Searching for Kenyon Hopkins

Film composer and jazz musician Kenyon Hopkins (1912-1983)

How is it that one of the most distinctive and influential film composers of his generation is practically unknown today and almost all of his records out of print and unavailable in any reissue format? Of the many scores listed in his filmography only a few have been re-released on CD in recent years such as The Hustler, Downhill Racer and Baby Doll, which is already out-of-print, but what of the rest? 12 Angry Men, Wild River, Lilith, The Strange One, Mister Buddwing, This Property is Condemned, The Yellow Canary, The Fugitive Kind…and I haven’t even mentioned the space age bachelor pad music he created with the Creed Taylor Orchestra – Nightmare, Shock Music in Hi-Fi, Panic: The Son of Shock and more.  

Hopkins, who was born in Coffeyville, Kansas on January 15, 1912 and died in Princeton, New Jersey on April 7, 1983, worked on a number of major film and television productions during his lifetime yet remains a shadowy, almost unknown figure in the music world today. Despite a list of brilliant collaborations with such famous figures as Elia Kazan, Robert Rossen, Sidney Lumet,  Delbert Mann and even Elvis Presley (Hopkins composed the score of the King’s 1961 feature, Wild in the Country), he never received an Oscar nomination and was only nominated once in his entire career for an Emmy for scoring the TV series, East Side, West Side (1963-64), which starred George C. Scott.   

What I love most about Hopkins’ film music are the rich jazz and blues influenced themes and melodies as well as an obvious nod to American roots music, which is reflected in atmospheric orchestrations which resemble Aaron Copland compositions in their emotional complexity. Hopkins’ Wild River film score is particularly reflective of this. And then there is the other side of Hopkins which is playful (Blue Angels, an album of cover songs such as “Blue Moon,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” etc.), experimental (Sound Tour: France and its sequels) and game for the occasional pop novelty record (Swingin’ Serenades).     

Jazz musician and soundtrack composer Kenyon Hopkins is behind this experimental travel album from Verve Records.

Some of his least known but most innovative works are his “concept” albums of the late fifties and early sixties – The Sound of New York: A Music-Sound Portrait (1958) and Rooms (1959). Then there are the albums he made with the Creed Taylor Orchestra which have a cult following of their own: Lonelyville: The Nervous Beat (1959), Ping Pang Pong The Swinging Ball, Shock, Panic, and Nightmare.    

The famous cult album SHOCK MUSIC IN HI-FI by composer Kenyon Hopkins.

In addition, Hopkins also served as musical supervisor on specific episodes of such TV series as Mission: Impossible, The Odd Couple, The Brady Bunch, Mannix, Love, American Style and was the composer for the TV scores for The Cara Williams Show (1964-65), The Reporter (starring Harry Guardino in the title role, 1964) and the aforementioned East Side, West Side.    

Not a great deal is known about Hopkin’s life except for some road signs along the way. He attended Oberlin College and Temple University and graduated in 1933 after which he moved to New York City. It was there that he met and worked for three years with the renowned jazz orchestra leader Paul Whiteman and, after that, a stint with Andre Kostelanetz, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia who became one of the pioneers of “Easy Listening” music.

Hopkins then entered the television industry in the fifties where he found work at NBC as an arranger on Your Hit Parade. In 1957 he scored his first motion picture, Baby Doll (with conductor Ray Heindorf and the Warner Bros. Orchestra), working with director Elia Kazan, a collaboration that led to composing the scores for the same director’s Wild River in 1960.  

Below are just a few of the excellent film scores he created as well as other career highpoints, many of which are currently unavailable anywhere.

