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  • Writer's pictureCarroll Coates

Song Story - “A Kiss Before Dying”

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

In all businesses and particularly in the movie industry, it’s all about connections. I was lucky enough to have a music publisher, Sam Weiss, who knew everyone in the music business, as my mentor during my time in Hollywood. Sam introduced me to the now-legendary film composer Lionel Newman, who was then the Assistant Musical Director for 20th Century Fox. It proved to be perfect timing for me as a “new kid in town”.

In the mid-1950s, the 20th Century Fox studio had yet to be engulfed by the collection of high rises now known as Central City. I remember driving my beloved Jag down Santa Monica Boulevard before turning off to pass through about a half-mile of now long-gone open fields before reaching the Santa Monica studio gate. The lot then consisted of many cottages that served as offices plus many iconic film sets, with their “street’ sides braced upright from the back but quite realistic from the front. The lot even included railroad tracks, complete with railroad cars. There were also a number of screening rooms, where I would later watch works in progress or finished films as I teamed up with Lionel to write lyrics for his melodies.

Over the next few years, the Fox lot would be the center of my musical world. It was a heady experience in my mid-20s to be invited to join the musical “club” where a formidable collection of top film composers, including Hugo Friedhofer, Bronislau Kaper and others, were under contract and led by Lionel’s famous older brother, Musical Director Alfred Newman – definitely a step up for this young aspiring British songwriter. I was also invited to join them after work at their favorite watering hole, the Luau Restaurant in Beverley Hills — though they clearly had a higher tolerance for the libations than I did.

The book “A Kiss Before Dying” had recently won the Edgar Allen Poe award for the best mystery of the year. Lionel was putting together the score for a new 20th Century Fox film of the same name starring Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward, and he was already having understandable difficulty finding a lyricist willing to deal with that challenging title. He had tried the principal big name “A” list lyricists of the time, but to no avail. In those days, movies usually had a theme song that was sung over the titles and also distributed separately as a promotion. The film production for “A Kiss Before Dying” was moving steadily ahead, but still there was no title song ready to go.

Sam suggested to Lionel that I might be able to write the lyric and arranged for me to meet him at the 20th Century lot. Lionel and I got on well from the start, as we shared a rather eccentric sense of humor. He was a real character, often writing funny and irreverent titles to songs in progress. Lionel and Sam soon started calling me “the English Muffin”, a nickname which they managed to spread around most of the music community. In his office, Lionel played the “lyricless” tune on his grand piano, handed me a penciled copy, and challenged me to write the lyric with a four-day deadline to deliver the goods. He then sent me off to a screening room for my private viewing of the movie.

With the end of production looming, I set to work, with the tune playing constantly in my mind over the next few days. The tune suggested certain words – in my mind there were words on top of notes as the lyrics came together. I was as surprised as Lionel and Sam that ahead of the four days, I was able to come up with what they considered the perfect lyric.

My lyric and Lionel’s melody became the title tune for “A Kiss Before Dying” just before the movie’s release. Our song was recorded and sung by Delores Hawkins, a well-known Hollywood movie and recording artist, and was released as a single.

Over the next few years, Lionel and I went on to collaborate on several more movie songs, launching me in a new direction of my musical career.

movie cover for a kiss before dying

Photo by Amazon

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