L.A. Studio Legends: Mike Lang

Photo by Bonnie Perkinson

Legendary pianist and keyboardist talks his unparalleled career as a first-call studio musician on thousands of film scores for top film composers, including his many collaborations with John Williams

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden

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Pianist Mike Lang certainly doesn’t need much introduction among the legendary musicians who performed on film and television soundtracks in the last 50 years. He represents the epitome of the greatness and versatility of the studio musician in several different ways, having performed with virtually all the greatest film composers since the 1960s in more than 2,000 film scores, in many cases as first pianist and keyboardist, but also with an impressive slew of iconic recording artists. Lang’s resume is one of the most impressive among any living musician on the planet.

Photo by Bonnie Perkinson

A native of Los Angeles, Mike Lang grew up in a family closely tied to the film industry and show business (his father, Jennings Lang, was a top Hollywood producer, while his adoptive mother Monica Lewis was an actress and singer) where he was able to cultivate his natural penchant for music. During his teenage years, he studied piano and composition with such teachers as Leonard Stein and George Tremblay (both pupils of Arnold Schoenberg). After receiving a Bachelor in Music at the University of Michigan in 1963, he studied with the renowned Pearl Kaufman, one of the most sought-after studio pianist active in the Los Angeles area (she played for the likes of Dimitri Tiomkin, Alex North and Bernard Herrmann among others). It was through Kaufman that Lang got his first tip of the toe in the pool of studio recording, which later would become his own very field of expertise. Mike’s love for jazz music made him settle initially to pursue a career as a pianist in that field, but later decided to focus on becoming a studio musician. Lang briefly studied composition with Lalo Schifrin and, at the same time, he started performing for him in various studio recordings. From that moment onward, Lang became one of the de facto ubiquitous studio musicians on the scene, particularly for film and television soundtracks, joining the ranks of illustrious colleague keyboardists as Ralph Grierson, Artie Kane and Ian Underwood.

Mike Lang with Frank Zappa during a recording session for the album “Lumpy Gravy” in 1968 (photo courtesy of Mike Lang)

During his career, Mike performed as pianist and keyboardist for many icons of jazz, rock and pop music, including Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, John Lennon, Lee Konitz, Frank Zappa, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, just to mention a few, showing an unprecedented dexterity and flexibility to move around different genres and styles, a quality that helped him navigating successfully in a very demanding environment where, as himself put it during this conversation, he faced an enormous amount of “ungodly requirements”. Studio musicians must be not only excellent sight-readers, but they also have to respond to very specific instructions and requirements that the composer, or the leading artist, might give on the spot and be able to perform them flawlessly almost immediately.

A young Mike Lang during a recording session ca. early 1970s
(Photo courtesy of Mike Lang)

Lang’s career as pianist for film scores is the stuff of legend. He performed in thousands of film and television soundtracks serving virtually all the legendary film composers of the last 50 years including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Bill Conti, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard. Many composers trusted Mike’s talent and gave him exquisite piano solos, including Jerry Goldsmith, for which he performed on more than 40 films over a span of four decades. Among the memorable solos Lang played for him: The Russia House, The Edge and Forever Young.

Photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser, ScoringSessions.com

Mike Lang’s collaborations with John Williams started in the early 1970s, when the Maestro called him to perform as pianist on many of his film scores recorded in Los Angeles during those years like The Poseidon Adventure, The Paper Chase, Cinderella Liberty, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Sugarland Express. Mike played together with Ralph Grierson, switching from piano to harpsichord, electric piano, celeste and synthesizer upon the requirements of the score. Mike’s penchant for jazz piano made him a perfect fit for the score of The Eiger Sanction, where he can be heard performing some lovely jazz-like piano solos in several cues.

