Conrad Salinger – Master of the M-G-M Musical

Published July 17, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis, The Band Wagon, On the Town, Easter Parade…

The overwhelming resurgence of interest in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musicals, as spearheaded by young British conductor John Wilson and his Orchestra, is one of the great success stories of recent years. With sell-out UK tours, huge record sales, and an annual televised showcase during the BBC Proms season, Wilson’s achievements have led to an increased awareness and appreciation of the talented craftsmen that originally created this timeless music back in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Chief among these talents was M-G-M’s resident musical genius – master arranger and orchestrator, Conrad Salinger. Regarded by his esteemed colleague Sir Andre Previn as being “the greatest arranger who ever worked in the movies,” Salinger’s signature style of orchestration helped establish the classic, lush M-G-M sound, which is still wowing the crowds over 60 years later. “He made those musicals sound his way, no matter who the songwriter was,” acknowledged Sir Andre to radio producer Steven Paley, leaving us in no doubt as to where the credit lay.

“There were really so many orchestrators in Hollywood that were superb,” says historian John Waxman, the son of legendary composer Franz Waxman, “but certainly above them all was Salinger. I think among his peers everyone acknowledged that he was the greatest orchestrator.” Acclaimed music supervisor Saul Chaplin agreed, telling writer Donald Knox: “It’s my considered judgment that Hollywood’s major contribution to the American musical film is Connie Salinger. He’s the most imitated, and was simply the best for the kind of thing he did. Connie was incredible, incredible.”

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse perform to Salinger’s timeless arrangement of “Dancing in the Dark” in The Band Wagon (1953)

However, much of Conrad Salinger’s life remains a mystery. His death in June, 1962, at the age of 60 received scant news coverage; a cursory report in the Los Angeles Times noted only that he “wrote the music for the Bachelor Father TV series.” Yet there is so much more to discover about this unheralded giant of 20th Century orchestration, whose work – on the 50th anniversary of his death – is more popular now than ever before.

Los Angeles Times, June 18 1962

Conrad Salinger was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on Friday, 30th August, 1901. His name held a special significance, combining the family name of his father Joseph Salinger with the maiden name of his mother Clara Conrad. The origins of his family roots can be traced to Germany, where all four of his grandparents were born. His paternal grandparents Benjamin and Josephine Salinger settled in New York, where they had two sons, including Conrad’s father Joseph, born in July, 1861. Conrad’s maternal grandparents, David and Hannah Conrad, married in 1862 and made their home in Salem, Massachusetts, where they raised a family of five children, with Conrad’s mother Clara born in December, 1868. When Clara and Joseph married, they settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle thanks to a successful family run merchant business, Conrad & Co, led by Clara’s brother, Sidney. The couple’s first son, Richard Benjamin Salinger, was born on 17th July, 1896, followed five years later by youngest son Conrad.

 A bright student, Conrad Salinger graduated from Harvard University in 1923, and a life on the stage seemed to beckon, with Salinger earning rave reviews for his performance as Talleyrand in the University production of Beranger in May, 1922. “Conrad Salinger ’23, played with an authority and a penetration that often made me forget I was not listening to a professional actor of ripe experience,” wrote Professor Andre Morize in The Harvard Crimson. “Physical appearance, poses, ironical, cynical, often colorless voice, glances that expressed more than his lips dared pronounce, shrewdness and flattery, extreme courtesy and insulting superiority – all these he combined into a whole that does him the greatest credit.”  But Salinger’s future lay in music and he would spend the next six years in France, studying the art of orchestration intensely at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of Andre Gedalge and Nadia Boulanger. It is likely he also took lessons from composer Paul Dukas, who arrived at the Conservatoire as tutor of composition during Salinger’s final year in 1928.

The incredible Nadia Boulanger

Upon his return to America in 1929, Salinger found employment in New York as staff arranger at Harms music publishers, and by the end of 1931 had received his first credit on Broadway for his work on The Laugh Parade. The remainder of the decade would see his reputation soar under the wing of famed orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and he would contribute orchestrations to dozens of legendary Broadway shows, developing a refined, sensual style of writing for pit orchestras that made a lasting impression upon his colleagues, including composer David Raksin. “The theatre orchestra has four violins and one viola and one cello, and Connie did wonderful things with them,” he recalled to Steven Paley. “They sounded as rich as you can imagine. He used to do these arrangements, and I saw one of them with a tempo and style indication that said ‘gently, like my back hair.’”

