Oscar-winning composer Jack Nitzsche's trademark eyeglasses won him the nickname 'Specs', while his memorable and groundbreaking film scores and earlier work as an arranger on some of popular music's most legendary recordings made him a highly regarded if not widely known name in both the film and music industries.
The Chicago-born and Michigan-raised Nitzsche landed in Los Angeles as a young man looking to study at Westlake College of Music, and quickly jumped into the business, soon meeting up with Sonny Bono at Specialty Records. The two would go on to pen the hit single "Needles and Pins", recorded successfully by The Searchers and Jackie DeShannon. Nitzsche worked as an arranger for Phil Spector in the mid-1960s, helping to make the producer's vision of a "wall of sound" a groundbreaking reality. Responsible for memorable innovations from integrating complex handclaps into The Crystals' rocking recording of "He's a Rebel" to the sweeping orchestration of The Ronettes' "Be My Baby", Nitzsche crafted arrangements that made him an unheralded revolutionary of popular music, perfecting rock and roll symphonization to create elaborately layered pop songs without ending up with a sonic muddle. He worked on hits by Bobby Darin, The Righteous Brothers and The Monkees among others, and arranged Spector albums including "Hits of the Beatles" (1964) and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" (1966). As a musician, Nitzsche had a moderate hit of his own with the instrumental "The Lonely Surfer", the title track of his 1963 solo album, a song brought back into fashion during the mid-90s surf rock revival. He produced the Buffalo Springfield album "Expecting to Fly" in 1967, where he began an association with the band's guitarist Neil Young. When Young embarked on a solo career, Nitzsche went on to play piano in his backing group Crazy Horse, also working with the band as a composer and arranger. He additionally produced Young's first album "Crazy Horse". Nitzsche did the rock rounds in the 1960s, also playing piano and percussion on several Rolling Stones albums, and arranging the choir accompaniment to their 1969 hit "You Can't Always Get What You Want". He has continued to work as a record producer throughout his career.
1965 saw Nitzsche score his first film, the panned teen sci-fi feature "Village of the Giants". Providing a heavily-orchestrated pop soundtrack, with a similar feel to Brian Wilson's "Pet Sounds" work and later Beatles albums, the score for this largely unmemorable movie would prove a turning point for his career and even for film composing as a whole. Busy in the music world, Nitzsche didn't return to the big screen until 1968 when he scored "Performance", one of the most innovative and influential movie scores of its day. (It was delayed from public ears for two years while studio politics kept the film shelved.) The strangeness of this extraordinary rock-themed melodrama starring Mick Jagger, was enhanced by Nitzsche's perfectly unpredictable music, incorporating bottleneck guitar with more offbeat instruments like the mouth bow and dulcimer. He next did the score for Robert Downey's "Greaser's Palace" (1972), and added additional music to "The Exorcist" (1973). While only three minutes in length, Nitzsche's contribution to the film's score was the only music specifically written for the movie, the eerie sustains marked the bridges and transitions in the film, enhancing the haunted feeling. In 1975, Nitzsche did some of his most unforgettable work as composer for Milos Foreman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". His use of unsettling bowed saw instrumentation, with painfully clear arrangements evinced both the agitated inmates and the insidious sterility of the institution, arguably adding more of Kesey's novel to Foreman's staging than had been present in the script. In 1978, the composer used evocative machinery sounds and employed the vocals of Captain Beefheart in his score for Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar", a story of auto workers duped by their own union. Before his successful spate of more mainstream fare in the 1980s, Nitzsche scored William Friedkin's controversial "Cruising" (1980), starring Al Pacino as an undercover police officer seeking out a serial killer preying on homosexuals. Resisting requests to turn in a suspenseful action adventure score, Nitzsche instead opted for a song heavy soundtrack, enlisting the help of seminal punk band The Germs whose work captured the dark side of the downtown underworld.
While his early 80s work in films such as "Cutter's Way" (1981), "Personal Best" and "Cannery Row" (both 1982) was capable and appropriate, it lacked some of the spark of his previous scoring, and was entirely overshadowed by the great success of 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman", a score for which Nitzsche was nominated for an Oscar. While he lost out to John Williams for "E.T.", the composer did walk away with a Best Song statue for the film's hit theme "Up Where We Belong", co-written with his former wife Buffy Sainte-Marie and Will Jennings. A heart-wrenching score for Stanley Jaffe's compelling missing child drama "Without A Trace" (1983) followed this success, and also notable are his 1984 scores for the melodrama "The Razor's Edge" and John Carpenter's sci-fi romance "Starman", marking one of the infrequent times the director didn't score a film himself. Nitzsche's score for the beloved "Stand By Me" (1986), was outstanding, capturing the boys' (and the film's) boisterousness and uncertainty. That same year he composed the music for, as well as appearing in a bit part in, the otherwise forgettable "The Whoopee Boys". Additional credits include "Streets of Gold", "Nine 1/2 Weeks" (both 1986), and the spooky "The Seventh Sign" (1988).
While his prolific film score work would win him fame, critical acclaim and an Academy Award, the innovation displayed in his 70s scores was far more evident in his 90s work, his contribution to less mainstream films offering not only more artistic freedom but also winning him prestige and a cult following. A favorite among Hollywood's hipster elite, Nitzsche was hired to score Dennis Hopper's "The Hot Spot" (1990) and composed an impressive experimental jazz score, performed by such notables in the field as John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis. Sean Penn enlisted Nitzsche's help for his 1991 directorial debut "The Indian Runner" and subsequently procured the composer's services for his follow up "The Crossing Guard" (1995).