Baby Doll

Hopkin’s debut film soundtrack was re-released by DRG records in 2003 but for some inexplicable reason the label dropped the main title theme from the original Columbia soundtrack in their re-issue version as Ross Care notes in his review on the Music from the Movies web site: “Hopkins’s exciting (and structurally essential) main title is a clever fusion of rock-pop saxes and brass under a lyrical string countermelody, aptly suggesting the innocent/erotic nature of the title character, and introducing a duality that will continue through the rest of the score. Thus its absence here turns the score into a kind of variations without a theme. While this title theme survives in a few of the cues (the end of ‘The Fire and Baby Doll’, the beginning of ‘Baby Doll’s Fright’) it is never heard in its original sax/brass/string instrumentation, and its omission seriously distracts from this reissue…What remains, however, is a fresh, exciting, often sensual and humorous score for a unique black comedy/drama. Hopkins makes inventive use of the pop elements in the orchestration, many derived from jazz, blues, and period rock and roll. A lurid solo sax, and a subtle use of electric guitar and jazz drumming suggest the script’s more earthly elements, while velvety massed strings and a solo celesta evoke the child-like, virginal title character…Cues such as ‘The Cradle’ and ‘The Confession’ are warmly sensual, especially the latter’s languorous harmonica solo, while ‘Lemonade’ is a clever jazz variation on the main title theme.”     

The Fugitive Kind

The following excerpt is from an excellent overview of the film and the soundtrack by Ross Care on the Film Score Monthly web site. Care wrote, “In 1957 he scored two films for Sidney Lumet: The Strange One and 12 Angry Men, making experimental use of modernistic 12-tone techniques for the former. Hopkins reunited with Lumet for The Fugitive Kind to provide an intimate, lyrical “less is more” (both in mood and scale) score that served the film extremely well…Hopkins’s intimate and lyrical main title, “Bird Song,” while reflecting the atmospheric cinematography of a sunrise behind which (after a brief visual/musical prologue) the credits unfold, also seems inspired by one of the key symbols in Williams’s script, the image of the delicate transparent birds who touch earth only when they die…This main title is one of the most lyrical, poignant and concentrated of any music composed for a Williams film, and the rest of the score, primarily for guitar, solo and sectional reeds, and judiciously utilized strings and brass (mostly French horns), follows suit.”   

Shock Music in Hi-Fi, Panic: The Son of Shock and Nightmare!

According to an interview with record collector Mickey McGowan for Re/Search Magazine’s Incredibly Strange Music issue, Volume 1, “The Creed Taylor Orchestra made Shock Music in Hi-Fi, which bore a warning, “Don’t dare listen to his music alone!” It’s a masterpiece from the beginning, starting with loud heartbeats. “The Crank” effectively conveys the fear which a crank phone call can inspire. “The Secret” features a man and a woman laughing conspiratorily, and raises the question: “Is a secret still a secret once it’s told.” Creed Taylor’s follow-up album was Panic: the Son of Shock. Both of these LPs should also be credited to the film composer Kenyon Hopkins….You hear heavy breathing, whispering, clapping, heartbeats, shudders, screams – a whole gamut of effects. After these two masterpieces, Hopkins hit paydirt in the mid-60s with Nightmare, which has the sound of a plague of locusts coming in for the kill. “Chamber of Horrors,” besides sounding like a horror music soundtrack, really is beautiful…..He used the sound of a telephone ringing to create incredible suspense; he used footsteps, creaking doors and glass breaking to dreadful effect….He recorded a few more albums including Lonelyville, which is great private-eye jazz…He recorded a series of Verve Sound Tours in which he took the music of a given country…and mixed in the sounds of people at a sidewalk café in Paris….He also did…Riding the Rails – the cover shows two fashion models who’ve just “hopped a freight.”

The Hustler

One of my all-time favorite film scores. Here is a list of the musicians heard on the score and the track listings of the out-of-print album: Bernie Glow, Doc Severinson, Joe Wilder, Tony Miranda (tp); Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak, Richard Hixon (tb); Phil Woods, Phil Bodner, Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (reeds); Hank Jones or Bernie Leighton (p); Barry Galbraith (g); Osie Johnsn (d); Joe Venuto (perc); Kenyon Hopkins (arr, cond).

  1. Main Title (Stop & Go) (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:52
  2. Minnesota Fats (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:07
  3. The Loser (Kenyon Hopkins) – 3:23
  4. Sarah’s Theme (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:04
  5. 4 Flights Up (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:20
  6. Fast Buck (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:10
  7. Small-Time Charlie (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:29
  8. Bert’s Theme (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:51
  9. Contract With Depravity (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:08
  10. All Thumbs (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:45
  11. Dining Out (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:17
  12. Derby Time (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:53
  13. Lipstick On A Mirror (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:04
  14. The Winner (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:33
  15. End Title (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:04

