ROY WEBB (1888 - 1982)
Roy Webb was born in New York City on 3 October, 1888, three years after his brother Kenneth, who also had a long career in show business and was a distinct influence on his younger sibling. The boys shared a creative urge that would lead them to careers in the theater, radio, film and television.
Webb studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in Manhattan for five years, and after high school he studied at Columbia University where, according to Christopher Palmer, Webb "was fed a diet of Bach and Beethoven: his teacher used the Bach fugues as a basis for his instruction, and Webb would later have cause to be grateful for the rigour of this early training."
Webb graduated from Columbia in 1910. He and Kenneth were both active musically by 1914, when they signed the original charter that formed ASCAP. Webb wrote popular songs in this period (none survive) before enlisting in the Navy during World War I. He was attending officers school when the Armistice was signed in 1918. Following an honorable discharge from the Navy he went to work for Kenneth as an assistant director in motion pictures.
Columbia undergraduate Richard Rodgers got to know the Webbs as the brothers retained active alumni ties with their alma mater, returning to the university in the early 1920s to help stage the annual undergraduate Varsity Show.
In 1925 Webb authored the official football fight song for Columbia University, which won him the Alumni Federation of Colleges Prize. Current recordings by the University of Michigan Band and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir reveal Webbs penchant for bitonal harmony even at this early date. For the next three years he was part of producer Herbert Fields theatrical "family" of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, choreographer Busby Berkeley and director Alexander Leftwich. Beginning with the second edition of the Garrick Gaieties in 1926, Webb consecutively orchestrated and conducted the Rodgers and Hart musicals Peggy-Ann, A Connecticut Yankee, Present Arms, and Chee-Chee.
Webb made an important friend at this time. Born the same year but half a world apart, Max Steiner had arrived on Broadway ahead of Webb but by 1927 they were both wielding batons for Herbert Fields, with Webb conducting A Connecticut Yankee at the Vanderbilt while Steiner was conducting Hit the Deck at the Belasco. Steiner and Webb were elaborating the silent, foreign versions of Side Street and The Delightful Rogue.
Soon, however, RKO management decided that they didnt want any music in their dramatic films and closed the music department. the backlash against film musicals had begun. "Baravelle was let go," said Steiner, "and Webb sent back to New York," still on RKOs payroll to oversee unit shows. RKO offered to buy our Steiners contract, but at the last minute gave him a month-to month deal to head the music department, just in case. Almost the first thing Steiner did was recall Webb from New York as his assistant. By 1931 Steiner demonstrated forcefully to management the value of underscoring, and for the next five years Steiner and Webb worked hand-in-glove.
By 1933 Webb was awarded his first screen credit as musical director for Professional Sweetheart. He became a charter member and treasurer of the Screen Composers Association. In 1935 Webb was handed the epic The Last Days of Pompeii to compose (his screen credit had to be fought for by Steiner and producer Merian C. Cooper). Steiners defection to Selznick International in 1936 (shortly after Val Lewtons arrival there) left Webb as the musical signature of RKO, a position he would hold for the next twenty years.
Webbs easy familiarity with popular, light music and his innate ear for melody made him well suited for journeyman scores like Bringing Up Baby but, unexpectedly, this composer schooled in upbeat show tunes discovered his own voice with the brooding psychological thrillers that were RKOs specially in the 1940s, endowing them with very advanced harmonies and a melancholy fatalism. Stranger on the Third Floor, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Notorious, The Window, The Spiral Staircase and The Locket, in addition to the Val Lewton thrillers represented in this recording, contain some of Webbs finest and most typical scoring.
Though he never won an Oscar, Webb was nominated for an Academy Award seven times between 1937 and 1945 for Quality Street, My Favorite Wife, Joan of Paris, I Married a Witch, The Fallen Sparrow, The Fighting Seabees and The Enchanted Cottage. One of Webbs proudest moments was a contemporary performance at the Hollywood Bowl of his Piano Concerto from 1945s The Enchanted Cottage.
Fully pensioned at age 67, Webb "retired" when RKO dissolved in 1955, taking occasional freelance features like Track of the Cat and Marty, television assignments including Wagon Train and 77 Sunset Strip.
Tragedy struck in 1961. Though Webb and his wife Jean escaped, their home burned to the ground. They lost everything, including all of Webbs film scores and unpublished concert music. Stunned and disheartened by the destruction of his lifes work, Webb ceased composing. With no children, Webb and Jean regrouped their lives into a placid retirement. The family ranks diminished with Kenneth Webbs death in 1966. In the 1970s, ill health and failing memory encroached on Webbs final years. On 10 December 1982, he died of a heart attack at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica at the age of 94.