Remembering Ian Fraser
Esteemed journalist Jon Burlingame reflects on the life of Ian Fraser, television's most-honored composer, with this heartfelt Film Music Society tribute. Fraser's friend and fellow artist Julie Andrews also shares her thoughts.
Ian Fraser, the most-honored musician in the history of television and the winner of 11 Emmys, died Friday morning, Oct. 31, at his Los Angeles home. He was 81; family members attributed the cause of death to complications from cancer.
As a musical director, Fraser was responsible for the polished, classy orchestral sound of dozens of television specials.
Although he often worked for the producing team of Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith, his services were constantly sought by any producer with good taste in music.
He enjoyed long and musically stimulating associations with Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse and Julie Andrews, on Broadway, in films and on television.
He conducted the Emmy Awards ceremonies in 1984, 1993 and 2002, conducted the Oscar telecast in 1984, and shared the podium with John Williams for "Liberty Weekend" in 1986.
Fraser's record of 32 Emmy nominations – all in the "music direction" category, since 1976 – is believed to be unsurpassed by any other composer, arranger or conductor in Emmy history.
His 11 wins are also more than any other musician, including two for Julie Andrews specials (1988, 1990) and two for Christmas in Washington (1985, 1989), which he launched in 1982 and has conducted every year since then (earning another 12 Emmy nominations along the way).
Said Julie Andrews: "Ian was my beloved friend, trusted conductor, arranger, pianist and all-around musical genius. I will miss him very much, indeed. As a mentor, he encouraged me to try things that enhanced my knowledge of music and my singing abilities. Having him in my life, which he helped shape so much, was a gift he gave to me. My heart goes out to his family."
Fraser was also deeply committed to the composing community of Los Angeles. He was in the middle of his 10th term as a governor of the Television Academy, and worked hard to improve both the music Emmys and the environment for television composers generally. He was also a past president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers.
As his fellow governor Michael A. Levine said, "Ian was an outstanding governor, a brilliant musician, and, above all, a great human being. We were blessed to have him."
Fraser was the last person to conduct "White Christmas" for Bing Crosby, on Crosby's last holiday special in 1977. For that same show, he collaborated in the writing of the "Peace on Earth" duet for Crosby and David Bowie (as a counterpoint to "The Little Drummer Boy") which is now famous and was featured on a 2002 Christmas album that sold 2 million copies.
His television collaborations with Ben Vereen, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Linda Lavin won Emmys (in 1978, 1980 and 1981), as did his musical celebration of Richard Rodgers (1977), the Screen Actors Guild's 50th anniversary (1984), the American Teacher Awards (1991) and President Clinton's Inaugural Gala (1993).
Fraser's job as music director involved more than just conducting the shows; he chose the arrangers and orchestrators who helped to prepare the material that would be played or sung on all these shows.
"I've always been lucky that the best people have enjoyed working on these shows," he told me in 1997, "like the late, great Billy Byers and, from the mid '70s through the '80s, Ralph Burns. Over the years, I've also had the pleasure of working with Chris Boardman, J. Hill, Angela Morley, Bill Ross and Bob Florence – and, more recently, Eddie Karam and Harold Wheeler, all wonderful arrangers."
Fraser will be remembered, as former Academy governor Bruce Broughton put it, as "the last of the great, elegant music directors. His arrangements could be dazzling, and he always knew what to do, musically, with an act or a show."
Fraser is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, the former Judee Morton; three children; a brother and a sister; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Donations in his name may be made to the American Cancer Society or Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. A celebration of his life will be scheduled at a later date.
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