Johnny Douglas (conductor)
Johnny Douglas (19 June 1920 – 20 April 2003) was an English composer, musical director and string arranger, perhaps best known for his work in the easy listening genre. He recorded over 500 tracks for DECCA and over 80 albums for RCA, and wrote the soundtrack to the 1971 film The Railway Children, plus 37 other feature films.
In the 1980s, he also composed and conducted music for many television series, including the children's TV animation series Spider-Man, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Dungeons & Dragons, The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The Transformers.
Douglas was born in Hackney, London, England, on 19 June 1920, the eldest of two sons of John and May Douglas. The family moved to Bermondsey where his mother was a housewife and his father held a secretarial position until he became Alderman of West Bermondsey Council.
One of his earliest recollections was playing gramophone records on a machine that produced sound via a large green horn. By associating the music he heard with the colour and design of the labels on the 10” heavy and sometimes single sided records, he learned how to select the tune he wanted to hear. At 2½, his parents listened, not believing their own ears, when he played on the piano, one finger fashion, one of the popular tunes of the day that he had heard on one of his father’s records. He remembered playing "The Washington Post" that he learned from a record, which he felt sure was a green labelled Regal Zonophone.
Douglas went to school at 3 years where he was soon asked to demonstrate his pianistic ability to the assembled teachers. At 3½ years he played a duet with the head teacher at a school concert - the piece, "Rendezvous". He started piano lessons when he was 4 years old and gradually became interested in how music sounds were made. His music teacher discovered that he could name the notes with his back to the piano. This seemed not in the least extraordinary to him until she brought in all the occupants of the house to witness his “trick”. He then began to realise that he had performed something unusual.
He discovered the mysteries of arranging and orchestration at about 10 years old and gleaned knowledge of instruments and transpositions by studying printed band parts and listening to records. He won a government scholarship to St. Olaves & St. Saviours, a grammar school in Tooley Street, Bermondsey and at 13 formed a band, mainly of school friends, which won several dance band contests. He left school when he was 18 years old, continued with his band and began working as a clerk in an accounts office.
Early professional career
He made his first professional appearance in 1939 as pianist with the Neville Hughes Sextet and soon afterwards was called up for war service in the Royal Air Force, serving on various aerodromes in Scotland and England. He formed his own R.A.F. dance band and when, later, an arm injury prevented him from playing the piano for about two years, he concentrated on arranging and composing. He won a Melody Maker Jazz Jamboree award for the best dance band composition.
After the war he sent a copy of one arrangement to all the bandleaders of the day. George Elrick replied and engaged him as staff arranger. He began arranging for many famous bands including Bert Ambrose, Ted Heath and Edmundo Ros then became pianist/arranger with the Cyril Stapleton Band and pianist with broadcasting outfits of all kinds and at society balls.
Association with RCA
In 1948, to gain more experience, he joined a music publisher as staff arranger and there began to write for orchestras rather than dance bands. He started scoring and conducting vocal backings for Decca in 1952 and his first hit was Tex Ritter's "High Noon", released on Capitol. During the next three years he recorded over 500 titles for Decca, backing many famous names including Al Martino, and was Musical Director on many hits.
It was at this time that he started broadcasting with his own orchestra but it was not until 1958 that he was asked to score Living Strings Play Music of the Sea for RCA. It was recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London, with an orchestra of 61 musicians, an experience he was never to forget. This began his long association with RCA, New York, where it was his good fortune to work with A & R producer, Ethel Gabriel. During the next twenty-five years he scored and conducted 80 albums for RCA Living Strings alone and received a gold disc for the RCA album entitled Feelings.
In 1955 he began broadcasting with the BBC, with his own programme entitled In the Still of the Night, and there have been countless broadcasts since. From 1960 onwards his work increased tremendously. He began composing and scoring for films, had his own programme, again on BBC radio, entitled Swing Song, which ran for two years, and was arranging for TV shows for such international stars as Shirley Jones, Howard Keel, Vera Lynn and Shirley Bassey. He was also arranging for numerous other recording artists.