Verve/Esquire Sound Tour

With Creed Taylor serving as producer, MGM’s Verve label put out a series of records in partnership with Esquire Magazine in the mid-60s – (Sound Tour: Spain, Sound Tour: Italy, Sound Tour: France, and Sound Tour: Hawaii) – that were all composed by Hopkins. Here is an excerpt from an article on the Verve/Esquire project by C. Andrew Hoyan on the All About Jazz web site: “…Much like his soundtrack work, Hopkins imbues his charts with jazz sensibilities and such names as Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Joe Wilder, and Doc Severinsen were on hand for all of the sessions. Along with Hopkins’ originals, there are pieces which are linked to each particular land, such as “Arrivaderci Roma,” “La Paloma,” and “Hawaiian War Chant.” Engineers Ray Hall and Bob Simpson further augmented the stereo terrain by adding Keene Crockett’s “sound pictures” here and there, such as boat whistles and a revved up Alfa Romero speeding away from some Spanish villa….Unfortunately, none of Hopkins’ work is currently in print, and that includes the four volumes of Sound Tour . The whole scenario is particularly surprising considering the current popularity of “space age pop” or “bachelor pad” music. Of course, even if Verve decided to reissue the Sound Tour volumes, it’s doubtful that the deluxe packaging would transfer well to the CD format. So if you still have a turntable you might want to keep an eye out at garage sales or flea markets for these neglected gems. It might take some time (it took me several years to acquire all four), but it’s well worth the search.”    

This Property is Condemned

While this 1966 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play directed by Sydney Pollack (from a screenplay co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) was not a complete success, it featured memorable performances by Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, Kate Reid and Charles Bronson and the music score by Hopkins was full of nostalgic yearning, tension and sadness. There was a fragile beauty to it that I still recall. Here are the original track listings from the album soundtrack and co-star Mary Badham, the child actress of To Kill a Mockingbird who played a supporting role in the film, sings the theme song.

  1. (100528) Rainbow Express (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:30  same, Mary Badham (vcl).
  2. (100529) Wish Me A Rainbow (Vocal) (Livingston/Evans) – 1:04 same, vocal out.
  3. (100530) Country Waltz (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:14
  4. (100531) Lover’s Rainbow (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:50
  5. (100532) Moonlight Casino (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:49
  6. (100533) Rainbow Over My Shoulder (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:16
  7. (100534) Owen Finds Alva (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:15
  8. (100535) Drug Store (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:49
  9. (100536) The Brawl (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:36
  10. (100537) Owen Gives In (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:11
  11. (100538) Dream Of Mardi Gras (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:32
  12. (100539) Peadybody Hotel (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:26
  13. (100540) New Orleans (Kenyon Hopkins) – 3:45
  14. (100541) Bittersweet Cemetery (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:55 
  15. (100542) Lovers Meet (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:00
  16. (100543) 1930 Victrola (Kenyon Hopkins) – 2:27
  17. (100544) A Dream World (Kenyon Hopkins) – 3:10
  18. (100545) Mama Breaks It Up (Kenyon Hopkins) – 1:22
One of Kenyon Hopkins music-sound experiments with producer Creed Taylor.

It is rare to find any recorded conversations or interviews with Kenyon Hopkins on his approach to film music or even his jazz career but the CNMSarchive blog posted a 1957 Q&A between interviewer German radio commentator/filmmaker Gideon Bachmann and Hopkins for the publication Film and TV Music. Bachmann raised the interesting question of whether an audience should be aware of the music while watching a film. Hopkins replied, “I think this depends entirely on the type of film. Certain producers and directors – for instance, Kazan – allow for music; they pre-plan so that music takes a part in the whole work, and then music is audible and makes dramatic sense. There are other producers or directors who don’t make such allowances. When they finish a picture they say “there is a weak spot; we need music there”. But when you get in the mix, they say “now, not too loud on the music, it’s just got to be a mood”. In other words, the composer is supposed to supply what the director didn’t put into the picture in the first place.”

I find it a bit odd that Kazan doesn’t even mention Hopkins in his autobiography Elia Kazan: A Life but I find it even more difficult to fathom why Hopkins is completely ignored in so many music reference works. He doesn’t even rate an entry in Donald Clarke’s massive tome, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, nor does he get mentioned in The Composer in Hollywood by Christopher Palmer (which focuses on other jazz influenced composers like Elmer Bernstein) or get more than a one sentence aside in The Invisible Art of Film Music by Laurence MacDonald. Only Jazz in the Movies, edited by David Meeker, includes some information on a few of the film & TV scores that Hopkins created.

