I’ve always enjoyed the sounds composer Bill Conti has provided to films, television and even advertising. He’s one of the most prolific composers Hollywood’s ever known and has managed to create some of the best-known music ever heard. What I like specifically about Bill Conti’s music is the signature orchestral style he’s fashioned. You can hear it as far back as “Gonna Fly Now” from the 1976 film Rocky and in everything he’s ever done since.
Not only does Conti score with an ear to the drama and emotion of a particular setting, he is able to combine a strong sense of jazz with an uncanny ear for popular music. Very few composers have ever done that successfully. And his instrumental combinations are always as imaginative as they are perfectly well-suited to the emotion of what his music attempts to achieve. And what he does with horns is simply magical.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island on April 13, 1942, Conti began studying piano at age seven under the tutelage of his father, an accomplished pianist, sculptor and painter. At the age of 15, he organized a band and began to play for high school dances in Miami, Florida. Conti received a bassoon scholarship from Louisiana State University where he majored in composition and played jazz piano at many of the local night spots to help defray the costs of his education.
After Conti received his Bachelor of Music degree from LSU, he auditioned and was accepted at the Juilliard School of Music in New York where he studied with such musical greats as Hugo Weisgall, Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions, Luciano Berio, and Jorge Mester. In 1965 Conti won the Marion Feschl Prize for having composed the best song of the year. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from Juilliard, followed by a Master's Degree.
Bill Conti went on to compose memorable scores for dozens of hit films including Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films - including Rocky Balboa (2006), the original Rocky (1976) and four of the five sequels - all four of the original The Karate Kid films (1984-94), The Scout (1994), 8 Seconds (1994), Lean on Me (1989), Betrayed (1988), Broadcast News (1987), Baby Boom (1987), F/X (1986), The Right Stuff (1983), Private Benjamin (1980) and the original Gloria (1980).
His TV work includes themes to Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Prime Time Live, Nightline, ABC Sports, Inside Edition and, of course, American Gladiators.
What follows are some of the albums featuring Bill Conti’s music that were mostly made available after the success of Rocky, when record companies clamored to put out anything by Bill Conti. Not many of these were huge hits. But even though Conti scored a huge hit with 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only,” Conti’s soundtrack releases got fewer and far between – often sacrificed to song collections that may have featured one or none of Bill Conti’s actual music for a film.
It should be said, too, that in the last decade or so, several film-music labels have taken up the mantle of issuing Bill Conti’s soundtracks. Labels such as Varese Sarabande and Intrada have come to the fore to make much of Bill Conti’s music available. Sadly, many of these extremely limited-quantity releases are already out of print, very hard to come by and ridiculously expensive to acquire on eBay and other collector sites.
Harry & Tonto (Casablanca, 1974): Alternating bits of dialogue with Bill Conti’s melancholy piano-based score, the Harry & Tonto soundtrack is as sensitive and touching as the film it accompanies. It’s reasonable to assume that Conti himself is manning the piano, which throughout gives the sense of recalling the good ‘ol days without ever getting sappy or unnecessarily sentimental. Things turn in that direction with brief snippets of good ‘ol tunes like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Roaming in the Gloaming,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.” Harry & Tonto is due for rediscovery. Highlights: “Harry & Tonto,” the easy “Annie’s Song,” the gentle “The First Time” and the lovely yet brief “Fugue for Tomorrow.”
Rocky (United Artists, 1976): Musically, Bill Conti’s breakthrough score is everything an underdog story needs, brimming with passion, determination, courage, love and heroism. The memorable hit “Gonna Fly Now,” originally scored for Rocky Balboa’s training sequence and which boasts a surprisingly clunky disco beat, has come to stand as the iconic anthem for all sports achievements – from the high school level to even professional gaming, still nearly half a century later. While “Gonna Fly Now” is a perennial the one highlight here is the beautiful jazz exotica of “Reflections” (which is also featured - as is! - on the 1982 Rocky III soundtrack). Another nice, though less significant, piece is “Butkus,” a decent orchestral disco version of the main theme.
An Unmarried Woman (20th Century Fox, 1978):Bill Conti had already scored director Paul Mazursky’s films Blume In Love (1973), Harry & Tonto (1974) and Next Stop, Greenwich Village before Rocky made him famous. Mazursky tapped Conti’s talents one last time for his 1978 feature An Unmarried Woman, a curious mélange of Broadway-styled sentimentality of the sort similar to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” (also 1978) and an anachronistically blazing jazz saxophone. The highlight here is surely “Packing Up,” featuring the bracing sax of Anthony Ortega, who also plays on Conti’s Uncle Joe Shannon, Gloria and I, The Jury and, to a lesser extent, the delightful orchestral jazz waltz “Loft Party,” again featuring Ortega and possibly Conti himself on piano.
F.I.S.T. (United Artists, 1978): Bill Conti reunited with Sylvester Stallone on Norman Jewison’s 1978 film F.I.S.T., an account of the rise of a Cleveland warehouse worker who helps form a labor union and rises to great power. Conti’s score is a sweeping orchestral affair that defers to its 1930s timeframe with a “Golden Age” score that could have come right out of any drama of the 1950s. The dazzling “The Big Strike” has a sound that Conti can pretty much claim as his own.
