Hugo Montenegro, underatted, undervalued and sometimes forgotten film music Maestro.

There is little doubt that Hugo Montenegro is a name that will be remembered by many, and also remembered for differing reasons. His score for the film Charro is although not grandiose and theme laden is an effective film score as it does what it is supposed to and supports without being intrusive and adds weight, atmosphere, and depth to the movie.  

Released in 1969 Charro was one of those films that was a vehicle to showcase the talents of Elvis Presley, many may disagree but in my very humble opinion this was one of Presley’s better cinematic moments, It was different as in there were no musical numbers and it was just a basic run of the mill western drama but Presley displayed a good acting presence throughout, of course the notion of a pop/rock and roll superstar being cast in a movie was not a new thing, The Italians cast various pop singers in a number of the spaghetti westerns that were released in the 1960’s and 1970’s but I think that the performance in Charro by Presley deserves credit where credit is due.

In many ways the movie came across as something that was like a big screen version of TV shows such as The High Chapparal and The Virginian, but obviously being a feature film was longer. The musical score was by Hugo Montenegro who had shot to fame with his up-beat and pop orientated arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which had gone to the top of the hit parade in many countries across the globe including the U.K. in 1968.

But again, Montenegro was given some bad press and often referred to as just a band orchestra leader, which granted he was, but he was also a composer in his own right and had scored a few projects mainly for TV before Charro, and before the hit single with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly which included episodes of the popular TV series The Man From Uncle, and I Dream of Jeannie, but had also worked for filmmaker Otto Preminger on the 1967 movie Hurry Sundown for which he composed a powerful and affecting score that is possibly one of the best scores to come out of Hollywood that year. The movie too was successful and starred Michael Caine, Jane Fonda and John Phillip Law.

The score for Hurry Sundown is outstanding, it is a varied and emotive sounding work, the central theme being haunting and stirring. The lyrics being courtesy of Buddy Kaye and evoking the How The West Was Won end title song. For me it’s a score that one discovers forgets and then re-discovers to great delight, the music evokes both Lillies of the field and Gods Little Acre soundtracks, it has that kind of sound.

The film was a controversial one, but there again t was Preminger at the directorial helm.  It dealt with racial issues, and when being filmed that cast and crew which were made up of both black and white actors etc, had to have protection from the State Police against attacks from the Ku Klux Klan. If you have never seen the movie or heard Montenegro’s score now is the time to rectify that.

A year later in 1968 Montenegro was responsible for penning the score for the Frank Sinatra and Rachel Welch thriller Lady in Cement. This is a score that oozes classy jazz orientated cues, but also has the unmistakable Montenegro touch to it, which in many ways evokes the style of Italian composers from the 1960’s such as Trovajoli, Umiliani, and Piccioni to name but three.

It is a light and airy collection of themes, but also has to it touches of the dramatic, pop upbeat passages and easy listening lounge style compositions. The composer utilising brass, choir, electric guitar, bass, harpsichord, Hammond organ and woods that are underlined by percussion and supported and laced by strings.

In the same year as Charro Montenegro scored another western The Undefeated, which starred John Wayne and Rock Hudson, and a western TV series from the States entitled, The Outcasts for which he provided the theme and scores for twenty-six episodes.

Both Charro and The Undefeated contained solid scores and themes, which I suppose can be likened to the styles of both Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith and were incredibly supportive of both storylines on screen, they also had a sound and style that was appealing away from the images, but neither were particularly original. Sadly Charro which in my opinion has the better score has never been released, which, is surprising seeing as the movie starred one of the biggest attractions from the 1950’,s, 1960’s and  through to the 1970’s and his untimely death in August 1977. The Undefeated never got a soundtrack release at the time of the film being in cinemas, but many years later the Film Score Monthly label issued the score in full onto compact disc. The story involved a group of Confederates and their families led by Rock Hudson, who after the war were intending to carry on the fight and to do this they had to travel across the border to Mexico.

But I for one found it hard to take seriously especially with John Wayne onboard still in Comancheros and Alamo mode, (sorry did he ever get into character, or was it just him on screen playing himself every time- The Hell it was!). The Undefeated was filled with brawls and cheesy comedy scenes that were intertwined with the storyline just. Add to these several action scenes and there we have it a fairly typical John Wayne western. It is an entertaining romp, and an ok western to sit and watch on a rainy Sunday, but not in my top anything really, even Hudson’s Southern accent was a little grating and hard to swallow, and as for the Southern hospitality, well, over the top comes to mind.

The score is however superior to the movie, but even this is rather cliched and relies on half-hearted Copelandish references and the music is deployed in a similar fashion to that of the westerns from the 1940’s and 1950’s. A lumbering theme opens the score, which forms the foundation of the work, but it’s no Magnificent Seven or The Big Country in thematic terms, the way in which the movie is scored is in a way Mickey Mousing like described by Max Steiner, as Montenegro adds little quirky nuances and melancholy interludes, that are syrupy and sugary. It may be an acceptable film and score but it’s not the best of Montenegro.   

