Won 5 Academy Awards, Wrote 'Body and Soul' : Composer-Conductor John Green Dies at Age 80

Times Arts Editor

Composer-conductor-pianist-music executive John Green, whose film work won him five Academy Awards and whose songs include "Body and Soul," "Out of Nowhere" and "I Cover the Waterfront," died at his Beverly Hills home Monday night, it was announced Tuesday.

Frank Liberman, a family friend and publicist, said the diminutive, personable musician was 80 and had suffered a stroke two years ago. The official cause of death was listed as pulmonary edema, Liberman added.

Green, who wrote his first hit, "Coquette," while he was still a senior at Harvard, was a dapper, confident and uncommonly articulate man whose trademark was the fresh carnation he wore in his lapel every day. He said the flower was to remind him of the beauty in the world and of his obligation to protect and extend it if he could.

Long a fixture at Hollywood Bowl summer concerts, he was born to a wealthy and cultured New York family. His father was a banker and builder after whom the community of Greenhaven, Long Island, is named.

Green began piano lessons at age 3 and loved them. When he was 12 he was taken to a party honoring George Gershwin, a friend of the family. The boy was asked to perform for the composer and, marching to the piano, played his own arrangement of one of Gershwin's songs.

Gershwin was evidently impressed and Green became a Gershwin protege and lifelong friend. Green remembered, at 16, attending the premiere of "Rhapsody in Blue" in New York. "The bloody place blew up," Green said.

In later years Green arranged much of Gershwin's music for movies and records, including a delightful album of vocals by Fred Astaire. One of Green's Oscars was for the scoring of "An American in Paris," based on Gershwin's music. Green also frequently performed Gershwin in concert.

The elder Green wanted his son to go into Wall Street. Reluctantly but dutifully, Green rushed through the rigorous, progressive Horace Mann School and entered Harvard at 15, majoring in economics.

But he was already deeply involved in music and spent the summer between his junior and senior years living in Cleveland and writing arrangements for the new Guy Lombardo orchestra. (One of his pals that summer was the young publicist for a Cleveland movie house named Lew R. Wasserman, who in subsequent years was Green's agent at MCA and eventually head of that giant entertainment company.)

But Green's father remained unimpressed. "Son," his father told him, "you can be a good banker, a good lawyer or doctor and you'll be a proud, respected citizen in the community. But there is no bum in the world like an artist who is merely good, and I'm afraid as a musician you are merely good."

Took Wall Street Job

Green graduated from Harvard in 1928 at only 19. Despite the fact that his early song "Coquette" was the biggest sheet-music seller in the country, he bowed to his father's will and took a job on Wall Street. "I was a sissy to do it," he confessed years afterward.

He used his music royalties to pay for visits to a psychiatrist. Then, after six months, he defied his father, quit his job and became a rehearsal pianist at the Paramount studio in Astoria, Long Island, for $50 a week.

He was also writing songs, often partnered with lyricist Edward Heyman, a friend of friends, a wealthy young Midwesterner whose family had prospered in sausage casings. In 1931, they wrote a package of four songs for Gertrude Lawrence for $250.

"One of them had to be a comedy number, one an up-tempo item, one a ballad, one a torch song. The torch song was 'Body and Soul,' " Green said not long ago. Did he know he was writing a classic? a reporter asked him. "I only knew I was writing for Gertie for Wednesday," Green said.

Copyright Sold

Green and Heyman had actually sold the copyrights to the singer. But when another singer, Libby Holman, asked permission to use the song in her own act, Lawrence generously gave the song back to Green and Heyman. As it turned out, the royalties from "Body and Soul" would have assured their lifetime solvency if nothing else had. A favorite with both singers and jazz instrumentalists, it is one of the most-recorded songs in the repertoire.

During his Astoria stay with Paramount, Green did his first bit of movie-scoring, an arrangement of "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" for Maurice Chevalier. Green is also credited with the music for a forgotten 1930 film called "The Sap from Syracuse."

In 1932, Green conducted the house orchestra for the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical "By Jupiter," and at the time his principal ambition was to write for the musical theater. He wrote show tunes for Jack Buchanan and other performers, but the one musical he wrote a few years later closed out of town, in Boston, and he did not try another.

Formed Dance Orchestra

At the suggestion of William Paley of CBS, Green (who then was still Johnny rather than John) formed a dance orchestra. It opened the St. Regis roof, a posh new night club that opened after the repeal of Prohibition.

