Mort n’ Curley

Following the Paths of Two Extremely Talented High School Kids

I was two years behind both Mort and Curley when I entered North Hollywood High School. They were both seniors while I was just beginning the 10th grade. But it didn’t take long before I learned about these two very talented individuals. Mort Subotnick played the clarinet and Curley Williams the piano.

While I never got to know them personally, I always assumed that they were friends since they shared such a passion for music and often showed up in photos together in school publications like our weekly newspaper and the year books.

L-R Curley and Mort are at the right side of the middle row, net to the teacher



Barely into my first semester I remember being wowed by Mort’s one-man clarinet performance at an assembly in our school’s auditorium.  He played a solo rendition of  Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” that was phenomenal.  I’d never heard any one so talented. I’d been playing the clarinet myself for four or five years in my grammar school and jr. high school orchestras. But this guy was way beyond any level that I could hope to reach.

Our high school orchestra. That’s Mort in back row, left corner.

Curley, on the other hand, had a higher profile around the campus because he had organized a musical group made up of other talented campus kids, who’s fathers also happened to be professional musicians. Not surprisingly the group was called the Curley Williams Combo, and was the regular “go to” musical group at our school dances and other events put on by our various social clubs.

Curley’s Combo L-R Curley on piano, Mel Pollon, bass; Don Ingle, trumpet, sax-unk, Perry Botkin, trombone, Gene Estes, drums.

During that first semester a branch of Bob’s Big Boy restaurants had opened in Toluca Lake. It instantly became the hi school hangout for many of us, after dates on weekends, but especially on Wednesday nights, which was club night for all of our school’s social clubs.

You knew when Curley was there because you’d often find him leading an impromptu “Du Wop” session with some of his musician buddies, on the sidewalk in front of “Bob’s”.

Bob’ Big Boy, the iconic mascot at the entrance of every one of their restaurants.

Mort, on the other hand, was more of a loner and kept his public musicianship limited to our high school band and orchestra. Unfortunately I lost track of him once he graduated, and couldn’t even find a graduation picture of him in our high school annual. Just two grainy photos. One of he and Curley in our “Huskies” marching band group shot, and another in a group shot of our smaller school orchestra.

Keeping closer tabs on Curley was easy because he was so well known on campus, and I also knew his younger brother, Jerry. Also a musician, Jerry was the drummer in the combo that replaced his brother’s group after they all graduated.

Curley’s high school graduation picture in the Annual.

After high school and a few semesters in college at UCLA and L.A. City College, he enlisted in the Air Force. This was the era of the Korean and many eligible guys joined it to avoid being drafted into the Army.

Needless to say, Curley’s musical talents got him into the U.S. Air Force Band, where he conducted and arranged some of their music, and also played both the piano, and brass…as needed.

After his discharge in 1955 he moved to New York to attend Julliard, where he studied piano with the renowned Russian teacher, Rosina Lhevinne1.  Meanwhile he continued playing piano in various jazz clubs around the city.

Mort’s life after high school was very much like Curley’s, at least in the beginning. Drafted into the Army, he used his clarinet virtuosity to wangle his way into the 6th Army Band, which kept him out of combat during the Korean War. After his discharge he enrolled in Mills College in Denver, and studied with the renowned avant guard French composer, Darius Milhaud. It was at this point that Mort’s life began to take a different turn.

As brilliant as he was with the clarinet and classical music, he began looking for something beyond the traditional. His search began when he moved to San Francisco, but he was also able to make a living using his classical music talent as a concert musician, conductor and sometime composer. 

At the same time he found a group of like-minded avant-guard musicians and composers, who helped to focus his sights on finding a truly new direction. Some yet unknown but revolutionary new form of music that would make use of this rapidly moving era of developing technology. Mort was intent on using it to find a whole new way of creating and listening to it.

While experimenting on his own with electronic music, he realized how much he hated anything that required a keyboard because, as he said, “…it just uses a new technology to play old music. Bach played on a piano is already perfect. So why would it sound any better played electronically?”

