The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone made his biggest impact creating the scores for director Sergio Leone's western movies starring Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More being not-so-subtle adaptations of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's classic Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro). These made-in-Italy films set in the American west (casually, and widely, referred to as "Spaghetti Westerns"), well received in Europe beginning in 1964, were sensationally popular when belatedly released in the U.S. in 1967.
Morricone's scores drew unexpected attention to the music of westerns, further advancing the art form, infusing it with a classical mindset and flair for the dramatic, making clever (and often cleverly spare) use of guitar, brass, woodwinds and less conventional instruments, ultimately popularizing the themes as part of, as well as separate from, the films themselves. Cover versions were abundant, and for an extended moment Hugo Montenegro, a gifted composer and conductor in his own right, stole the glory from Morricone with his million-selling rendition of the theme from Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Born in New York City in 1925, Hugo had but one goal: a career in music. Primarily a pianist, he arranged music for Navy bands while stationed in Rhode Island during his military service near the end of World War II, then attended Manhattan College to further his musical study. In the mid-'50s he worked as an arranger for Columbia Records, leaving after a few years to make his own records for Bob Shad's Time label, resulting in several blatantly commercial albums including Bongos + Brass, Cha Chas for Dancing and Boogie Woogie and Bongos, some touting the use of "Process 70," a gimmicky name for stereo. The 1961 album Arriba! hit the best seller charts and was followed by Montenegro in Italy and an edgier jazz effort, Montenegro & Mayhem.
Hugo joined RCA Victor in 1964 and enjoyed his greatest success over the next five years. His recording of the Dusan Radic-Charles Albertine composition "(Theme from) The Long Ships" (from the film starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier) landed him a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement at about the time the first of Leone's westerns with Eastwood (in his role as "The Man With No Name") premiered in Italy. In 1966, Hugo and Buddy Kaye came up with a new theme for the NBC sitcom I Dream of Jeannie as the show entered its second season; the popular, hummable ditty has rendered the original '65 theme (by Richard Wess) little more than a faded memory. Montenegro's RCA album Original Music from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., chock full of tunes celebrating super-spies Solo and Kuryakin, was, despite its title, a collection of revamped versions of music written by Jerry Goldsmith and others for the hit NBC series; it sold well enough in the first half of '66 that a More Music from The Man from... longplay was thrown together.
The practice of remaking music by other composers didn't bother Montenegro, who had confidence in his own ability to achieve top-notch results. Besides, it was one way to gain acceptance for his own film music, a goal realized soon afterwards with director Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown, an early 1967 theatrical film starring future two-time Oscar winners Michael Caine and Jane Fonda; he received his second Grammy nomination for the film's instrumental theme. Next assignment: groovy spy soundtracks for The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew, the third and fourth Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. Leone's Dollars series finally made its way to American audiences, which added significantly to the box office figures of the two-year-old films; Hugo got right into the spirit of things with a single release of the theme from "For a Few Dollars More," followed by a full album of Morricone's western themes in time for the U.S. release of Leone's third installment in December 1967.
No one can be blamed for thinking Hugo's cover of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" came straight from the movie; with an ocarina lead, grunting "outlaw" session singers and whistling designed to evoke a windswept desert, his version employed all the tricks regularly found in the original recordings by Morricone. The single wasn't an immediate hit, though; as it gradually scaled the charts, the movie passed its peak in theaters. But Hugo's single hung in, hitting the top ten in May 1968 and reaching number two in June while the accompanying album slithered, rattlesnake-style, into the LP top ten. He wasted no time in latching onto a similar project starring Eastwood, Hang 'Em High, putting out a single of the theme song two months before the film's August release. Leone had nothing to do with this one; filmed in the New Mexico desert, its director, Ted Post, had a long TV resumé with only a few theatrical features to his credit. The Morricone-inspired title tune was written by Dominic Frontiere, a prolific composer of TV scores (the theme from The Outer Limits perhaps his most notorious work). Montenegro's 45 of "Hang 'Em High" barely registered; a version by Booker T. and the MG's came out in the fall, more in sync with the movie's run in theaters, but took its time developing at radio, finally hitting the top ten in February 1969, six months after the film's summer swing.
When Grammy time rolled around in early '69, Hugo's "Good, Bad" hit picked up three nominations but, as before, lost each bid (voters revealed a preference for another hit instrumental, Mason Williams' fast-fingered guitar piece "Classical Gas"). Awards or no awards, Hollywood had opened its doors to Montenegro; his enormously popular "Ugly" disc had helped gain wider acceptance for his original compositions. In '68 and '69 he created the scores for Lady in Cement (a Tony Rome detective flick starring Frank Sinatra), Charro! (an Elvis Presley western), The Undefeated (a John Wayne western) and western comedy Viva Max! starring Peter Ustinov. As if this didn't keep him busy enough, Perry Como's spring '69 hit "Seattle" (from the ABC-TV series Here Come the Brides, starring soon-to-be singing rage Bobby Sherman) was composed by Montenegro with Ernie Sheldon and Jack Keller.
Hugo Montenegro had another unfulfilled shot at winning a major award, an Emmy this time, for his music from the ABC western series The Outcasts starring Don Murray and Otis Young (great show...why no reruns?); other television work including The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family, sharply contrasting his Spaghetti Western hit single claim-to-fame, nevertheless added nicely to his track record. A Moog synthesizer experimenter and early supporter of the four-channel Quadrasonic concept, a progressive idea that didn't catch on, Hugo continued composing and arranging film scores and recording albums throughout the 1970s. He developed emphysema later in the decade and passed away in 1981 at age 55.