Paradise Alley (MCA, 1978): Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut and Tom Waits’ acting debut, this 1978 film is about three brothers struggling to make it in or out of 1940s Hell’s Kitchen. The soundtrack features two Tom Waits songs, Sylvester Stallone warbling out Bill Conti and Carole Bayer Sager’s maudlin theme “Too Close To Paradise” (twice!) and Sly’s brother, Frank, singing two of his own songs in something of another Frank’s style. Typically, Conti’s score has its moments, most notably during the swing jazz of “Wrestling Montage” (which reminds me of some of Michael Small’s work on Nero Wolfe), a much needed breath of fresh air on an otherwise stifling set of tunes.
Slow Dancing In The Big City (United Artists, 1978): Director John G. Avildsen’s follow-up to Rocky is this 1978 romance starring Paul Sorvino , who falls in love with the “divine ballerina” Anne Ditchburn. Appropriately, Conti’s score provides enough of the classically oriented music to live up to the film’s title, its balletic needs and the improbable romance that ensues. The symphonic “Balletto” stands out while “The Ovation” weaves in shades of Pachabel’s Canon for orchestral melancholy.
Uncle Joe Shannon (United Artists, 1978): After Maynard Ferguson had a huge hit in 1977 with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” the composer invited the mercurial trumpet player to participate in Burt Young’s little-known feature. The actor plays a trumpeter in the film and it is Maynard Ferguson’s stratospheric sound that comes out of his horn. Ferguson, who can be heard on all of the first side of the record (issued on CD by Intrada in 2008) and the disco-y “Uncle Joe,” has said that this was some of the best work he ever did. But Conti gave him a lot of good stuff to work with. The “Goose’s Club” music is the best, though – with the LP even crediting the musicians, Al Aarons on trumpet, Anthony Ortega on tenor sax, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Dan Ferguson on guitar, Chuck Berghoffer on bass and Steve Schaffer on drums – and includes “Hot Nights” (a jazz take on “Disco Inferno”) and the jazzy “The Goose.” Conti’s “Seascape,” “Evening Concert” and the moderately restrained “Fire Tragedy” also provide Maynard Ferguson with his finest moments here.
Five Days From Home (MCA, 1978): George Peppard produced, directed and starred in this sentimental drama about a man who breaks out of prison to be with his injured son. Bill Conti provided a typically above average score to this low-budget potboiler that shares much with the simple genius he provided to another low-budget hopeful, Rocky. Conti’s magnificent main theme here is one of his best and is nothing if not “Conti-esque;” a soaring orchestral piece with great horn charts set out over a smoldering disco groove that takes “Gonna Fly Now” to its logical musical conclusion. Perhaps few people know that the lovely “Come with Me Now (Love Theme)” from this soundtrack is now better known as the theme to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The rest of the soundtrack is typically melodic and lyrical, but only the main theme and its variations (“The Bridge”) stand out in any meaningful way. It’s a shame this one isn’t better known.
Rocky II (Liberty, 1979): The Rocky films have never been something that have ever appealed to me. Subsequently I have missed out on most of the music Bill Conti provided to most of this film series, up to and including the most recent entry, Rocky Balboa (2006), which I understand didn’t get too much new Bill Conti music anyway. So I’m probably not the best person to speak on the music for Rocky (the music for the third installment did nothing for me and I haven’t bothered with others thereafter). But Rocky II is an exception. If possible, it outdoes its musical predecessor in spades. Certainly the great and notable “Gonna Fly Now” remains prominent throughout, particularly in a nicely disco-fied version featuring a children’s choir that aids the specific scene this piece was intended for. The sequel’s main theme, “Redemption,” maintains enough of the original theme to be familiar, but surpasses its melancholy melody with the aid of the composer’s own pianistic touches. The true joys here, though, are the long and bracing orchestral suites: “Conquest,” “Vigil” and “Overture.” These transcend any number of emotions and some shades of disco. But the depth of emotional intensity Conti provides to these suites elevate them to the level of concertos. I can’t say that I’m familiar enough with the film to know whether these pieces are fully-developed recordings which ended up as brief cues in the film or, more likely, series of cues strung together to form a sort of filmic concerti. But however it happened, the music is often grand, elegant and certainly among the most worthy of the whole Rocky series. One can certainly hear not only how Bill Conti improves upon his own originals for a sequel – a feat he would repeat in The Karate Kid films – but also provides a neat suggestion of some of the motifs the composer would employ even more effectively in the For Your Eyes Only score several years later. Truly a triumph.
