“I felt he’d found my letters, and read each one out loud…”
You know why you love that song, “Killing Me Softly.” It’s not just the unabashedly confessional lyrics. It’s that heart-tugging tune that reached up into your life when you didn’t even know you needed it, and hasn’t left you since.
Charles Fox composed that tune, and hundreds more that have defined decades of American life on TV and radio, in the movies, on stage and in the concert hall. The theme songs for “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Love Boat,” the fanfare for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” and memorable movie-to-pop-chart hits including “I Got a Name” have earned him Emmy and Grammy awards and a lifetime of creative satisfaction, not to mention a spot in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Who wrote the music in “Barbarella”? In “Goodbye Columbus”? Who wrote everything but the title song in “Nine to Five”? Charles Fox.
On Sunday, April 28 Charles Fox will present a unique at-the-piano visit about his life and his work at the Stroum Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Touch lecture series.
“I’m happy to come to Seattle to sing my music,” he said via cellphone from the car as Joan, his wife of 50 years, drove them down the coast from L.A. to visit grandchildren. He reflects on what matters: “Our three children all saw me working day and night, and my wife Joan providing support for this career, so they grew up with this great work ethic,” he said. The couple has three children: A daughter, who is an attorney, and two sons, one a businessman, the other a writer of movies.
“I know where I got that work ethic,” he continued. “My father was a hard-working window cleaner. But he left home and came home every day in a suit and a tie, like he was ready to go to synagogue.”
In 1959, Charles Fox was an 18-year-old musically talented kid from the Bronx, already experienced making Latin music in the Catskills, when he was welcomed into the 20th century’s preeminent composers’ training studio, that of the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Back home, his Jewish mother lovingly saved all his sweet letters, and Fox, one of the nice, most humble guys show business has ever seen, published many of these in his 2010 memoir, “Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music.”
“I was just going to call it ‘A Composer’s Journey,’” he confesses, “but some friends made me reconsider.” Good move, obviously, from a publicity point of view. But not just that. “The title really has two meanings,” said Fox — the allusion to the blockbuster hit song, and the sense that, although life does have to end eventually, his life’s journey is as soft as that song.
“I feel so privileged,” said the man who has spent his career among the most competitive talents in the world. Educated in the best classical tradition, Fox creates work that transcends popular music and media: He composes and conducts for stages and concert halls around the world. Like Stravinsky and Copland, who also studied with Boulanger, he has created ballets: First for San Francisco Ballet, and then for its offshoot, Smuin Ballet, for which he is working on something new.
The Polish government commissioned Fox to compose and conduct the 2010 premier of “Fantaisie, Hommage à Chopin,” for the 200th anniversary of the birth of that legendary Polish composer. He conducted it in Gdansk for an audience of 22,000 at the birthplace of the country’s Solidarity movement.
That same year, Fox scored the documentary film “100 Voices: a Journey Home,” a powerful exploration of Jewish cultural history in Poland (it played at the 2011 Seattle Jewish Film Festival). In it, he joined his own synagogue rabbi, Nathan Lam, and over 300 others in walking paths his own father had known as a child. Fox composed an oratorio for orchestra, baritone soloist, chorus and children’s chorus called “Lament and Prayer,” a setting of Pope John Paul’s message of atonement to the Jewish people (the one he tucked into the Western Wall in Jerusalem).
“It was a very significant thing,” Fox said, for him to conduct the world premier at the Warsaw Opera House with the Poland National Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra.
Right now, Fox is eagerly anticipating a return to Poland. He’s been commissioned to compose a piece for the 2014 opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Earlier this month, Joan and Charles Fox celebrated with a synagogue in Stamford, Connecticut, where a Torah from his father’s home synagogue in Poland has come to stay. “Every Jew from that town perished,” Fox said, grateful that his father made it out before the worst. “One man in the town preserved that Torah wrapped in a horse blanket.”
Fox has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers and Lyricists. He chairs the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s been honored by the Polish Ministry of Culture for contributions to the arts and rebuilding Polish-Jewish relations.
“I have no less an excitement now than I did when I was I starting out,” Fox said. “The work makes me feel just as passionate and young.”