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Leith Stevens

September 3, 1909 - July 23, 1970
born in Mount Moria, MO, composed during the Modern period
Film and television composer Leith Stevens remains best known for his score to the Marlon Brando classic The Wild One. Born in Mount Moriah, Missouri on September 13, 1909, Stevens was a child prodigy who by the age of 11 was playing professionally behind Kansas City-area vocalists, making his debut as conductor by 16. Awarded a Julliard Foundation Fellowship in 1927, three years later he relocated to serve as the pianist with the Chicago Opera Company before returning to New York City to work as an arranger with CBS Radio. Stevens migrated to Hollywood in 1939 to compose and conduct the score for the Edward G. Robinson radio series Big Town, and three years later he completed his first film score for the RKO production Syncopation. During World War II he directed radio programming for the U.S. Office of War Information; upon returning to Hollywood he helped form the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, serving as the organization's president for eight years. Although his film commissions included uncredited contributions to big-budget productions like the 1946 perennial It's a Wonderful Life and 1953's The War of the Worlds, Stevens did his finest work in low-budget B-pictures, infusing little-seen film noirs like Crashout and Private Hell 36 with percussive, bebop-influenced scores that preceded the jazz innovations of better-known Hollywood composers like Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein by some months -- likewise, his jazz score for 1953's The Wild One (performed by Shorty Rogers) combined with Brando's landmark performance to earn the enmity of conservative watchdogs. In 1956 Stevens earned his first Academy Award nomination for writing the title theme to the film Julie; he was also nominated in 1959 for his work on The Five Pennies and again in 1963 for A New Kind of Love. He also worked in television, scoring Lost in Space and several seasons of Mission: Impossible, and additionally headlined a pair of LPs: the Coral label release Jazz Themes for Cops and Robbers and Exploring the Unknown. Stevens was working as the musical director at Universal at the time of his death on July 23, 1970 -- his wife was killed in an auto accident earlier that same day, and after notifying friends and family of her death, he suffered his own fatal heart attack. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi
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