Obituary: Frank DeVol
Thursday 18 November 1999
He also occasionally played comedy roles on radio and television, but it is for his distinctive arranging skills that he will be best remembered. He provided the orchestral accompaniment for Doris Day's million-selling disc "Que Sera Sera", but his unique flair for combining lush, romantic arrangements with distinctive jazz colouring was supremely demonstrated on the Ella Fitzgerald album Like Someone in Love (1957), made at the height of the singer's powers, in which DeVol scored 15 ballads for a large orchestra with the saxophone stylings of Stan Getz and Ted Nash weaving sinuous solos behind Fitzgerald's lustrous tones.
Born in Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1911, DeVol grew up in Canton, Ohio, where his father led a band in a vaudeville theatre showing silent films. A musical prodigy, he attended Miami University of Ohio, then played violin and piano in his father's band, and by the age of 14 was a member of the musicians' union. He also played in a Chinese restaurant and saved money to buy a saxophone, which he taught himself to play by watching other saxophonists.
After playing with the bands of Emerson Gill and George Olsen, he was hired in the late Thirties to play lead alto saxophone and do arrangements for the popular Horace Heidt dance band. DeVol can be heard playing his saxophone on several of Heidt's recordings of the period including "How'dja Like To Love Me?", "Lovelight in the Starlight" and "I've Got a Date with a Dream".
Heidt's was a show band, specialising in entertaining the audience (one of the unit's prime members was a trained dog), and gave its musicians little room to improvise or experiment. Emphasis was given to novelty effects, such as having the musicians play cocktail shakers. One of the musicians was the guitarist Alvino Rey, who admired the band ("It may have sounded awful, but it was a great band. It did so many things, and Heidt had a good feeling for playing for dancers") but was musically frustrated. When he left to form his own band in late 1938, he asked DeVol to write his arrangements. "Frank had written a lot of good arrangements for Heidt, but they were never used."
The Rey band was successful and frequently broadcast live from its venues, and in 1941 DeVol moved to California to try breaking into radio there. For a time he worked nights at the Lockheed aircraft factory, but in 1942 was invited to be a staff conductor on radio shows in Los Angeles. Soon he was musical director for such stars as Rudy Vallee, Dinah Shore and Ginny Sims, both on their broadcasts and their live appearances, while his flair for comedy resulted in his also being cast in comic character roles.
Among the regular shows on which he conducted his own orchestra was The Oxydol Show, which featured the Andrews Sisters and Margaret Whiting, and The Jack Carson Show. He provided arrangements and conducted recording sessions at both Capitol and Columbia Records, notable discs for which he served as conductor-arranger including Margaret Whiting's "Little Girl Blue", Gordon MacRae's "How Do You Speak to an Angel?", Kay Starr's "Mississippi" and Doris Day's "Anyone Can Fall in Love".
With the advent of the long- playing record, DeVol was in demand both for orchestral albums and to accompany top vocalists. Apart from the Fitzgerald album he also provided the backings for such LPs as Vic Damone's Closer than a Kiss, Doris Day's Hooray for Hollywood, Robert Goulet's Always You and Tony Bennett's Long Ago.
His opportunity to write a score for the movies came when a friend got him a job on a low-budget thriller, World for Ransom (1954), starring Dan Duryea and directed by Robert Aldrich. DeVol took the assignment because "I never turn anything down", but the film turned out well and earned DeVol his first Oscar nomination. Aldrich was to use him again on 16 further movies, including The Big Knife (1955), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967).
In 1965 DeVol told the Los Angeles Times that he had a formula for film scoring. "I make a chart. If I'm scoring a picture and I know I've got to write 85 minutes of music and I've got 15 days to do it, that means I've got to produce five to six minutes of music a day. This way I don't dawdle along."
For the Aldrich film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965), DeVol received two Oscar nominations, one for his score and the other for the title song (lyrics by Mack David) which became a best-selling record when recorded by Patti Page. The 47 movies he scored also included three starring his old friend Doris Day, Pillow Talk (1959, an Oscar-nominated score), Send Me No Flowers (1964) and The Glass- Bottomed Boat (1966), plus Cat Ballou (1965) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
But it is for his work in television, at least in the United States, that DeVol is best known. He scored musical series starring Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore, and comedy shows such as The Betty White Show (also performing in skits). His best-remembered acting role was on a controversial comedy series, Fernwood 2-Night (1977-78), an outrageous parody of talk- show series with guests including a pianist in an iron lung who played a Mozart sonata upside down and backward, and a housewife campaigning to have her late Aunt Dora made a saint because she made "remarkable raisin bread". DeVol played "Happy Kyne", leader of a ragged four-piece studio band when not running his dental office on the side.
DeVol also composed the theme music for My Three Sons and The Brady Bunch, two of the most fondly recalled examples of family shows of a bygone era. The latter was one of the last of the situation comedies featuring well- scrubbed children and relentlessly middle-class parents (it ran from 1969 to 1974) facing such dilemmas as who gets to use the telephone or bathroom.
In his later years, DeVol would lecture on cruises, and stated that it was the theme from The Brady Bunch that would stir the audience most. "When I mention The Brady Bunch, that's when the audience really applauds." He wrote the music for the show's bouncy theme song, which starts, "Here's the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls . . .", in one day.
Those unfamiliar with The Brady Bunch will best remember DeVol for his work with great vocalists in the Fifties and Sixties and the part he played earlier in the big-band era. He maintained his link with that era when in 1991, after the death of his first wife Grayce, he married Helen O'Connell, former vocalist with the Jimmy Dorsey band.
Frank DeVol, composer, arranger and conductor: born Moundsville, West Virginia 20 September 1911; twice married (two daughters); died Lafayette, California 27 October 1999.
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