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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Ben Vaughn spends his days writing music for TV and film. He's composed soundtracks for the TV programs, Third Rock from the Sun, Men Behaving Badly and That 70s Show. But after spending his workweek in service to Hollywood, Vaughn gets in his car and makes the 2.5 hour drive to his weekend home in the Mojave Desert.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Announcer: Laurence Welk and his champagne music maker.

HANSEN: The radio is tuned to a so-called beautiful music station out of Palm Springs.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Singers: (singing) Beautiful music, KWXY.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Intrigued by what he heard, Ben Vaughn decided to record an homage to easy listening. It's called Ben Vaughn Presents Designs in Music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Ben Vaughn joins us from the studios at NPR West. Hi, Ben, long time no talk to.

Mr. BEN VAUGHN (Composer): Yeah, it's been a while.

HANSEN: Yeah, quite a while since we talked to you about recording your CDs in your Rambler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAUGHN: Yes, the 1964 Rambler American, yeah.

HANSEN: Right. Well, now we want to talk about music you listen to on the radio. You recorded the snippet of audio from your drive, when you're listening to - it's called Beautiful Music Station KWXY in Palm Springs. Now, honestly, what was it that you heard in this format that inspired you to make music?

Mr. VAUGHN: Well, what happened is when I would leave the studio lot on a Friday night - you know, I was working long hours, like 14-hour days. You know, it was intense. And so when I would leave L.A. on a Friday night to drive out to my desert house, I wouldn't even listen to the radio for about an hour and a half. I just needed silence.

But as I started to get into the desert and the terrain started to change, I would turn the radio on. And the only signal I could pick up was a station out of Palm Springs, KWXY, and they would play beautiful music, Paul Marriott, Percy Faith, 101 Strings. But they were playing songs that I had never heard before and it was - this thing started to happen to me. It was kind of like being abducted by aliens. I was just absorbed in music.

And I wasn't really thinking about it or dissecting it or feeling like I needed to record a tribute to it. I was just absorbing it. And after doing this for a couple of years, I realized there was a connection between what I was doing during the week and what I was experiencing on those drives to the desert. And I thought I wanted to put the two things together.

HANSEN: What was the connection?

Mr. VAUGHN: The connection? My life in Hollywood was constantly in the studio. And the players and the musicians and the arrangers of this material that I was hearing were living the same life. And even though the stuff was probably recorded 40 years earlier, it didn't feel old to me. It felt new. I felt like this kind of connection, these ghosts were starting to haunt me.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: How much did the visuals of the desert at night, as you did that drive, influence the compositions? Are they almost part and parcel of the music that you wrote?

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, they are. It's interesting. The desert has two sides to it. There's the Joshua Tree, Flying Burrito Brothers, peyote crazy hippy side. And then there's the Palm Springs, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope Desert Classic Golf Tournament side. And it's still a spooky place either way. It's a very - the desert just has its own feeling. You know, it's a strange, really great feeling.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VAUGHN: It's not really, in my mind, an homage or even, you know, a tribute. It's a continuation. 'Cause I think instrumental music is considered a dead genre by a lot of people. But to me, it's not. There's still room for new ideas in there. And I was hearing new ideas in my head and I wanted to get it all together.

HANSEN: Mm hmm. Let's talk about some of these new ideas. One thing I heard when I was listening to it is the brass section. And I would hear this trumpet that was so reminiscent of what we'd hear from, you know, Herb Alpert and Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAUGHN: Mm hmm.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VAUGHN: Well, that was the guy that played in the Liberace Orchestra for 15 years, playing that thing.

HANSEN: You're kidding me!

Mr. VAUGHN: No. He had some good stories, believe me. But from doing TV work, I had a Rolodex with some of the best players in L.A. And for the woodwinds and the trumpets and, you know, the horns, I wanted to pull from people who had experience playing, you know, a lot of TV and film soundtrack dates on the soundstages, but also had experience with the music that I was hearing, older guys, you know?

And the amazing things about these guys is their experience will be with the Liberace Orchestra or playing with Laurence Welk or something. And then when you give them a chance to solo, what they do is hipper than anything a young person could come up with. And then you look at the guy and you think, I wouldn't even - if I saw him on the street, I wouldn't even know he was a musician.

HANSEN: What - can you share a good story?

Mr. VAUGHN: Well, the featured reed player on the album is a guy named Jay Mason who has been in the Barry White Orchestra. He has played with Bette Midler and people like that. And there's a base clarinet solo on one song. I just said, you know, I think I hear base clarinet here, if you could just try a solo. And what he played the first time was one of the scariest, weirdest things I've ever heard. And the guy, he had to go to his kid's Cub Scout meeting after playing the scariest solo I'd ever heard. It was really pretty incredible.

HANSEN: Yeah, that solo's in Blues from Nowhere.

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah.

HANSEN: And it's definitely a noir thing going on there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, there's something lurking inside that guy. I don't know.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Well, Blues from Nowhere, kind of being a film noir thing, are there heroes that you have in the soundtrack genre? I mean, Mancini...

Mr. VAUGHN: Oh...

HANSEN: Morricone?

Mr. VAUGHN: Henry Mancini for real, and Ennio Morricone, yeah. Nina Rota. The Italian guys to me are really the best because they really seem to break a lot of rules. But Ennio was just, you know, whatever. Got a guy whistling, somebody's making weird noises, you know, with their mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You have a professional whistler, Guerin Barry.

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, Guerin Barry, really incredible. When you bring in a professional whistler, just be ready because the guy's life is about whistling.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VAUGHN: This guy had a big Gene Shalit mustache. And at one point, there was too much trill in what he was doing and I asked him to reduce it and he said, no problem, the trill is gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There are different moods. I mean, you get something that's, you know, as I supposed we've talked about, that noir-ish, and then you'll get these sort of orchestral explosions. And then you hear something like While We're Here, which has that organ and, you know, piano and it's just so beautiful.

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, a lot of people like that one. That's starting to rise to the surface as being - it's so romantic that tune, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You know, a lot of people dismiss what might be called beautiful music, easy listening. You could have very easily satirized it, but you didn't.

Mr. VAUGHN: Oh no. I have the utmost respect for it. I liked it when I was a kid. You know, I come from the rock and roll world. My career before this was, you know - I guess as an independent rock cult hero. I don't know what I did, but I was in the rock world. And rock and roll drove me crazy. I liked Link Ray and Duane Eddy and the Beatles and the Stones and everything.

But when I was a kid I would hear this music in places like the doctor's office or the elevator or in the supermarket. And I liked it. And I would pick apart the arrangements in my head. I would hear certain things that were consistent in this music that really made me feel good when I heard it. I never disliked it or discounted it as old people's music or anything that was not worthy of my attention. I always had a feeling for it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: So these trips you make in the desert listening to the radio, are they in your Rambler?

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, my 1964 Rambler.

HANSEN: Still!

Mr. VAUGHN: Yeah, it's still running. I mean, I don't use it all the time now because it's getting harder to find parts, but yeah, it's still running.

HANSEN: Ben Vaughn. His new CD is Ben Vaughn Presents Designs in Music. And he joined us from the studios of NPR West. Ben, thanks a lot, good luck.

Mr. VAUGHN: Thank you.

HANSEN: You can hear more from Designs in Music on our website, NPR.org.

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