Salinger finally made the move to Hollywood in 1937, ultimately settling at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1940, where he quickly established an enduring partnership with Roger Edens, the prodigious musical associate of producer Arthur Freed. Together, the pair would form the backbone of the legendary Freed Unit for the next fifteen years, with Edens acting primarily as vocal arranger and music supervisor, and Salinger as principal arranger and orchestrator. They would also pioneer a whole new sound for movie musicals, rejecting the then-popular credo “the bigger the orchestra, the better the sound,” in favour of lush, polished arrangements with delicate, intricate textures. This was particularly well suited to the recording techniques of the time, as well as complementing the tender, intimate voices of star singers Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

Conrad Salinger shares lunch with one of M-G-M’s top singing stars, Lena Horne, in 1945.

Salinger’s major breakthrough at M-G-M arrived with his sublime orchestral score for Meet Me in St Louis (1944), where his gentle, plaintive arrangements added a beguiling layer of romance to the movie. His treatment of Hugh Martin’s classic songs were equally appealing, with rubato tempos employed extensively throughout “The Boy Next Door,” and a propulsive, sumptuous arrangement elevating “The Trolley Song” to legendary status. Salinger’s orchestral score also showcased his own eerie composition “Halloween Music,” which would later be successfully performed at a prestigious Hollywood Bowl concert in August, 1945.

Judy Garland sings “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St Louis served to confirm Conrad Salinger’s peerless position amongst fellow arrangers and orchestrators in Hollywood, and the next decade would see him at his creative peak, producing dozens of definitive arrangements for movies such as Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953). His arranging style was purposely designed to provide both space and support for the singer, and he was especially praised for his wonderful use of counter melodies heard discreetly behind the vocalist, and for the perfectly timed obbligatos he would write between vocal phrases. Reaching a peak of perfection in the early 1950s, his classic arrangement for “Singin’ in the Rain” would lead composer Elmer Bernstein to compare its “effortless perfection” to that of Mozart.

Gene Kelly in a classic pose from “Singin’ in the Rian” (1952)

It was at this time that Salinger’s skills as an orchestrator also paved the way in creating what is now regarded as the classic M-G-M sound: rich, bold and sonorous, with contrapuntal lines and call and response dialogues echoing throughout the orchestra, combining to create a lushly textured, melodic tapestry. It was a sound all of his own making – inspired by the teachings of Nadia Boulanger who encouraged her pupils to write linear, ‘singing’ harmony lines in their counterpoint exercises, but enhanced by his own unique brand of instrumental colours, in particular his outrageous, stratospheric French horn counter melodies, and a multitude of doubled woodwind combinations.

Composer John Williams appreciated the idiosyncratic nature of these scores when studying Salinger’s work at close quarters, paying tribute to his genius during an interview with Films and Filming magazine in 1977: “He’d have the third trombone way up in the tenor clef, and trumpets low down doing some funny thing – as if some Chinaman had written the score! And then you’d go on the soundstage the next day and hear the result … it was like a wonder. No one quite had his touch.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform “This Heart of Mine” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), featuring one of Salinger’s most opulent orchestrations.

Salinger also possessed the technical capacity to take standard pop tunes of the era, such as “Limehouse Blues” and “Broadway Melody,” and magically transform them into fully fledged orchestral ballets, helping to establish balletic sequences in movies such as An American in Paris (1951) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946) as genuine artistic milestones. “The sophistication and the knowledge that he had in some of those numbers for the Freed Unit were really amazing,” marvelled Sir Andre Previn to Steven Paley. “When he wrote a balletic development of a song, it really was a balletic development. When he put them into the orchestra, you thought you were listening to a really first rate French composer.”

