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Wednesday, November 26, 2014         

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Timeless theme

A difficult-to-please wife influenced the most recognized sound in TV

By Mike Gordon

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From background for individual episodes to sweeping themes, Morton Stevens already had composed music for hundreds of TV shows when he got the assignment that became his legacy.

His good friend and poker buddy, producer Leonard Freeman, had created a police drama for CBS that was set in Hawaii. To Freeman the islands in 1968 were a swinging Eden, a mix of palm trees and skyscrapers. He wanted a modern sound for his drama, not ukulele, steel guitars and falsetto singers.

And Stevens delivered.

He gave the theme to "Hawaii Five-0" a rolling drumbeat, blaring trumpets and a breathless pace that made it the most recognized sound in all of television. The music made such a statement that its cultural echo continues to reverberate 30 years after the show left prime time.

Now it's back to herald the show, reinvented slightly as CBS remakes the series for a Sept. 20 premiere but still the powerful sound created by Stevens, who died in 1991 of pancreatic cancer.

CBS unveiled the new theme yesterday at Comic-Con 2010 in San Diego, screening a video of a June 16 recording session at the Eastwood Scoring Stage in Burbank, Calif.

"We didn't want to mess with something that's great, that people are looking forward to hearing," said executive producer Peter Lenkov in a statement. "The new version is close to the original but is a little more aggressive -- a little bigger."

Composer Brian Tyler conducted 35 musicians for the session. He said he wanted a sound that was "true vintage with a cool vibe."

"If you move too far away from the original, you'll lose why it's so iconic," Tyler said in a statement.

During his career, Stevens was the man behind the music of many familiar TV dramas, including "Gunsmoke" and "Police Woman," both of which earned him Emmy nominations. He also served as arranger and conductor for Sammy Davis Jr. before going into television.

When he composed the theme to "Five-0," he was director of music for CBS on the West Coast. He initially wanted to use music he had created for "Call to Danger," an unsold pilot of a CBS show that aired in the summer of 1968.

As he did so often, Stevens ran the idea by his wife. When Annie Stevens said his proposal was unacceptable, the composer headed for the Steinway grand piano in the couple's Encino, Calif., home.

"He went in and started smacking the piano around," said Annie Stevens, 79, in a telephone interview. "He was so angry -- and that's why it has that sock-o in there."

He came back 20 minutes later and asked his wife to listen.

"I didn't want to but I did," she said. "I said, 'You're lacking something; this doesn't cut it.'"

The composer tinkered with the sound, and his wife approved.

"He played the whole thing and he was thrilled with himself, and he was glad I made him mad," she said. "He was very happy with it."

Stevens conducted the musicians he gathered to record the theme at the CBS Studio City in the San Fernando Valley as Annie watched. The finished product was a theme that sold the show.

"When he recorded it, the musicians loved it," she said. "It was a hit immediately."

BUT IT WASN'T easy to play. Ollie Mitchell, who now lives on the Big Island, was one of four trumpet players on the session. The 83-year-old musician remembers the music fondly -- to a point.

"It is not an easy thing to play," he said. "It was challenging. It's easy to run out of breath in those last four bars. You had to make sure you took an extra-deep breath to get through the ending."

Stevens went on to score the music used in several "Five-0" episodes, including two that earned him Emmys: "A Thousand Pardons -- You're Dead!" and "Hookman."

His music was marked by what former CBS colleague and composer Bruce Broughton called "driving, dramatic energy."

"He would put all that in the music," said Broughton, a 1962 Punahou graduate who has won 10 Emmys for television scores. "If he was having a good or a bad day, he would put that in the music. His music was always emotional. It meant something."

For "Hawaii Five-0" -- a perfect fit for his friend, Broughton said -- Stevens drew inspiration from Tahitian dancers and the way Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass worked a trumpet, the notes short and clipped.

"He took all that and put it in with rock 'n' roll drums and created a famous title," Broughton said. "Mort made it into something completely original."

Not long after the series began, the surf-guitar band the Ventures recorded a cover of the theme that became the group's most recognized instrumental. It's longer, a tad slower and infused with more guitar than the TV intro, but the song got to No. 4 on the charts and has sold 3 million copies.

The Ventures play it every time they get on stage, maybe 100 times a year.

"We have such a foothold on that and we are so identified with it, that I don't think anybody wants to record it," said Don Wilson, a founding member of the Ventures. "We are 'Hawaii Five-0.'"

When group members learned CBS was reinventing the police drama, they sent the network three versions of the theme in hopes one would open the new series, said Wilson by telephone from his home in Seattle.

"I tried my best to get them to use our version of it, but they decided to go with a synthesizer, an electronic version," he said. "I couldn't see them not using the 'duh-duh-duh-duh-duuuh-duh.' It's too embedded into people's minds. If they had a new theme it wouldn't work out."

The Emmys that Stevens won for his work on "Five-0" still sit on the Steinway piano he used to create the theme. They often spark conversation among visitors, who sometimes ask to have their photo taken with them, Annie Stevens said.

Her husband never dwelled on the success of the theme, but it meant a lot to him, she said.

"He was in awe of what happened," Stevens said. "He had written so many other things that were great, and this one took off. This put him out there. And you know what? That theme really got the show off the ground."






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