A Tribute to Sam Spence
On February 6, the music world, the sports world, and American pop culture lost one of its maestros. He may not have the same name recognition as, say, John Williams, George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein, but generations of American sports fans — whether they know it or not — grew up on his unique brand of music.
He was the man behind the music of NFL Films. His name was Sam Spence.
One of the most notable composers — if not the most memorable — in the world of American sports, Spence quietly passed away at a nursing center in Lewisville, Texas. Ironically enough, it was on the eve of one of the greatest spectacles of American sport: Super Bowl 50. He was 88.
Spence was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in nearby Salinas. He studied music for most of his life, getting his college education at UCLA and USC. Serving in the Navy soon after, he eventually settled in Munich, where he would live, and compose, for most of his adult life.
In fact, he was composing for German television shows in 1966, when NFL Films came to him for his services. Apparently, their original composer, Mahlon Merrick, had recommended Spence to take over for him — at the time, Merrick was working on “The Jack Benny Show,” and he had grown too busy to devote considerable amounts of time to composing for sports films. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a devoted American football fan, Spence seemed to understand the violent grace that was displayed on a regular basis in the NFL. With that in mind, he used his music to brilliantly illustrate the beauty, style and heroism of the game, as it was embodied in the 1960s and 1970s. His musicality reflected the awe-inspiring physicality of the game, emoting classic, action-packed, Western-inspired themes.
You could hear it in tracks such as “Classic Battle”: He begins with the drones of the bassoons, helping the listener visualize men preparing for combat. When the woodwinds and strings kick in with an energetic theme, it’s almost as if you can see the collision of the linemen on the field, the quarterback handing off to the running back in space, and the defenders desperate to keep up — all in slow motion.
A great example of his music invoking images of a romanticized Old West came with his track “Round Up”: the featured use of brass melodies and the timpani reflects the excitement of an old fashioned cattle drive, coupled with the nature of NFL linebackers tracking down and wrapping up offensive players like wild bulls:
Perhaps one of his most famous tracks came in the form of “The Raiders” — a theme that was synonymous with the team it was named after. Coupled with NFL Films narrator John Facenda’s brilliant reading of the poem “The Autumn Wind”, the theme for the silver-and-black almost defined what it meant to be a part of the Raider Nation. Its melodies invoked feelings of rebellious pride, and projected images of the pirates illustrated in classic stories. It was an attitude that the franchise adopted, and used to define themselves to this day.
Above all, Spence’s music in NFL Films will live on for generations to come, as it helped define a sport for Americana. If not for his classic themes, which reflected on many of the romanticized images of toughness in American culture, the National Football League may not be the revered sport it is today. NFL Films president Steve Sabol said best in 1985:
There are two sports that are set to music. One is bullfighting, with the traditional pasodoble song. The other is NFL football. Music is as important to the game as the crack of leather or the sound of the referee’s whistle.