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer perform the classic ballet “Limehouse Blues” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

As with most great craftsmen, Conrad Salinger’s artistry appeared deceptively simple, yet behind it lay a lifetime of musical knowledge and sheer hard graft. Often working in tandem with his assistant Robert Franklyn, Salinger’s working method would see him sketch his arrangements across four staves, before fleshing out the full orchestration over 32 staves. Music Supervisor Saul Chaplin, who shared a bungalow with Salinger on the M-G-M Music Department lot, recalled the struggles Salinger would endure during the creation process: “When you hear his arrangements they are so smooth, so beautiful and velvety, yet if you heard him working you wouldn’t believe it. He would suffer them out through a piano, he used to bang on the piano and play these chords which the next day with the orchestra sounded glorious, but I would keep thinking ‘no way… this is never going to work’, and it always did work.”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

As the popularity of film musicals gradually declined, the 1950s would see Conrad Salinger compose a handful of dramatic scores for contemporary M-G-M movies, including Carbine Williams (1952), Washington Story (1952), and Dream Wife (1953). Yet perhaps his greatest personal success away from the Freed Unit arrived with A Lovely Afternoon (1957), an album of his own arrangements released by Verve Records under the direction of conductor Buddy Bregman in 1957. As Bregman recalls, “I went out to M-G-M, and I said, ‘Connie, you’re my hero! I love what you do.’ He was a very sweet guy; very nice, very quiet. He was so impressed that I was such a fan of his, and we became good friends. He was a wonderful guy – I loved him a lot.”

“A Lovely Afternoon,” Conrad Salinger’s classic album recorded for Verve Records in 1957

Salinger was by common consent a man of great sophistication and taste – erudite yet humble, displaying impeccable manners, meticulous attire (often dressed head to toe in white), and a total devotion to his work. Sir Andre Previn described him as “one of the most likable human beings I’ve ever met – utterly outrageous and flamboyant and crazy, but generous to a fault and sweet natured,” while lifelong friend Johnny Green fondly remembered how “Connie had one of the most gigantic, monumental, delightful, delicious senses of humour that any human being ever had. He was hysterically funny.”

Conrad Salinger (left) with lifelong friend Johnny Green, dated circa 1937

Although by nature he was an intensely private man, away from the studio Salinger loved to socialise. Tales of him drinking to excess are legendary, yet it is thought by many that Salinger used alcohol mainly as a release to cope with the stress of a heavy workload, and to escape the problems he faced due to his homosexuality. Labelled disparagingly in the film industry as one of ‘Freed’s Fairies,’ Salinger’s open homosexuality in an era of mass bigotry predictably made him the butt of many jokes at the studio.

The final years of Conrad Salinger’s life were littered with minor triumphs and major disappointments. He achieved his final success within the Freed Unit in 1958 with the release of Gigi, after which the Freed Unit dissolved following the loss of key components Roger Edens and musical wunderkind Lela Simone. The new decade would see Salinger launch a fresh career as a successful TV composer, providing musical accompaniment to 65 episodes of Bachelor Father between 1960 and 1962.

Bachelor Father, starring John Forsythe

But the pressures of composing to tight deadlines for TV did not suit Salinger’s working methods, and Johnny Green believed the stress contributed towards his friend’s early death. “He was never able to divorce himself from fright and the inability to cope with tension,” Green told writer Donald Knox. “I think this, with all the other tensions in Connie’s life, is what broke him down.” Salinger’s downward spiral intensified on Monday, 6th November, 1961, when his newly acquired luxury Bel-Air home was amongst 484 residences destroyed by the worst brush fire in the history of Los Angeles at that time. All of his possessions and papers were lost, and Salinger never recovered from this tragic incident.

The LA brush fires, picture dated November 6, 1961

Conrad Salinger was found dead on the morning of Sunday, 17th June, 1962. It is unclear to this day whether he committed suicide or died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He had earlier completed one final orchestration, a typically luxurious arrangement of “Little Girl Blue” for Doris Day to sing in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962). Following Salinger’s death, his name and reputation slowly faded into obscurity, and his legacy was dealt a hammer blow with the tragic destruction of the M-G-M music library in 1969, with all of the classic scores he had worked so hard to create needlessly discarded – thrown away to be used as landfill.

