Jim Helms

Kung Fu
David Carradine as Kwai Chang Kaine in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75)

As a boy, though I did not at the time understand the life lessons Master Po patiently taught the young Kwai Chang Caine, I remember being enchanted by the mystical and exotic music of the 1972-75 TV series Kung Fu.

Listening to those scores today, they still sound fresh and genuinely mystical. This may have had something to do with what series producer Alex Beaton said of the composer's music:

What we wanted were suggestions, subtle references ...what Westerners would perceive to be an Oriental score.

jim helms
Jim Helms (1933-1991)

James Helms (1933-1991) graduated from San Diego State College in 1957 and was a music postgraduate at UCLA from 1958-60. Howard Roberts, his guitar teacher, was a seasoned studio guitarist. Helms became an arranger on many projects. When hired to score the Kung Fu TV series, he was free to experiment more.

For the series he used about 10 strings, winds (especially flutes and alto recorder), percussion, keyboards (especially harpsichord) and an incongruous Japanese koto.

What's fascinating about this strange and beautiful music is how un-American it sounds. Helms seems to be composing around what he tries to describe, rather than 'being', through music, the thing being scored. This makes the music beguiling.

Generous too, and like Dave Porter's approach, Helms would provide new arrangements of the same main and end title theme in series 1, to keep audiences delighted.

Sheridon Stokes played recorder for Helms and says Helms was one of the most creative composers he had played for...

He just came up with ideas all the time; it was fascinating to listen to the sound he would get .

Mike Lang played harpsichord for Helms, and says:

He did things nobody else would do, and that's probably what gave it that unusual sound.

The percussion are startling in the scores and have started me collecting exotic percussion instruments like Vangelis did. Helms's percussionist Emil Richards used 93 collected Dharma bells (Chinese temple bells), waterphone, chinese tom-toms, Chinese opera bells and woodblocks. Helms described Helms as:

very introverted. He never talked music, but he certainly wrote good stuff.

 

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