Green was also the orchestra leader on several coast-to-coast radio programs, including the Philip Morris Hour, the Packard Hour with Fred Astaire and the Jell-O Show. His sidemen on the early radio shows included Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman (in the same reed section), Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan.

Green and the orchestra starred in a memorable short, "Music Magic," in which trick photography reduced Green to a Tom Thumb miniature amid the full-sized band. The film is still occasionally shown on television. He remained an orchestra leader until 1939, when he gave it up to try his hand at the unsuccessful musical.

In 1942, Green left New York for Los Angeles. He did a season as musical director of the Jack Benny radio show, doubling as a comic foil specializing in dialects. He also began his major work as a film composer, initially at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, where he scored, among others, "Bathing Beauty," "Easter Parade" (for which he won an Oscar), "The Great Caruso," "Brigadoon" and "Raintree County."

MGM Musical Director

For a decade, 1949-58, Green was musical director at MGM, an executive position in which he earned a reputation as a hard but fair taskmaster. He could imagine his father, Green said, whirling in his grave at the thought of his son being more than a musician at last.

But Green chafed at overseeing the work of others. "I'm glad I had the guts to assign myself the music for 'Raintree County,' " he said in a Times interview in 1973. It was the film music of which he was proudest and was nominated for an Academy Award (one of 14 nominations in his career), but lost to Malcolm Arnold's score for "Bridge on the River Kwai."

He left MGM for a similar role as musical director at Desilu and, after a brief stint, became a free lancer, winning two more Oscars for the musical direction of "West Side Story" in 1961 and "Oliver!" in 1968.

His fifth Academy Award was as producer of an MGM musical short based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture."

Guest Conductor

Green recalled seeing his first performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1921, a concert version of "Carmen." He returned to the Bowl as a guest artist in 1945. Then in 1949, he began a series of appearances as a guest conductor of pops concerts that lasted without interruption until 1966, when he was away in London for two years working on "Oliver!"

During this period Green also conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Promenade concerts of light classics (1959-63). He continued to conduct at the Bowl for several years after his return from London, making his 32nd appearance in the summer of 1984.

In later years, he appeared as conductor and pianist with several symphony orchestras across the country. His one-movement symphony, "Mine Eyes Have Seen," was commissioned by the Denver Symphony and performed at the dedication of its Boettcher Concert Hall in 1978. In June, 1988, in conjunction with the 60th reunion of his Harvard class, Green conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Changed Name

As he moved out of song-writing into more serious conducting, he was persuaded that "Johnny" was insufficiently dignified and he became John Green, although he remained Johnny to old acquaintances.

He was a four-term director of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and had been active as a fund-raiser and mentor for the Young Musicians Foundation, among several other organizations. He was a longtime vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and chairman of its music branch. He conducted the Academy Award presentations 10 times. Pepperdine University gave him an honorary degree in 1981.

Green was married three times. His first was to debutante Carol Koshland when he was 20. By his second wife, television consumerist Betty Furness, he had a daughter, Barbara, an actress in Los Angeles. In 1943, he married Bonnie Waters, a statuesque actress who was under contract at MGM. She survives him along with their two daughters, Kathy, a composer-performer who lives in New York, and Christopher Allyson (Kim) Green-Meglio of Los Angeles. Four grandchildren also survive.

Attended Luncheon

Although he had suffered a stroke in October, 1987, and had been in failing health since then, he attended a luncheon in his honor given by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters last September when he was saluted by fellow film composers Henry Mancini, John Williams and Arthur Hamilton, among others.

In what turned out to be his last public tribute, the Beverly Hills Pops Orchestra gave a concert in Green's honor on his 80th birthday, last Oct. 10 with Bill Conti conducting and songs performed by Dinah Shore, Tony Martin, Rosemary Clooney and Carol Lawrence.

He had remained active until a few days before his death, producing as recently as last Sunday the annual gala for the John Douglas French Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease, of which he was a founder.

A spokesman for the foundation said that although confined to a wheelchair, he had lined up the talent for the fund-raiser and "did everything but conduct the orchestra," as he usually did.

Mrs. Green said there will be a private celebration of her husband's life on Monday. In lieu of flowers, donations are asked to the French Foundation, 11620 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90025 or to the Bel-Air Presbyterian Church, where a new organ will bear his name.

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