An important and prolific arranger/conductor and composer of over 200 film scores, Elmer Bernstein was hailed as a 'musical genius' in the classical field at the age of 12. Despite being a talented actor, dancer and painter, he devoted himself to becoming a concert pianist and toured nationally while still in his teens. His education at New York University was interrupted when he joined the United States Air Force during World War II. Throughout his four-year service stint he composed and conducted music for propaganda programmes, and produced musical therapy projects for operationally fatigued personnel. After the war he attended the Juilliard School of Music and studied composition with the distinguished composer, Roger Sessions.
Bernstein moved to Hollywood and started writing film scores in 1950, debuting the following year with Saturday's Hero. In 1952, he wrote the background music for Sudden Fear, a suspense thriller starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. Agent and producer Ingo Preminger, impressed by Bernstein's music, recommended him to his brother Otto for the latter's 1955 project, The Man With The Golden Arm. A tense, controversial movie, its theme of drug addiction, accompanied by the Bernstein modern jazz score, played by top instrumentalists such as Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers, Pete Candoli and Milt Bernhart, caused distribution problems in some American states. The movie won Oscar nominations for the star, Frank Sinatra, and for Bernstein's powerful, exciting music score. Bernstein made the US Top 20 with his record of the film's 'Main Title', and Billy May entered the UK Top 10 with his version. Guitarist Jet Harris also covered the song, which was a hit in the UK during 1962.
In 1955 Bernstein's name appeared as composer on the long-running television series Gunsmoke. In 1956, he wrote the score for Cecil B. De Mille's epic The Ten Commandments. Thereafter, he provided the background music for an impressive array of movies with varied styles and subjects, including Fear Strikes Out, Sweet Smell Of Success, God's Little Acre, Some Came Running, The Rat Race, Birdman Of Alcatraz, The Great Escape, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, The Shootist, Animal House, Airplane!, An American Werewolf In London, Ghost Busters, ¡Three Amigos!, Amazing Grace And Chuck, My Left Foot, Slipstream, The Field, The Grifters, Oscar, A Rage In Harlem, Rambling Rose, The Babe, Mad Dog And Glory, Lost In Yonkers, Bulletproof, The Rainmaker, Wild Wild West, Bringing Out The Dead, Keeping The Faith, Heavy Metal, The Chosen, Honky Tonk Freeway, The Rising Of The Moon and Devil In A Blue Dress.
In 1991, Bernstein was the musical director and arranger of Bernard Herrman's original score for the 1962 classic, Cape Fear. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on The Magnificent Seven, Summer And Smoke, the title song for Walk On The Wild Side (with a lyric by Mack David), To Kill A Mockingbird (said to be Bernstein's favourite of his own scores), the scores for Return Of The Seven and Hawaii (and a song from Hawaii, 'My Wishing Doll', lyric by Mack David), the title song from True Grit (lyric by Don Black), a song from Gold ('Wherever Love Takes Me', lyric by Don Black), Trading Places, and Far From Heaven. An 81-piece symphony orchestra was contracted to record Bernstein's score for Martin Scorsese's 1993 movie, Age Of Innocence, for which the composer received another Oscar nomination. Bernstein won an Oscar for his original music score for the 20s spoof, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Coincidentally, Bernstein was the musical arranger and conductor at the Academy Awards ceremony when his award was announced, and had to relinquish the baton before going on stage to receive his Oscar.
Bernstein also worked extensively in television: in 1958 he signed for US Revue Productions to provide background music for television dramas. One of his most notable scores was for Staccato (1959) (later retitled Johnny Staccato), a series about a jazz musician turned private eye, starring John Cassavetes. The shows were extremely well received in the UK, where Bernstein's recording of'Staccato's Theme' rose to number 4 in the singles chart in 1959, and re-entered the following year. The composer won Emmy Awards in 1960 and 1963 for the score to The Making Of The President.
Bernstein was a prominent figure in Hollywood, serving as Vice President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences between 1963 and 1969, and President of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America between 1970 and 1979. A founding life member of the Recording Academy, Bernstein also served as president of the Young Musicians Foundation between 1960 and 1970. He died in August 2004 after a long illness leaving a phenomenal body of work that is unlikely to be eclipsed.
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