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Stevens is somewhat unfairly remembered most often as the guy they hired instead of Shorty Rogers to score "The Wild One." In fact, he composed for dozens of movies in the 1950s and 1960s, and he anticipated Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein in his use of jazz in scores as early as "Crashout" and "Private Hell 36" (one of the all-time great film titles).
Raised in Kansas City, Stevens began playing the piano at a very early age, and by 11 was working as an accompanist. At 16, he started conducting local orchestras, and came to the attention of the then-very prominent operatic singer and teacher, Ernestine Schumann-Heink. She hired the young man into her touring ensemble, and he worked for her as an accompanist and vocal coach.
He won a fellowship to attend Julliard in New York City, graduating in 1930. He joined the Chicago Opera Company as a pianist briefly, then returned to New York to work as a vocal arranger for CBS Radio. He moved up to staff conductor with the network in 1933, and remained with it though most of the 1930s. He even won his own 15-minute musical show on CBS radio, and began writing original scores for more ambitious shows, such as the "Columbia Workshop Series."
He was brought to Hollywood in 1939 to compose and conduct for Edward G. Robinson's radio series, "Big Town." His first score, for the RKO film "Syncopation," produced a piece he later worked into "American Rhapsody," which was performed by a number of symphony orchestras. During World War Two, he worked for the Office of War Information as director of their radio programs in the Southwest Pacific theater.
Returning to Hollywood after the war, he helped found the Composers & Lyricists Guild of America and served as its president for eight years. He worked on numerous TV series, from the "Burns and Allen" comedy show in 1950 through to "Lost in Space" and several seasons of "Mission: Impossible." He scored films ranging from "The Gene Krupa Story" to "The Five Pennies" and "A New Kind of Love," all of which featured jazz performers and themes. At the time of his death, Stevens was musical director for Paramount TV.
Stevens' death is a particularly poignant story. His third wife, Elizabeth, was killed in a highway accident in Palm Springs. Stevens was called by the police, and then called the coroner's office for details. He then calmly called several of their closest friends to let them know, and after hanging up, sat down and suffered a massive and fatal heart attack.
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