Ronald Stein was never a major name in the fraternity of soundtrack composers in the manner of Bernard Herrmann or Alfred Newman; indeed, Stein spent most of his career writing scores for movies whose entire budgets were scarcely larger than the money allocated just for music on most of the films that Herrmann or Newman worked on. He was a highly inventive composer and conductor, working within the confines of the absurdly low budgets that he was assigned and also managed to carve out a special niche for himself in B-movies, particularly exploitation films, science-fiction thrillers, and horror movies, through his long relationship with American International Pictures and, to a lesser degree, Allied Artists. Anyone who's ever seen Roger Corman's Not of This Earth or Attack of the Crab Monsters, or Nathan Juran's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman likely remembers Stein's music as clearly as they do any of the visual attributes of those pictures.
Born in St. Louis on April 12, 1930, Stein first took up music as a boy, learning the piano from his mother, Cecilia, who had been a theater pianist, accompanying silent movies. Cecilia Stein taught her son not only music, but a keen appreciation of motion pictures, and he was lucky enough to grow up just as film music was reaching its "Golden Age," the era of Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Stein was privately educated at the Leo C. Miller studios from age eight until he was 17 and attended Washington University in St. Louis. As an undergraduate, he wrote entertainments and composed music for his classmates and also worked as a rehearsal pianist and later as an assistant conductor at the city Municipal Opera Theatre. It was his intention to study at Yale, but he was drafted shortly after entering the university and he spent the next year in uniform, writing and conducting military shows.
Stein wanted to write scores for movies, but he was rejected by every studio that he wrote to and advised not even to come to Hollywood. Luckily, he didn't take the advice and he was fortunate enough in the summer of 1955 to cross paths with director/producer Roger Corman, who was making low-budget movies and needed someone to write scores for them. Stein proved that he could work quickly as a composer and as a conductor and delivered his first film score, for Apache Woman, in September of that year. The film, released through American International Pictures, wasn't a roaring success -- the economics of B-movie distribution precluded any producer making really big money from his work, at least on the first release -- but it was entertaining and well-received. Stein was signed to a five-year contract that immediately immersed him in the world of B-movie production and subject matter and he continued in that capacity as an independent artist during the early and mid-'60s. Over the next decade, he wrote the music to accompany every imaginable low-budget sci-fi idea, in films such as The Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and Attack of the Crab Monsters, horror films including The Undead, The She Creature, and The Haunted Palace, and teen exploitation titles like Hot Rod Gang, Runaway Daughter, and Reform School Hellcats. Mixed in between these were a few more mainstream subjects such as the western The Legend of Tom Dooley and Peter Bogdanovich's stunning debut film, Targets. In all, he wrote more than 140 film scores between 1955 and 1970, and if not everything he composed was memorable, or the films were less than that, they were stronger for having his music.
One might laugh, for example, at the ghost-like quality of the alien giant in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and at some of the acting, but Stein's music makes the picture seem bigger and more serious than anything on the screen would lead you to believe the movie was. His music for Attack of the Crab Monsters, Not of This Earth, and The Terror is no less impressive, and, indeed, helped patch innumerable technical and dramatic holes in these pictures. What's more, his scores often held up as music in their own right -- not that anyone performed them in concert suites, but it was possible to pick up enough depth and care in his writing and conducting to recognize that this was more than mere incidental music.
His reputation from the mid-'60s on as a talented and affordable film music specialist allowed Stein to move up to a better class of film and filmmaker and his last scores included the Francis Ford Coppola vehicle The Rain People and Richard Rush's Getting Straight, both high-profile A-pictures in their time. For five years, from 1973 to 1978, Stein was employed by Paragon films as a post-production supervisor and he was also involved with television production. He spent most of the last decade of his life as a professor of music at the University of Colorado (Denver), before returning to the film industry in the middle of 1980s. He died in 1988 of pancreatic cancer. In 1995, Varese Sarabande Records honored Stein's memory and work with the release of Not of This Earth, a close look at the unmixed, unedited original tracks of seven of the horror and science fiction films that Stein scored.