Profile: Charles Fox
In our pop culture world, we recognize the actor before we remember the playwright, the dancer before the choreographer and the singer before the songwriter. Which is why, although most of us would say “Roberta Flack” after we hummed a few bars of “Killing Me Softly,” we might not remember—if we ever knew—that the melody was written by Charles Fox.
And if we heard The Love Boat theme or the bouncy tune that introduced Happy Days, we would conjure up Gavin MacLeod in his white captain’s uniform or Henry Winkler wearing the Fonz’s leather jacket long before we realized that that music, too, was written by Fox. The brassy lead-in to the Wide World of Sports? The music is, yes, by Fox.
After a long, successful career in movies and television, the composer has written a memoir. Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music(Scarecrow Press) details Fox’s journey from an Orthodox Jewish home in the Bronx to Paris and back to New York, then to Hollywood and recently to concert halls from Japan to Poland.
But the book is really a tribute to his legendary music teacher, Nadia Boulanger, says Fox, 70, wearing a casual polo shirt that fits his easygoing manner as he welcomes a visitor to his spacious Southern California home studio. A grand piano and a huge U-shaped console and keyboard share the space with awards, movie and record memorabilia—and shelves and shelves of scores.
Over the years, the awards have stacked up: two Emmys, a Grammy, two Academy Award nominations, admission to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But what Fox seems particularly interested in now is not his film and television musical roots, but his Jewish ones.
Years after he scored Victory at Entebbe, the television movie that dramatized the Israeli rescue of airplane hostages in Uganda, Fox turned the music into an orchestral suite at the request of Cantor Nathan Lam of the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple, where Fox is a longtime member. Fox had also composed liturgical pieces for the synagogue that remain part of the Yom Kippur service.
And when Lam began doing projects in Poland related to Jewish culture, the composer wanted to be involved; ninety years earlier, his father, Walter Fox, had fled from his village of Szydlowiec.
“Nate had a vision of bringing cantors back to Poland, the birthplace of cantorial music,” says Fox. After an initial visit at the request of the Polish government, Lam, Fox and 70 cantors from around the world returned in 2009 to give concerts in Warsaw, Krakow and at a special service at Auschwitz, a journey captured in the moving documentary 100 Voices.
For that movie, Lam asked Fox to write the score as well as a piece based on the message that Pope John Paul II had inserted into Jerusalem’s Western Wall a decade ago. Given that pope’s ties to Poland, “Charlie more than anyone felt that this would be important,” says Lam. Fox conducted his “Lament and Prayer”—with orchestra, baritone, chorus and children’s chorus—in 2010 at the Warsaw Opera House, with the Polish president in the audience.
“I dedicated the performance to my father,” says Fox. “He ran for his life [from Poland], and there I was on the podium.”
Fox made a point of visiting his father’s birthplace. “My father never dreamed that I would see his town,” he says, but there was “nothing left of Jewish history.” Unwilling to leave it like that, the composer, with the cooperation of Szydlowiec’s mayor, is aiming for a “museum of the shtetl,” trying to acquire a building and contemplating exhibits that might give it meaning.
Although the only other hint of musical talent in his family were his father’s noodlings on the mandolin, there was a tradition, of sorts, of intercontinental travel. His maternal great-grandmother had walked from southern Russia to Palestine with a donkey and six children to settle in Rosh Pina, near the Sea of Galilee. (Her husband preferred to try his luck in America.) Fox’s mother, Mollie, was born in the Holy Land and moved to the United States in the 1920s, where she met and married Fox’s father.
By age 15, Fox, who studied piano and attended the High School of Music and Art (later acclaimed as the Fame school), organized a quartet that was hired for the summer at the Melbern Lake Hotel in the Catskills. From a cabinet, Fox pulls out a postcard showing the now-long-gone hotel and points out the cottage where the help had its lodgings. “We played dance music, Lindys, foxtrots, waltzes and, of course, the hora,” he recalls. “You had to play the hora.”
A few summers later, in the late 1950s, he was on his way to Europe. Fox spent two years in Paris, taking lessons from Boulanger, for which she never charged. He subsisted on the $150 a month that his parents sent, mailing home vivid letters describing the City of Light: operas viewed from cheap seats, dinner parties at his teacher’s chic apartment and exposure to the avant-garde musical world.
