Composer Charles Fox wrote the music for TV shows like “The Love Boat,” “Happy Days,” and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

“The Love Boat.” “Happy Days.” ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” 

I’m willing to bet the theme music for each of those television programs just popped into your head. Music in television shows and movies has a way of burrowing itself into our heads, taking us back to a specific time and place. But the same cannot be said about the creators of said music. 

You may have never heard the name Charles Fox before, but you’ve heard his music. In addition to everything listed above, Fox wrote the music for “Monday Night Football,” the television show “Love, American Style,” movies like “Barbarella” and “9 to 5,” operas, ballets, and everything else under the sun – including the Grammy-winning hit, “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

A new documentary from Danny Gold, “Killing Me Softly With His Songs,” is playing at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and offers an inside look at the prolific composer’s career. Fox talks openly about his life and music, particularly his relationship with his mentor, Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger taught a number of the 20th century’s most important musicians, including Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones. Boulanger taught Fox at Fontainebleau, France as a teenager, and then later gave him private lessons in Paris. 

“She was just a completely dedicated woman who taught some of the great composers of the century,” Fox said recently in an interview with Rough Draft Atlanta.

Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Fox in anticipation of the film, which will play two screenings on Feb. 21 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You spend a lot of time in this documentary talking about your relationship with Nadia Boulanger and her impact on you. How do you think a good mentor/mentee relationship affects a composer, and what are some of the most important things she taught you? 

Charles Fox: Well, that’s a wonderful way to start. Nadia Boulanger has been a very important part of my life, to this day. I was 18 years old when I went to Paris. I had taken piano lessons from the time I was eight or nine. I studied composition in high school. I went to a high school called The High School of Music & Art, and so I was really well grounded in all sorts of music subjects. 

I specifically was interested in composition, orchestration, arranging, harmony, and all that. I went for the summer to Fontainebleau. France, in the palace. It changed my life, to be honest with you. [Boulanger] was such a dynamic, loving, extraordinary musician, and she took me under her wing. I only went over the summer, but she said, “No, please come to Paris with me.” So I ended up being in Paris with her for two years. 

It was a very rigorous learning period for me. I was always interested in classical music, and opera and ballet. But I was also interested in jazz, and Latin music and all that. She was, of course, strictly classical music. But through her, I absorbed things about music that were extraordinary. For her, the essence of music and teaching was to bring out in each student who they were, what they were. She wasn’t interested in molding you into something that she wanted you to be. She wanted to mold you in terms of learning the rudiments of music, harmony, counterpoint, development of music, you know? I absorbed all that, and all that training led me to feel very comfortable and work in many different forms of music, from say, rock and roll, to latin, to jazz, and all that. There are certain elements of music that are consistent. Music is harmony, melody, counterpoint, orchestration, rhythm. 

I can’t speak highly enough of how important it is if someone is fortunate enough, as I was, to be able to work with an extraordinary person in that field. You asked me about mentorship, the same could be true in art, you know? It could be true in literature, to have the right teacher who shows you that there’s something deeper underneath the skin to look for. In her case, it was the truth. Literally, the word truth. She was always interested in what became so firm in your language of what you’re writing that it wasn’t just nice, it wasn’t just good – it became the truth, in sort of a deeper sense. That all stays with me to this day. 

In the documentary, you mention something she told you that has stuck with you: “Play it your way or play it my way. Don’t compromise.” Why do you think that particular insight has stuck with you for all these years? 

Fox: Because in our lives, especially when we are taking what is our art form and we’re trying to make commercial sense of it too … you’re constantly being asked to compromise with what you really want to do. 

That doesn’t mean that you have to do it my way or the highway. It just means that you have to learn to adapt to whatever it is. You could be standing in front of an orchestra, and for some reason something doesn’t work. You have to know how to make it work. That’s not compromise, that’s just dealing with an orchestra within a particular set of notes with an instrument that may be difficult to play. 

I think what it does – the word compromise, and don’t compromise – reaches to a deeper sense of what you’re doing. Underneath the skin, we all have a love and a desire to make the best of what we do, in my case music, composition. So not giving into compromise is not to give into some outer influence that you may not control. On the other hand, if you write out of a musical range for a flute, you’re not going to get the notes. [Laughs] You have to know what the notes are. 

Charles Fox (left) with Jason Alexander (center) and Rita Wilson (right) in “KIlling Me Softly With His Songs.”

The question of compromise is interesting when it comes to partnerships with other musicians or writers. You had a long and successful partnership with Norman Gimbel. How do you work towards maintaining a working relationship with someone for so long? 

Fox: Trust. Trust in each other’s work, to put it into a single word. A good collaboration is made of trust. I’ve had many collaborators. Norman and I wrote songs for 30, 35 years. Norman was brilliant, he was brilliant, and his words were fantastic. In our case, mostly, he gave me the words first. 

I was going to ask about that. Is there a certain way you like to operate, as far as if music or lyrics come first?

