Mike Lang, one of the most prominent pianists in Hollywood history, died of lung cancer Friday morning at his home in Studio City. He was 80 years old.
Lang played piano (or organ, harpsichord, or celestial) on approximately 2,000 film and television scores dating back to the mid-1960s, including scores by virtually every major film composer of the past 50 years: John Williams (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Catch Me If You Can”), Jerry Goldsmith (“Gremlins”, “The Russia House”), John Barry (“Body Heat”, “The Specialist” ), Henry Mancini (“10”), Alex North (“The Fisherman’s Shoes”), Elmer Bernstein (“The Rainmaker”), Miklós Rózsa (“The Dead Don’t Wear Plaids”) and many more .
Composer Lalo Schifrin (“Mission: Impossible”) was among Lang’s early champions in Hollywood, adding Lang’s piano to what eventually became award-winning Paul Horn’s album “Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts.” a Grammy, in 1965. Lang played piano for Schifrin on dozens of subsequent albums and film scores, including Oscar-nominated “The Competition” and “The Sting II.”
Lang has also played for composers such as James Newton Howard (“Glengarry Glen Ross”, “Lady in the Water”), Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin”), Marc Shaiman (“City Slickers”), John Debney (“Dreamer”), Hans Zimmer (“As Good As It Gets”, “Pearl Harbor”), Randy Newman (“Toy Story”, “Secretariat”), Danny Elfman (“Batman Returns”), Bill Conti ( “The Right Stuff”) and Clint Eastwood (“The Bridges of Madison County”), among others.
Composer Howard, also a pianist, told Variety“Mike was a dear friend, colleague and teacher, endowed with monumental talent. Anyone who knew him would agree that there has never been a more graceful, humble and brilliant musician – a musician’s musician.
Ralph Grierson, another studio pianist, recalled the days of the late ’60s and early ’70s “when there was a plethora of new keyboard instruments, sometimes a new one every week. Hollywood being Hollywood, everyone wanted the newest and hippest sound. Mike and I used to joke that “earn by learning” because we’d come to the studio, find an instrument we’d never seen before, and be expected to perform immediately. As a player he was one of the best; more importantly, he was a great musician. I am honored to have been Mike’s colleague and friend.
Lang’s hundreds of TV credits as a keyboardist ranged from ‘The Waltons’ and ‘Kung Fu’ in the 1970s to later shows such as ‘Amazing Stories’, ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Frasier’, ‘Penny Dreadful’. , “Family Guy”, “American Dad” and “The Orville”.
Interviewed last year for the “Legacy of John Williams” podcast, Lang reflected on his process: “The music itself tells me how to relate to it. I have a sound in my head. I play as an improviser, even if I play Beethoven. I hear the music as if it were in Beethoven’s head. When I match it, so the real sound comes out of the piano and it matches [what’s in] my head, the piano disappears. It is a facilitator for me. The last thing on my mind is, “I’m a pianist.” I try to make the music breathe, to be vocal and expressive, and to that end the piano loses its identity.
Lang knew every musical idiom and genre imaginable, a versatility that kept him in demand for pop and jazz albums as well. He played for Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, John Denver, Lionel Ritchie, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Vince Gill, NSYNC, Diana Krall, John Lennon, the Commodores, Peggy Lee , Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand and Frank Zappa.
He was born Michael Herbert Lang on December 10, 1941 in Los Angeles (but changed his name, several years later, to Michael Anthony Lang), the son of Jennings Lang, an agent who later became a producer of Universal films such as “Earthquake” and “Airport 1975”.
Mike Lang began piano lessons at age 4½ and eventually studied music with LA composers Leonard Stein and George Tremblay, studio pianist Pearl Kaufman, and Schifrin. He earned a music degree from the University of Michigan in 1963.
In addition to his studio work, Lang often performed at jazz clubs in the Los Angeles area, including Donte’s, Shelly’s Manne Hole, the Baked Potato and other venues. He then produced albums for his mother-in-law, singer-actress Monica Lewis, and in 1994 released his first solo album on the Varèse Sarabande label, a collection of Henry Mancini songs which he arranged and performed. entitled “Days of Wine and Roses”.
Lang briefly became a composer for Robert Forster’s 1986 film “Hollywood Harry” and over the years wrote songs for such jazz personalities as Stan Getz, Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Herb Alpert, Tom Scott and Dave Grusin. He has also premiered jazz piano concertos by Byron Olson and Brad Dechter.
In July 2019, he performed a sold-out concert of Piano Spheres at Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, which earned him a accolade from the LA Times: “one of LA’s great known unknowns, a pianist and composer who never t’s not often in the spotlight…Lang reminds us of the rarely recognized but significant intersection between contemporary music and Hollywood…the eye-opener here has been hearing our city’s musical identity in one voice.
Survivors include his partner, Deborah Pearl; ex-spouse Karen Lang; son Dave Lang, also a musician; a brother, producer-director Rocky Lang and a grandson Sunny.