Bum, da, da, dum, dum, du, du, du, Pop! That's my flimsy
transliteration of what might arguably be considered the most
recognizable theme to ever grace a network television show.
Jonathan Wolff is the man who took those finger pops and lip
smacks and turned them in to cultural icons. As I interviewed
him, I realized that he's a lot more than just a great composer.
He's also a great business person. He had so much good information
to share, I decided to turn this in to a two-part interview.
Don't miss part two next month. You can't find this information
in any books I know of! (Ed.)
Where did you grow up?
In Louisville, Kentucky.
What was it that first got you into music?
I always played music as a kid. I just liked doing it, and
eventually it became more important to me than other things;
like sports. I did those things too, but I mostly just played
lots and lots of music. I thought it was cool to write songs
and record them. And at a certain point, early in high school,
I realized that it was a tool for popularity.
To meet girls?
That or just kids that I would normally have nothing to do
with. For kids who would otherwise have had no reason to be
friends with me; all of a sudden, I was useful.
I'll bet you owned a Farfisa Mini Compact.
Oh God yes, I had everything. I scoured the pawn shops constantly
for electric pianos and portable organs and other instruments.
I read in your bio that you were playing bar mitzvahs and
weddings and parties before you could drive. You were also
doing arrangements for local big bands and acting as a music
director for local theater and opera groups, as well as producing
tracks for local artists. How did you get all those gigs as
a kid with peachfuzz on your face? Are you that rare combination
of musician and businessman?
It was a small pond at the time. There weren't that many
people who had all that much experience, and Louisville was
starting to grow, starting to have production needs, radio
spots and station I.D.'s. Up to that point, it couldn't have
supported many production professionals. I just happened to
be there at the right time, anxious and eager to do all that
stuff, and I did it until I developed a little bit of a reputation.
Did you ride your bike to gigs or did you
have your parents drive you (laughs)?
Sometimes my folks drove me. But whenever possible, I'd make
it part of my deal that someone would have to pick me up.
Actually it was kind of cool. Because I was Music Director
for a lot of fashion shows and beauty pageants, they'd always
have one of the models or contestants pick me up from school
to take me to the rehearsals.
Tough gig! Let's talk about when you moved
to L.A. in ë76 to go to USC and dropped out after a year
to go to work as a studio musician/orchestrator/recording
engineer. How did you become connected enough to work on records
and scores and jingles after being here in L.A. for only one
year and being so young?
I was seventeen when I got here. I played on a lot of demos
for people at school and just started meeting people by playing
sessions. I got really serious about being a keyboardist,
and the other instrumentsthey're nice, but I realized that
in this town, you have to be really good at what you do, and
you've got to focus on that as a musician. So I concentrated
on piano and keyboards. Also, remember it was 1976the time
of the synth revolution, Sequential Circuits and Oberheim
and Moog. It was a great time to be a keyboardist for those
artists who made that leap into it. That I could play piano
and the extra keyboards got me a lot of work on records, jingles
and TV scores.
People might think your success came directly
from working on "Seinfeld," but you were already
quite successful before you began working on "Seinfeld"
in 1990. You worked on episodes of shows like "Falcon
Crest," "Love Boat," "21 Jump Street,"
"Alice," "Perfect Strangers," "Fantasy
Island". I would imagine that most of the music that
you did for those shows was pretty straight ahead. How did
you get picked to be Seinfeld's guy and how did you come up
with the music that was for its time, as unusual as the show
I did a lot of special material for the shows you mentioned;
often when they needed a song written or a dance routine,
a production number,that's what I did. And I had been sole
composer on several series before "Seinfeld" came
out. I had already been doing "Who's The Boss,"
which at the time was a big hit. "Seinfeld" because
of its huge, unprecedented popularity, would have catapulted
anybody's career who was sitting in that composer's seat.
I just happened to be sitting in the right seat at the right
time, in the right vehicle, and yes, it helped my career a
So why did they call you? How did you get the gig?
My good buddy George Wallace.
