Sunday, August 19, 2012


The first time I paid any attention to Marvin Hamlisch, nobody was paying much attention to him: he was at the piano when Groucho Marx made a comeback tour that included Carnegie Hall. Hamlisch, a Fenneman with a keyboard, took comical abuse and prompted the aging comedian for songs and anecdotes.

As it's turned out, accompanying Groucho was probably the least of Marvin's accomplishments. There are less than a dozen people who won all four major awards entertainment awards (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and Hamlisch was one of them. Add to that the Golden Globe and Pulitzer Prize.

Marvin (June 2, 1944 – August 6, 2012) was one hell of a prodigy, a Juilliard student at 7. Before he'd even graduated from Queens College he was earning bucks as a Broadway rehearsal pianist (for "Funny Girl" with Barbra Streisand). His first hit song, age 21, was writing "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" and the much better, kind of haunting "California Nights," both for Leslie Gore). Speaking of haunting, his first film score was for the bizarre film "The Swimmer," a kind of overlong "Twilight Zone" episode starring Burt Lancaster (and in a small role, Joan Rivers). This was followed by the antic music for Woody Allen's "Take The Money and Run" and"Bananas."

Hamlisch adapted Scott Joplin's ragtime music for "The Sting," and won many awards for two soupy and romantic ballads, "The Way We Were" and "Nobody Does it Better" (for the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me"). The latter was co-written with his girlfriend at the time, Carole Bayer Sagar, and the two collaborated on the Broadway show "They're Playing Our Song." Marvin had better Broadway success with "A Chorus Line," and later worked on two intriguing failures; a musical about Jean Seberg (called "Jean Seberg") and a song-version of Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl."

Marvin wrote the soundtracks for "Ordinary People" and "Sophie's Choice" and served as a "Pops" conductor for various symphony orchestras. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed one of his few classical compositions, "Anatomy of Peace." In the late 80's and 90's, Marvin still wrote for movies but didn't get much acclaim for such entries as "Little Nikita," "January Man," "Shirley Valentine" and "Three Men and a Baby," or "Switched at Birth," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Seasons of the Heart." He seemed to sense his best years were behind him when he wrote his memoir "The Way I Was" in 1992. After "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996) Marvin didn't work on another film until "The Informant" in 2009. However at the time of his death he was working on several new projects, including a finished score for a Broadway musical based on the Jerry Lewis movie "The Nutty Professor."

Hamlisch's music was mostly "haimish." And although some of his "soft" music is a bit annoying, you must admit it's hard to get "The Way We Were" or "Nobody Does it Better" out of your head after you've heard it piped into your ears at the mall. When he passed on, my thoughts were not about those two songs, but about "The Swimmer." And so, along with a photo he autographed for me above, is a chunk of that soundtrack music below. It's in mono, 'cause that's my radio disc jockey white label copy and for the big AM radio audience at the time, stations often issued their promos in that format.

Marvin's funeral at Congregation Emanu-El in Manhattan drew an array of famous people and fellow composers. In the latter category were Sheldon Harnick and Rupert Holmes. More recognizable to most would've been ex-Yankee manager Joe Torre, Ann-Margret, Robert Klein, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Richard Gere, Diane Sawyer, Liza Minnelli and Mike Nichols. Barack Obama sent a message, and Bill Clinton was there in person. He said of Marvin: "Genius is rare enough, but a good-hearted genius is rarer still." And this man, said Mr. Clinton, was "a good-hearted, humble and hilarious genius"

Swimmer! Marvin Hamlisch THE SWIMMER

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