The Good, the bad and the groovy: Rediscovering the music of Hugo Montenegro

BY JIM MELLOAN | It was sometime in 1966 when Hugo Montenegro went into an RCA studio with some session musicians on a Saturday to do a cover of the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Italian director Sergio Leone’s third installment of his “Dollars Trilogy” of spaghetti westerns. All three of the films had been scored by the prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The opening theme for this third film was particularly haunting — a two-note melody sounding like a whistled call across a desert landscape, followed by a variety of instruments evoking tumbleweeds, desolation, and violence. Montenegro added a stronger beat with strummed guitar chords to give the tune a poppier feel, with the opening melody played on an ocarina, and the response on a harmonica, with hand movements producing the wah-wah sound. Montenegro’s own voice supplied the grunting Indian sounds, and famous whistler Muzzy Marcellino did his thing. The recording was released in 1968, and after a slow build, and much to Montenegro’s surprise, it became a pop hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 on June 1, 1968 — 50 years ago this weekend.

It is a joy today to bathe in the music Montenegro created. He was born in New York City in 1925, and served in the Navy for two years, mostly as an arranger for the Naval Station Newport (a base in Rhode Island). After the war, he studied music at Manhattan College. His first recording was with the Glen-Spice Orchestra, arranging and conducting Dion’s first recording, “Out in Colorado” and “The Chosen Few,” pre-Belmonts, with backing by a group called The Timberlanes. The entire record had been recorded before Dion was chosen as the lead singer.

The synthesizer-infused “Moog Power” includes a killer version of the fast middle part of “MacArthur Park.” | Image via Via

In 1960, Montenegro recorded several albums for Time Records (no relation to Time Inc., the magazine publisher). The first was a blast of energy heralding the new decade, called “Bongos + Brass.” This and many albums like it from that era were designed to show off new stereo recording technologies (in Time Records’ case, something called Process 70), and boost sales of hi-fi equipment.

It was clearly meant to be played in plush living rooms with ultra-modern décor and furnishings, as background to cocktail parties where the martinis flowed freely and the people were beautiful and sexy. This one starts off with a killer version of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The Who, Rick Wakeman, and many others before and after would adapt this number, but this one puts them all to shame. There are also stellar versions of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” “Take the A Train,” and “Laura.”

This one was followed in short order with a trio of albums: “Cha Chas for Dancing” (whose tracks include “Tea for Two” and “Mack the Knife”), “Boogie Woogie + Bongos” (“Peter Gunn,” “Begin the Beguine”), and “Arriba!” (which shows Montenegro getting into the Hispanic/Western style later reflected in his Morricone covers).

In 1961 Time released “Montenegro in Italy,” featuring classic Italian songs suffused with sounds purportedly from the streets and canals of Italy. Montenegro arranged Harry Belafonte’s orchestra in the early ’60s. His work can be heard on “Belafonte at the Greek Theater” (1963), and “In My Quiet Room” (1966). By 1965 he was well-known enough that “Bongos + Brass” was re-released as “Montenegro and Mayhem.”

At that time it was clear that Montenegro was destined for the business of spy music. Though he had no hand in the composition of the music for “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (those duties were performed by Jerry Goldsmith and others, including Lalo Schifrin, who would later write the famous “Mission Impossible” theme), RCA released two successful albums Montenegro arranged and conducted with music from that show. The music on the albums was much more high fidelity and punchier than anything people were going to hear on their televisions at the time. He also came out with an album of music from spy movies and TV shows called “Come Spy With Me.”

Around this time he wrote the new, sprightly theme for “I Dream of Jeannie,” used in seasons 2 through 5, a welcome replacement for the tired waltz that was used in the first season. (That theme also has lyrics, written by Buddy Kaye, although they were never used.)

His first real film scoring job was for “Hurry Sundown,” a 1967 Southern racial drama set after World War II, produced and directed by Otto Preminger, a critical flop. But after that Montenegro was back in his wheelhouse. There’s James Bond, there’s Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, there’s Maxwell Smart, there’s Derek Flint — but for some of us, the ne plus ultra of secret agents is Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, the boozing, babe-loving, hedonic hero of four films. Montenegro scored the last two, “The Ambushers” and “The Wrecking Crew.” In my recollection both really got my adolescent juices flowing when I saw them in the theater in London, doubtless due in part to the soundtrack. (The theme song for “The Ambushers” was written by famed Monkees songwriters Boyce and Hart.)

Montenegro went on to score “Lady in Cement,” a 1968 thriller starring Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welch, “Charro!,” a 1969 western starring Elvis Presley, “The Undefeated,” a 1969 John Wayne western, and “Viva Max,” a 1969 comedy western starring Peter Ustinov. He also continued to churn out albums, notably 1969’s “Moog Power,” featuring the synthesizer. The album cover of that one shows his bearded, mephistophelean face with a patch board in his forehead, and Day-Glo electric rays zapping from his visage. It includes a killer version of the fast middle part of “MacArthur Park.”

In the ’70s, Montenegro scored several TV shows, notably “The Partridge Family.” His last score, for a 1977 thriller called “The Farmer,” is apparently lost. It is said to be chilling electronic music. The film was given an X rating until the director succeeded in screening it before the ratings board again, without the score, and it was re-assigned an R and distributed by Columbia for 17 years. But it was never released on DVD because the music rights could not be found. Montenegro suffered from severe emphysema in his later years, and died in 1981 at age 55.

An Australian label called The Omni Recording Corporation released a compilation album of Montenegro’s works in 2008 called “Mr. Groovy.” Good title.

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