Fox: That’s how we did it. Sammy Cahn had a wonderful line about that, and I worked with Sammy Cahn too. Sammy Cahn’s line was, “People always ask, what came first, the music or the words?” And he said, “The phone call.” [Laughs] And that’s true of most of my work. Most of my work was to do a film, to do a show. 

[Norman] gave me the words mostly, maybe a start of a song, maybe a title, and then I would come back and I’d add to it, and sometimes extend his words. Sometimes, he would say I’m driving him crazy because he had it just perfect, and I would go ahead and double up to the line, maybe triple up to the line, because I needed that musically to make it better. And he would say, “Now I’ve got to think of new things!” But he always came up with it. The man worked both ways. 

It comes down to first of all appreciating each other’s work, and trusting that you’re dealing with someone who has his own deep sensitivity to what it is. Now of course, I work with different people. I worked with Paul Williams, I would give him melodies. That’s true with the Bergmans, I worked with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, I wrote the melody first. Truth be told, I prefer working to the words. 

Why is that?

Fox: I know exactly why, because I look at the words of a song and I hear melodies. 

Most of the things that I’ve done I’ve been for characters, either in shows, in a stage show, where each one has a personality, and there’s a meaning for the song. There’s a reason, a raison d’etre, for the song.  Or just for a singer, who has a certain range or sings a certain kind of song. So I’ve usually written, in my case, many television theme songs. So there’s always a reason for it, it’s not just writing a nice song. 

The notes never stop for me. I always hear the music. Is it good enough? That I have to arrive at. I learned to trust my instincts to know what I have is just right for me. Sometimes it can be the first song I do, sometimes I can work on a song for a week or two until I’ve shaped it up. I know for me, if I sit and play and sing a song I’ve written, if it’s not right I’m so bored by the end of the song. I can’t wait for the song to be over. And when I have it right, I feel like singing it again. 

You’re working on a couple of new projects, like a new ballet, and in the documentary you also mentioned that you’re working on a new musical. You’ve had such a long career with such a plethora of output. I wonder if you ever feel yourself running out of steam or feeling burnt out, and if so how do you push forward? 

Fox: Well, it hasn’t happened yet. It just hasn’t. You get writer’s block and things like that – I hear about it [laughs]. My enthusiasm hasn’t waned. 

It’s what I do. Sometimes people say it’s what I am. No, what I am is a member of my family, my wife of 60 years and my children, we’re all very close. And my friends, who are part of my family. But what I do is music. So no, fortunately I haven’t gotten burnt out. I still have a lot of projects.

My new project is a musical that I’m working on with Alain Boublil, who you also saw in the film. Alain wrote “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” So we have a new show, called “Ain’t That Jazz.”  It’s a wonderful premise for the show, and it’s about life, and jazz, and death, and romance, and Paris, and New York! It’s about a lot of things that are kind of combined for a very interesting, new story. We’ve been working for quite a while. We just finished, and we’re going to the studio now to make demos of the songs.

You’ve composed for so many different mediums and genres – television shows, ballets, classical music, rock. How does composing for each compare, and are there different ways that you approach them?

Fox: In a sense, they’re the same. Because in a sense, I come into my studio every morning, and I go to my piano over there or my keyboard back there, filled with what I have to do or what’s on my mind. You know, the process of writing music is the same thing, whether it’s a ballet or a theme song for a new television show. I have to live with the character. 

When I did my first ballet, “A Song For Dead Warriors,” it was about Native Americans. [Michael] Smuin and I did a lot of research. We actually spent a weekend with the Flathead Indians of Missoula, Montana. I read books on the subject, I listened to a lot of [American] Indian music, I went to films dealing with Native American subjects. At the point that I thought that I was familiar enough with what I was dealing with, I put that all aside and I went to write my own music … I just let the influences of what I knew seep into my work. And it came out how it came out. I think it’s the same process when I see a “Happy Days” show. I see the characters on the screen, and what they are, and their relationships, and I find the music to work with. There’s always a motive for it, and I’ve done a lot of different kinds of projects. 

I live with the film. Usually, I would see a film five, six, seven, eight times. I break it down in my mind, where the music is – where I think I can help, what would be the purpose of the music. Music for me becomes a character in the film. It’s not just the background. There’s an old adage that was, a good score – if the picture’s great, you didn’t notice the music. I don’t feel that. I feel that the music is a character, very much present. 

A lot of the documentary centers around your love for Latin music, and salsa music. What is it about that genre in particular that draws you in?

Fox: I know exactly what it is. It hit me when I was quite young. It’s joyous music. It’s simple music, even though it may sound intricate, with overly complex rhythms, it’s not. The complexity is because we get all these people doing things together, who come together and produce one sound that’s joyous. It’s rhythmic, it’s dynamic, it’s percussive, and on top of that, the music is fun. 

“Killing Me Softly With His Songs” will play twice at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be bought online

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.