1908-1994

Memorial Address, 1994

Raymond Scott passed away on February 8, 1994, at a nursing facility in North Hills, CA. On the east coast, a memorial service for Scott was held at the Ethical Culture Society, 2 W. 64th Street, NY, on May 14, 1994. In attendance were Scott family members and friends, and a number of musicians who knew Scott personally. The following address was delivered by Irwin Chusid. Minor edits to syntax and factual corrections were made to the text for this posting.

“What can you say about a man who inspired cartoon melodies and bebop, invented Frank Zappa and electronic music, and still found time to work for Motown?”
– Andy Partridge (of XTC)

Abner Doubleday was a graduate of West Point, and a renowned Civil War general. He took great pride in his accomplishments. But if Doubleday came back to life today, he’d be shocked to discover that his name is associated with the invention of baseball. Doubleday had nothing to do with the founding of the game. He never played it, never set foot in Cooperstown, and never made any claim in connection with the game. He left behind 67 diaries—none of which mentioned baseball.

RS NYT obitIf Raymond Scott could come back to life and read his New York Times obituary headline, he’d be just as shocked: “Raymond Scott, 85, a Composer for Cartoons and the Stage.”

Raymond never wrote a note for a cartoon in his life. He had loftier ambitions; as historian David Ewen wrote in 1944, Scott embodied “a sound intellect searching restlessly for new directions.”

Raymond Scott is the Dead Sea Scrolls of 21st century music. Though forgotten and virtually unknown as recently as 1990, he will be remembered as a pioneer who foreshadowed many subsequent developments in musical art and technology. With the Raymond Scott Quintette he created a legacy of catchy, animated jazz-pop. This music is an ancestral link to Frank Zappa, Leroy Anderson, Louis Jordan, bebop, Spike Jones, Sun Ra, Danny Elfman, art-rock, Don Byron, They Might Be Giants, and countless others. Scott’s approach was international: with echoes of Paris, Turkey, Mexico, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Switzerland, he created a sort of World Music before it had a name. In fact, it could be argued that the composer of “Celebration on the Planet Mars” had an extraterrestrial outlook.

His real name was Harry Warnow, born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 10, 1908, to Russian immigrants Joseph and Sara Warnow. Harry and older brother Mark were musical prodigies whose sonic educations were stimulated by their father’s music shop, which carried records, turntables, sheet music, and instruments. As a teen, Scott was particularly enthralled with the reckless strains of Chicago and New Orleans “hot jazz.”

Scott’s “Quintette” was immensely popular on radio, on the concert stage, and in film. Fusing jazz, pop, classical, opera, and the beat of the jungle, they sold millions of discs, but were not highly regarded by purists, who dismissed their offerings as “screwy, kittenish pseudo-jazz.”

The Trouble With Harry

He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and wanted to be an engineer rather than a musician. His big brother convinced him to attend New York’s Institute for Musical Art (later the Juilliard School). After graduation in 1931, Harry joined the CBS Radio Orchestra as staff pianist under his then-conductor brother.

Shortly after the band started performing Harry’s oddly titled novelties (e.g., “Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs Upon Meeting With A Fare”), the pianist became “Raymond Scott,” a name selected from the Manhattan phone directory because “it had good rhythm.” Scott was obsessed with music to the exclusion of life’s common details, and became legendary for preoccupied behavior. At a drug counter, he once reportedly picked up a roll of mints, broke a lozenge off the roll and handed it to the clerk, then popped the dime in his mouth.

Scott’s eccentric six-piece “Quintette” was staffed with sidemen from the CBS Orchestra: Dave Harris (tenor); Pete Pumiglio (clarinet); Dave Wade (trumpet); Lou Shoobe (bass, replaced briefly by Fred Whiting); and Johnny Williams (drums). The Quintette was immensely popular on radio, on the concert stage, and in film. Fusing jazz, pop, classical, opera, and the beat of the jungle, they sold millions of discs, but were not highly regarded by purists, who dismissed their offerings as “screwy, kittenish pseudo-jazz.” Scott’s objective, he was quoted as saying, was “to write music people would like the first time they heard it.” He later restated this approach by explaining, “Music develops what I call a satellite, or orbital, effect. It keeps going round and round in your mind and heart.”

The Raymond Scott Quintette in the studioScott did not use notated musical charts. He taught each tune to his sidemen by playing their parts on the piano keyboard and expecting them to copy his cues (a technique later used by Brian Wilson and Capt. Beefheart, among others). Along the way, he revolutionized studio recording with inventive microphone placement, and by using sea shells, buckets of water, tabletops, and wire whisks to achieve colorful sonic textures.

