Raymond Scott: The First 100 Years


Irwin Chusid, journalist, music historian, radio personality and self-described "landmark preservationist," (wiki) wrote the following essay to mark the centennial of composer Raymond Scott for Boing Boing. Portrait of Raymond Scott above by Drew Friedman. (Click image for full size.)

His merry melodies have propelled the antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Animaniacs, and Bart Simpson. His recordings underscore the body-fluid fetishism of Ren & Stimpy. Yet Raymond Scott, who was born in Brooklyn 100 years ago today, never wrote a note for a cartoon in his life.

Scott's popular 1930s faux-jazz novelties were festooned with titles like "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "Celebration on the Planet Mars," and "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House." When Warner Bros. purchased Scott's publishing in 1943, their music director Carl Stalling began seasoning his cartoon scores with Scott's sonic spice. In hundreds of these anarchic shorts, Stalling sampled over a dozen Scott titles, with "Powerhouse" echoing behind countless cat-chase-mouse sequences and ominous assembly lines. Since forever, Scott's quirky musical motifs have become genetically encoded in every earthling.

Not that it mattered to Scott. He didn't care about cartoons. He cared about machines -- whether they had a pulse or not. His demanding perfectionism was legendary. He rehearsed his sidemen to the point of exhaustion and resentment -- and insulted them if they failed to meet the maestro's standards. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of composer John Williams) told an interviewer: "We were machines, only we had names."

Since Scott couldn't hire the perfect musicians, he built them. From the 1940s thru the 1970s, Scott, whose recording studios doubled as science labs, worked increasingly with home-built techno sound generators. He's one of the great overlooked pioneers of electronica, with US patents to prove it. His 1963 Soothing Sounds for Baby series of repetitive, high-tech nap-inducers set the template for ambient music. In 1970, Motown founder Berry Gordy was so impressed with Scott's Electronium, an analog console that composed by artificial intelligence, that he commissioned a unit. Two years later, Gordy hired Scott at Motown-L.A., where the mad scientist toiled until 1977.

Scott called the Electronium an "instantaneous composition-performance machine." You twisted dials and twirled knobs to set preferences, got a tape rolling, hit "GO," then walked away while the device "composed." It's ironic that the Patron Saint of Control Freaks, who demanded total submission from his talented human recruits, eventually hardwired the perfect sideman -- and got himself a collaborator with a mind of its own.

Decades earlier, Scott demolished a discriminatory barrier by hiring the first interracial band in network radio history. In a segregated industry, he was offered the job of Music Director by CBS in 1942. Scott demanded the right to hire the best players regardless of color. The network balked. Scott refused to stand down, and eventually prevailed, bringing on board Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole and other black jazz heavyweights.

In the 1950s, he worked with a young Columbia grad named Robert Moog, later inventor of an eponymous synthesizer. They got along well. "Scott was definitely in the forefront of developing electronic music technology," Moog attested, "and in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician." Scott's son, Stan Warnow, is directing a documentary about his father. In a poignant second-generation encounter, Warnow recently filmed an interview with John Williams during which they discussed their dads. "I grew up hearing Scott's music," Williams told Warnow. "My father played drums with his band, so the music was very much in my head and in the musical atmosphere of our home. I remember those magical musicians performing their alchemy. Raymond Scott has an important place in American music."

Scott suffered a debilitating stroke in 1987, which left him unable to work or speak. He died in 1994, just as his music was undergoing a revival. His compositions have since been covered or sampled by Gorillaz, Kronos Quartet, Devo, J Dilla, They Might Be Giants, Madlib, El-P, Don Byron, Soul Coughing, and others. Lately it seems that 20% of student animation projects on YouTube contain unauthorized soundtracks by Scott (whose heirs encourage Creative Commons use).

To mark the centennial, the Scott Archives commissioned a portrait by caricaturist (and Scott fan) Drew Friedman. Limited edition prints signed by the artist, Drew Friedman, are available at RaymondScott.com. -- Irwin Chusid.

Drew Friedman portrait of Raymond Scott | Raymond Scott site | Raymond Scott blog | Stan Warnow's documentary-in-progress of Raymond Scott


  1. Very nice article!
    My band and I are putting on a few concerts of Scott’s music this December in and around Philadelphia….it’s pretty difficult to play but very rewarding to hear!
    Thanks for posting it!


  2. …and an awesome portrait! Drew Friedman is incredible. Has he drawn anything that didn’t look as if it took years of painstaking artistry to produce?

  3. Lately it seems that 20% of student animation projects on YouTube contain unauthorized soundtracks by Scott (whose heirs encourage Creative Commons use).

    I am very pleased to hear that Scott’s heirs are aware of the place his music earned in the collective unconsciousness, and aren’t demanding that every use be Authorized and Paid.

    (never mind the fact that, well, animation students are very broke anyway.)

  4. For a recording containing live, in-studio performances by the Raymond Scott band (and others) you might check out the CD “Saturday Night Swing Club”. It’s a recording of the first anniversary of a CBS radio show and contains performances by many greats of the era

    Amazon listing

  5. Raymond Scott did write music for one cartoon… “Limbo: The Organized Mind” with voice over by Jim Henson. You can find it on YouTube.

  6. About a year ago I jumped off the sofa, startled. I landed on my 78 of Scott’s “Businessman’s Bounce”.

    shattered into orts and scraps and nary a shred of sound.

  7. I love Raymond Scott’s music. My son, when he was a infant, would do a hypnotic whirling dervish dance every time I put on Powerhouse.
    His approach to perfection and musicians, sounds eerily similar to that of Frank Zappa’s, who ended up at the end of his life composing exclusively on the Synclavier.

  8. The Beau Hunks do lovely Raymond Scott covers.


    Why would you want to get The Powerhouse out of your head?

  9. Listening to Powerhouse makes me want to build things in a flurry of joyful productivity. And for all those interested, there’s a documentary coming out about Raymond Scott. His son, Stan Warnow, is making it–check it out here.

  10. I listened to the few examples on the website and thought.
    “Oh Generic cartoon music”
    So was he the chap that made that crazy styled jazz sound generic?

  11. If you have only heard Scott’s music in Warner Bros. cartoons, you have not really heard Scott’s music. Pick up a CD of his original recordings. When you listen, the first thing your brain will tell you is ‘cartoon music’, but work past that. I’m a fan of Carl Stalling’s versions on the cartoons, but Scott’s original arrangements were much stranger and more compelling than Stallings. Give them a listen.

  12. Several years ago, Basta Records released a 2-disc set of Scott electronica. Great stuff.

    The book mentioned something about Mark Mothersbaugh owning the Electronium. Last I heard, it was still inoperable. Anybody have an update on it?

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