Lee Erwin

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Lee Erwin was one of the very few musicians fortunate enough to get to single-handedly revive a music genre. Indeed, he was a unique musician in his heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, working with a musical…
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Lee Erwin was one of the very few musicians fortunate enough to get to single-handedly revive a music genre. Indeed, he was a unique musician in his heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, working with a musical form that had died at the end of the 1920s. During the late '60s, when filmmakers were abandoning the conventions of Hollywood from the previous two decades, Erwin emerged as a composer and recording artist specializing in music to accompany silent films and, in a series of performances at silent film screenings and subsequently in several albums for EMI's American classical label Angel Records, established a category of LP releases in which, for many years, he was the sole occupant. Born in Huntsville, AL, in 1908, the main musical influence in Erwin's childhood was his mother, a church organist. He studied the instrument and graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, having played many theaters along the way since high school. As a high school student, he first began accompanying films as a fill-in musician, replacing either of the two full-time performers at a local theater, and as a conservatory student, worked regularly in this capacity. He studied in Paris with virtuoso Andre Marchal and was trained in composition by Nadia Boulanger; he also got to see the composer Olivier Messiaen play at Trinity Church in Paris.

Upon his return to Cincinnati, Erwin secured a job as a radio musician at station WLW, where, in addition to accompanying various dramatic programs, he was the featured musician in a late-night program of pop tunes, often accompanying an actor reading romantic poetry. In 1943, Erwin joined the staff of the CBS radio network in New York and with the advent of television, earned an on-camera spot for a time as "Moneybags Erwin" on one of Arthur Godfrey's programs. Erwin's career at the network lasted into the '60s, by which time radio and television ceased employing full-time musicians. Erwin's activities as an actual recording artists had never been very visible -- he had cut an LP entitled Pipe Organ Favorites for the budget Alshire label. That all changed through an unexpected series of events that began in 1967, when Erwin was commissioned by the American Theater Organ Society to write a score to accompany a showing of Erich Von Stroheim's 1929 silent film Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson. In one fell swoop, this commission returned him to the place where his career began, and he was surprised to discover, 40 years after the silents had been relegated to history, that there was serious demand for his work in this area.

After the Von Stroheim movie, he wrote scores for such silents as The Eagle, My Best Girl, Irene, and a brace of Buster Keaton movies. What made Erwin's music particularly successful is that he didn't seek to emulate the typical accompaniment that the movies would have had in the 1920s, which was heavily based on adaptations of established classical pieces. Rather, he wrote original music of his own, recognizing that the sophistication of audiences in the 1960s and 1970s made the earlier adaptation approach impossible to recreate. Erwin's success and popularity with these compositions, which he played at showings of these movies across the United States, helped turn him into an established recording artist when he was in his '60s. At the outset of the 1970s, Angel Records recorded a series of albums with Erwin in which he presented suites based on these scores, which established a new category of soundtrack and classical music. For decades after, Lee Erwin was the only silent film composer or accompanist who enjoyed a national reputation, or any recognition beyond the core of fans of those period films. Only with the big-budgeted reopenings of movies such as Abel Gance's Napoleon (which utilized a score by the re-release sponsor's father, Carmine Coppola, in the United States and by Carl Davis in Europe), did Erwin find any serious competition, and those composers worked with full orchestra, not the organ, which was his forte. His reputation lasted well into the 1980s, however, and extended to work in movies such as Woody Allen's Radio Days (in which he portrayed a roller-rink organist) and the scoring of films such as Hotel New York in 1984 and the occasional rediscovered silent, such as The Man Without a World. The BBC also later recorded his music for use in theatrical and home video presentations of silent movies.