On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Percy Faith

PERCY FAITH (Apr. 7, 1908 – Feb. 9, 1976) – Bandleader, Composer, Arranger, Conductor

By DAVID EISENSTADT, July 16, 2020 – I heard the tune Theme from A Summer Place the other day and it brought back a flood of happy summertime teenage memories.

That instrumental hit single exemplified the easy-listening or “mood music” format of the 1950s and ‘60s. I knew it was performed by Percy Faith and his orchestra. I didn’t know he was Jewish and born in Toronto.

Percy Faith
Percy Faith

One of eight children born to Abraham and Minnie (née Rottenberg), young Percy studied violin, then piano, and was destined to become a concert pianist while studying at the Toronto Conservatory of Music.

But that career objective ended when he suffered serious burns to his hands while saving his younger sister’s life after her clothing caught fire. He couldn’t play the piano for nine months but during that time, became interested in arranging and composing. He quit the Conservatory without completing his degree. Soon thereafter, he married the former Mary Palanage, a union that lasted until he died in 1976. They had two sons.

In the 1930s, his experience as a theatre and hotel orchestra conductor helped land conducting and arranging radio gigs at the CBC, until he moved to Chicago in 1940 as orchestra leader for the NBC-produced Carnation Contented program. In the late ‘40s, he was the orchestra leader on the CBS network program The Coca-Cola Hour, collaborating with orchestral accordionist John Serry Sr.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, he joined Decca Records, then moved to Columbia Records where, under the iconic Mitch Miller during the 1950s, he produced many of the albums for such talents as Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan.

In 1960, Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 single was his Theme From A Summer Place, which won a 1961 Grammy Award as Record of the Year. Other Faith trademark recordings are Delicado (1952) and The Song From Moulin Rouge (1953).

Some music critics and others disparaged Faith for the dreamy excesses of the easy-listening genre. In the movie Good Morning Vietnam, the Army radio DJ character Robin Williams played was given a list of “acceptable” music he was allowed to broadcast: “Lawrence Welk, Jim Nabors…” at which point the irreverent Williams slips in, “Percy Faith.”

He remains the only artist to net Bestselling Single of the Year for Song From Moulin Rouge in 1953 during the pop era, and for Theme From A Summer Place in 1960 during the rock era.

Faith mined Broadway, Hollywood and Latin music for many of his hits and also scored motion pictures, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of the Doris Day musical feature Love Me or Leave Me. Other film scores included romantic comedies and dramas and the theme for the NBC series, The Virginian.

The Billboard Hot 200 best sellers chart through 1972 lists 21 Percy Faith easy-listening albums. But with rock’n’roll taking centre stage in the 1970s, Faith saw his trademark arrangements wane, although he produced two significant albums, Black Magic Woman and Jesus Christ Superstar. He ventured into country music and completed a disco-style reworking of his Theme From A Summer Place, titled Summer Place ‘76, which became a hit after he died.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.