Joe Harnell, with his co-writer Ira Skutch, tells the story of his life from birth to the present, interweaving the details of his very successful professional career as pianist, composer, arranger and conductor with an account of his difficult personal life, including three failed marriages and a long struggle with alcoholism. Along the way he tells many interesting stories about his experiences in a wide variety of musical venues, and of stars he has worked with including Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Pearl Bailey, Julius LaRosa and Mike Douglas.
Harnell’s father was a klezmer musician who played accordion and violin, and he started Joe on the piano as a pre-teen. By age thirteen Harnell (born Hittelman) was playing with his father’s band in the Bronx, expanded to summer work in the Catskills, and by the time he reached high school he had begun to play with rising young jazz musicians like Shorty Rogers and Harry Devito. He studied other instruments in high school, and at night he haunted the jazz clubs. He got the chance to play for two weeks in Dizzy Gillespie’s rhythm section, and also worked with Henry Jerome at the time he was experimenting with a modern jazz band.
Young Joe won scholarships to Juilliard and to the University of Miami. Since his family had moved to Florida, he chose Miami. The war intervened after one semester. In New York he had met Glenn Miller, who told him he would requisition him if he were drafted. But the Miller band left for England before Joe completed basic training, and he was assigned to the 692nd Air Force Band, an offshoot of the Miller organization. He served in Germany and then received an Air Force scholarship to study at the Sorbonne.
Uncomfortable in Paris, Harnell applied to study composition at Trinity College in England with William Walton and was accepted. He returned to the States in 1946 as a budding young composer, developed further at Tanglewood, and in 1948 began traveling the country for a couple of years as Harry Richman’s accompanist and musical director. That job led to some prestigious fill-in work with Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra.
In 1953 Harnell moved to New York, where he began freelancing and did his first recording. He tells many lively stories about his adventures on the New York music scene. He took over as musical director for Marlene Deitrich from his friend Burt Bacharach, and stayed with her for a year before moving to the same job with Peggy Lee. He conducted for her for three years, also writing arrangements for her recordings.
While he was working on his first movie score, a bad auto accident nearly ended Harnell’s playing career. His right hand was severely damaged but a good surgeon was able to reconstruct it, and he eventually was able to play again – though without the dexterity he once had. In 1963 he made a recording of “Fly Me to the Moon” that won him a Grammy, earned some satisfying royalties, and established him as a recording artist. It also led to a job as musical director of Grey Advertising.
In 1967 Harnell moved to Philadelphia as music director for the Mike Douglas TV show, a job that lasted for several years and brought him into contact with many entertainers who appeared as guests on the show. Some of them later hired him to tour with them. Several encouraged him to go to California and write movie scores. In 1973 he took that advice, moved to Los Angeles, and found his way into the music industry, writing and conducting scores for movies and television.
The story of Harnell’s personal life, woven through that of his professional life, is a tortured counterpoint to the smooth progression of his musical work. He frankly discusses his alcoholism and the disintegration of three of his marriages, and describes the help he got on the way to sobriety and a happy fourth marriage. He is also amusingly candid about some of his working relationships that proved to be less than wonderful. The authors have included about 30 photos from various stages of Harnell’s life, as well as a discography. This book is available at the website and a copy is in the Local 802 library.