It is a minor miracle that, 50 years on from Conrad Salinger’s death, we can finally appreciate the amazing legacy he created. Thanks to the devoted efforts of record producers such as George Feltenstein, Marilee Bradford and Bradley Flanagan, we can marvel at restored CD soundtracks of the scores he orchestrated with such mastery during his halcyon days at M-G-M, while acclaimed performers such as Michael Feinstein and Barbra Streisand have lovingly recreated Salinger’s original arrangements for their own recordings.

Ultimate salvation of Salinger’s legacy arrived with the hugely successful BBC Proms concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009, which saw dozens of Salinger’s original orchestrations painstakingly reconstructed by conductor John Wilson, and performed to rapturous acclaim during a celebration of ‘75 Years of M-G-M Musicals.’ Roger Wright, Director of The Proms, admitted to being stunned by the overwhelming reaction in the weeks following the concert, capturing the mood of the public by noting “clearly it touched the hearts of many.” John Waxman found Wilson’s achievements particularly emotional. “The wonderful thing about John Wilson,” he recalled, “is that I saw his concert and I actually started to cry, because it brought back Salinger, and my stepmother (Lela Simone), and Roger Edens, and I only wished that they could have lived long enough to see what he had reconstructed – their music being played in London at The Proms as written.”

John Wilson conducts his outstanding Orchestra during the incredibly successful M-G-M Musical Proms in 2009

As we mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the musical achievements of Conrad Salinger are continuing to enjoy a renewed lease of life. Enthralling fans old and new, his classic scores are now destined to become a permanent fixture on record and in concert halls for many years to come – conclusive proof that the legacy of Conrad Salinger is enduring, enchanting, and – ultimately – eternal.

*An extended version of this article appears in Film Score Monthly Online, Vol. 15, Issues 11/12.

The M-G-M Music Department circa 1950, including Miklos Rozsa, Johnny Green, Andre Previn, Scott Bradley, Bronislau Kaper, David Raksin and Conrad Salinger.

14 comments on “Conrad Salinger – Master of the M-G-M Musical

  • Excellent -a long overdue tribute to one of the pillars of the Freed unit -a musical genius whose orchestral figures will live in our ears and our hearts as long as we survive.
    A real theater orchestrator, not to say composer. Bravo.

  • I love what you wrote— thank you so much. His wonderful orchestrations have illuminated my life from early childhood–the way he framed the voice of the great Stars, most of all Judy
    In a difficult childhood in Australia, in the Forties, the Orchestral sound of the M.G.M Musicals, as the lights went down in some hot suburban Movie theatre , was the sound of Happiness itself, lifting my heart.

    Peter Linden.

  • A thoughtful and useful overview of this great orchestrators life. Previn’s comments get to the nub of Salinger’s genius. The ballet music he created (especially in Singing in the Rain) is stunning: at completely inventive and so uniquely American.

  • thank you this was wonderful liked it so much and answered so many of my questions thanks again for you work he was such a interesting man.

  • I have just come across this article which has given me an insight into Salinger’s background and working methods. I have all the MGM soundtracks in their wonderful digitally restored versions containing all the outtakes and alternate versions, and they give me such pleasure.

  • Wonderful article! Where did you find that picture of the Freed Unit with Kay Thompson singing? I’m working on an Eloise show and want people to know there’s so much more to her story!

  • Thanks so much for the article on Conrad Salinger. He truly was, and will remain, I think, the most talented, insightful and soulful arranger ever. Slight understatement there.
    Even as a child before I knew anything about the genius behind the sound I was drawn to the glorious magic of his arrangements.
    I wish he’d have lived longer. I would have so much loved to have been able to meet him and thank him personally for all the beauty he spun out.
    And oh how I would have loved to have been able to pour over his arrangements that the Bel Air fire so tragically robbed us of.
    Thanks to all the historians and others who have kept his memory and legacy alive.
    Special thanks to Hugh Fordin and his marvelous “MGM’s Greatest Musicals”. When I tumbled across that treasure I read it 3 times cover to cover before putting it down!
    Also thanks to Rudy Belmar of the Motion Picture Academy who was able to record and then transcribe numerous conversations with the amazing Miss Lela Simone.
    I so wish I could have been born 30 years sooner so I might have had the chance of meeting these so talented people!

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