Origin: Toronto, Ontario
Best known for his 1960 number-one single “Theme from A Summer Place,” composer, arranger, and bandleader Percy Faith was identified with the easy-listening music of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet his career spanned five decades in radio, television, movies, Broadway, and live concerts. As the musical director of Columbia Records in the 1950s, Faith also arranged and conducted hit records by Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, and Sarah Vaughan. Although some critics singled out Faith for the sentimental excesses of the easy-listening genre, most respected his superb musicianship and the range of his musical tastes. Joseph Lanza applauded Faith in his 1994 book Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, “Faith’s delicate balance between being too mellow and too raucous was both a musical gift and a career scourge. On the one hand, he was a champion of sweet violins; but on the other, he always grew skittish when his reputation got too caught up in them.”
Born on April 7, 1908, in Toronto, Ontario, Faith was the eldest of eight children of Abraham and Minnie (Rotenberg) Faith. The family lived in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, then a working-class section of the city with a large population of Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a tailor, but his uncle was a noted violinist. Faith began violin lessons at the age of seven, but he switched to the piano shortly afterward. By the time he was eleven Faith was accomplished enough to give his first public performance at Toronto’s lola Flicker movie theater in the city’s east end. Four years later, while studying classical music with Frank Welsman at the Toronto Conservatory of Music was the Royal Conservatory of Music (as the called), Faith made his concert debut at Massey Hall, Toronto’s most prestigious concert venue. In the meantime, Faith earned extra money by playing the piano in movie theaters as an accompanist to silent films.
Faith’s future as a concert pianist seemed promising until an accident derailed his plans at the age of eighteen. When his younger sister’s clothing caught on fire, Faith put out the flames with his hands. This saved his sister’s life but damaged his hands so badly that he couldn’t play the piano for nine months. Although the accident spurred his interests in arranging and composing, Faith eventually dropped out of the Toronto Conservatory of Music without finishing his degree. In 1928 he married the former Mary Palange; the marriage lasted until Faith’s death in 1976 and produced two children.
Despite his lack of formal credentials, Faith’s experience as a hotel and theater orchestra conductor helped him land a position as an arranger and conductor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the early 1930s. In 1937 Faith became a celebrity in his own right with the debut of the program Music by Faith. Picked up by the Mutual Network, Music by Faith also aired throughout the United States, making him one of the best known radio orchestra conductors of the era in North America. He was appointed music director for the CBC broadcasts of King George Vl’s royal visit to Canada in 1939, and conducted the CBC Orchestra at Massey Hall for a concert by American pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant in 1940. The concert concluded with nine encores and burnished Faith’s reputation as an outstanding and innovative conductor.
For the Record…
Born on April 7, 1908, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to Abraham (a tailor) and Minnie (Rotenberg) Faith; died on February 9, 1976, in Los Angeles, CA; married Mary Palange, 1928; two children. Education: Studied at Toronto Conservatory of Music, Canada.
Music by Faith ran on CBC and Mutual through 1940, when Faith joined the NBC network’s Carnation Contented Hour after its conductor, Josef Pasternak, died of a heart attack. Faith claimed that budget cuts at CBC precipitated his decision to leave Canada, although he also alleged that anti-Semitism at the network had caused him to question his future there. After a brief stint in Chicago with Carnation Contented Hour, Faith moved to New York City in 1941. Around that time Faith began the naturalization process and became an American citizen. He stayed with NBC through 1947, when he moved to CBS, becoming musical director of the Coca-Cola-sponsored The Pause That Refreshes and, later, The Woolworth Hour. He stayed at CBS through the 1950s.
Faith began recording on various labels in the 1940s, but it was his association with Columbia Records that defined the remainder of his career. In 1950 the label released Your Dance Date with Percy Faith, the first of more than 60 albums issued by Columbia over the next quarter-century. In 1951, after Faith became the label’s musical director in charge of artists and repertoire, his ability to match singers and hit songs with just the right arrangements and backing orchestration became immediately apparent. Tony Bennett, who’d had a run of failed singles on Columbia, had a million-selling hit with “Because of You,” a song suggested by Faith. Rosemary Clooney’s “Come on-a My House” became one of the biggest hits of the early 1950s. Faith also worked with Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, and Doris Day, who was so impressed with Faith’s arrangements that she insisted he work on her dramatic breakthrough film Love Me or Leave Me. Faith’s work on the score (with Georgie Stoll) earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1955. He also had a major success with his orchestral version of the movie theme “The Song from Moulin Rouge” in 1953 (usually known by the title “Where Is Your Heart?”).
In 1960 Faith and his family moved from New York to Los Angeles. He continued to release at least one album on Columbia each year, and often as many as three. The albums included Faith’s recordings of his arrangements for the Broadway hits Camelot (1960) and The Sound of Music (1960); easy-listening instrumental albums such as Today’s Themes for Young Lovers (1967) and For Those in Love (1968); movie soundtracks such as Theme from The ’In’ Crowd (1966) and Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (1969); and excursions into Latin music on The Music of Brazil! (1962) and Latin Themes for Young Lovers (1965). Faith’s greatest popular success came with the release of his recording of “Theme from A Summer Place” a 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as young lovers. Under Faith’s lilting arrangement, the Max Steiner composition hit number one on the American charts for nine weeks in 1960. It also earned Faith a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. In 1969 Faith added a second Grammy to his collection when he won in the Other Pop/Rock and Roll/Contemporary or Instrumental Recording category for “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.” In all, Faith completed the scores for eleven movies.
The astounding success of “Theme from A Summer Place,” which Joseph Lanza described as “the most identifiable easy-listening soundmark,” permanently linked Faith with the easy-listening genre, despite the wide range of his work. Although his arrangements were typically complex and sophisticated, to some the resulting sound was simple and saccharine. His prolific recorded output also tended to bring critical disdain. As Gary Marmorstein dismissively summarized Faith’s career in his 1997 book Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and Its Makers, 1900-1975, “Like other popular conductors with greater tools at their disposal… Faith turned out album after album of ’easy listening’ music.”
Never a musical snob himself, Faith recorded instrumental versions of popular rock tunes in the 1970s, including Leaving on a Jet Plane (1970), The Beatles Album (1970), and Black Magic Woman (1971). He also indulged his love of Latin music on Corazon (1973) and even dipped into disco to rework his biggest hit on Summer Place’76(1975). On February 9, 1976, Faith died from cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 67.