There was a small item posted in Variety in 2017 that announced that Kevin Spacey was going to star in a biopic about Kenyon Hopkins but since then there has been no other additional information on the project so I assume the idea has been shelved. Meanwhile, I continue to search for Hopkin’s out-of-print records and CDs at yard sales, used record stores and collectors’ sites on the internet and sometimes I get lucky.

Other links of interest:


8 thoughts on “Searching for Kenyon Hopkins

  1. Great write up to one of US best Jazzy film composers.

    I got all his soundtrack LPs and allmost all re-issue CDs and totally agree with you that his talent would deserve much more recognition!


    But as memories of cultural inheritage vanish, so do the people, who created this art. A shame!

  2. Yes, it might happen, but it is unlikely. Why? Because soundtracks from the 50ies and 60ies are moreless out of fashion (sigh). Sure, there still are a few hundred people out there, who cheerish and collect jazz soundtracks, but that market is meanwhile a bit too small to make such releases worthwhile.

    The labels, which did stuff like this, have either stopped (Film Score Monthly, you surely know Lukas Kendalls great label) or are concentrating mainly on Goldsmith and OSTs from the 1980ies and 90ies (Intrada from CA, run by Douglas Fake).

    Kritzerland might be the third, but they haven’t done any Hopkins ever (I think).

    I keep my fingers Xed, but unf. I am a bit pessimistic. 😭

    • You are probably right and I am familiar with Film Score Monthly and Intrada. Those were/are great labels for the classic movie audiophile. I didn’t know about Kritzerland but have their site bookmarked now. Wow, they have the original soundtracks for How Green Was My Valley, Secret of the Incas, Elmer Gantry, Too Late Blues….even The Fly and Return of the Fly! Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Hiya J,

    GREAT to have come accross sb., who cheerishes jazz and other old soundtracks as much as I do!! A wonderful hobby, yeah!

    Yes, Kritzerland is a lovely label, definitly! I see you know the better known ones, but there are others as well: ever been to Monstrous Movie Music or “MMM”?! Man, they got stuff!! Stuff, you wouldn´t believe ever got released. :-)) They stopped issueing CDs some 10 years ago (I assume bec. the sales were low, so saaad), but their site is still active (or was, when I checked last time). Once you get one of those releases in your daring hands, you´ll know what “monstrous booklets” means! I was in contact with the guy running it and he put an enormous amount of love and even more work into his releases, which is why he didn´t manage more than 4 or so per year. But these are DEFINITE releases! I got them all (I think 40 or so?) and this is/was probably the best OST CD-label ever.

    BSX (Buy Soundtracks) you probably know, some nice stuff, but nothing really killer. Dragon´s Doman (DDR), same, mostly B-movies (which I dearly love anyway), Varese did some Golden Age classics as well … and of course the old Bay Cities Jerry Fielding CDs from the 1990ies (Nick Redmans label, he left us a couple of years ago). Hm, that shoulda be most labels, but I surely forgot one or two.

    I encourage to order from the label(s) directly, they need the money anyway, and cutting out any other distributors means they get more returns to invest into new projects.

    Aside from direct buying, SAE,, is the best source to get in-print and OOP OST CDs.

    I am a movie-fanatic and OST-collectors since 1986, so any question you mighta have: just ask me, I should know. 🙂

    Cheers from Europe (where the next WW seems to be getting along, shit),

    • Wolfgang, thanks for all of the valuable information and OST collector tips for U.S. movie fans. I knew Monstrous Movie Music provided bios on famous composers but had never really looked at their available movie music. OMG, unbelievable!

  4. I’ve written about Kenyon Hopkins and that period in a number of posts, including a detailed “life and times” of Toni Darnay, the woman on the Shock album cover.

    Hopkins had a messy private life, and a troubling divorce which included allegations of assault. It’s not clear that this was the cause of him being sidelined, but it would have helped, even back then. I hope at some stage to do a “life and times” of him, but for now you can find all the mentions and some mixes that include his music here:


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