Legendary singer and vocal contractor talks her illustrious career in Hollywood working in choirs and as soloist for many film composers, including her work for John Williams on Amistad and other projects
Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto
Film score recordings in Hollywood are performed not just by hundreds of talented orchestra musicians, but they often feature the superb work of great vocalists, singers and choirs. Sally Stevens is perhaps the most famous and distinguished singer and vocalist who lent her beautiful voice to countless film and television soundtracks and studio recordings in Los Angeles. Her resume includes work for illustrious film composers including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, just to name a few, but also for some of the most famous names of the recording industry like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Burt Bacharach among others, in a career spanning five decades and thousands of performances.
Born in Los Angeles as part of a musical family (her mother was one of the singers for The Wizard of Oz), Sally Stevens attended UCLA as a music major. While still at UCLA, Herb Alpert and Lou Adler produced her as an artist, a “single” 45rpm record on Dot, “Silver Ring” and “Maybe”, two songs she wrote while at UCLA. After graduation, she traveled in concert with Ray Conniff and Nat King Cole, and worked as a production singer in Las Vegas in 1961 and 1962, then began to work freelance in recording and commercials in Los Angeles.
Her first work as a singer in film sessions was in 1962 for How The West Was Won (music by Alfred Newman), then continuing with other major hits including Doctor Zhivago (music by Maurice Jarre) and The Sound Of Music. In addition to singing in choirs in the soprano section, Sally began to work as a solo vocalist and was featured in the scores of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, music by Burt Bacharach), Klute (1971, music by Michael Small), Dirty Harry (1971, music by Lalo Schifrin); Ennio Morricone used her dreamy vocals in the main theme of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), while Jerry Goldsmith asked her to perform the solo vocal for the lullaby “Flying Dreams” for the animated feature The Secret of NIMH (1982), with lyrics penned by Paul Williams. Sally also worked on countless recordings for television shows and commercials, including popular tv shows as The Love Boat and Happy Days.
In the late 1980s, Sally Stevens also began working as a vocal contractor, collaborating with composers and musicians to contract choirs, vocalists and singers for countless film and television scores under the banner name of Hollywood Film Chorale. She contracted choirs and singers for successful films including Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Abyss, Forrest Gump, The Matrix Revolutions, Jurassic World, among others, and also on popular tv shows as The Simpsons and Family Guy. She also served as choral director of the Oscars broadcasts for over 20 years, the most recent being the 2018 Academy Awards.
Sally’s collaboration with John Williams started in 1997, when she was asked to be vocal contractor for the film Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg. For this project, John Williams wrote a significant amount of music featuring a large choir. Given the subject of the film, the composer needed a mixed group of both white and black singers, including a children’s choir featured in the piece for the end credits (the stirring composition “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”), all contracted by Sally Stevens. The text sung by the choir is from a poem by Ivorian writer Bernard Binlin Dadié, originally written in French and then translated in Mende (the African dialect spoken by the characters in the film). The final result is a performance that is both authentic and original, blending perfectly the African-inspired nature of the piece with the traditional Western symphonic writing for the orchestra.
In addition to the choir, Sally also contracted mezzosoprano Pamela Dillard, the vocal soloist prominently featured throughout the score. For one of the scenes, Williams was looking for a very specific timbre and Stevens, after a long search, finally found the perfect voice for him. “She submitted a demo tape, John listened, and it was clear we had finally reached the end of our search,” said Sally Stevens. “He was so pleased with her sound that he wrote two more additional vocal cues for her to perform as solos within the score.”
Sally continued to collaborate with John Williams as a vocal contractor also in subsequent years on such films as Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); she contracted soloist Lisbeth Scott for the score of Munich (2005) and a group of children and women voices for the teaser trailer of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), for which Williams wrote “Double Trouble”, a puckish chant set to the song of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The most recent collaboration between Williams and Stevens is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), for which she had the difficult task to put together a 24-voice group of low basso singers. The male choir is featured in the scenes with Supreme Leader Snoke, the new archvillain of the sequel trilogy.
The career of Sally Stevens is truly extraordinary on many levels. In addition to her work for film and television, she can be heard in hundreds of studio recordings for records and commercials. She has recorded with Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Burt Bacharach, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Sonny & Cher, Neil Diamond, Dean Martin, Tom Scott, Hugo Montenegro, Percy Faith, Michael Bublé, and many others. She has also written lyrics for film and television projects, for Burt Bacharach, Dominic Frontiere, Don Ellis, Mike Melvoin and others, and her song, “Who Comes This Night?” (music by Dave Grusin) is included in James Taylor’s first Christmas album recorded in 2005.
Sally is also a fine art photographer and did a special exhibit of photos of film composers taken during several scoring sessions throughout the years, including a few she took during the recording of John Williams’ score for Munich by Steven Spielberg (which she kindly gave permission to use in this article). Sally is currently working on his memoir, which is planned to be published this year.
In this conversation, Sally Stevens reminisces about her glorious career as a singer and vocal contractor working in Hollywood, from the early days singing in the choir for Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won to the work as soloist for Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith and other great composers. She also recollects her experience working as a vocal contractor for John Williams on Amistad and other projects involving choirs and vocal soloists, sharing her own unique insight and perspective on Williams’ choral writing and the use of human voice.
List of music excerpts featured in the episode (music by John Williams except where noted)
. R.Wright / G.Forrest, “Stranger In Paradise”, Ray Conniff and His Orchestra, from the album Say It With Music, 1960
. Alfred Newman, Ken Darby, “Entr’acte” from How The West Was Won (1962)
. Lalo Schifrin, “Scorpio’s View” from Dirty Harry (1971)
. “You Are The Pan” from Hook (1991)
. “Imaginary Air Battle” from Empire of the Sun (1987)
. “Farewell Neverland” from Hook (1991)
. “Hatching Baby Raptor” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “Crossing the Atlantic”, “Going Home”, “Middle Passage”, “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, “The Capture of Cinque” from Amistad (1997)
. “Remembering Munich” from Munich (2005)
. “First Vision of Anne Lively” from Minority Report (2002)
. “Snoke” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
. Jerry Goldsmith, “Flying Dreams (Lullaby)”, solo vocal by Sally Stevens, from The Secret of NIMH (1982)
. Kitarō, “End Title” from Heaven & Earth (1993)
. James Horner, “Goodbye and Godspeed” from Deep Impact (1998)
. James Horner, “Main Title” from Sneakers (1992)
. “Theme” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. “The Plane” from Empire of the Sun (1993)
. “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” from Amistad (1997)
Special thanks to Sally Stevens for her kindness and generosity.
Sally Stevens Official Website: https://www.sallystevenswriter.com/
Hollywood Film Chorale Website: https://www.hollywoodfilmchorale.com/choraleintro.html