L.A. Studio Legends: James Thatcher

Legendary French Horn player talks his distinguished career as studio musician in Hollywood and his many collaborations with John Williams as Principal Horn since 1989, including such film scores as Always, JFK, Jurassic Park, Sleepers, and The Patriot

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

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Among the many studio musicians who performed in John Williams’s scores, French Horn legend James Thatcher certainly occupies a very special place. The esteemed hornist has performed in many scores composed by the Maestro and has been his first-choice principal horn from 1989 until 2013. James Thatcher performed in many scores by John Williams, including such popular films as Jurassic Park and Home Alone, but also as featured soloist in Always, JFK, Sleepers, Amistad, Rosewood and The Patriot.

James Thatcher is one of the most prolific and revered studio musicians who ever worked for the film industry, but also an accomplished and respected classical player, certainly one of the world’s premier French horn players. He began his professional career at age 16, when he played and studied in Mexico City with his uncle, Gerald Thatcher, former principal hornist with the National Symphony of Mexico. Subsequent instructors have included Fred Fox, Don Peterson, Wendell Hoss, James Decker, Vincent DeRosa and master classes with Hermann Baumann. He has been a member of the Phoenix Symphony, the Utah Symphony, the Pacific Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

It was thanks to his studies and subsequent personal friendship with the legendary Vince DeRosa that the doors to the film studio work opened. DeRosa was the premier principal horn in Hollywood and the preferred first-chair for esteemed composers such as Alfred Newman, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin and also John Williams. As James says in the interview, DeRosa showed what the instrument was capable of and inspired many film composers to write for the instrument. John Williams was a huge admirer of DeRosa (“I can honestly say that what I know about writing for the French horn, I learned from him”, said the composer in 2017) and had him as Principal Horn in many of his classic scores recorded in Los Angeles including The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

James Thatcher has often been called DeRosa’s natural heir and he stepped in quietly in the mid-1980s starting to perform in the horn section recommended by DeRosa in scores by John Williams, James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith, immediately becoming their favourite French Horn player. Williams was particularly impressed with Jim’s beautiful tone and started to write exquisite solos for scores such as Always, Home Alone and JFK. The admiration was clearly mutual, as Thatcher recognized the importance of being put under such a privileged spotlight. Williams kept writing magnificent solo parts also in the following years for Jim in films like Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Nixon Rosewood, Sleepers (for which he received a rare on-screen credit), Amistad, and The Patriot. He had the distinguished honour to have been one of the longest first-chair musicians serving for John Williams and performed in virtually all of his scores recorded in L.A. until 2013, including A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, The Book Thief. In addition to film scores, Thatcher was principal horn also on projects such as the recording of the themes for NBC News, the theme for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, the American Journey recording in 2002 and live-to-picture concert for the 20th Anniversary of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Jim was also featured soloist in the West Coast premiere of Williams’s Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in 2007, with the composer himself conducting the Univerity of Southern California Symphony Orchestra at Bovard Auditorium on the USC Campus.

”I treasure the many years of our collaboration.  Through those years you consistently brought color, imagination and life to every note that I’ve been privileged to ask you to play, and musically and artistically, I will always be in your debt.” 

John Williams

In addition to John Williams, one of Jim’s closest collaborations occurred with the great James Horner. Jim played principal horn on Cocoon, one of Mr. Horner’s first major motion pictures. Thus began an incredible thirty year collaboration which included Field of Dreams, Glory, The Rocketeer, Clear and Present Danger, Apollo 13, Titanic, Deep Impact, The Perfect Storm, A Beautiful Mind, Avatar and The Amazing Spider-Man. He also was one of the four horn soloists in James Horner’s concert work Collage, premiered and recorded in London in the spring of 2015. The late composer was one of Jim’s closest friends in the industry.

