Thursday, June 20, 2024

Hoyt Curtin and his Cartoon Songbook

There’s every chance that if you’re of a certain age, you spent as much time listening to Hoyt Curtin songs as you did by The Beatles. Such were the memorable qualities of Curtin’s works that in any other field he’d doubtless be crushed under a pile of Grammys and hailed as a rival to Lennon, McCartney, Lloyd-Webber and Bacharach. As it is, the majority of his master tapes are missing, presumed destroyed and to much of the world, his name is unknown. Regardless, Hoyt Curtin’s work will always live on…because he composed the theme tunes to cartoons.

Curtin was born Hoyt Stoddard Curtin in South East LA in 1922 and remained in California until his death in 2000 at the age of 78. His middle-class upbringing brought him the usual childhood piano lessons and his musical prowess extended to singing, winning a prize at a local talent show aged 12. By the time he left school, he was already the leader of a small jazz band but his musical exploits were interrupted by World War II where he served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.

His national service allowed him to study at university as part of GI support packages, in Curtin’s case at the University of Southern California where he studied for a master’s degree in music. Curtin only had ideals of working in the film industry but then, as now, competition was fierce. There were a couple of early breakthroughs –  he scored ‘For Men Only’ a 1952 college-based mystery directed by and starring Paul Henreid and the following year he composed the music for the notorious B-movie, ‘Mesa of Lost Women’, one of an avalanche of Atomic Age capers but with even less of a budget than most.  It says a lot that part of the score was lifted by Ed Wood for his film, ‘Jail Break’, the same year.

After finding a gig writing the music for ‘Mr Magoo’ shorts, he settled on a career writing music for television commercials. His aptitude for writing catchy jingles meant he became one of the go-to composers for the industry and led to a chance meeting with Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. They were preparing a show for NBC but had run into some trouble in finding a theme tune for a cartoon they were producing called ‘Ruff and Ready’. By chance, they heard Curtin’s jingle for a Schlitz Beer commercial during their NBC show and they liked what they heard. A casual approach to Curtin elicited a theme tune in next to no time. It fit perfectly to Hannah’s lyrics and a collaborative relationship was sealed for the next 30 years.

The process was often as simple as Hanna and Barbera giving Curtin a set of lyrics, an outline of the show and waiting for the magic to happen. The remarkable thing isn’t just the quantity of themes Curtin wrote but the quality and uniqueness of them. ‘Ruff and Ready’ was quickly followed by ‘The Huckleberry Hound Show’, every bit the jolly care-free jingle Curtin was accustomed to writing; lesser characters like ‘Hokey Wolf’ appeared, but were still given fully orchestrated themes and underscores – here, a quacking trumpet clearly saying Hokey’s name musically. And then there were rather more well-known characters.

‘Yogi Bear’; ‘Boss Cat’ (‘Top Cat’ to us, of course); ‘Jonny Quest’; ‘The Flintstones’…and we’re only up to 1964. Jazzy, perfectly formed 20-second songs – songs, mind you, not bashed-out will-this-do scales – all of which encapsulated American living in a nutshell far better than any number of live-action TV shows or films. America was back to enjoying itself; pretending the war never happened and not yet dreaming another lurked around the corner. Happiness meant family; familiar characters and resolved problems; it meant the possibilities held by outer space and that you could stand up to authority and the world would still carry on spinning.

‘The Flintstones’ for various reasons remains Curtin’s most well-known or perhaps his most familiar work. It’s not a cartoon I like and yet I know every word – I think I’ve always known every word. They’re like nursery rhymes – they’ve somehow always existed inside our heads. It wasn’t until the third series of ‘The Flintstones’ that the theme everyone now associates with it was born. Top musicians were used – cartoon themes were serious business:

“My pianist, Jack Cookerly, invented the synthesizer as we know it for ‘Jonny Quest’. It was made of orange crates with a keyboard and thousands of vacuum tubes! A regular jazz band, (of) 4 trumpets, 6 [trom]bones, 5 woodwind doublers, 5-man rhythm section including percussion”; was used to record the music for the ‘Jonny Quest’ cartoon. The ‘Jonny Quest’ session was done “…at RCA in Hollywood. Alvin Stoller or Frankie Capp usually played drums. I always tried to get the same guys where possible. They were the ones who could swing and read like demons.”

Stoller was indeed no slouch, playing on Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings from 1953-1958. Capp was the long-time drummer for the David Rose Orchestra (‘The Stripper’ being their signature tune). Cookerly did indeed make one of the earliest synthesisers, his electronic sounds appearing in many films, from ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ to ‘The Colossus of New York’ and seminal TV series like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’.

‘Wacky Races’; ‘Josie and the Pussycats’; ‘Scooby Doo’ [not the classic theme but still instantly recognisible]; ‘Hong Kong Phooey’; the animated ‘Godzilla’; ‘The Smurfs’; ‘Battle of the Planets’…there are dozens and dozens more, not to mention library themes he composed which have gone un-credited. The themes were bombastic where they needed to be and cutesy where required but they always fit. His judgement was remarkable.

…and yet, little of his work has been given the reverential treatment it deserves, largely as the masters no longer exist. La-La Land released an excellent double disc of ‘Jonny Quest’ though that’s now long out of print and commands eye-watering prices. It’s a similar story with the brilliant Silva Screen double CD release of ‘Battle of the Planets’. Reverential, though still far from complete was Rhino’s ‘Hanna-Barbera’s Pic-A-Nic Basket Of Cartoon Classics’, a mighty four-CD box set. And yes, it’s out of print.

Daz Lawrence

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