Charro was directed by Charles Marquis Warren who also provided the screenplay for the movie. The film had a cast that was not what I would call “All Star” laden, but the main characters and some of the lesser supporting roles were filled with faces that were familiar to cinema goers of the 1960’s many being around for a while in B movies or having minor roles in main features. The score is a darker one than The Undefeated and relies more on the attention to underlining the action or drama, rather than going hell for leather with grandiose Americana set pieces, it was effective in establishing a tense atmosphere in a few of the scenes, and the composer even utilising a Mexican style trumpet cue for the troops in the movie (shades of Morricone).

The composer also scored two Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin in the title role. The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968). Neither have been released onto compact disc or digitally and I am certain there was no LP release either.

The Wrecking Crew I remember because it was the main feature on the programme at the cinema with The Big Gundown being the B picture. And for Sharon Tate and Nancy Kwan beating the whatsit out of each other in one of the scenes and Nigel Green as the villain. With Elke Sommer too who was stunning. The Matt Helm movies were a bit of harmless fun and I hope no one took them seriously, but Montenegro’s music was perfectly suited to the offbeat antics of Helm.

The composer also scored the comedy Viva Max, which starred Peter Ustinov. The film which is hilarious is the tale of a Mexican Army commander who crosses the border into the United States with a small group of soldiers saying they are going to march in the celebrations for George Washington’s birthday, when realy he is planning to re-occupy The Alamo. Montenegro’s score is scattered with performances from trumpeter Al Hirt, who is credited on the cover of the RCA soundtrack LP, the score is up-beat and has to it a pop orientated martial style, with jazz influences and references to Mexican musical influences.

Montenegro’s style I have to say is like that of Burt Bacharach, fusing easy listening with the dramatic content to reach a wonderfully thematic combination, again scored in 1969, one can begin to hear little quirks of orchestration and the sound that would become associated with the composer, the soundtrack also featured a song Don’t Turn Back which was performed by Montenegro’s choir and Al Hirt. As I have said it is probably the recordings that Montenegro did of easy listening, classical and covers of popular songs and themes from movies that he will be best remembered for, and during the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s Montenegro like Henry Mancini, Ron Goodwin and others was responsible for bringing film music or film themes to the attention of a wider audience, because as we all know soundtrack albums were not always released because record companies and film companies were just not interested in the music for movies unless it was a blockbuster. Via the RCA albums that Montenegro released we got to hear unique versions of themes that we would not have heard unless we went to see the movies.

His compilations were an invaluable and essential part of film music collecting during this period, and along with Ron Goodwin, Henry Mancini, LeRoy Holmes and Stanley Black to name but a few film music became interesting. Montenegro admittedly did put his own musical stamp upon certain themes and his version of Hang em High is somewhat different from the original.  But on a compilation from Montenegro, we could hear an up-beat cover of A Fistful of Dollars alongside things such as The Godfather and a synthesised arrangement of the Beach Boys hit Good Vibrations which at times was a bit off putting when one was looking at the track listing for an album, but it made for a varied listening experience. And also when eventually many of the soundtracks began to be released it made collectors want to go and buy them. A recent compilation that was released both on compact disc and digitally is the so called Best of Hugo Montenegro.

To be totally fair I do not think we could fit the best of this composer, conductor and arranger onto just a solitary compilation, but it is a great listen and also a wonderful way to sample his talents as both a composer and an arranger even if some of the track’s bare little resemblance to the originals as in his version of The James Bond Theme, it’s a case of the tune is there but, why this way? Negatives aside, Montenegro’s compilations are something that one can put on and not have to even think about, they can play and be a background or they can be something that you listen to an analyse. Either way the key word here is entertainment.

Hugo Mario Montenegro was born, in New York City U.S.A. in 1925. He served in the United States navy and whilst there acted as an arranger for the Naval Band. After he left the service, he enrolled at the Manhattan College where he studied composition and whilst there also formed his own band which performed at school dances. In the mid 1950’s Montenegro found himself arranging and conducting for both Eliot Glen and Irving Spice for their Dragon and Caprice record labels. After this he was hired as the musical director for Time records, and was responsible for producing a series of albums. In the early sixties Montenegro moved to Los Angeles and started to work for RCA records. It was here that he produced a handful of albums from soundtracks and TV shows which included The Man From Uncle  and this is when he started to release albums of covers of songs and film themes. One of his most popular proved to be a compilation entitled Come Spy With Me.

After this he arranged themes that had been composed by Ennio Morricone for the Sergio Leone dollar trilogy, the most successful being The Good The Bad and The Ugly.  His first film score was for the 1964 production, Advance to the Rear, after this and following the success and sustained sales of his albums, Columbia pictures offered him a contract. And from 1966 through to 1977 he remained there scoring a number of motion pictures including a British film entitled Tomorrow.

The composers final film scores were in 1977 when he worked on The Farmer and Too Hot To Handle.  The Farmer which was a thriller that has since its release attained cult status was given an X certificate solely because of Montenegro’s chilling score which he fashioned on electronic instruments. But the films producer had the censors review the movie without music and they changed their opinion straight away giving the movie an R rating in the States. The score is said to be one of the composers best but is sadly thought to be lost.

Montenegro was also under contract to Columbia’s TV and scored some of their most popular shows, including Here Comes The Brides, The Partridge Family and the second season of I Dream of Jeannie.

During the latter part of the seventies, Montenegro was forced to retire due to severe Emphysema and this brought his musical career to a close. He died from the illness in 1981.

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