Lang also performed piano parts in such scores as Family Plot, Black Sunday, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1941, and continued to play for John Williams during the 1980s and ’90s on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, SpaceCamp, Home Alone 1 and 2, Hook, Sabrina, The Lost World, Seven Years In Tibet and Amistad, performing almost exclusively as synthesist together with Ralph Grierson and Randy Kerber. On the soundtrack of Hook, Lang was the credited piano soloist in the jazzy cue titled “Banning Back Home”, in which we can hear a brilliant sample of his wonderful playing, elegant and exciting at the same time.

Mike Lang performed for John Williams throughout the 2000s as well in scores like Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Memoirs of a Geisha and also recent works like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The BFG. Together with Louise Di Tullio, Ralph Grierson, Sheridon Stokes and Malcolm McNab, he’s one of the studio musicians who witnessed Williams’ growth from a respected film composer to one of the most successful artists in the world. Despite the gain in popularity, the composer remained always very faithful to his musicianship, which Lang refers as truly unique among all the film composers he worked with.

Photo by Bonnie Perkinson

Despite his reputation as one of the finest musicians in the world, Mike Lang didn’t release a solo album until 1994, when he recorded a tribute album to the music of Henry Mancini called Days of Wine and Roses: The Classic Songs of Henry Mancini. Produced by Robert Townson and released on Varèse Sarabande, the album is a delightful collection of original jazz arrangements either for solo piano or jazz trio of some of Hank’s most popular songs and tunes written for films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, Two For The Road, The Great Race and Victor Victoria, and also a testament of Mike Lang’s truly inspired and distinctive jazz piano playing.

The album “Days of Wine and Roses: The Classic Songs of Henry Mancini”, featuring Mike Lang on solo piano (Varèse Sarabande, 1994)

In this wide-ranging, fun conversation, Mike sits down with The Legacy of John Williams’ Editor Maurizio Caschetto and Head Contributor Tim Burden to talk about his unparalleled career as one of the most sought-after studio musicians in the history of music, not just film scores, reminiscing on his beginnings, his training and his early years playing for film composers, including John Williams. Mike also offers his own unique insight about Williams’ musicianship, the Maestro’s skills as pianist and the evolution of his career, while pondering also on the life as a studio musician with all its unique aspects and idiosincracies. He also talks about some of the specific solos he performed for John Williams, including the one heard in Steven Spielberg’s Hook.

Photo by Bonnie Perkinson

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

. “Banning Back Home”, from Hook (1991)
. Jerry Goldsmith, “The Edge”, from The Edge (1997)
. Henry Mancini, “Charade”, from the album Days of Wine and Roses: The Classic Songs of Henry Mancini, Varèse Sarabande, 1994
. Lalo Schifrin, “Sanctus”, from the album Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts, RCA Victor, 1965
. Traditional (arr. John Williams), “Auld Lang Syne”, from The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
. “Real Identity/Into the Sea”, from The Paper Chase (1973)
. “Main Title”, “Hemlock and Jemima”, from The Eiger Sanction (1975)
. “Climbing the Mountain”, “End Titles”, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
. Jerry Goldsmith, “A Game of Pool”, from Studs Lonigan (1961), John Williams, solo piano
. “Main Title”, from SpaceCamp (1986)
. “End Credits”, from Heartbeeps (1981)
. “Banning Back Home” (film version), from Hook (1991)
. “Catch Me If You Can”, from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. Conversations, for solo piano – II. Claude and Monk (Gloria Cheng, piano), from the album Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano, harmonia mundi, 2015
. Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer, “I Had Myself a True Love”, from the album Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me – A Celebration of His Music, TCM, 2009; Audra McDonald, vocals; John Williams, piano
. Henry Mancini, “Two For The Road”, from the album Days of Wine and Roses: The Classic Songs of Henry Mancini, Varèse Sarabande, 1994
. “The ‘Float'”, from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. Bill Conti, “Mickey”, from Rocky III (1982)
. “Hello”, from the album The John Towner Touch, Kapp Records, 1957
. Henry Mancini, “Tom’s Theme” (from The Glass Menagerie), from the album Days of Wine and Roses: The Classic Songs of Henry Mancini, Varèse Sarabande, 1994
. “Banning Back Home” (film version), from Hook (1991)