Charles Wolcott; Musician, Baha’i Leader
Charles Wolcott, whose diverse interests carried him from a stint as a jazz pianist to composing and conducting film scores at Walt Disney and Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios and then most recently to the ruling council of the Baha’i religious faith, is dead.
His longtime friend and associate, composer-conductor John Green, said Wednesday that the composer of “I’m a Reluctant Dragon,” the love theme from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the title song from “Saludos Amigos” died in Haifa, Israel, on Monday.
Working in Israel
Wolcott had been working in Israel in connection with his position as a member of the Universal House of Justice of Baha’i, the international governing body of the faith that teaches the oneness of God and the progressive character of revelation through prophets.
Wolcott’s metamorphosis to spiritual leader had taken him a long way from the University of Michigan and “Charley Wolcott and His Wolverines,” the college band he started while a student there in 1924-27.
In 1927, he joined the old Jean Goldkette band, playing piano and scoring music for such fabled members of that group as Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
Next, he became an arranger for Paul Whiteman, then Benny Goodman and finally the Dorsey brothers, when they broke away from Goldkette.
Joined Green’s Band
He joined Green when that composer of “Body and Soul” and five-time Academy Award winner was fronting his own band.
Wolcott then went to radio, arranging for Al Jolson, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Rudy Vallee.
It was after moving to Hollywood to score Vallee’s radio show that he joined Walt Disney. He wrote songs for or arranged the film scores of “The Reluctant Dragon,” “Bambi,” “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Song of the South” and “Fun and Fancy Free.”
Wolcott went to Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1950 and succeeded Green as general music director in 1958. While there, he was credited with introducing rock-and-roll to the motion picture screen, prevailing on the producer of “Blackboard Jungle” to incorporate Bill Haley’s recording of “Rock Around the Clock” into the 1955 film that Wolcott also scored.
Wolcott, who Green called “a man of great spiritual proportions,” left the studios in 1960 to devote full time to the U.S. Baha’i Assembly, which had elected him national secretary. In 1961, he was elected to the faith’s International Council and moved to Haifa where, two years later, he was named to the governing Universal House of Justice.
He was buried in Haifa soon after his death in keeping with Baha’i beliefs and is survived by his wife, Harriett, two daughters and several grandchildren.
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