Composer Marvin Hamlisch died in Los Angeles on Monday at 68.
I was quite young during Hamlisch’s 1970s heyday — when the New Yorker scored three Oscars, four Grammys, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize for his work — so I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with much of his life and legacy. But somehow the music Hamlisch made still reached me.
Take “The Entertainer,” Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s ragtime tune featured in 1973′s The Sting. His recording scored him a #3 hit the following year and the Grammy for Best New Artist and Pop Instrumental. I wasn’t even a year old at the time of the film’s release, but a few years later a 45 single of “The Entertainer” was one of my most prized possessions. The black MCA Records label with the rainbow (as pictured at right) remains imprinted on my brain.
Can you imagine anything so left-field like “The Entertainer” reaching the top 5 today?
I’ve got a similar story to tell with “The Way We Were,” recorded by Barbra Streisand for the movie of the same name in which she starred. (Amazingly, like The Sting, The Way We Were was also released in 1973 and also co-starred Robert Redford.) “The Way We Were” spent three weeks at #1, became one of Streisand’s signature songs, and secured Hamlisch and his co-writers Alan and Marilyn Bergman two Grammys.
Like “The Entertainer,” “The Way We Were” found its way into my young hands — I might have been seven — a Columbia Records “Hall of Fame” reissue picked up at a rummage sale. Memories, like the corners of my mind…
The last Hamlisch song that’s inextricably connected to childhood for me is one I didn’t even know he had a hand in until a few days ago. Scanning a Billboard article written in the wake of his death, I discovered Hamlisch co-wrote “Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows,” a #13 hit for Lesley Gore in August 1965 (47 years ago last week, in fact).
Coming upon “Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows” in my dad’s record collection, I got stuck on the instant-happy of that song for weeks, playing it relentlessly (much to my parents’ chagrin, especially since it runs just a minute and a half long). Pure pop, the lyrics are catchy, but so too is the saxophone. “Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows” is a great example of words and music working in perfect harmony.
Someone in The Simpsons‘ writers room had similar love for “Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows,” as it was brilliantly featured in the 1993 episode, Marge On The Lam. I was absolutely delighted to hear Gore’s song blasting out of Chief Wiggam’s cassette deck — talk about left-field:
So while I never really followed Hamlisch, his compositions shaped me in small ways that I hadn’t realized until his passing. (I didn’t even mention “Nobody Does It Better” or A Chorus Line.) Read more about his career and accomplishments via The New York Times and Billboard.