Van Dyke Parks (born January 3, 1943) is an American composer, arranger, producer, musician, singer, and actor. His work spans six decades, and he has worked with luminaries from Grace Kelly to the Beach Boys and the Byrds, and recently, Loudon Wainwright III and Joanna Newsom. From child actor to film composer, producer, and ethnomusicologist, Parks has created a distinct musical legacy and influence through his own albums, and through his work for other artists and behind the scenes in the music industry.
Parks originally studied the clarinet, but had moved to the piano before enrolling (majoring in music) at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he studied from 1960 to 1963. In January 1963 Parks learned to play the guitar and soon relocated to Los Angeles to play with his older brother Carson Parks (writer of "Somethin' Stupid") as The Steeltown Two (later enlarged to the Steeltown Three), which eventually became the folk group The Greenwood County Singers (Parks took a short hiatus from this group, moving to New England to be part of The Brandywine Singers).
By 1964, Parks had an artist contract at MGM Records. In 1966 he was persuaded by producer Lenny Waronker to switch to Warner Bros. Records. During this time he worked frequently as a session musician, arranger and songwriter. Parks met Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson through Terry Melcher (who was then producing The Byrds). During 1966 Parks performed on The Byrds album Fifth Dimension (David Crosby later asked Parks to join the band, but Parks refused) as well as on the ill fated Beach Boys project Smile. Also during this period, Parks' compositions, such as the hit "High Coin" for Harpers Bizarre, were becoming known for their lyrical wordplay and sharp imagery.
SMiLE acquired legendary status as one of the great lost works of the sixties. In 2004, Brian Wilson, made a surprise announcement that he was going to finish the mythical record using his current touring band. He contacted Parks, and the duo re-recorded the album. SMiLE won the Grammy award for the Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the piece "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" (aka "Fire").
an audacious and occasionally brilliant attempt to mount a fully orchestrated, classically minded work within the context of contemporary pop. As indicated by its title, Song Cycle is a thematically coherent work, one which attempts to embrace the breadth of American popular music; bluegrass, ragtime, show tunes -- nothing escapes Parks' radar, and the sheer eclecticism and individualism of his work is remarkable. ...[T]he album is both forward-thinking and backward-minded, a collision of bygone musical styles with the progressive sensibilities of the late '60s; while occasionally overambitious and at times insufferably coy, it's nevertheless a one-of-a-kind record, the product of true inspiration.Song Cycle established Parks' signature approach of mining and updating old American musical traditions, including ragtime and New Orleans-style jazz, with wry, literate and insightful lyrics, and is also notable for the inclusion of a cover of the Randy Newman song "Vine Street". Although widely praised by some critics, the album sold extremely poorly. Moreover, the album is named as #23 among the supposedly worst rock albums in the 1991 Jimmy Guterman-Owen O'Donnell book The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of All-Time. The critical controversy may be due in part to a confusion about the category to which Parks' music belongs, for as the critic Brad Reno has declared, Parks is "an old master at landing work bearing no relation to rock music in the rock section of record stores.
Four years later, Parks' travels to the West Indies inspired his second solo album Discover America. Discover America was a rich tribute to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago and to Calypso music. Parks re-arranged and re-produced obscure songs and calypso classics. This direction was continued in the 1976 release Clang of the Yankee Reaper.
Parks' 1984 album Jump! featured songs adapted from the stories of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. The album features a Broadway-style reduced orchestra plus Americana additions like banjo, mandolin, and steel drums. Parks composed the album but did not arrange or produce it. Martin Kibbee contributes to the lyrics.
Following Jump!, in 1989 Warner Brothers released Tokyo Rose. This concept album focuses on the history of Japanese / U.S. relations from the 19th century to the "trade war" of the time of its release. The songs are pop tunes with an orchestral treatment including Japanese instruments and old Parks Caribbean favorites like steel drums. The listener journeys from old Tokyo to the Wild Wild west on songs such as "Tokyo Rose", "Cowboy", "Manzanar" and "White Chrysanthemum". The album did not sell well and was not widely critically noticed.
In 1995 Parks teamed up again with Brian Wilson to create the album Orange Crate Art. Parks wrote all of the songs on the album, except "This Town Goes Down At Sunset" and George Gershwin instrumental "Lullaby", and the vocals were done by Brian Wilson. Orange Crate Art is a tribute to the Southern California of the early 1900s, and a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Northern California. The songs are rich and lavishly orchestrated by Parks.
1998 saw the release of Parks' first live album, Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove, which shows a love of the work of nineteenth century American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The live ensemble features an all-star cast including Sid Page as concertmaster.
Several of Parks' close friends and collaborators from different periods have suffered from depression and self destructive behaviour. This includes Brian Wilson, as well as Lowell George, Phil Ochs and Harry Nilsson, who all suffered untimely young deaths.
In 2006 he collaborated with singer Joanna Newsom on the orchestral arrangements for her second album, Ys. He and David Mansfield are co-credited with the music for the 2006 mini-series Broken Trail. He has additionally contributed orchestrations to the Danger Mouse produced second album by UK psychedelic three piece The Shortwave Set due for release early in 2008.
He also composed orchestral arrangements for the fifth Silverchair album, Young Modern, on three songs, "If You Keep Losing Sleep", "Those Thieving Birds/Strange Behavior", and "All Across The World". Johns and Parks traveled to Prague to have the orchestral arrangements recorded by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The album's title "Young Modern" is a reference to a nickname Parks has for Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns. This follows his work on Silverchair's 4th album, Diorama, to which he contributed orchestral arrangements on "Across The Night", "Tuna In The Brine", and "Luv Your Life".
Disney hired Parks to arrange Terry Gilkyson's Academy Award nominated song "The Bare Necessities" for the 1967 feature The Jungle Book. Parks had 4 songs featured in the 1986 direct-to-video Disney film, The Brave Little Toaster. He worked closely with David Newman on the film's score as well. He composed the theme song for Rudy Maxa's Savvy Traveler radio program on NPR.
Parks composed the faux-psychedelic song "Black Sheep" (a parody of SMiLE and Brian Wilson's style in general) for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, sung by John C. Reilly, who portrays the titular character.
Parks wrote a series of children's books (Jump (with Malcolm Jones), Jump Again and Jump on Over), based around the Br'er rabbit tales, illustrated by Barry Moser, and loosely accompanied by Parks' own album Jump!. The books contain sheet music for selected songs from the album.
Parks set up the pioneering audio/visual department Warner Bros. records in 1971. This department was the earliest of its kind to record videos to promote records.
He also contributed to the new record by The Shortwave Set, tentatively titled Replica Sun Machine, which features a 24-piece orchestra and further input from John Cale. That disc is set for release early 2008.
Parks worked with Inara George on a record released in 2008, An Invitation, and they performed two songs together on 8 January 2008 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, as part of the program Concrete Frequency: Songs of the City.