To modern ears, the Quintette sounds like classic cartoon fodder. Williams’ .22-caliber rimshots were guaranteed to make Yosemite Sam dance, with an artillery of cowbells, tom-toms and wake-the-neighbors cymbal crashes. Muted horns imitated tobacco auctioneers, howling spooks and taxicab honks. Scott’s idiosyncratic, three-minute masterpieces careened along like the Roadrunner, detoured by hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts and over-the-cliff dynamic spirals; his clever melodies evoked Turkish casbahs, alpine echoes, typewriters and Martians. US journalist Jennifer Harper described it as “music for mice that get hit in the head with an ironing board.” It certainly clobbered Warner Bros. Music Director Carl Stalling in a creative zone. Fourteen different Scott titles—especially the ubiquitous “Powerhouse”—found their way into about 120 cartoon scores; these works included “The Penguin,” “Twilight in Turkey,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Huckleberry Duck,” “The Toy Trumpet,” “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” and “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner.” Scott themes thus became genetically encoded in the world’s subconscious.

In 1942, Scott was named musical director of the CBS Radio Orchestra—for which he broke the existing color barrier by recruiting the first interracial network radio orchestra, including Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, and others. Dizzy Gillespie auditioned, but was reportedly rejected for his “sloppy” playing.

The Quintette’s lifespan was about two years. They were phenomenally successful on radio, on the concert stage, and in Hollywood, where they performed in several 20th Century-Fox productions. Most notably, Scott’s “The Toy Trumpet” accompanied Shirley Temple’s and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s tap-dance finale in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. After he disbanded the Quintette in 1939, he led a fairly unremarkable (though popular) swing band.

In 1942, Scott was named musical director of the CBS Radio Orchestra—for which he broke the existing color barrier by recruiting the first interracial network radio orchestra, including Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, and others. (One musician he did not hire was Dizzy Gillespie, who auditioned, but was reportedly rejected for his “sloppy” playing.)

His orchestras backed Sinatra and Perry Como on radio, and featured the singing of Nan Wynn and later-wife Dorothy Collins. Scott seems to have submerged his musical edge from 1940 to 1947, and a lot of his work during this period is on the sweet side, the recordings having little value beyond Swing Era nostalgia and the historic performances of his stellar sidemen.

However, in many ways Scott remained stubbornly iconoclastic. He wrote a tune called “Copyright 1950″—in 1940. He earned a reputation as a bandstand bully who forced his sidemen to rehearse endlessly until their fingers ached and their lips grew numb. Scott composed a piece called “Silent Music,” which required his band to go through the motions of playing without issuing a single note—a decade before John Cage caused an uproar with a similarly noteless work called 4’33”.

In 1946, he collaborated with lyricist Bernard Hanighen on a Broadway musical, Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin and Yul Brynner.

And Then There Were Five — Or Six

Raymond Scott Quintette, 1948 (not pictured: drummer Kenny Johns)Around 1948, Scott returned to a six-piece format, plunging off the deep end again with an all-new “quintet” for whom he composed modernistic excursions into dissonance and polyrhythm. Several of these rarely-heard small band compositions include “Ectoplasm,” “Snake Woman,” “A Street Corner in Paris,” “Bird Life in the Bronx,” and “Dedicatory Piece to the Crew and Passengers of the First Experimental Rocket Express to the Moon.” Ever the control-freak, Scott formed his own record labels (Master and Audivox) and told reporters that he would require a personal interview with each potential customer “to assess their ability to appreciate the Scott sound.”

In 1949, following the untimely death of his bandleader brother, Raymond took over as conductor on the CBS radio show, Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade. The following year, the program jumped to NBC-TV, where Scott swung a baton until the show’s demise in 1957. He also kept busy composing commercial jingles for cigarettes, automobiles, hair spray and beer.

He allegedly disliked Your Hit Parade, which was a high-profile, well-paying, but musically insipid rent gig. It did, however, accord him the financial freedom to pursue a second, less-publicized career—electronic composition and music technology development. Millions who knew Scott’s music through records, radio, TV, films, and concerts through the 1940s and ’50s had no idea that Scott led a double life as an inventor and electronic music pioneer. He’s one of the granddaddies of industrial cybernoise.

A preoccupation with music machines evolved from young Harry’s days spent tinkering around dad’s shop. He was waylaid from engineering school by his older brother, who steered him to Juilliard and “bribed” him with a Steinway grand. As Down Beat magazine pointed out in a June 1937 feature, “[Scott] was fascinated from the beginning with the difference between actual musical sounds in a room—and musical sounds over the microphone. It seemed to him that by using the microphone in different ways, you could create absolutely new sounds.” Scott called his approach “creative acoustics.” For the original Quintette (and subsequent) recordings, he would position himself in the control booth during rehearsals to monitor sounds missed by the naked ear.

He allegedly disliked Your Hit Parade, which was a high-profile, well-paying, but musically insipid rent gig. However, it accorded him the financial freedom to pursue a second career—electronic composition and music technology development.

Around 1948, Scott invented a $100,000 gadget he dubbed “Karloff,” which could imitate the wheeze of a chest cough, the sizzle of frying steak, kitchen clatter and jungle drums. By 1949, he had built his first synthesizer—a machine that could simulate conventional instruments by electronic means.

