Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HAGEN, Earle

(b 9 July 1919, Chicago IL; d 26 May 2008, Rancho Mirage CA) Trombonist, arranger, composer. His father was a plumber; the family moved to Los Angeles when he was a boy. At Hollywood High School he played baritone and trombone, and left home at 16 to travel with big bands. Tommy Dorsey heard him and recommended him to Benny Goodman, then called Hagen to come and play with his band, while Hagen was moonlighting with Isham Jones: union rules had him playing with all three bands when he was still a teenager. A little later, on the road with Ray Noble in 1939, he went to hear the Duke Ellington band on his night off, then went back to his hotel room and wrote 'Harlem Nocturne', a tune so familiar that it is a shock to find that there were almost no hit recordings of it, though it was recorded by Noble, used as a theme by Randy Brooks, and recorded over the years by dozens of others. Finally there was a top 20 R&B hit on it in 1960 by the Viscounts, an instrumental group from New Jersey with Harry Haller on tenor sax. The tune was meant to be an homage to Ellington and Johnny Hodges, and is so evocative that it is a retrospective indicator to what would turn out to be Hagen's greatest skill.

Hagen worked as a trombonist and an arranger on radio when in 1942 he joined the United States Army Air Corps (which actually changed 'Corps' to 'Force' that year and became the USAAF). He played in a 65-piece orchestra station in Santa Ana, Califiornia. After WWII he studied composition and arranging with Ernst Toch and then Alfred Newman, dean of Hollywood film composers, and worked for 20th Century Fox until 1952, working on musical films such as Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Then with a partner, Herbert Spencer, he began writing for television, the following year scoring Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, the beginning of a long association with producer Sheldon Leonard. The partners also made albums of light music as the Spencer-Hagen Orchestra, e.g. I Only Have Eyes For You on the 'X' label (an RCA subsidiary). (Herb Spencer [b 7 April 1905, Chile; d 18 September 1992, Culver City CA] went on to orchestrate the music for nearly 150 movies, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones blockbusters.) 

Hagen had a knack for writing theme songs for TV shows, so that anyone growing up watching TV in the USA has heard his music: he could watch the show, imagine what it needed, and composr theme music that immediately became inseparable from it. Decades after writing 'Harlem Nocturne', he used it as the theme for Mike Hammer, a detective show starring Stacy Keach. He scored dozens of television shows from 1953 to 1986, including The Dick Van Dyke Show (the star falling over an ottoman at the beginning of each episode), The Mod Squad, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (with Jim Nabors), That Girl (Marlo Thomas), and many more. He composed the folksy whistling that opened The Andy Griffith Show, as Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) walk down a dirt road toward a fishing hole, and did the whistling himself. (It's said to be written, like so many other tunes, on the changes of 'I Got Rhythm'.) He won an Emmy in 1968 for his music for I Spy. One of his later efforts was The Dukes of Hazzard. He also scored more than a dozen one-off TV movies between 1969 and 1986.

Hagen seems to have used the music of Webern suggestively in the soundtrack of the Andy Griffith program. Check out klangfarbenmayberry.

Years after leaving 20th Century Fox, he had kept his hand in with freelance work, and had his biggest film industry success in 1960, nominated for an Oscar as co-music director (with Newman) on the Marilyn Monroe film Let's Make Love. Hagen also became an informal teacher, more than willing to help out younger writers; a keen golfer, his fee for summertime lessons was a box of golf balls. His books on scoring are often assigned in film schools.