Johnny Douglas

Prolific composer for film and television

Thursday 05 December 2013 02:46
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John Douglas, composer, arranger and bandleader: born London 19 June 1920; four times married (two daughters, and one son deceased): died Bognor Regis, West Sussex 20 April 2003.

The composer and arranger Johnny Douglas was one of the stalwarts of light music in the UK, best known for his score for The Railway Children (1970), but he was a modest man who never sought fame and obtained results in a quiet, relaxed way.

Douglas was born in Hackney, London, in 1920 but raised in Bermondsey, where his father became an alderman for West Bermondsey council. He would sit spellbound as his uncle played the piano and the harmonium, and when he was only four he played a duet, "Rendezvous", with his head teacher. He formed his first band with schoolfriends when he was 13 and they played local dances. He took a clerical job when he left school but yearned to be a professional musician.

In 1939 Douglas worked as a pianist with the Neville Hughes Sextet, and then he did war service with the RAF. He led a dance band in the RAF but an arm injury prevented him from playing for two years. After the Second World War, he worked for George Elrick as an arranger and then for many established bands including Ambrose, Ted Heath and Edmundo Ros.

In 1952 Tex Ritter sang the theme song from the film High Noon, but his single for Capitol failed to duplicate the drumbeat on the soundtrack. Ritter wanted to record the single again and, as he was in the UK at the time, he sang a new version with Johnny Douglas and his Orchestra. This version was better placed to challenge the competition from Frankie Laine and became a hit single. Douglas made several records with Al Martino, who had come to the UK to escape from the Mafia, including "The Story of Tina" and "I Still Believe", both 1954. He arranged two chart- topping singles for Dickie Valentine, "The Finger of Suspicion" (1954) and "Christmas Alphabet" (1955).

Douglas made records under his own name including the single "Ballet of the Bells" (1954) and the albums Cheek to Cheek (1955) and A Handful of Stars (1957). His orchestrations were often used to demonstrate the quality of the new stereo record-players. In 1958 he scored and conducted Living Strings Play Music of the Sea, which led to a long association with RCA: he conducted 80 albums for them, having international success with his album Feelings (1976).

He was involved in several radio programmes for the BBC, notably In the Still of the Night (from 1955) and Swing Song (from 1960), which had such musical guests as Howard Keel and Shirley Bassey. In the 1970s he did considerable work for television programmes from Pebble Mill.

For over 30 years, Johnny Douglas wrote music for films, one of his first assignments being to complete the score of The Day of the Triffids (1962) for a frantically busy Ron Goodwin. His scores include Hot Enough for June (1963) with Dirk Bogarde and Crack in the World (1965), a science-fiction drama with Dana Andrews. His best-known score is his Bafta-nominated work for The Railway Children. The main theme was given a lyric by Norman Newell, but the result, "More Than Ever Now", was foolishly thrown away on the B-side of a Vince Hill single. (The extent of Douglas's songwriting is difficult to gauge as he used seven different pseudonyms.)

Some of Douglas's most exacting work was writing the music for the animated television series, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Dungeons and Dragons and The Incredible Hulk, based on Marvel Comics' creations . "The cartoons called for wall-to-wall music," says his daughter Norma Camby,

and the music is very good indeed. Dad managed to introduce some classical themes in there.

Douglas's favourite score was for the film Dulcima (1971), which starred John Mills and Carol White. He used the name for his record label, which he established in 1983. His several albums for it included two of his classical compositions, The Conquest (1999) and Johnny Douglas in Concert (2001).

Spencer Leigh

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