Jim Thatcher has also worked with an extraordinary list of composers that include Jerry Goldsmith, James Newton Howard, Alan Menken, Randy Newman, John Barry, Maurice Jarre and Alan Silvestri. Jim’s performances can be heard on such films as Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves The Fugitive, Pretty Woman, Back to the Future, Frozen, Total Recall, Glory, Monsters, Inc., Beauty and the Beast, Ice Age, The Polar Express, Toy Story, Cars, Forrest Gump, Night at the Museum, King Kong, and the list goes on and on. He has the impressive record of performing in more than 3,500 film and television scores during his career. Jim has been also part of the “pit orchestra” in more than 20 Academy Awards shows. For his distinguished work in the motion picture industry, Jim was the recipient of the Most Valuable Player Award from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences as “arguably the most often heard horn player in the world” due to his performances on some 70 to 80 films per year during his career. In addition to film and television work, Jim played in many studio recordings with top artists including Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Dave Grusin, Harry Connick Jr. and Mel Tormé.

James Thatcher and the incredible horn section of James Horner’s score for Deep Impact (1998), recorded in Los Angeles at the historic Todd-AO Scoring Studios

Besides his busy activity as studio musician, Jim continued also with his two other passions: playing classical music and teaching the next generation of French Horn players. He’s currently principal horn of the New West Symphony in Southern California and also performed as guest principal horn with the London Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. As a highly sought after horn teacher, Jim was formerly on the staff at the University of Southern California (USC), and also professor of horn at Azusa Pacific University. He continued to appear in masterclasses and seminars around the world. Notable students of his include Dylan Hart, the current principal horn for John Williams in many Los Angeles studio recordings including the recent Star Wars films and the Across the Stars recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter.

In 1997, Jim recorded an album of chamber pieces called Now Playing, which included compositions by Bach, Brahms, Verne Reynolds and Walter Mays; more recently, he also released a full recording of Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.2 (performed with his colleagues of the Hollywood Studio Symphony) and another chamber album featuring works by Britten, Schubert and the first Horn Concerto by Richard Strauss.

In this long, engaging conversation, Jim talks about his life and career as studio musician in Hollywood, his friendship with the great Vince DeRosa, and his many projects with John Williams, including his solo work in films like Always, JFK, Jurassic Park and The Patriot. Jim talks extensively about the challenges and the thrills of being the principal horn for John Williams for many years, but also offers his insightful thoughts about the music itself, the history of the instrument in film, how the sound of the French Horn evolved throughout the decades, offering memories from his collaborations with James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith.

Illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2020

Special Thanks to Jim Thatcher for his time and generosity. Extra-Special Thanks to Tim Burden for his help, support and friendship.

Listen to the beautiful tribute montage prepared by Tim Burden celebrating Jim’s exquisite solos appearing in selected John Williams’ scores:

List of musical excerpts featured in the episode (all music by John Williams except where noted):

. “Sleepers at Wilkinson”, from Sleepers (1996)
. “End Credits” from Rosewood (1997)
. “Flight and Technology”, from American Journey (1999-2002)
. “Jurassic Park Gate”, from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “Rescuing Sarah”, from The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
. “Barnstorming”, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
. “Main Title” from Days of Wine and Roses (1962), music by Henry Mancini
. “The Lovemaking”, from Cocoon (1985), music by James Horner
. “Among the Clouds” and “Dorinda’s Solo Flight”, from Always (1989)
. “Healing”, from Rosewood (1997)
. “Arlington”, from JFK (1991)
. “The Bedroom”, “The Lost Boy Chase”, “The Ultimate War”, from Hook (1991)
. “The Land Race”, from Far and Away (1992)
. “Schindler’s Workforce”, from Schindler’s List (1993)
. “In the Moonlight”, from Sabrina (1995)
. Excerpt from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 20th Anniversary Live Concert at the Shrine Auditorium (2002)
. “The ‘Float'” from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. “Theme” and “Journey to the Island”, from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “Reunion and Finale” and “Father Bobby’s Decision” from Sleepers (1996)
. “The Final Game”, from Rudy (1993), music by Jerry Goldsmith
. “Facing the British Lines”, “The Family Farm”, “Ann and Gabriel”, from The Patriot (2000)
. “Main Title” from Presumed Innocent (1990)
. Johannes Brahms, Five Duets – “Es Rauschet Das Wasser” Op.28 / from the album Now Playing (1997)
. Richard Strauss, Horn Concerto No.2 (excerpt)
. “End Credits”, from North and South (1985), music by Bill Conti
. “End Credits” from Field of Dreams (1989), music by James Horner
. “Give Me Your Names” from Schindler’s List (1993)
. “Among the Clouds”, from Always (1989)