Remembering Joe Harnell


Volume CVII, No. 10October, 2007

Bill Spilka

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Joe Harnell, 80, a Grammy winner, jazz pianist, accompanist, educator, composer and arranger, died two years ago, on July 14, 2005, after a diverse career lasting over six decades. He had been a Local 802 member since 1953.

At the time, Allegro didn’t run an obituary and I asked permission to write these reminiscences now to remember Joe’s life.

Born and raised in the Bronx, at 13 he was playing in his father’s klezmer band. Before he graduated from Christopher Columbus High School, he worked summers at the Concord and Grossingers in the Catskills and played jazz in Bronx beer gardens with Shorty Rogers, Harry DeVito and Hugo Montenegro.

Fascinated by bebop, he hung around 52nd street where Dizzy Gillespie hired him for his big band. Joe also worked with Sonny Dunham, Muggsy Spanier and in Henry Jerome’s avant-garde outfit that included Leonard Garment and Alan Greenspan on tenor saxes.

During World War II, Glenn Miller requisitioned him to join his band, but left for Europe before Joe finished basic training.

Joe ended up playing piano, writing arrangements and conducting for an Air Force jazz band called the Jive Bombers that toured France and Germany, where he met Dave Brubeck.

He received a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with William Walton in London.

After the war he continued his training with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.

In 1947 he took up flying as a hobby and ended up logging over 6,000 hours in the air.

During the 50’s and 60’s, Harnell played, wrote, arranged and conducted for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Mario Lanza, Beverly Sills, Peggy Lee as well as many other major stars.

During the Ford administration, Joe performed at the White House with Pearl Bailey, with whom he worked for many years. He was also an active member of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) and even served as their president.

In 1963, Joe took a little-known waltz by Bart Howard, “In Other Words,” arranged it for piano and strings, set it to the new bossa nova rhythm, and changed the title to “Fly Me To The Moon.” It sold over two million copies and won him his first Grammy award.

He recorded 18 albums as orchestra leader and pianist and had a total of two other Grammy and three Emmy nominations for his work.

Two years later Joe was musical director for the Grey Advertising agency and composed, arranged and conducted hundreds of commercials for clients such as Hertz, Rheingold, Procter & Gamble and P. Lorillard.

The Mike Douglas Show utilized Joe’s versatility from 1967 through 1973 and showcased such talents as Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong as well as variety and animal acts!

Next up was Harnell’s association with Ralph Edward’s “$100,000 Name That Tune,” which had armed guards escort Joe to and from the studio to prevent any hint of the scandals that disgraced the big game shows of the late fifties.

In 1973 Joe moved to California where he scored over 400 hours of television programming, including such popular series as “The Bionic Woman,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Alien Nation.”

Recent activities included teaching film and television scoring at the USC Thornton School of Music, writing the music for documentaries on Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, serving as musical director for a national tour commemorating the 100th birthday of Cole Porter, and in 2001, publishing a very candid and entertaining autobiography, “Counterpoint: The Journey of a Music Man.” 

Joe is survived by his wife Alice, three sons, two stepsons, a brother and two grandchildren.

Tax-deductible donations in his name may be made to the Joe and Alice Harnell Scholarship Fund, USC Thornton School of Music, Los Angeles, CA 90089-8051.