The comedian or the late Governor of Alabama
The comedian. George and I had been on the road together
for years. I'd conduct, he'd do the opening acts, and we got
to be friendly. We had a couple acts that we did at the same
time. Tom Jones and Diana Ross if I remember correctly. He
and Jerry are best friends. Jerry actually does have a best
friend named George and he mentioned to me that his buddy
Jerry Seinfeld was trying to get this show going and he was
having trouble with music. They kept talking to composers
and hearing music that they didn't like and they weren't sure
what to do, so he hooked me up with Jerry. George said to
me, "You're gonna get this call from Jerry, be nice to
And is George still getting 10% of all the
money you make from those shows?
I tell George that I owe him a small island somewhere and
an airline to get him back and forth. Jerry called me directly
and said "George Wallace said you're my man," and
showed me what some other composers had tried for him. I recognized
that it wasn't a musical problem, rather a sound design problem.
At the time, the pilot was called "The Seinfeld Chronicles"
and the opening titles had Jerry doing stand up materialwith
every week being a different monologue. Jerry wanted music
that was signature and unique and quirkyidentifiable. Remember,
this was the late '80s, signature, identifiable TV music meant
melody. Thematic melody.
Right, like "Cheers" or "L.A.
Whatever. You can't have melody while he's trying to do monologuethey
butt heads. So the sound design problem I saw was that the
opening title already had its melodyit's Jerry! So I built
the music around him. And instead of using standard instruments
like drums and clarinets, because of the human nature of the
melodyhis voice, I went with the organic sounds of the finger
snaps, mouth pops, lip smacks, and tongue noises.
Did you sample yourself doing it?
Yeah. And for the pacing, I watched some of his HBO Special
and noticed that he has a rhythmic, musical pacing to the
way he delivers his monologue. I clocked a tempo for itabout
110, and built the music around him at that tempo. The bass
mainly hangs out in a frequency range that doesn't interfere
with his voice, below himit supports him as a bass does
with a melody.
You must have learned this from doing commercials
Yeah, because you want a clear cut frequency path for your
voice-over artists or your jingle singers so that they're
front and center and clear while being supported by good production.
Same thing when you're making a record. And that's how I built
this theme for "Seinfeld." To adapt to different
monologues, the music is completely modular. And it workedit
was quirky and fun and identifiable and signature.
Did he love it when he heard it?
He did. He really liked it a lot. He liked that it was kind
of weird. That was the first thing he said about it.
He didn't send you back in for re-writes
over and over again?
He was the coolest. Actually, he came over one day and I
showed him, I had already reviewed his material and mocked
up a groove and he sat here while I created this "thing"
for him. When he left, that was itit was done. He called
me the next day and said "That was cool, that was fun!
Can we do it again? Just ëcause I'm free and if you're
available, let's make sure that we've got what we want."
So he came back and we tinkered some more. To be honest, I
don't remember which day's version we ended up using.
Has the "Seinfeld" theme become
any kind of an albatross for you? Has it become so signature
for you as a composer that people come to you now looking
for totally quirky or do they still come to you looking for
big lush dramatic themes?
It hasn't hurt me. At the moment that hasn't happened. In
general, Hollywood, particularly the TV industry, is a ëme-too'
town. People want to be associated with winners and they want
to emulate and learn from and repeat the successes of others.
So "Seinfeld" certainly put me on the list of potential
composers for a lot of shows that certainly I wouldn't have
been on if not for the "Seinfeld" association. First
of all, Castle Rock, the company that produced "Seinfeld"
has been really good to me; they've been very loyal. So yeah,
"Seinfeld" has been a very good thing for me during
and after the series.
But, in answer to your question. It's all fresh. Each job
starts over. Obviously, I can't use the twangy bass because
it's "Seinfeld." In fact, some of my friends who
are composers, have complained to me that they can't use it
What advice do you have for someone who
wants to get in to the same kind of work you do? How does
an 18-year old who lives in Four Points, Kansas end up being
Right now, I think if you really want to do TV you have to
be here in L.A. At some point in the future it will be a global
enough marketplace, that you won't have to live here to start
Okay, once you get off the bus at the Greyhound
terminal, where do your feet take you next?
