detector," "Felony Squad," and "Family." He won an Emmy for his scoring work on the rotating doctor-lawyer-adventurer series, "The Bold Ones." He also wrote scores for the films "Glory Alley," "The Strip," "Easy to Love," Jack the Ripper," "The Sweet Ride," and "Everything I Have is Yours."
By the early 1960s, studio work consumed all of Rugolo's energies, and he stopped recording except for soundtrack albums. He recently came out of semi-retirement to compose and conduct the score for "This World, Then the Fireworks," and otherwise-unsuccessful adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel.
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