A Biographical Essay by Fabrice Bertolaso, Pascal Dupont and Quentin Billard
Special thanks to Mr. Martin Davis for the English translation
Named William after his grandfather, Bill Conti was born on April 13, 1942 in Providence, Rhode Island. He joined an Italian-American family whose interests included sculpture, music and painting, but it was the second of those arts which played a major role in the young man’s development: there was a radio on the table at home, and the family would spend whole evenings listening to the operas of Verdi, Puccini and many others. By the time Bill was seven, he would know them well enough to listen to his father and grandfather singing those airs in such a way that his own tears would flow freely. His elders were both musicians, and they sang often. Bill could already imagine their songs as scenes from films… In addition to being a painter and sculptor, his father was also a talented concert-pianist, and he reinforced Bill’s musical fibre when he taught him the piano.
At the age of fifteen Bill started to be noticed at school in Miami; he had exceptional gifts, not the least of which was his talent for communicating emotion. At seventeen he was conducting the school orchestra and winning prizes (among them the Miami Herald’s ‘Silver Knight Award’). His music-teacher was astute enough to suggest that Bill might learn to play bassoon; it was easier to carry of course, and also less in demand than the piano, but his orchestra-teacher was sure she could help a bassoon-player obtain a scholarship to Louisiana State University [LSU] in Baton Rouge. LSU was “Tigerland” (the University’s Marching Band was known as “The Golden Band from Tigerland”), and the campus was famous for the standard of its music courses; Bill Conti took up the bassoon at North Miami Senior High, studied it well, won a scholarship, and duly went to Baton Rouge, where he joined the Tigers’ “Golden Band” as their… piccolo-player. It was, “one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, it takes your breath away,” said Conti. While studying for his degree in composition, he was first chair bassoon with the symphony orchestra, staff arranger for the LSU Tigers Marching Band, and an accompanist for the LSU Ballet Corps. The modern dance-section of the latter was known as “The Golden Girls”, and it was there that he met dancer Shelby Cox, the future Mrs Bill Conti. No single post at LSU had more influence on him than accompanying the Ballet Corps: “I’d studied music all my life, but the formal education at LSU began with Pearl Willis, Frank Page, Helen Gunderson… teachers that shaped my musical career because I was interested in certain things…” He familiarized himself with other instruments also, although not to the point where he would neglect his piano: he played jazz at local nightclubs to offset the costs of his education.
He sailed through LSU, passing all his exams with flying colours. His compositional talents and the influence exerted by his teachers led Bill to choose a graduate school with a deserved reputation for the teaching it provided to would-be composers: the famous Juilliard School in New York. Conti’s performances at Juilliard made his teachers sit up and take notice: Hugo Weisgall, his Professor of Composition, Vincent Persichetti, Jorge Mester, Roger Sessions and Luciano Berio. Conti spent this precious period developing his skills to perfection; when he graduated, with (another) Bachelor’s degree from Juilliard after LSU and also a Master’s, he had won distinctions in orchestration, and also the Marion Feschl Prize for song-creation. In 1967, his Juilliard teacher Hugo Weisgall was elected Resident Composer of the American Academy in Rome, and Bill decided to follow his teacher to Italy. It was a return to the land of his fathers, and Conti lived in Milan and Rome, where he was notably Music Director for the successful Italian pop/rock opera Orfeo 9 composed by Tito Schipa Jr.
To earn a living in Rome, Conti composed, arranged and played for the young Italian pop generation (Patty Pravo, Guido Renzi, Ornella Vanoni etc.) He also taught music theory and harmony to a son of the best-selling author Morris West, and became a close friend of the family. They encouraged him to begin orchestrating for prominent Italian film composers and songwriters, and Conti conducted scoring sessions and record-sessions.
In parallel, anonymously, he was writing film-music for such well-known Italian composers as Riz Ortolani, Piero Piccioni or Manuel de Sica, but this was leading him nowhere. He could see no future for his career if he remained an anonymous participant in films and arrangements that failed to achieve box-office success; his name would never be known. The only advantage he could see at present was that every orchestration to which he contributed was helping to hone his craft as a film musician. Finally, this terrain would see Conti’s gifts blossom forth with a jazz-tinged composition he scored for the 1969 British production MADEMOISELLE DE SADE (director Warren Kiefer). It marked an official beginning to his career, and he went on to write the music for Morris West’s play THE HERETIC, before composing his first film score, for the feature A CANDIDATE FOR KILLING directed by Jose Maria Elorrieta.