There is no formula for it. If there were a formula, everyone
would do it.
Are production music libraries a good starting
point for people who want to gain experience?
Doing work for music libraries is good for experience. You
need the experience of doing all kinds of music, because for
the shows that I've worked on, every script is different.
In one day around here, I will have to record a piano concerto,
Bluegrass music, an old school rap and maybe some Dixieland.
You've got to be able to do all of it. And a production library
is a good place to really exercise those muscles.
So if you exercise those muscles and get
a dozen cuts...
Actually, that's a more important reason for doing itincome
stream. Production libraries, although they typically own
100% of the publishing of whatever you work on...
At least you own the writer's share.
Exactly! You're earning money through ASCAP, BMI or SESAC
when your cues are broadcast. That's so, so, so important.
As an entry level composer, you need to start working on that
broadcast catalog. There are certain types of music that are
global and timeless. If you're doing what's hot this week
on the radio, well, maybe you'll get some placements this
week, but it's not continuous. But if you have a good package
of news, suspense, orchestral, cues that are timelessyou're
starting to work on that royalty income that will sustain
Well, let's say that kid from Kansas, stays
in Kansas and has music in five different librariesa couple
dozen cuts at five different libraries. And now he's making
$30, 40, 50,000 a year...
Stay in Kansas. The air's clean. It's nice. Marry the girl
Most of the big songwriters I've interviewed
are very literate people. They read a lot of novels, it helps
them write better songs. It gives them a deep well of subject
matter. Does it help you to listen to many kinds of music,
including stuff like Klezmer or East African drum music?
Sure. You have to have a wide scope of exposure and do the
best you can to have good faculty in all of them. You have
to be able to perform in any genre; to play jazz and make
it sound like jazz or play rock & roll and make it sound
like rock & roll. As a composer and a player you need
to be able to do that. There are a lot of young players and
composers who've never sat in a pit orchestra. They've never
done chamber music. All that's important.
One of the things we're planning at TAXI
this year is to get listings from people who need music for
student films at NYU, UCLA, USC, and some of the other top
film schools, figuring that our members can mature with the
It's so true. Make your mistakes on student films, go ahead
(laughs). And sometimes those mistakes turn out to be glorious,
that's how you get great inventions, by making mistakes. I
did a lot of student films before I moved here and after I
moved here just for the experience of doing them.
Do you recommend that neophytes take any
jobs they can get no matter how low the pay just to gain the
experience and exposure?
There are other ways to be compensated other than up front
money. Don't work for free. Make sure that if you are going
to work for very low pay, that there are accommodations made
so you own the music, you own the copyright, you're able to
exploit it to third parties. If producers with very little
money really needs exclusive license to the music, license
it to them for a term. Say, "Okay I'll do it for $1,000I'll
do your film for the measly amount you're gonna pay me and
you've got it for six months. If the film is still alive,
if you're still selling it, if you're still distributing it,
and if you've got an income stream from this after six months,
then you've got to pay me another $1,000." Or you could
license it to them on a limited basis. "What are you
doing with this film?" "Well I'm going to take it
to a film festival." "Good, here's your license.
For that $1,000, you can show it at film festivals, but that's
it. If you get a deal to show it on free or basic cable TV
or pay TV or theatrical home video, for any of these markets,
you've got to pay me another $1,000."
In situations where money is tight, there are many ways to
reserve performance rights on something, making it so that
you're not being taking advantage of. There are projects that
legitimately can't afford to pay lots of money for their composers.
And it's a great training ground for entry level composers.
Student filmsI would imagine there's no
money in that. "We'll buy you the tape," is about
what you're going get.
That's okay provided that, you, the composer, still own that
music and you can exploit it. My problem is with deals that
entry level composers sometimes make where they're not making
money and they don't own the product. It's unfair if the film
does have an afterlife, and it goes to home video and overseas,
and the distributors and the producers are all making money,
but the composer never got paid because he made a bad deal.
Again, I've got to stress, when necessary, there are other
ways, rather than getting paid up front to do a project. Make
sure that if there is a revenue stream for the project, that
you're included in it.
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