Saturday, June 16, 2012

Witness to history

When Mitzi Curtis married Raymond Scott in 1967, Scott's best days as a working professional were behind him.

Three decades before, he'd become an overnight radio and recording sensation with his Quintette, spent a year working in Hollywood films, and was a ubiquitous figure on radio with his popular orchestras in the late 1930s and early '40s. He was sought by the press, and journalists found Scott's uncompromising (and often impertinent) opinions worth quoting. He wasn't just a music figure—he was an idea man. A restless one.

In 1942 when he was appointed music director of the CBS radio network, his groundbreaking and controversial cross-racial hiring made headlines. Scott composed the Broadway musical Lute Song in 1946, and for seven years in the 1950s conducted the orchestra on TV's chart countdown program Your Hit Parade (on which his second wife, Dorothy Collins, was a major star). In 1957 he composed a 12-part suite, A Yank in Europe, for British bandleader Ted Heath, whose recording was released on Decca in the UK and the US. Raymond was an ambitious, high-earning celebrity, commanding worldwide recognition and artistic respect.

But by the late 1960s, despite what music fans now acknowledge as his pioneering work in electronic music and instrument design, Scott was no longer in the public eye—or ear. His once-popular recordings were relegated to the nostalgia bin. His royalty stream was diminishing. Instead of appearing on TV and concert stages, he sequestered himself in his studio-cum-laboratory surrounded by circuit boards, soldering irons, and patch bays. No longer employing musicians, his sidemen were machines, many of which he invented, built, and named.

Mitzi married a formerly famous man. With the exception of Scott's hiring by Motown in the early 1970s (an episode that apparently went unnoticed in the media), Scott's professional stature was fading. His physical and mental health were also in decline, along with his finances.

These were eventful, if quixotic years in Scott's evolution as a mad musical scientist. He doggedly developed his Electronium—at first following his own curiosity, then later adapting it at the request of his Motown patron, Berry Gordy. He tinkered with countless gadgets, some musical, some intended as household appliances or fixtures. He attempted to incorporate the latest analog and digital advances, including computers, in his devices. He hired colleagues like Tom Rhea to help mass-market his inventions, including the Clavivox (all without success). While his products failed to gain a commercial foothold, he saw his longtime buddy Robert Moog's name become synonymous with keyboards that revolutionized pop music and the field of electronic instruments.

Photo: Bianca Bob (1993)
Mitzi Scott was witness to this history. She lived with Raymond at Three Willow Park, an expansive industrial facility in Farmingdale, Long Island, that Scott had rented and transformed into a home that doubled as a magic factory. She saw the not-yet-acclaimed Bob Moog exchanging tech-talk with her husband. Immediately after their marriage, there was a frenzy of patent disclosure activity—Scott had a backlog of unpatented inventions, and Mitzi prepared the paperwork and co-signed as "Witness." She was there when Raymond developed the Electronium, and probably heard its spontaneously self-generated compositions fluttering thru the living space every day. She was lady of the house when Gordy arrived in a six-car cavalcade to see Scott demonstrate this highly complex Beethoven-in-a-box. She shared (and in many ways coordinated) Scott's relocation from east coast to west when Scott was named head of Motown's department of Electronic Research & Development in Hollywood. She supported him, worked with him, put up with him, sold her own possessions to pay the couple's bills, and nursed him after his multiple strokes.

Just before her husband's death in 1994, she began to witness the public rediscovery of his legacy. For thirty years Raymond Scott had been a footnote in music history books—if he was mentioned at all. His name was commonly confused with Raymond Chandler and Randolph Scott. He would have been a perfect subject for a "Where Are They Now?" profile—if anyone remembered, or cared. When his music began resurfacing in the 1990s on CDs and in Ren & Stimpy episodes, he was mistakenly credited with composing Looney Tunes scores (actually the work of Carl Stalling). His music regained the spotlight, but Raymond still largely remained in the shadows, except among the cognoscenti. During the 1990s, any journalist's passing mention of Scott required a frame of reference.

But within a decade of his death, music writers and culture mavens were name-dropping Raymond Scott—and explanations were no longer necessary. He became a critical darling, and a musicians' favorite. He was celebrated, revered, studied. His compositions were recorded and reinterpreted, and new bands were devoted to his repertoire. His titles began reappearing in symphonic pops concerts. His works were licensed for major films and new cartoons. His son Stan produced a poignant documentary about his dad.

For the last decade and a half of her life, Mitzi Scott was the widow of a famous man.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece. There's something both heartening and sad about the crossing trajectories of his fame and their marriage.