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Music Friday: Raymond Scott

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Music Friday logo and Raymond Scott album covers

It is an unusual career that crosses paths with Mary Martin, Berry Gordy, Bugs Bunny, and Devo, but they will all make appearances as we look at the life and music of Raymond Scott.

Scott was born on September 10, 1908; he was a composer, pianist, and bandleader whose career began in 1931 when he was hired by CBS Radio as a pianist for their house band. In 1936, Scott gathered some of his colleagues at CBS into the Raymond Scott Quintette. The Quintette was a six-man ensemble, but Scott thought that "Quintette" sounded "crisper" and more elegant than "sextet" (which he presumably would have spelled "sextette").

Scott's music for the Quintette was rooted in swing, and relatively free of improvisation. He composed his music not on paper, but "on the band," singing melodies and rhythms to his musicians as they worked out each piece, translating his ideas into music. Scott insisted that the Quintette play from memory, saying that "you give a better performance if you skip the eyes." He allowed his musicians some room for improvisation as the pieces were worked out, incorporating their best ideas into the process, but once a piece was finished, he expected it to be performed the same way each time.

Scott called his music "descriptive jazz," and the titles of Quintette pieces give you a sense of how he evoked very specific images—"Boy Scout in Switzerland," "War Dance for Wooden Indians," "Tobacco Auctioneer." The collection Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights collects the best of the Quintette's work from the late 1930s.

In 1939, Scott expanded the Quintette into a big band; they would record occasionally as "Raymond Scott and His Orchestra" over the next twenty years. Scott had less time for performing, though, after 1942, when he was promoted to music director for CBS Radio. During his time there, he integrated the CBS house band, and stopped playing the piano to focus more of his energy on composing and conducting.

Scott sold the publishing rights to his music to Warner Bros. in 1943, and that led to the way in which today's audiences are the most familiar with his music. Carl Stalling, the music director for Warner's animation, was encouraged to use as much music as possible to which Warner already owned the rights, and he made extensive use of the Quintette's 1930s music. Scott's "Powerhouse," for instance, became the default "assembly line" music for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, and the tune is instantly familiar to anyone who grew up watching Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons. Fifty years later, John Kricfalusi used Scott's music in several Ren and Stimpy cartoons.

Scott ventured into a wide range of projects in the 1940s. He wrote music for a Broadway musical, Lute Song, starring Mary Martin and Yul Brynner (and in a small role, the only Broadway appearance of Nancy Davis, who would later become Nancy Reagan). He produced some records with his wife, singer Dorothy Collins, that experimented with multi-tracked audio in much the same way, and at about the same time, as the work of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Scott's only piece of classical music, a Suite for Violin and Piano, had its premiere at Carnegie Hall. He even formed a new quintet—again, with six members—that made a few recordings in the late 1940s.

But by the end of the decade, Scott had discovered electronic music, his primary interest for the rest of his life. He created some of the earliest sequencers and synthesizers and spent most of the 1950s and 1960s creating electronica that was well ahead of its time. Much of that music is collected on Manhattan Research Inc. and Three Willow Park. Scott's research and experimentation culminated in the Electronium, a complex synthesizer that Scott said used artificial intelligence to generate its own music.

Scott rarely showed his devices and instruments to the public, but in 1971, he sold an Electronium to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, who hired him to teach Motown's producers how to use the machine. That led to a six-year job as Motown's director of electronic music. We don't know exactly what Scott did during his years at Motown, other than continue his work on the Electronium and other instruments; there are no known Motown recordings on which any of Scott's devices are used.

The last years of Scott's life were difficult. He was usually unemployed and had spent most of his money on the Electronium. His music had fallen into obscurity, and there wasn't much interest in his electronic instruments, which had been made obsolete by the first digital synthesizers. He suffered a stroke in 1987 that left him unable to speak. He lived long enough to see the beginnings of a Raymond Scott revival, as re-issues of his music gave him a cult following in the early 1990s. Scott died of pneumonia on February 8, 1994.

Mark Mothersbaugh seated in front of an Electronium

Mark Mothersbaugh with Raymond Scott’s instantaneous-composition invention, The Electronium, in Scott’s guesthouse in Van Nuys, CA, 1993. [Photo credit, Mr. Bonzai, originally published in Billboard Magazine]

In 1996, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh bought Scott's only Electronium. It was not in working order, and Scott had never written anything resembling an instruction manual, so restoring the machine was a formidable challenge. There were reports in 2012 that the machine was working well enough to produce basic sounds, and restoration attempts continue.

In addition to the collections linked above, more of Scott's music is available for streaming and download at Freegal.