Digging up the lost scores of golden era of musicals

John Wilson
John Wilson
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John Wilson is bringing his recreations of some of Hollywood’s biggest musical numbers to Yorkshire. Kane Fulton talks to the composer

When world renowned conductor, arranger and film music expert John Wilson called Warner Bros to ask for the scores to the MGM film catalogue for a forthcoming concert, the last thing he expected to be told was that they were buried under a golf course.

In 1969 the scores were sent to a landfill, which was then covered over by a golf course. The scores now lie somewhere underneath the car park built for the course.

The scores to every MGM film musical since the late ‘20s and early ‘30s – including High Society, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis and An American in Paris – were lost. Where most composers would have turned to another project, John saw a challenge, and embarked on the Herculean challenge of reconstructing the scores note-by-note.

Using only a few surviving piano parts sent by copyright holders Warner Bros as a guide, he sat down to rewrite the scores simply using those piano guides and his own finely-tuned ear. It was the musical equivalent of single-handedly restoring the interior of the Sistine Chapel.

“When you’re given the parts, you’re lucky if all the pages are there – something like 85 per cent of them were missing from Easter Parade,” he says.

“When recording, instead of using full scores, which were cumbersome, difficult to read and made a noise every four bars due to having to turn the page, early studios used a simplified score. These are what I was given to use as a basis, filling in the rest from listening to the original film soundtracks and comparing the notes that I had written down over and over again. It was an almighty task.”

A labour of love, John remembers being enchanted as a child watching MGM double bills on Saturday afternoons on BBC2.

“I remember being caught by the sound of the films and I was always into the music,” says John. “I just liked the noise they made, but I wasn’t sure why when I was so young because I didn’t know anything about music.

“It wasn’t until years later that I discovered songwriters and fantastic arrangers. From George Gershwin to Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, it was hearing those songs in that fantastic era that caught my interest.” Despite the fact that John was effectively creating the only existing copies of the scores to exist in the world, he was never tempted to tamper with them. Comparing the scores to Shakespeare plays, he likens the musical notes to words – you can’t change them, he says, but you can deliver them in your own interpretation depending on how you feel at the time.

Audiences will be able to witness the end results of John’s achievement when he goes on a 10-date tour, backed by the John Wilson Orchestra which he formed in 1994.

“My orchestra is a specialist one used to playing in this style – they are fabulous and could play without me,” he says. “But my job is to inject a bit of fizz into the proceedings – a bit of style and glamour. I like to get them playing and really give it their all – that’s what I’m after. I’m blessed that I have these fabulous players who want to do that.”

Fourteen of the songs set to be played were recorded in Studio 2 (chosen especially for its drier, film studio acoustic) at the famous Abbey Road studios and released in the form of an album called That’s Entertainment: A Celebration Of The MGM Film Musical.

Having decades of classic Hollywood musicals to choose from left John spoilt for choice when deciding on a track list, resulting in what he calls a “fat free” selection. “They’re all my favourites,” he said. “We could’ve made six albums, to be honest.” John took his sounds of Hollywood glamour to the Proms in 2009 and found the genre is increasingly finding its way to younger audiences.

“I was expecting to see a sea of white hair but far from it. You have the people who have grown up with the musicals of the era and then there are those who are only just discovering them. Then there are kids who like modern musicals, have seen Glee and are unaware of the older stuff and where it all stems from.”

Hooray for Hollywood with John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra is at Leeds Town Hall, Nov 30. Tickets 0113 224 3801. That’s Entertainment: A Celebration of the MGM Film Musical by EMI Classics, is available now.

Know the score – some of the restored songs

The Trolley Song: made famous by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis. In an interview, the song’s co-writer Ralph Blane said the song was inspired by a picture of a trolleycar in a turn-of-the-century newspaper.

Singin’ In The Rain: Title track from the 1952 American comedy musical film starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.

Well, Did You Evah?: Written by Cole Porter for his 1939 musical Du Barry Was a Lady, the track was later performed by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the 1956 film High Society.