Douglas had to his credit over 100 albums and 36 feature films, the most well known of the latter being The Railway Children, for which he received a British Academy Film & TV Arts BAFTA Nomination, and Dulcima, for which he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He also wrote the theme to the long-running cinema featurette series The Scales of Justice. He composed and arranged the music for the American TV children’s series Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Dungeons & Dragons and The Incredible Hulk and Pandamonium (TV series). He was also composer of the incidental music and arranger of all the music for The Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.
During the 1970s Douglas was a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 2 programmes such as Open House, Top Tunes, After Seven, The Terry Wogan Show, The Tony Branson Show, The Late Night Extra, Music to Midnight and Charlie Chester's Sunday Soapbox, either with his own orchestra or conducting one of the Radio orchestras. Tracks from his albums with The Johnny Douglas Orchestra and The Johnny Douglas Strings are frequently played on the various easy listening programmes.
In 1983 Douglas started his own record label, Dulcima Records, producing top quality digitally recorded easy listening albums with different artists and with his own orchestra. At the end of 1999 he completed his first classical composition - a symphonic poem. It is a light classical work with three movements, entitled "The Conquest". The work was recorded for the label and was highly acclaimed by musicians, colleagues and radio presenters. This encouraged him to write a sequel, another symphonic poem entitled "The Aftermath", as well as a descriptive composition for solo flute entitled "The Blue Damsel-fly". These compositions are available on an album of new classical works entitled Johnny Douglas in Concert, with the Dulcima Symphony Orchestra.
Death and legacy
Douglas had suffered from prostate cancer for several years and died on 20 April 2003, at his home in Bognor Regis. He was survived by his wife, Marion, two daughters (his son died in 1988) and three grandchildren.
Since his death, Dulcima Records has continued to keep his music alive by licensing his past recordings from the records companies that he worked for throughout his career. The ninth Johnny Douglas release on the label, and one of the most successful, is The Railway Children. In 2008 the Dulcima Label obtained the licience from Sony Music to release the Johnny Douglas albums from the RCA Living Strings Series, and they have continued to re-release these recordings on CD to the present day.
Douglas's biography has been written by his daughter, Norma Camby, and permission has been given by her to certain other sites to use the content.
Douglas composed, arranged and conducted for the following selected films:
- Touch of Death (1961)
- The Traitors (1962)
- The Hi-Jackers (1963)
- Strictly for the Birds (1963)
- Operation Mermaid (1963)
- Gunfighters of Casa Grande (1964)
- Crack in the World (1965)
- Mozambique (1965)
- Dateline Diamonds (1965)
- Kid Rodelo (1966)
- Circus of Fear (1966)
- Bikini Paradise (1967)
- Run Like a Thief (1968)
- The Railway Children (1970)
- Dulcima (1971)
Collaborating recording artistes
Moira Anderson, Shirley Bassey, The Bachelors, John Boulter, June Bronhill, Dora Bryan, Max Bygraves, Stuart Gillies, Dulcie Gray, John Hanson, Dickie Henderson, Vince Hill, Frankie Howerd, Teddy Johnson, Denis Lotis, Vera Lynn, Janie Marden, Alfred Marks, Kenneth McKellar, Lita Roza, Mike Redway, Joan Regan, Malcolm Roberts, Patricia Routledge, Harry Secombe, Semprini, Anne Shelton, Jimmy Tarbuck, Bruce Trent, Dickie Valentine, Frankie Vaughan, David Whitfield, Rita Williams, Mark Wynter and Jimmy Young, Shirley Jones, Howard Keel, Al Martino, Barbra Streisand, Tex Ritter.
Bands and orchestras (alphabetically)
- Bert Ambrose
- Stanley Black
- Frank Chacksfield
- Billy Cotton
- Ted Heath
- Joe Loss
- Ken Mackintosh
- Jack Parnell
- Lou Prager
- Edmundo Ros
- Cyril Stapleton
- Eric Winstone
- All the BBC Radio orchestras
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