Angela Morley: the pioneering transgender composer

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Angela Morley: the pioneering transgender composer

David Young tells us the fascinating story of Angela Morley, the first transgender woman to be nominated for an Academy Award.

 

When ANOHNI was nominated for the award ‘Best Original Song’ at the 88th Academy Awards in 2016, many people, including journalists at NME and Rolling Stone, assumed that the British musician and activist was the first transgender person ever to be nominated for an Oscar. But, as ANOHNI herself made clear after having been nominated, she was not. Though ANOHNI can rightfully and inspiringly claim to be the first transgender performer ever to be nominated for an Oscar, the first ever transgender Oscar nominee preceded her by over 40 years: the composer, conductor, arranger and musician Angela Morley, a pioneering figure in the entertainment world whose remarkable story is criminally overlooked.

Angela, who died in 2009 aged 84, was nominated twice – at the 47th Academy Awards for her work on the soundtrack to The Little Prince (1974) with Lerner and Loewe, and at the 50th, for her work as an arranger on The Slipper and the Rose (1976) with the Sherman Brothers. These nominations were no fluke – her career was long, successful, and frequently found her making lasting impacts on popular culture. She would go on to win three Emmy Awards, in 1984, 1988 and 1990, in the category of ‘Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction’, and wrote the scores many times for episodes of Dallas, Cagney & Lacey and Dynasty, as well as composing the majority of the score to Watership Down (1978).

Morley did lots of uncredited work with John Williams, a long-time admirer of her skills who, upon hearing of her death, said “as an orchestrator, her skill was unsurpassed”. She worked with Williams on the themes to Star Wars, Superman, Home Alone I&II, ET and Schindler’s List among others. In particular, the orchestrations for the scenes where Superman is in his Ice Palace, and where Luke Skywalker is first implored to “Use the force” in the Death Star are Morley’s, as are the arrangements of waltzes in Schindler’s List and Christmas songs in Home Alone.

All these remarkable achievements occurred after she announced that she was transgender and underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972. Perhaps surprisingly, but certainly rightfully, her transition during these intolerant times seems not to have negatively impacted upon her career at all. In fact, she felt so welcomed by her peers at the Academy Awards that she was “rather seduced by the California lifestyle” and promptly moved there, beginning a fruitful relationship as a composer for Warner Bros in 1980. Her wife Christine Stott, to whom she was married in 1970, supported her through the transition and the couple remained together for the rest of Morley’s life. Morley in fact credited Stott with giving her the support to resolve her gender identity crisis: “It was only because of her love and support that I then was able to deal with the trauma, and begin to think about crossing over that terrifying gender border.”

Morley’s post-transition career can in no way be attributed to tokenism. It was solidly deserved – the culmination of decades of excellent prior work in bands, radio, music and film. Born in 1924, assigned male and named Wally Stott (the name under which her pre-1972 work was published) she grew up in Leeds. Her family ran a watchmaker’s business. She had several abortive attempts at learning musical instruments in her early life. She learned piano aged 8, until her father who had bought it for her only three months previously suddenly died. She never played the piano again. She then picked up the violin, until her grandfather who hated it ruined the instrument by rubbing butter on the bow as a prank. She then took up the accordion and won numerous competitions before being told the instrument had ‘no future’. Next her mother bought her a clarinet, with a broken mouthpiece. Finally she received an alto saxophone, and stuck with it.

Morley openly admitted that when she left school aged 15 to pursue a career as a professional musician, she benefitted from the high demand for young musicians created following so many older musicians being drafted to fight in World War Two. As a talented saxophonist, she ascended the ranks of British Big Bands, reaching the top aged only 20 as a member of the Geraldo Orchestra in 1944, by which time she was primarily an arranger. She honed her skills both through the Orchestra’s wide-ranging engagements and private tutelage, and began her career as a freelance arranger and composer aged 26.

The 1950s were a productive decade for Morley. She wrote the theme tunes to two of BBC Radio’s most successful shows: Hancock’s Half Hour, with its iconic tuba motif, and The Goon Show, the decade’s most successful radio comedy. She arranged and conducted bands for Philips Records as musical director, including for greats like Shirley Bassey, and scored films at Boreham Wood Studios. Things shifted up a gear in the 1960s: she continued to write and arrange, including working with Big Band legends Benny Goodman and Nelson Riddle, scoring for TV, and getting back into scoring feature films, which she had turned her back on somewhat in the ‘50s due to the inadequacies of stereo sound-systems mangling her work. More satisfied with the updated technology in 1969, she scored an adaptation of John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War, starring a young Anthony Hopkins. During this period she also worked on the early solo albums of Scott Walker, including the chart-topping Scott 2. 

Her career would continue to ascend through the ‘70s and ‘80s, before winding down as she grew older, and the demand for her style of arrangement and composition declined. In later life, she wrote a medley of nominated film scores for the 74th Academy Awards, and began a project of arranging and recording French chorales for a group she founded in Phoenix, Arizona (she lived nearby since 1994). A full list of Morley’s credits and exploits is available at www.angelamorley.com.

Naturally as an arranger, her main talent was versatility – she worked with big bands and orchestras, on soul, jazz, classical and pop and had a habit of being involved in so many important milestones of 20th century art, in radio, TV, film and music, on both sides of the Atlantic. Richard Sherman, for whom her arrangements earned her a second Oscar nomination summed up Morley’s essential and unsurpassed talent: “She pretty much read your mind as to what you wanted.” It was Morley’s intuition and prescience that powered her career. Morley displayed an almost psychic knowledge of how melodies and ideas could best be pieced together and presented to create an end product that was appropriate for the needs it had to meet – and that is the sense you get from listening to her work. There’s no overarching ‘Morley style’ or characteristic, other than being of very high quality. From Bassey to Dynasty, Star Wars to The Goon Show, Home Alone to Scott Walker, her music always feels right, appropriate, and provides an indispensable setting to the external work.

So that’s the story of Angela Morley, a pioneering and proud transgender woman, an unsung icon who should not be forgotten.

 

Featured image: The Independent

Angela Morley: the pioneering transgender composer Reviewed by on March 20, 2017 .

David Young takes a look at the amazing life of unsung transgender icon, Angela Morley.

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1 COMMENT

  • Edward

    Her work with Scott Walker is incredable. Listen to the album `Scott 3` for starters.

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