In 1970 Bill Conti would work uncredited on Vittorio de Sica’s film THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS (alongside Manuel de Sica, who was credited with the music), and the following year his career took a major turn after he met American filmmaker Paul Mazursky, who was working on his new film BLUME IN LOVE. Mazursky appointed Bill Conti as his musical director, and later encouraged Bill to return to the USA where in 1972, in California, Mazursky contacted him again, this time for a project that would tell the story of a man and his cat… That film was HARRY AND TONTO, for which Art Carney won the Oscar as Best Actor in 1974; and Bill Conti’s music was heard around the world. Suddenly, he was now an emerging composer.
Thanks to HARRY AND TONTO, Conti met director John G. Avildsen while he was filming WW AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS with Burt Reynolds. Bill didn’t work on the film because Reynolds had a say in the matter and told Lionel Newman, the head of the Music Department at 20th Century Fox, not to hire him. It wouldn’t matter: Avildsen turned to United Artists and recommended Conti, who found himself contracted to write the music for… ROCKY. It turned out to be the chance of a lifetime: the job carried a twenty-five thousand dollar salary and a three-hour session earned Conti some fifteen thousand dollars. It was the best hourly rate in the business… and the music created for ROCKY catapulted Conti to fame. The song he composed for the film, Gonna Fly Now, earned Conti an Oscar nomination, and subsequently the two became inseparable: ever since ROCKY, his song and Avildsen’s film are always mentioned in the same breath, and it has become impossible to forget the name of the composer…. So Conti could now fly also, joining the ranks of the great film-composers alongside Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.
The moment seemed right for America to welcome a style that only Bill Conti could provide. The days of the epic seemed to be over and audiences were looking for something new. Bill Conti would incarnate that renaissance in a style that didn’t belong to any one period; for one, the style blended genres, combining classical elements (opera, baroque…) with rock and pop, and Conti skilfully gave rhythm to his films while his scores aroused emotions in the spectator. In a word, Conti and the screen became one, accelerating or slowing the action and, above all, adding emotional perspective to the director’s images.
Conti would find himself at the core of an American “New Wave“, surrounded by filmmakers, actors and producers of talent carrying him to new heights, and his music seemed to partner films as vitally as the early musicians accompanied Greek tragedy: with a repertoire of musical emotions whose accents and melodies could match any change of image with absolute precision. Conti excelled in music and he also worked hard. Success came naturally, and he never turned down an offer; he would absorb every film and breathe its atmosphere until his creations were complete.
He surrounded himself with musicians who were exceptional soloists, among them Antony Ortega and Maynard Ferguson, and peerless technicians capable of the perfect finishing touch, like the great scoring mixer Danny Wallin. Conti’s passion for jazz also brought him ideas that could result in a simple saxophone/trumpet pairing to convey a particular emotion: all you have to do is listen to his music for GLORIA, F.I.S.T., PARADISE ALLEY or UNCLE JOE SHANNON, all films where the music plays a capital role. Conti went on to become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after composers and conductors for both film and television. His compositions have sold in excess of 8 million albums, and a star bearing his name was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989. In 1995, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers awarded Conti the “Golden Soundtrack Award” for lifetime achievement in film and television. Conti’s work for the small screen has been equally acclaimed, receiving a total of 10 Emmy nominations throughout his career. He won two Emmy Awards in 1990 for developing the creative concept, and composing the score, for the running of the New York City Marathon. He won his third Emmy in 1992 for his musical direction during the telecast of the Academy Award Ceremonies, marking the first time an Emmy was awarded for an Oscar-ceremony participant.
For Bill Conti, his work is a science that remains his own, and reaching an agreement over the music with producers and filmmakers can sometimes make compromise a necessity; but he speaks his mind, and he will always make his opinion clear when views diverge. As for his music, it speaks for him in every film, and what you hear is exactly what he feels. In every scene. “Gonna fly now…“