He experimented with numerous but unsatisfying approaches until he met Don Buchla, a brilliant musically oriented electronic technician. Together they devised the first key-boardless synthesizer, which allowed Mort to literally compose the music as he played it, creating brand new sound gestures as he went along.

Mort surrounded by Buchla’s early keyboard-less electronic music system.

That evolved into the work that made him a celebrity, “Silver Apples of the Moon” which was commissioned by Nonesuch Records ca 1966-7.

This was his dream to make a recording for the first time of an original large-scale composition, created specifically to be played on one’s home stereo system. Mort considered this to be the contemporary way of listening to chamber music.

“Silver Apples of the Moon” has since become a modern classic and was recently entered into the National Register of Recorded Works at the Library of Congress. Only 300 recordings have been chosen throughout the entire history of recorded music. 

Meanwhile as the world of technology continued its rapid expansion into home computers, smart phones, the internet, etc, Mort was still not satisfied and continued looking far ahead, hoping to develop even more musical forms and ways to present them.

At the same time he continued to write for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater and multimedia productions. But these forms gave him new platforms to work with. As he continued looking ahead, he continued to absorb the rapidly evolving technology, using it to devise new ways of advancing the staging of these live performances.

As an example, he began finding ways to use traditional musical instruments to control computer generated sounds. And later, he was staging performances utilizing live interaction between singers, musicians and computers.

Then he began turning his energy toward teaching young children, by creating pioneering works that offer them creative musical tools. His goal was to bypass the traditional form of creating music where the composer first puts the notes on a sheet of paper. 

Mort as he looks today, still on his quest.

His intention was to substitute it with spontaneous forms of interactivity like playing with blocks or coloring books. To achieve this, he created a series of “CD-RoHms” for children, along with a children’s website www.creatingmusic.com, while also developing programs for the classroom and after school activities.

With all this going on, he still finds time to tour extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a lecturer and composer/performer.

Meanwhile Curley Williams was also pursuing his musical career, although in a more traditional direction. After his stint at Julliard and New York jazz clubs, he moved back to L.A., and began working as a session musician.

This led him to a regular gig with composer Henry Mancini, working primarily on the soundtrack for “Peter Gunn”, and the “Mr. Lucky TV series.

By the 1960s he began composing regularly for TV shows like “M Squad”, while serving as music arranger and bandleader for a series of pop music albums with two singers, Ray Vasquez and Frankie Laine.

By the mid ‘50s he had also shed the “Curley” moniker and was simply referred to as Johnny Williams.

Many of you have probably guessed by now that as his popularity grew and he began composing for feature films, his name changed yet again to the more sophisticated, John Williams. From here on his stature and popularity skyrocketed, and as one could say, “the rest is history”!

Nevertheless, here’s what has happened since then:

He won 25 Grammy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, five Academy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards. With 52 Academy Award nominations, he is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney.

John Williams on the podium.

In 2005, the American Film Institute selected his film score for the original 1977’s Star Wars as the greatest American film score of all time.

His “Raiders March,” the hero’s theme from the blockbuster Indiana Jones movie series, has been judged the most recognizable score, and has also become the musical thread that ties all the later Raiders films together.

In addition to his movie scores, he composed “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” as the official music for the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. 

On July 27, 1984, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for its West Coast premiere at the Hollywood Bowl, and as the opening “Prelude to the Olympic Games”.

Simultaneously nurturing it’s dramatic introduction the concert was also broadcast live on KUSC-FM and other radio stations across the country.

Then the following day, July 28, John Williams, himself, led the “New American Orchestra” conducting his new Olympic theme at the opening ceremonies for the 23rd Olympiad at the Los Angeles Coliseum – a theme that has since become recognized as “the Official score” for all Olympic events that have followed.

John Williams with Steven Spielberg, who’s films came alive because of John’s music.

