Pete Rugolo dies at 95; jazz arranger, composer
Pete Rugolo, an award-winning composer and arranger who came to prominence in the world of jazz as the chief arranger for Stan Kenton’s post-World War II band and later wrote the themes for TV’s “The Fugitive” and “Run for Your Life,” has died. He was 95.
Rugolo, who also had a recording career with his own band, died Sunday of age-related causes at a nursing facility in Sherman Oaks,said his daughter, Gina Rugolo Judd.
“Pete Rugolo’s passing is a notable event, as he was a true and powerful original, whose music made an invaluable contribution to a very rich period in American music,” composer John Williams said in a statement to The Times on Monday.
As a composer and the chief arranger for Kenton from 1945 to 1949, Rugolo is credited with being a major force in shaping the progressive jazz sound of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
“Big bands of the Swing Era were on their way out, and he came along and brought this remarkable new life to that big band instrumentation,” music critic Don Heckman told The Times.
Rugolo won the DownBeat magazine poll as best arranger in 1947 — the first of five wins as best arranger over the next seven years.
After leaving Kenton, Rugolo began a two-year stint as the musical director for Capitol Records in New York, where he was responsible for discovering and recording new acts.
“Bebop was just starting then, and I signed all the bebop players for Capitol,” he recalled in a 1993 Times interview. “When their stars would come to New York — Peggy Lee, Mel Torme — it was up to me to record them.”
Among the artists Rugolo signed was Miles Davis, and he produced the famous “Birth of the Cool” sessions with Davis’ group.
But the Capitol job took too much time away from his main love: Writing music.
“I came out to Los Angeles to do a Nat Cole album and just decided to stay,” said Rugolo, who recorded numerous albums with his own bands in the ‘50s while also arranging and conducting recording dates for Billy Eckstine, June Christy, Peggy Lee and others.
He was working as an arranger and orchestrator at MGM and was West Coast musical director for Mercury Records when he broke into television in 1958 by writing a new theme for “The Thin Man,” the 1957-59 series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
He went on to write a new theme and music for “Richard Diamond: Private Detective,” the 1957-60 series starring David Janssen.
Among the shows he wrote themes and underscores for in the ‘60s are the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology series “Thriller” and, most notably, Janssen’s “The Fugitive” and “Run for Your Life,” starring Ben Gazarra — the latter series earning Rugolo three consecutive Emmy nominations.
For his extensive work as a composer in television, Rugolo won two Emmys — in 1970 for the TV movie “The Challengers” and in 1972 for an episode of “The Lawyers,” which was one of the rotating elements of “The Bold Ones” dramatic series.
“Pete Rugolo is one of only a handful of jazz writers to have made an immediate splash in writing original music for television in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” said Jon Burlingame, author of “TV’s Biggest Hits,” a 1996 book that chronicles the history of television themes.
“The trend starts in the fall of 1958 when ‘Peter Gunn’ goes on the air with a Henry Mancini score,” Burlingame said. “In 1959, Pete does ‘Richard Diamond: Private Detective’ with equally compelling dramatic jazz.”
But when “Thriller” debuted in the fall of 1960, Burlingame said, “Pete demonstrated a broader talent for writing music of a dark, mysterious and suspenseful tone.”
Indeed, Rugolo’s music for television extended far beyond jazz.
“‘Richard Diamond’ was a show written for a small jazz ensemble,” Burlingame said. “‘The Fugitive’ was written for a 55-piece symphonic orchestra. And that alone, I think, demonstrates Pete’s versatility as a composer.”
Born in San Piero Patti, Sicily,on Dec. 25, 1915, Rugolo moved to the United States in 1920 and settled in Santa Rosa, Calif. After earning a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College, he studied with avant-garde composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland.
He heard his first Kenton records during World War II while stationed at Ft. Scott in San Francisco, where he was in charge of the Army band.
“I just loved the sound of the [Kenton] band,” he recalled in the 1993 Times interview. “I started copying the music down from the records and began writing that way; my band sounded like a young Stan Kenton Orchestra.”
When he discovered that Kenton’s band would be playing at a San Francisco theater, Rugolo took several of the best arrangements he had written in the Kenton style backstage and gave them to Kenton.
A couple of months later, Rugolo received a phone call from Kenton, who had finally been able to try the arrangements.
“He said, ‘Gee, you write just like I do. As soon as you’re out of the Army, you’ve got a job.’ It sounded like a fairy story.”
In addition to his daughter, Gina, Rugolo is survived by his wife, Edye; his sons, Pete Jr. and Tony; and three grandchildren.
A funeral will be held for immediate family only; a public remembrance will be announced later.
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