The Right Stuff
June 30, 2020
LSU alumni William “Bill” Conti and Shelby Cox Conti are giving their alma mater one of the university’s biggest in-kind gifts in history: the original scores from Bill’s prolific career as a composer and conductor, including the iconic “Rocky” theme.
By giving these scores, the Contis will enable aspiring musicians at LSU—as Bill once was—to learn from his iconic work while ensuring its preservation in the long term. LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts Dean Todd Queen said, “We are deeply grateful to Bill and Shelby for recognizing the potential of this gift. They are directly investing in our efforts to prepare and inspire future musicians to help people lead richer lives through music.”
Bill, who is from a line of musicians, said the art comes naturally for him, “like breathing.” At age 14, he began playing in nightclubs around Miami Beach. As a high school senior, he received the Miami Herald Media Company’s prestigious Silver Knight Award, joining the likes of Fortune 50 company leaders and top government officials. Bill’s high school music teacher recommended he apply at LSU.
He soon drove to Baton Rouge with his family and was involved with Tiger Band, playing the piccolo and becoming intrigued by the halftime shows, which served as great inspiration for his future career: “Pageantry bands tell a story. It’s showbiz.” Being physically surrounded by music was an emotional experience for him. He also met Shelby Cox (Human Sciences & Education, ’65), now his wife of more than 50 years, on campus. She was auditioning at the LSU Ballet Corps (now known as Golden Girls) while he played the piano.
Bill graduated from LSU in 1963 and then earned a master’s degree with honors from the Juilliard School of Music. (He received an Honorary Doctor of Music from LSU in 1985.) As his career in film and television unfolded, Bill got his big break in 1976 as the composer for the beloved sports film “Rocky.” The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture, and his song “Gonna Fly Now,” also known as “Theme from ‘Rocky,’” topped the Billboard Hot 100.
“The Rocky theme is different because it’s a song about a loser,” Bill said. “The director said, ‘I have to cut together all this exercise stuff, this training. It's easier to cut the film if you have the rhythm of a piece of music behind you.’ It ends up being three minutes, and it becomes a song. He says, ‘Can’t we say like he's getting stronger now?’ I said, ‘John, it’s your movie, you can say anything you want.’”
The anecdote illustrates Bill’s belief that sometimes the best work comes under pressure. “We have to lose the word ‘inspiration.’ A professional writer, be it for the newspaper, a novel, or a movie, works on a deadline. And you have to write every day. Sometimes you're inspired.”
Bill has been nominated for three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and 13 Emmy Awards, and he won five Emmy Awards for Outstanding Musical Direction for Academy Award ceremonies. His win at the Academy Awards was in 1983 for his original score of the space drama “The Right Stuff.”
“I was sitting in the audience, next to [famed American composers] Johnny Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. I turned to Johnny and said, ‘This is the most boring place to be,’” Bill, who typically would be leading the ceremony’s orchestra, remembered. When he was announced as the winner, Shelby’s reaction was more subdued than he expected. ‘She said, ‘You know it dawned on me as soon as you won that all the others have lost, and I'd be sitting with all the losers. So I didn't want to get excited.’”
When Bill reflects on his career, it all leads back to the LSU campus. “I think all of that stuff really began here. I was in the center of the orchestra playing the bassoon. I was making halftime shows and picking up capes in Tiger Stadium. You can do music out of this school at the level of the highest music schools in this country. It’s a fact.”
The William and Shelby Conti papers, to be held in LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, includes his well-known film scores from “The Right Stuff,” the “Rocky” series, the “Karate Kid” series, “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Dynasty.” Bill said studying scores is how aspiring composers gain experience and insights.
“When I'm sitting in the middle of the orchestra and I say, ‘How did he do that?’, I go look at his score,” Bill explained. “When I went to Hollywood, I went to the libraries of some of these music studios because now I'm in the circle. I can go to the librarian and say, ‘I want to see Max Steiner’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’’ Why can't we have something for people here that might be interested in the movies?”
“Bill’s compositions have enhanced audiences’ experiences with film and TV for decades,” said LSU Libraries Dean Stanley Wilder. “With the addition of his original scores to the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, Bill and Shelby will enhance LSU’s role in preserving our shared culture for generations to come.”
Now one of the Contis’ granddaughters, Cassidy, is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts through LSU’s School of Music. “By Thanksgiving [of her freshman year], we get her back home, and she's doing Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes. She's talking in a Cajun accent. She loves it. She's embracing it, and she got all As on her first semester. So, the tradition continues,” he said of his granddaughter’s experience at LSU.