The Formula (Varese Sarabande, 1980): A dark and mysterious orchestral score that perfectly suits John G. Avildsen’s 1980 conspiracy thriller starring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando. Bill Conti offers much of his tremendous talent for the darker shades of the symphonic palette, doing away with the need for the rhythm necessary of his action writing or even the camp heard in his comic writing. This is serious and beautiful stuff and one of Conti’s earliest classics. The ballad “Please Stay” reflects Conti’s highly melodic gifts and introduces the Eastern European cymbalum, an instrument film composers such as John Barry and Lalo Schifrin effectively used in scores that include some sort of war-related Euro intrigue. Thankfully, Conti employs the cymbalum sparingly, using it to frost only several bars of several cues (“Main Title,” “That’s True,” “The Chocolate Shop”). Highlights: the ominous “Main Title” – which reminds me of the Ingram Marshall piece Martin Scorcese chose to open Shutter Island - “Lisa And Barney” and “Please Stay.” Varese Sarabande has just announced a limited run of 1200 copies of The Formula on CD to become available in early October.
For Your Eyes Only (Liberty, 1981): This is the music which first pricked up my ears to the great sounds Bill Conti was capable of providing for a film. John Barry, who’d scored all but three of the prior James Bond films, apparently refused to come back to England to score this film for tax reasons. So he recommended Conti, who provided this score to the twelfth official Bond film, one that replaced the comic (Jaws) and ridiculous space operas (Moonraker) of before with a meaner, leaner, more action-oriented and believable, less farcical secret agent (the producers also wanted Blondie to perform the title song, but their song was declined and the producers had Conti provide his Academy Award nominated pop classic to Sheena Easton, who is the only singer of a Bond song to ever appear in the main titles sequence). For Your Eyes Only, which I assert is among the greatest of all the Bond films, gets one of its finest post-Goldfinger /Thunderball scores here with Conti’s very much of its moment scores. Mistakenly condemned by many for its proliferation of “disco,” Conti’s score is an action-packed classic of scoring magnificence. Every note fits absolutely perfectly into Roger Moore’s John Glen-directed epic adventure. There’s little doubt that almost every note on the album, issued by Liberty in 1981, and the superb CD – with bonus cues, issued by Ryko in 2000 – is necessary for the full effect. While I love every second of this music, highlights include “A Drive In The Country,” “Take Me Home” (which recalls the Harry & Tonto theme a bit), “Melina’s Revenge,” “Gonzales Takes A Drive,” “St. Cyril’s Monastery,” “Runaway” (!), and “Submarine” (even the extras on the CD are worth hearing/having).
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999): I had neither thought of nor heard Bill Conti for many years prior to this fantastic Pierce Brosnan film, directed by John McTiernan. All three previously worked together on McTiernan’s directorial debut, Nomads (1985). McTiernan went on to become a big shot Hollywood director after Predator and Die Hard and Brosnan, of course, went off to become world famous as James Bond (1995-2002). Bill Conti, however, went off into the background, scoring many more small films, TV movies and the annual Academy Awards presentations. He roared back to the top with one of his strongest and most popular scores ever here. “I scored the film with two thoughts,” the composer told Film Score Monthly at the time. “One came from the opening titles. As a wink to the original, Faye Dunaway plays Pierce's psychiatrist. These lyrical title cards are going on during their conversation. There was a flow, and lyricism to them that I heard. That's my job. It's not a miracle or a mystery. I do that, because I know the language of music. Those things affect me musically, and I told John 'Wow, I really like this. As a matter of fact, I heard the whole thing. I'll let you hear it tomorrow morning.' And that's what I did. I went home, and started messing around with pianos, and ended up with five of them. I brought the music to John, and he liked it. I also have a string orchestra and a percussion section to reflect the slick nature of Thomas Crown. He's like a tap dancer, so you hear tap dancers on the percussion tracks. Those two ideas brought me the entire score.” A soundtrack was released on the Pangaea label, featuring four songs which greatly inform the mood of the film, including Sting’s lovely take on Michel Legrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind” (the hit song from the original caper film of 1968 starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway) and “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, and only eight of Conti’s many cues for the film, totaling about 14 and a half minutes. Several “private label” discs of Conti’s score were issued at the time. One that calls itself the “Extended Motion Picture Soundtrack” looks and feels like a bootleg (there’s no label or catalog number) and contains 67 minutes of music. No “Everything (Is Never Quite Enough)” or “Caban La Ka Kratchie” – neither of which have anything to do with Bill Conti – are here, but Sting’s song and Chico O’Farrill’s otherwise unissued “Windmills of Your Mind” are here. A somewhat more official version of Bill Conti’s magnificent score turned up on “Crown Records” a little later on. It’s possible that Conti himself issued this music in limited quantities privately. Here, there is a whopping 80 minutes of music including the tremendous cues “The Break-In,” “Cleaning Service,” “Burning A Renoir in Martinique” and “Pillow Talk” and every little piece of music written for the film (plus an alternate take) except the songs (the uncredited Chico O’Farrill number here is simply called “A Black And White Ball” and Sting and Nina Simone are both here as secret tracks). Again, Conti scores perfectly to the film at hand. While the “Crown Records” issue of this score (pictured above) is the way to hear this fantastic music (much of which is incredibly jazz-inflected) – and it may be all but impossible to find – however one hears any of this music, it is all good. The Thomas Crown Affair represents Bill Conti at his very finest.