In 1957, he introduced the Clavivox, a keyboard that imitated the difficult-to-play theremin (an instrument that emits a ghostly wail, like a high-pitched human voice; it’s a staple in horror films). The Clavivox was far more versatile, capable of many effects not possible on a theremin. Its design included an electronic sub-assembly devised by a young Columbia University student named Robert Moog (later regarded as the father of pop music synthesizers). Another Scott invention was the scanning radio. Curious about popular new music but too busy to get up and switch stations, Scott devised a radio which changed frequencies by itself at pre-set intervals (a standard feature on modern car radios, tough Scott held no patent).

Around 1960, he reportedly built the world’s first pitch sequencer. Herb Deutsch, a musician and Scott colleague, described what he saw when he first visited Raymond’s studio in 1965:  “Standing six-feet high and covering 30 feet of wall space, the sequencer consisted of hundreds of switches controlling stepping relays, timing solenoids and tone circuits. … If you walked behind the wall during the operation of the sequencer, the music produced would be all but drowned out by the cacophonous klickety-klack of the relays as they switched positions.”

Moog recalled that Scott rigged his sequencer with telephone switching equipment (hence, the “klickety-klack”). Though he wasn’t sure what year Raymond began exploring sequencers, Moog acknowledged, “Scott was definitely in the forefront of developing the technology and in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician.” Three albums Scott released on Epic in 1963, Soothing Sounds for Baby, featured simple, repetitive sequencer-generated rhythms and melodies—kind of like Kraftwerk for Kiddies (ten years before that seminal trance-band’s first album).

The Secret Savant

Sadly, Scott’s influence on the development of electronic music was limited by his hermitlike habits. He refused to publish his findings, belonged to no academic community, demonstrated his inventions only to a few trusted colleagues, and made little effort to market his creations. Scott himself once conceded, “During those early ’60’s I was secretive about my development activities—perhaps neurotically so.” Moog confirmed Scott’s isolation: “Because of his paranoia, any influence he had on other musical instrument designers resulted from information that leaked out. Publishing was the last thing he would have done.”

Nevertheless, Scott stayed busy in the lab, developing the rhythm synthesizer in 1960; the serial doorbell, 1966; a synthesized Chinese gong, 1968; the bass line generator, 1971; and the melody maker and rhythm guitar simulator, both in 1972. Mitzi claims that Raymond invented a prototype for a fax machine around 1967.
The Clavivox was selected as a great gift idea in a 1970 issue of Playboy.Scott tried marketing the Clavivox in 1970, but without success. Tom Rhea, a colleague who undertook the marketing, later conceded that the Clavivox design was too complex to easily replicate.
Scott’s most ambitious project was the Electronium—an “instantaneous composition/performance machine.” With this elaborately wired console (completed by 1970), Scott could create original music through the random generation of sequenced tones, rhythms, and timbres. His notes explain: “The Electronium is not a synthesizer—there is no keyboard [it was manipulated with knobs and switches]—and it cannot be used for the performance of existing music. The instrument is designed solely for the simultaneous and instantaneous composition-performance of musical works.” It was Beethoven-in-a-Box.

One person who took keen interest in the Electronium was Motown Records impresario Berry Gordy, who employed Scott as Director of Research and Development in Los Angeles from 1972 to 1977. What Gordy expected from Scott’s prodigal console—and what it delivered—is anybody’s guess. Gordy has offered no public comment. By the time journalists finally began to take an interest, Scott—debilitated by a series of strokes beginning in 1987—could no longer communicate verbally.

Though Scott could not speak in his final years, his music continues to do so. His melodies are familiar to every Earthling—having been immortalized by the Warner cartoons. Their appeal is global; in a world of disagreement and conflict, Raymond Scott’s music is a unifying force. It’s a healthy musical virus—people catch it and want to pass it along to someone else. It’s hard to keep secret.

These days, Raymond Scott’s playful, oh-so-familiar melodies are cropping up in modern animation, in TV and film soundtracks, on the club and concert stage—even in video games. Hopefully this time, when people get that sense of musical déjà vu, they’ll know the composer’s name.

[A recording was played following the address]

“Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies” by the Raymond Scott Quintette, ca. 1939

A demo recording of this remarkable—but previously unheard—composition was discovered in summer 1993 on a mildewed acetate stored in Raymond’s guest house. The label was blank—no date, no session data, and no title! It was obviously by the original ’37–’39 Quintette, and it might be the only extant recording of this wonderful melodic cycle. One passage was edited into “The Quintet Goes to a Dance,” a tune which was never commercially recorded but was discovered on a radio transcription disc from the period. The title “Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies” appeared in several early articles about Scott’s odd tunesmithery, but no recording ever surfaced. The mystery was solved when I discovered an acetate with the “…Egyptian Mummies” title among the collection, and upon listening, found that it was an early title for the finished work “Egyptian Barn Dance.” This left us with a great, unused Raymond Scott title. I thought of using it to christen the newly-discovered, untitled composition for copyright purposes, and Mrs. Scott gave her approval. Listen here:

Join our mailing list

Top