Gary LeMel, the longtime film music executive who was once dubbed the “Godfather of the Modern Soundtrack” for his supervision of blockbuster albums including The Big Chill, Ghostbusters and The Bodyguard, died on Saturday at age 80. He is survived by his wife Maddy and three children.
LeMel kicked off his executive career in music publishing and later artist management, including a three-year stint at Jerry Weintraub’s Management III. But the job that would set the course of the rest of his career was his role at First Artists — the short-lived film production company formed as a partnership between Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen — where he supervised the soundtrack for Streisand’s 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. Selling more than 4 million copies on the strength of Streisand’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single “Evergreen,” the soundtrack launched LeMel’s career in film music, where he would make an indelible mark over the next four decades.
Born in London, at the age of 10, LeMel moved with his family to Tucson, Arizona, where he became a member of the Tucson Boys Choir while also studying classical piano and, later, bass guitar. He eventually enrolled at the University of Arizona but dropped out to tour with jazz singer Anita O’Day, who had previously hired him as her bassist at a local jazz club.
By the early 1960s, LeMel had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a performer, eventually signing with Vee Jay Records, which released his debut album in the summer of 1964. But the emergence of The Beatles that same year (helped along by Vee Jay’s release of their early album Introducing the Beatles) rendered acts like LeMel, who largely focused on reinterpreting standards, all but irrelevant virtually overnight.
“Their record killed my album,” LeMel told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I was working Playboy Clubs, sometimes doing five shows a night and barely making 300 bucks a week.”
LeMel would find much greater success as an executive at Columbia Pictures beginning in the early 1980s, when he oversaw soundtracks for The Big Chill, Ghostbusters and St. Elmo’s Fire, among countless others. On the power of a soundtrack to boost a film’s box office, LeMel told Billboard in 1985: “[St. Elmo’s Fire] was dying at $25 million. When [its theme song ‘Man in Motion’] went to No. 1, the film picked up 48% and is now close to $40 million.”
The following year, LeMel moved to Warner Bros., where he would eventually enjoy his greatest success with the blockbuster soundtrack to 1992’s Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner vehicle The Bodyguard. Launched into the stratosphere by Houston’s monster No. 1 hit “I Will Always Love You,” the set eventually sold 45 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling soundtrack in history.
As attested by longtime friend and music agent Richard Kraft, LeMel’s success can in part be attributed to the unique perspective afforded by his years as a performer.
“You hear the phrase ‘artist friendly,’” said Kraft, who met LeMel in the late 1980s. “[But] because he himself was an artist, [he] really understood what makes an artist tick.”
The Bodyguard‘s massive success catapulted LeMel to the top of the executive ranks at Warner Bros., where he was promoted to president of worldwide music and named CEO of the studio’s Warner Sunset soundtrack label. But despite reaching the pinnacle of his career as an executive, LeMel’s 25-year break from performing had taken a psychological toll, as he told the LA Times in 1995.
“Now I always encourage people that whatever it is that you gave up when you were younger, that you loved, do it again,” he said. “You don’t have to do it all the time or be a professional, but you’ll feel great, and you’ll save a lot of money on shrink bills.”
LeMel followed his own advice by making a return to performing in the mid-1990s, and he eventually released a string of albums including 1994’s Romancing the Screen (Blue Note Records), the 1999 Bobby Darin tribute record Moonlighting (Atlantic) and the 2003 compilation album The Best of Times (Concord). During these years, his onstage banter became a key part of his act; Kraft recalls that during one performance, LeMel offered one of Kraft’s clients (who was in attendance) a scoring job in between songs.
“He really was [fun],” said Kraft. “And even when we were in conflict with each other it was playful. I remember when I was making Danny Elfman’s deal on Batman, the amount of money I was asking for, he responded: ‘What you’re asking for would make Max Steiner…spin in his grave.’”
Over the next couple of decades, LeMel juggled performing with his day job at Warner Bros., where he oversaw soundtracks for films including You’ve Got Mail, City of Angels and the Harry Potter series. It was his incredible decades-long track record that in 2017 led the Guild of Music Supervisors to honor him with their second-ever Music Supervisors Legacy Award.
LeMel suffered from Lewy body dementia in his later years, though even that didn’t keep him from performing. Along with others diagnosed with degenerative brain diseases, he sang with a musical ensemble known as the 5th Dementia band, which became the subject of a recent documentary.
“You could hear his voice break through all of the musical instruments and singers when he sang,” reads a tribute posted to the documentary’s website. “Gary’s mic was always turned up.”