- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Not everyone greeted 1964’s Beatles invasion with shrieks of joy. A young singer named Gary LeMel was polishing off his first record when the Fab Four’s cultural atomic bomb hit our shores.

Whatever plans Mr. LeMel had for a swingin’ musical career went up in a gust of Beatlemania smoke.

“They blew everybody out of the water who wasn’t that style,” Mr. LeMel said during a recent trip to the District. “It was almost overnight. I had two kids and a wife. I had to make a living.”

When the dust settled, he was no longer playing music. Instead, he was choosing music for movie soundtracks as an executive at a succession of film studios — First Artists, Columbia and, finally, Warner Bros., where he plies his highly specialized trade today.

Mr. LeMel’s ear, nearly as golden as Don Kirschner’s, has influenced some of Hollywood’s biggest soundtracks over the years, including “The Big Chill,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “The Bodyguard,” the gold standard for movie-music tie-ins.

Today, audiences can sample his selections for “Starsky & Hutch,” the ‘70s TV retread opening today. As president of worldwide music for Warner Bros., Mr. LeMel helped flesh out the ‘70s-inspired soundtrack.

This summer, Mr. LeMel’s handiwork will be heard on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

His duties involve not only matching material, be they pop hits or classical scores, to the mood or plot of a movie, but also lining up the cross-promotional possibilities. The paperwork involved with securing musical rights can be maddening, but he knows the payoff should the subsequent soundtrack sell.

One of his earliest projects, when he worked for First Artists, involved the music for 1976’s “A Star Is Born” with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

“She challenged you,” he says of the notoriously hands-on diva. It didn’t help that producer Jon Peters got into a fight with Mr. Kristofferson during a press conference for the film.

The trial by fire steeled Mr. LeMel.

“I don’t think I’ve faced a problem since then that didn’t happen on ‘A Star Is Born,’” he says.

Not every movie soundtrack Mr. LeMel touches turns to gold. One sure thing that missed, “The Mambo Kings,” still confounds him.

“It had all the ingredients. Musically, we really nailed it,” he says.

His movie life turned out better than he could have expected, but he rarely felt secure enough to confess his own musical past.

“‘Oh, he’s a failed singer, he probably wants to sing again,’” he figured they’d say.

And they would have been right. He did secretly want to sing again. Anxiety inhibited him from even trying, though. “I had stopped doing something I loved and was raised to do,” he says.

Eventually, therapy led him back into the studio.

His “comeback” continued with last year’s “The Best of Times.” On this selection of jazz ballads from his three previous albums, Mr. LeMel interprets classics from Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Stephen Sondheim in his mature baritone.

Going back to singing “made me overall a more honest person. When I was harboring my secret life, it made me feel dishonest,” he says.

The culture’s unsteady return to the standards (witness Rod Stewart’s last two smash albums) isn’t a full-blown trend yet. Nor will it be, he says, unless everything falls just into place.

“I see a window of opportunity, which could close really fast,” he says, pointing to the upcoming biopic of Bobby Darin as a possible boost. (Mr. LeMel himself tried for 14 years to turn Mr. Darin’s life into a film for Warner Bros., but the scripts always came back “too dark,” he says.)

His own modest recording career points to the possibilities.

“We had a terrible time getting radio play with the last two or three albums,” says Mr. LeMel, who performs occasional live gigs in New York and Los Angeles. “Now, they’re playing [‘Times’] on 80 jazz stations. That’s a big change.”

Had he attempted his second career in the 1970s, “I would have been ostracized,” he speculates. “Now, enough time has passed to make it hip.”

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