“It was a time when you could see Sartre in the Café Flore and Camus at Deux Magots,” he says. “Everything—lessons, feelings about my teachers, life in Paris—I documented it.” And, years later, when he discovered the cache of letters in a shoebox in his mother’s closet, the treasure trove “caused me to think about revisiting my past,” and he turned the material into a book that, like Boulanger’s influence on his life, extended far beyond the France years.
In 1961, Fox returned to the States and the Catskills, this time with a Latin band. More important, he met Joan Redman, a children’s counselor from a nearby hotel, and a year later they married. For a while he earned his living by donning a ruffled rumba shirt and playing Latin music with tipico bands. “They call it salsa now,” Fox says, “but it’s Latin music…. I had the feel and flavor for it. I even called myself Carlos Zorro”—fox in Spanish—“for a minute.”
But it was tough to pay the bills, until he began to write pop arrangements and then a film score (for the Japanese sci-fi movie Green Slime). Gradually, other commissions followed; he arranged music for commercials, the Tonight Show, a television movie and sports roundups. Before long he was providing themes for quiz shows—What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth and Matchgame, among others.
And then a couple of film assignments, including the score for Jane Fonda’s Barbarella in 1968, led to the memorableGoodbye, Columbus a year later. For Fox and his family, which now included sons Robbie and David—a daughter, Lisa, was born later—the success meant relocating to Los Angeles.
Over the next 30 years, Fox scored a hundred big-screen and television movies, a roster that ranged from Nine to Five andThe Drowning Pool to One on One and The Gods Must Be Crazy II. “I think of the music as a character,” he says, “as an actor. I’m a storyteller, a dramatist.” Sometimes that means composing a theme to establish the emotional drama. For the comedic Foul Play in 1981, Fox wrote the song “Taking a Chance Again”—which Barry Manilow recorded—for the opening moment that set Goldie Hawn’s character’s mood as she listened to her car radio. And for The Last American Hero, Jeff Bridges’s first movie, in 1973, Fox penned “I Got a Name” to sketch the protagonist’s state of mind. Sung by Jim Croce, the piece also became a hit.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed you couldn’t watch television without hearing Fox’s music. “He helped originate and sustain an identifiable sound for television music in the ’70s,” notes Daniel Carlin, chair of the film scoring department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “But Charlie did not become married to one style.”
He was able to find the musical “key” for different shows. “Charlie Fox writes classic theme songs, and that’s what we needed for Happy Days,” notes Garry Marshall, who produced the series. “We had to top ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ which he did for us. We liked him so much we hired him for Laverne & Shirley, and his song, ‘Making Our Dreams Come True,’ captured the essence of the series.”
In 1973, Roberta Flack heard “Killing Me Softly,” with lyrics by Norman Gimbel, on an airplane entertainment program and tracked down the composer to record it. “It was a simple song,” says Fox, “with a thoughtful message about what a song means.” And it shot to the top of the charts. “I got cards and letters from people telling me how much the song means to them,” says Fox, who remembers punching the radio buttons in his car and hearing the song played on every station he tried.
These days, Fox remains hard at work—in Hollywood, on Jewish cultural projects and in the classical arena. Last year, his “Fantasie” concerto, commissioned by the Polish government for Chopin’s 200th birthday, was played in Gdansk in front of 22,000 people. In 2009, Fox composed, with lyricist Hal David, a theme song for Beverly Hills, “90210 Beverly Hills,” and he does cabaret performances of his music to raise funds for his high school alma mater and Fulfillment Fund scholarships.
And he has tried to pay forward Nadia Boulanger’s legacy by teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles. “We have students write music and perform it there,” says Fox. “Record it and conduct it. Most of them are ready to move into the professional world.”
His interest in teaching is one reason he wrote a memoir. “I hope it reaches people,” he says of Killing Me Softly, “that it’s inspiring to people starting their career.”
Despite his great success, Fox remains modest and, in a notoriously tough industry, upbeat and optimistic.
“I’m excited about what’s going on—concert works, travel to other countries,” he says. And an upcoming, lighthearted tribute: The Smithsonian has asked him for the record shown dropping into place in a jukebox in the opening credits ofHappy Days. “There’s only the one,” Fox says, showing off the disc. Now it’s destined for museum history. “Next to the Fonz’s jacket,” Fox says, smiling. “I’m really tickled by that.”