Reverie: The Music Of Angela Morley

Though Angela Morley had relatively few credits to her name by the mid-1970s, she had been a significant figure in the light music industry for over thirty years. It was certainly not the case that she lacked talent or ambition, but that Morley herself only came into being in 1970; before then, she was known as Wally Stott. Born in Leeds on 10th March 1924, Stott came from a musical family and his earliest memory ‘was of sitting on the floor surrounded by records of the bands of Jack Payne and Henry Hall and playing them on our enormous wind up gramophone. My dad played the ukulele-banjo that he used to let me tune for him, using his pitch pipe, to either G-C-E-A or A-D-F#-B. My mother had a contralto voice and sang: There is a Lady Passing By and, her favourite, Big Lady Moon.’ An interest in the violin was soon replaced by the piano, although the sudden death of his father in 1933 meant that Stott’s lessons were abruptly ended. Nevertheless, he subsequently taught himself to master it as well as the alto saxophone.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Stott left school to become the saxophonist with a dance band and later joined the Oscar Rabin Band in 1941; three years later, he became a part of Geraldo’s Orchestra. Discovering that he had a remarkable gift for arrangement, Stott found work with the BBC, and later studied composition under Mátyás Seiber and conducting with Walter Goehr.

During the War, Stott met Peter Sellers, who offered him the job of conducting the background music for The Goon Show in 1952, and in 1954, he composed the theme tune for the new radio show – Hancock’s Half Hour. At the same time, Stott was also appointed musical director for Philips Records and was working with stars such as Shirley Bassie, Frankie Vaughan and Mel Tormé, who recalled that From the first downbeat, I knew I was in the presence of a major talent.’ From 1967 to 1970, Stott also worked as an arranger for Scott Walker’s solo albums, with Walker remarking, ‘Working with Wally Stott on Scott 3 was like having Delius writing for you.’

Venturing into the world of film, Stott composed scores for The Heart of a Man (1959), Peeping Tom (1960) and The Looking Glass War (1969) among others. Memorable tunes such as Rotten Row and A Canadian in Mayfair, rightly cemented his reputation and as Tony Osborne, himself a successful arranger and composer remembered, We all looked up to Wally because we knew that he was second only to Robert Farnon, and it was a pretty close run thing at that!’

Above: The opening and closing themes from The Looking Glass War (1969)

Max Geldray, the jazz harmonica player for The Goon Show revealed that his success notwithstanding, Stott had been plagued by ‘a lifelong mental struggle with gender identity, a fact that, for all those years, he had kept sealed tightly inside himself.’ In spite of this, Stott had married, with his wife forming and fronting the Beryl Stott Singers, and the couple had two children. The deaths of both Beryl and their daughter caused Stott to assess his own life and gave him the impetus he needed to become the woman he truly was. Stott remarried, this time to Christine Parker, who was deeply sympathetic to his predicament and accepting of his decision to undergo gender reassignment in Switzerland in 1970. Grateful for his spouse’s unwavering devotion, Stott confessed, ‘It was only because of her love and support that I then was able to deal with the trauma, and begin to think about crossing over that terrifying gender border.’

Arriving in Switzerland as Wally Stott, Angela Morley returned to England in the body that should have been her’s from birth. Morley continued to work for the BBC, but had misgivings about how she would be treated by those who remembered her before her surgery and even declined to appear on the 1972 one-off special The Last Goon Show of All, leading Harry Seacombe to comment, ‘I’ve heard of leaving your heart in San Francisco but this is ridiculous!’ Contemplating quitting conducting for good, Morley confided her fears to the record producer Johnny Franz who managed to persuade her that her talent was too great to be overshadowed by bigotry.

Feeling comfortable in her own skin at last only enhanced Morley’s already considerable abilities. Her work on the musical scores of the films The Little Prince (1974) and The Slipper and the Rose (1976) earned Morley two Oscar nominations and for her, this recognition, along with the ‘wonderfully warm and generous way that I was made to feel at home there by my American colleagues and friends resulted in my being rather seduced by the California life style and I soon returned with intention of staying, if not for ever, at least for some time.’ In 1978, her compositions for the animated film, Watership Down further boosted to Morley’s reputation and was much praised, with the conductor John Wilson claiming that the score ‘couldn’t have been written by anyone else. It has that slightly wistful melancholy to it, a pastoral sweetness.’

Making California her permanent home in 1980, Morley began to take on more television work, including writing music for the US soaps Dallas and Dynasty, as well as Cagney & Lacey and Wonder Woman. For her television compositions, Morley was nominated for eleven Emmy awards and won three. Developing a close association with the composer John Williams, Morley also began working with him on the soundtracks for several blockbusters, such as E.T. (1982) and Schindler’s List (1993). Eventually tiring of the Hollywood lifestyle, Morley and Parker moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1994, but Morley’s love of music remained as strong as ever and she regularly produced new works, such as Reverie, which was recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra and used to accompany to an interview she gave BBC Radio 3 in 2005.

Above: Reverie composed by Angela Morley

On 14th January 2009, Angela Morley died at her home in Arizona after suffering complications caused by a fall. Morley’s continuing influence must not be underestimated, with many popular musicians citing her as an inspiration, for example, the highly acclaimed jazz bassist Jennifer Leitham, who also underwent gender reassignment in 2001, and who has spoken of her admiration for the way Morley ‘carried herself with such grace and dignity’ and ‘kept the focus in her life on her music and talent.’ Conducting her personal and professional relationships with equal finesse, Morley refusing to be dismayed by the prejudices of others, telling Peter Seller’s biographer Ed Sikov when he asked whether he should refer to her as Wally Stott, ‘It’s a judgment you’ll have to make, and I’ll have to accept.’ What can be unequivocally accepted, is the universal appeal and irrepressible charm of Angela Morley’s work, and how, in the words of songwriter Richard M. Sherman, ‘She made every song come to life.’

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