Danny Pelfrey

Huntington's own Emmy Award-winning composer

Danny Pelfrey

By Carter Taylor Seaton

Photos courtesy of Danny Pelfrey

Huntington native Danny Pelfrey may be the most prolific composer/arranger you never heard of: he’s an Emmy award winner whose Symphonic Suite premiered in Knoxville in 2010. Currently living in Los Angeles, he writes music for television, film, commercials and interactive video games. As a young student at Marshall University, he asked then-composer-in-residence Dr. Paul Whear how to become a composer. Whear held his hand about five feet off the ground and told Danny that when he’d written a stack of music that high, he’d be a composer. Today, Danny’s stack is closer to 50 feet high, he says, but it all started with country icon Chet Atkins.

As a child, Danny was fascinated with the guitar and Atkins’ music. His mother supported that interest, saving green stamps to get him a metronome. From private guitar lessons at age 9, he moved to trumpet at 12 so he could play with others – specifically the Barboursville Junior High Band directed by Bernard Young. However, unlike most musically inclined teens of the 1970s, Danny didn’t do the garage band thing. Instead, at 13, he migrated to Marshall to play with the concert and stage bands as well as the jazz ensemble. By high school, he was into classical music and had left the marching band. After graduating a year early from Barboursville High School, Danny headed to Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1974.

There, his understanding of all that was possible in the world of music grew exponentially. Listening to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he became fascinated with how music is put together.

“I never lost my passion for playing,” he says, “but I became fascinated with the big picture and the laboratory approach to it all. I started to learn arranging and general techniques of harmony.”

After a year at Berklee, Danny returned to Marshall to study music and composing and then accepted a position teaching brass in Winnipeg, Canada. There he began playing alto saxophone, the instrument that led to life as a studio musician.

Danny Pelfrey

He moved to Los Angeles where he became a sought-after session performer, was introduced to Diana Ross and embarked on an extensive tour with her. Next, he performed in the Tracey Ullman Band and eventually toured with Carole King for five years. Their relationship earned Danny a mention in King’s recent book, A Natural Woman: A Memoir. He has also recorded with such greats as Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon and James Taylor. Now, Danny plays many instruments with varying degrees of success, he says. He finds that necessary to be an effective composer, arranger and orchestrator. According to him, if he understands what he is asking each musician to do in his compositions, both he and the musicians look good.

While he enjoys playing, composing is his passion, and it eventually defined his career. He got his first break writing commercials for Nissan, Ford, Bank of America and Toyota and promos for Wheel of Fortune, Seinfeld and ABC. More television work followed as did awards, including Emmy nominations in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005 and wins from 2006 through 2009 for his musical direction and composition for the daytime drama, Guiding Light. He’s also composed songs for Saturday Night Live, ER, Ellen, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And that’s only a sampling. Television news networks both in the United States and abroad turn to Danny when they need theme music. ABC, Fox and its affiliates, The 700 Club and Sky Channel England use his work regularly.

Danny Pelfrey

His compositions underscore the action in movies like “Enemy of the State,” “The Big Kahuna,” “Full Frontal” and “Get Carter.” That’s the part of composing that Danny finds most challenging.

“I get a sound in my head, and a concept, and I let that inform what else I do. Sometimes I get lucky and actually know what it’s going to be, but rarely. Usually, I have to find it,” he says then laughs. “Almost all composers sound like a piano tuner at the beginning.”

For television, it’s similar.

“What you are doing is creating a sonic identity for that show so that, the music not only will inform the drama, and inform their stories, but also will be identifiable over the din of all other media,” he continues. “You are trying to create something that people haven’t heard before. That’s extremely difficult.”

Difficult doesn’t bother him, however. Recently he composed and arranged the songs for Joseph: King of Dreams, a prequel by DreamWorks SKG to its animated film Prince of Egypt. He had never done a musical before but found it very rewarding. Those who play interactive video games are familiar with his music without knowing it. His credits include eight Star Trek games as well as several others.

Danny Pelfrey

Although he enjoyed having his symphonic work played on a program with that of Elmer Bernstein, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, writing for film and television is what excites him most. It’s magical, he says.

“Without music, film can be flat; it lays there.”

Despite his star power and busy life, the Pea Ridge boy hasn’t forgotten his roots. He returns to Huntington often to visit family including his sister, Sandy Sargent. Shortly before her death in September 2012, he played a surprise concert for his mom and his old band teacher, Bernard Young. Back where he started, Danny says, “Music is an itch that has to be scratched. It’s really my great love.”

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