Gary LeMel, a longtime president of music at Warner Bros. Pictures whom the Los Angeles Times once called “the father of the compilation soundtrack album,” died July 6 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.
Film agent Richard Kraft called him “a true giant in the film music industry.” Songwriters Hall of Fame member Steve Dorff described LeMel as “an amazing music man (and) a true friend who made an indelible contribution to my career.” Tom Sturges, a former top exec at Universal Music and other publishing companies, called him “one of the great music execs in the film business, ever. He treated me with the greatest respect at every meeting, took every call and listened to every song and artist I pitched him. Truly one of a kind.”
LeMel’s wife of almost 47 years, Maddy LeMel, a visual artist, told Variety she was staggered by the amount of testimonials coming in.
“It’s wild, because we’ve been married almost 47 years next month, and you think you know the person you’re living with and what they’ve done,” she said Friday, the day after a family-only funeral was held. “It was mind-boggling. I always knew he was loved, because at a checkout stand, people would hear the name LeMel and say, ‘Are you related? Oh my God, I love him.’ They would say he’s one of the only executives in the industry — both industries, film and music — that was really a nice guy, or, in their language, wasn’t a (jerk). So this is a beautiful statement. I really seriously had no idea how many people’s lives he touched until this happened.”
LeMel was a jazz recording artist in his own right over a period of decades, and he had not let illness keep him away from making music. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010, LeMel went on to join the Fifth Dementia, a waggishly named jazz group made up of dementia patients.
One of LeMel’s last and most prestigious public appearances came in 2017 when he was honored with the Guild of Music Supervisors’ Legacy Award at their annual gathering at the Theatre at Ace Hotel (an event at which he is pictured, above).
At Warner Bros., LeMel became known as “the godfather of the modern soundtrack” with successes including the “Batman,” “Matrix,” “Harry Potter” and “Ocean’s Eleven” films among his credits, not to mention one of the most successful soundtrack albums of all time, “The Bodyguard.”
Before joining Warner Bros., LeMel was a VP at Jerry Weintraub’s management company. He was working at First Artists Music when he was asked to be the music supervisor on Barbra Streisand’s “A Star Is Born” project, resulting in one of the biggest soundtrack albums of the 1970s. A stint at Neil Bogart’s Boardwalk followed before LeMel moved on to Columbia Pictures, where he worked on the soundtracks for “Ghostbusters,” “The Big Chill” and “Against All Odds.” In his long career at WB, starting in 1986 and lasting for 23 years, he worked on music-heavy films like “Space Jam” and “Singles” as well as “The Bodyguard.”
“He made the soundtrack so i important to the film, as a tool,” says Maddy LeMel. It was largely during his tenure that studios realized that “if they released the soundtrack earlier as they usually did, it made people want to go see the film, so it was a positive influence on ticket sales. ‘The Big Chill’ was a monumental-selling soundtrack that was a great example of that…. According to what they said when he got the Guild of Music Supervisors’ (Legacy) award, he worked on over 500 films. I about fell off my chair when they said that — and I think he did too, but someone had tracked it.”
As a recording artist, though, LeMel’s career stretches much further back. His first album came out on the VeeJay label in 1964, around the same time the Beatles had a release on the imprint. “Their record killed my album,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, while admitting that his old-school pop style didn’t stand much of a chance against the British rock invasion. “I was working Playboy clubs, sometimes doing five shows a night and barely making 300 bucks a week.”
LeMel’s return to making music in the ’90s included a Blue Note album, “Romancing the Screen,” heralded by a club gig at the Cinegrill in Hollywood that brought out such heavyweight friends as Frank Sinatra and Warren Beatty. “When I heard that Frank was there, I was so scared that I almost couldn’t do it,” LeMel told the Times. In 1999 he released a Bobby Darin tribute, “Moonlighting,” followed by “Lost in Your Arms” in 2001.
In 2004 Variety reviewed his appearance at the Vic in Santa Monica. Reviewer Richard S. Ginell wrote: “It’s nice to know that in entertainment congloms there’s someone in charge somewhere who really loves music. Gary LeMel, who makes his living as president of worldwide music at Warner Bros. Films, is one who does — and once in a great while, he dusts off his vocal cords and puts himself into the arena, armed with an accumulation of mostly vintage standards. … LeMel’s best quality is a terrific sense of taste, in material and musicians.”
Says Maddy LeMel, “His first and most important love was performing and singing, because he was a 5-year-old child that jumped up on the piano and started playing classical music. He sang and played bass very early on in Tucson, and music was the most important thing to him. Unfortunately right when his first album came out and was doing well, the Beatles arrived and changed the whole face of ,usic. He just said, ‘I’m not a rocker and not gonna try to be.’ He was more of a balladeer at that time, so he had to let that career go, and it was very difficult for him. But through the years I encouraged him to go in and play clubs, and that made all the difference. All the success he had as an executive didn’t compare to being a singer and musician.”
The support went both ways. “He was always, always behind me 100 percent, encouraging me,” says Maddy. “I know a lot of women who have husbands who were resentful they had to pay for their studio rentals. Gary was so much behind me, like a great promoter. He was an incredibly kind and loving man. I’ve always said no one could have given me the unconditional love he did all these years. Even if I was being a jerk, he was just so accepting of everything. But the statements I’m seeting from everyone (on social media) are unreal. I’m even in shock, and I should know all that.”
A public memorial is being planned for mid-August by Doug Frank, who worked with LeMel at Warner Bros.; he and the family are in search of a suitably sized venue to hold it.
Being a member of the Fifth Dementia was “the highlight of his life in his last few years, after everything else he wasn’t able to do because of the Parkinson’s. He loved it because he got to sing. We decided that in the memorial invitation we’re going to ask people if they’ll make a donation to Music Mends Minds, because they gave him so much joy at the end.”
Besides Maddy, LeMel is survived by three daughters, Tal, Tasha and Amber, and a grandson, Elijah.