It still amazes me how the careers of Mort and Curley began essentially side by side. Yet, I don’t think they ever truly intersected, unless Mort happened to sit in with Curley’s combo as a guest clarinet on occasion.

Nevertheless here were two gifted high school musicians who both evolved into world-renowned innovators. Yet they couldn’t have ended up farther apart in the directions they chose.

Here was Mort driven by technology and the idea of creating new ways to define music. Yet he was never satisfied with today’s musical forms, but compelled to continue looking far into the future for his inspiration. Knowing that his appeal was limited to a rarified zone was never and issue, yet he continues to gather world wide support.

Curley, on the other hand, followed the more traditional path into his musical career. But by using his incredible talent at creating memorable musical scores for films, TV and even the Olympics, he is now regarded as the most influential composer of film scores of all time. His work has influenced not only other film composers, but contemporary, classical and popular music composers as well.

It’s been fun for me to look back on these two as just guys in high school having fun with music. The only difference was that they both had talent that was well beyond the reach for most of us mortals. Yet as far as I know, at nearly ninety years of age, these two are almost as active as ever.

1.Years later he confessed in a 2012 interview with NPR that at Juilliard he heard “players like John Browning and Van Cliburn around the place, who were also students of Rosina’s, and I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the competition, I think I’d better be a composer!”

POST SCRIPT

Rue! –

Barbara Ruick, or “Rue” to her friends, was one other connection I had with John/Curley Williams, beside his brother Jerry. She was John’s wife, although it was way back in high school when I knew her.

Rue came from a show biz family. Her mother and father were both actors. But Mel Ruick, her father, was not as well known as her mother, Lurene Tuttle. Lurene had a very long list of film, TV and radio credits, but was probably best know to us old radio fans as the ever present “Effie”; Detective Sam Spade’s secretary in the famous radio show.

Rue and Curley go back to the very early days of the formation of his band. She was his singer, and started with him when she was only fourteen. She was with them until the group broke up after they all graduated

A senior herself, when I was a lowly 10th grader, “Rue” and I became what you would call “lunch bench buddies. We enjoyed talking to each other, mainly during our lunch hours, in the school’s quad. 

But what probably sealed our friendship was the time I helped her with a script she had to memorize for a live TV commercial. She’d been hired to be in one that was scheduled to air during Pasadena’s New Years Day Rose Parade that year. And it was going to be LIVE!!!!

The spot was for the then popular Hoffmann television sets, sponsored by a local appliance store. Staging was simple: it involved one of their deluxe TV consoles in the center of the screen, flanked by two lovely young girls in skimpy French maid attire. One was named, “Sight” and the other, “Sound”.

Since it was a :60 second spot, shot live – as were most spots in those days – Rue was adamant about learning her lines. There would be no opportunity for retakes, plus it was to be shot during the Parade, no matter what the weather.

I told her I’d help her. And so we spent the next few lunch hours together rehearsing the script. In it the girls each had names. Rue was “Sight”, so I of course was “Sound”.

As a result the opening line is still vividly etched in my memory….

“Hi, I’m Sight”, “and I’m Sound”!!!

 Then after the intro, the girls proceed to describe all the modern advantages of Hoffmann’s massive 12 inch, black and white TV.

But after Rue left high school, I lost track of her. From then on the only contact I had was what I read in the papers. I knew she had two failed marriages, did a lot of TV, but only had a few minor “starlet” roles in movies. That was until she got a principal part in “Carousel”, co-starring with Shirley Jones and Gordon McCrea. It was a true showcase for her acting and singing talents. 

Rue sings to Shirley Jones in the first act of Carrousel.

But what really pleased me was to learn that she and “Curley” finally got back together when the two married in 1956. They went on to raise a daughter and two sons, and spent nearly two decades as a happy family.

But sadly it all came to an abrupt end in 1974, when Rue was on location for a movie in Reno, Nevada, and died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was only 44 years old.