Ian Fraser dies; Emmy-winning conductor, arranger and composer

Ian Fraser, who worked with Julie Andrews and oversaw a famed Bing Crosby/David Bowie holiday duet, dies at 81

Emmy-winning music conductor, arranger and composer Ian Fraser, who worked extensively with Julie Andrews and oversaw a famed Bing Crosby/David Bowie holiday duet, died at home in Los Angeles on Friday. He was 81.

The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Tiffany Fraser.

Ian Fraser was the arranger and conductor on numerous television shows during the golden age of musical specials in the 1960s and '70s, winning the first of his 11 Emmys for the 1976 "America Salutes Richard Rodgers" show that aired on CBS.

The unlikely Crosby/Bowie duet was performed on the 1977 "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas" program, also on CBS, on which Fraser was the music director and Bowie a guest star.

The plan was to have Crosby and the British rocker team up to sing the old chestnut "Little Drummer Boy." But at the last minute, Bowie objected.

"David walked in and said, 'God, I hate that song. Isn't there something else I could do?'" Fraser said in a 2010 interview on the ABC News show "Nightline."

It was too late to come up with a whole new song for the sequence, so Fraser collaborated with fellow composer Larry Grossman and writer Buz Kohan to quickly write a counterpoint song — "Peace on Earth" — for Bowie to sing during the duet.

Crosby died soon thereafter; the special was his last. But the duet lived on as a holiday favorite in the U.S. and U.K., even in a 2010 parody version by Will Ferrell and John Riley for the website Funny Or Die that ends with them swearing at each other.

"The thing that I love about it is," Fraser said of the parody, "they destroy their whole image of peace on Earth."

Fraser and his collaborators had the last laugh.

"They have a very difficult rock star to thank for all the money they made from that song," Tiffany Fraser said Friday.

Ian Fraser was born Aug. 23, 1933, in Hove on the south coast of England. After graduating from Eastbourne College, he worked for Decca Records in the U.K. as a vocal arranger.

Among the many projects with which he was involved as an orchestrator in his home country was the hit musical "Stop the World — I Want to Get Off" by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, which opened in London in 1961 and on Broadway in 1962. Fraser came to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, working in television and conducting nightclub and other live performances.

Over the years he conducted on Oscar, Emmy and Tony telecasts, AFI specials and the annual "Christmas in Washington" shows. The stars of programs he worked on included Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Michael Crawford, Ann-Margret, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Muppets.

His closest collaboration was with Andrews, beginning in the early 1970s when her husband, director Blake Edwards, also wanted him for a project. Fraser had to choose.

"Julie is Julie, so that's who he went with," Tiffany Fraser said.

He arranged and conducted for her recordings, TV shows, live performances and the Broadway musical version of "Victor/Victoria" that opened in 1995.

"Ian was my beloved friend, trusted conductor, arranger, pianist and all-around musical genius," Andrews said in a statement Friday. "I will miss him very much, indeed.

"As a mentor, he encouraged me to try things that enhanced my knowledge of music and my singing abilities."

In addition to his daughter Tiffany, who lives in Los Angeles, he is survived by his wife, Judee Morton; sons Neal Fraser of Los Angeles and Joe Fraser of Cornwall, England; sister Mary Day of Yorkshire, England; brother Alastair Sykes, who lives in Ireland; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcolker

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