RAT PACK REDUX: COMPOSER SCOTT LIGGETT OF ALAN ETT MUSIC, WHO SCORED THOSE COOL ESPN GOULET SPOTS, KNOWS HOW TO SWING. AFTER ALL, HE PLAYED WITH FRANK, AND WE DON'T MEAN ZAPPA.
Part of the logic of the campaign is that, if Lombardi died in 1970, he'd be culturally trapped in another era." So says Wieden & Kennedy copywriter Ernest Lupinacci of last year's Nike football spots that starred Stiller & Meara's Jerry Stiller as the legendary hothead Packers coach come back to life. Actually, Lupinacci could, by most accounts, be talking about himself as well. "Ernest is straight out of Swingers," says W&K CD Jerry Cronin, referring to the 30-year-old Lupinacci's ability to relate to those Rat Pack days when the Chairman of the Board ruled and JFK was busy bopping starlets in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Of course, if Swingers is the Lupinacci story, maybe Casino works for composer/arranger Scott Liggett. It's not that Liggett is a wiseguy; he's actually an extremely down-to-earth, personable fellow, nice as all get out. A co-founder at the Alan Ett Music Group in Studio City, Calif., a combination music house and audio recording/ post facility, the 47-year-old Liggett composed and arranged the big-band tracks for what may be Lupinacci's most visible throwback to a bygone era, that kooky Robert Goulet NCAA basketball campaign for ESPN. Long before Goulet crooned about hoops, however, Liggett actually played with the Camelot vet, during his days as a staff musician in casino orchestras in Lake Tahoe and Reno, where, incidentally, he also played with Sinatra.
We'll pause here for a moment to let that sink in. "This was before synthesizers or self-contained groups," Liggett says. "The stars came and there was an orchestra for every casino." A classically trained musician who had most recently left a folk-rock group that opened for bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, Liggett went to Nevada and soon found himself playing guitar behind casino headliners like Sammy Davis Jr. (another Rat Packer!), Crystal Gayle and Goulet. "The beauty of that time was that it sustained the big bands," says Liggett. "All the great musicians from the big-band era playied in those orchestras."
But that was 20 years ago, and most of those old-timers are gone now, as are the casino orchestras themselves. Fortunately, big-band purists like Liggett saved the arrangements that made these bands wail and tucked them away like the Dead Sea Scrolls, waiting for the right time to dust 'em off and crank 'em up. They knew it was coming.
Perhaps nothing afforded Liggett a better chance to absorb the science of arranging than his gigs with the Chairman. "He was real tough to work with, and he intimidated the orchestra," Liggett recalls. "He'd listen to everyone play during rehearsals, and there were a number of times when the musicians were not there after a break because he didn't like them." After one song ended, Liggett found Sinatra standing right next to him, and he thought he was a goner. "But he said, 'Sounds real good, son,' and from that point on it was like I was blessed by the pope. I was booked for months in advance."
Liggett left the casino bands after only a few years, during which time he pored over arrangements and learned how to construct what he calls "that big, fat bottom end" of bass and drums that the best big groups had. He also studied the art of stagecraft, of producing and staging big live shows; he moved to Vegas and spent a few more years running a live stage production company, producing revues for casinos as well as staging big industrial shows, but he found that the effort was taking him farther away from music, so he sold out to his partner and moved to Los Angeles, not far from where he grew up near Pasadena, the son of a music teacher mother and a musician father.
For most of the '80s, while guys like Lupinacci were still in their teens and a generation of baby boomer yuppies were rediscovering Sinatra's classic recordings from the Capitol years, Liggett freelanced as a music composer and producer in Hollywood, working on a pastiche of TV shows, promos and spots. In '89 he hooked up with Ett, a jazz musician and composer who was busy working mostly in the world of broadcast promos, and joined his company full time in '91. Besides doing original music, the company also has a music library, and it was via this that they first made contact with producers at Wieden & Kennedy.
Little jobs led to bigger ones, and then one day in '95 Liggett was talking to W&K producer Amy Davenport. "She asked me if I knew anything about Robert Goulet, and I told her I had played with him in the '70s," Liggett says. And then she asked if he knew how to write for a big band, and it was one of those bida-bing, bida-boom kind of moments. Liggett got the ESPN job, and set to work with Lupinacci, who penned all of the parody lyrics used in both campaigns. "The main objective was to get that cool jazz swing going, and to enhance this big Goulet voice," says Liggett, who adds that Goulet had no recollection of having worked with him. "Back then I was just a guy in the band."
But now he was the composer and arranger for a series of up-tempo, truly swingin' numbers scored for an eight-piece band. The campaign was a complicated one to produce and especially to write and arrange. Essentially, Goulet sang live on the set to prerecorded tracks, backed by real musicians (who, as opposed to just plain extras, would know when to hit the keys, valves and strings on their instruments). Each spot opened and closed with some of Goulet's hipster patter, peppered with lots of "babys" and "capiches." The whole package required expert timing, not just of the music but of the performances as well, since Goulet had to hit it right on the money each time, and with consistency, allowing for seamless editing between takes. It was, Liggett recalls, an intense job.
The follow-up campaign of 1996 was more ambitious, with Goulet transplanted from the recording studio set of the year before to a nightclub, where NCAA coaches caroused at tables and a bigger band (now up to 16 pieces) occupied the stage. The first campaign actually works a little better, mostly because it was totally unexpected and, since there's less going on, the music and Goulet's performance come across with more punch.
The Goulet work led to more Wieden & Kennedy assignments for Liggett, the inspired Lombardi football campaign being the most prominent. The music for these spots is a mix of at times mock-reverential, anthem-style tracks reminiscent of those dramatic overplayed underscores that accompanied NFL Films footage to more jazzy swing. Liggett points out that one goal of the music was to help add to the comic dimension of Stiller's necessarily intense Vince Lombardi performance. Lupinacci also notes they were going for a little sense of that aforementioned cultural time warp. "We tried to imagine what kind of music Lombardi listened to, figuring it was probably more Tiajuana Brass than the Beatles," he says. At the moment, Liggett is not sure whether there will be a third Goulet campaign; even if there is, it wouldn't shoot until the summer anyway. The fallout from the two swinging series they've already done has helped Alan Ett Music land even more Wieden work (Liggett scored the current ESPN NHL playoff promos, and the comapny worked on last year's Nick Turturro baseball campaign and the Burt Reynolds senior golf tour package), as well as additional promo assignments and a Lee jeans job from Fallon McElligott.
It has also led to another unexpected bonus-a budding friendship with Goulet himself. "We correspond, I've been to his place in Vegas, and we've talked about doing some things together," Liggett says.
In the meantime, he intends to continue trying to keep the big-band vibe going. "There's a huge revival of this swing dance thing happening in clubs here in Los Angeles," he says. While many of the old big-band guys he played with in Vegas have gone to that big recording studio in the sky, Liggett knows the music itself won't die. "If anything, I'll keep it alive," he says. "I've got a ways