When you think of composers who deserve more credit/recognition than they had, Shirley Walker probably isn’t someone you think of. If you’re wondering who I’m talking about, it’s okay, I’m pretty sure you’re not the only one. Walker’s the best definition of an obscure, underrated composer I’ve ever come across. She’s up with the likes of John Williams and Steven Price on my “favorite film composers” post, and for good reason.
Like the title says, she’s a forgotten legend. Walker was also an innovator, writing her scores by hand and conducting many of them. However, above all else was- there’s no other way to say this- a damn good composer.
Her music career took off in 1979. Walker’s first film scoring-related job was as a synthesizer player for the score to Apocalypse Now. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s she co-composed scores for movies such as Ragewar and Ghoulies, provided additional music to Nightbreed (her first collaboration with Danny Elfman), and Pacific Heights (first collaboration with Hans Zimmer), and wrote scores for several TV shows. Other scores from that era include Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, Born to Ride, Memoirs of an Invisible Man and 22 episodes of The Flash TV series.
Walker didn’t just compose scores, she also conducted a number of scores from the 80’s and 90’s you may recognize: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Batman, Batman Forever, Edward Scissorhands, Days of Thunder, Backdraft, White Fang, A League of Their Own, and True Lies, among others. Most of the scores were composed by either Elfman, Zimmer, Brad Fiedel, or Carter Burwell, among others.
In 1992, Walker found herself in perhaps her most influential project to date, composing music for the animated TV show Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS). She contributed many themes plus 34 episodes worth of music and was credited as the series overall composer. Later on, she provided the theme tunes and music for Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures (a continuation of BTAS), and Batman Beyond.
Her work on BTAS led to perhaps my favorite score of hers in the highly underrated classic Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This film was a theatrical animated movie released in 1993 from the team behind BTAS. Instead of being an hour-long children’s film, Phantasm was a dark story that some consider to be the best interpretation of Batman ever on film. Walker’s score reflects this with a full gothic choir, thundering brass and music clearly inspired by Danny Elfman’s work. It’s dark, catchy, happy, sad, many emotions all at once. Unlike superhero film scores of today with obnoxious horns, thundering strings and themes that sound near-generic, this one stands out with its use of original themes and quiet moments.
Unfortunately, the score isn’t exactly in high demand, like the movie itself, so you have to rely on the Internet to find bootlegs. It’s certainly worth your time and although not very long, you’ll have themes stuck in your head for days.
After her unnoticed triumph Walker continued making music for TV shows, TV movies and films like Escape From LA, Turbulence, and Willard. Her final scores for blockbusters were for the first three films of the Final Destination franchise. She also composed the music to the comedy Black Christmas, which would be her last film score. Walker died in November 2006 at 61, leaving behind a legacy mostly unnoticed by the general moviegoing public.
That legacy includes being one of the first women to receive a solo scoring credit on a major motion picture and holding the record for most major motion pictures scored by a woman (as of 2016). Later films in the Final Destination franchise listed her as the main theme composer. Warner Bros. honored her by placing an honorary plaque at their scoring stage where it remains to this day.
Her accolades include two Daytime Emmy awards (1996 and 2001), both for her work with Warner Bros./DC’s TV shows. She was also nominated for one Primetime Emmy, six additional Daytime Emmys and three Annie awards, among others.
In addition to composing for a wide range of movies and TV programs, Walker also had immense composing versatility. Her electronic, guitar-centered music for Batman Beyond sounds nothing like her score to Phantasm, which in turn sounds almost nothing like her score to Willard. It’s hard finding composers with that amount of ability and range.
Again, Shirley Walker is the most unjustifiably underrated composer I’ve ever come across. If you haven’t listened to her music, do yourself a favor.