The stories pour out of W.G. "Snuffy" Walden like a broken water main. There's no point trying to structure an interview.
Walden tells it his way, one memory triggering another, not so much talking about his huge success as one of Hollywood's most in-demand television theme creators (thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, Roseanne, The West Wing, Friday Night Lights) as just relishing the small details of his distant Houston past, savoring memories of how he got from Lamar High School to Emmy awards and industry acclaim.
W.G. "Snuffy" Walden
If you've been around Houston since 1969, you may remember KRBE switching from classical music to a free-form hippie format that flowered alongside tiny KFMK and the arrival of KLOL and KPFT. Fresh out of high school, Walden was a daytime jockat KRBE.
"This is J.A. Lawrence and you're listening to underground radio..." Walden laughs. "It's been 40 years and I can still just drop into that voice and character. Fun times."
Local rock memorabilia collector Gary Brandenberger remembers Walden from Lamar High School.
"Snuffy dated my sister for a while," says Brandenberger. "I don't know what it was, but you just knew he was cool, one of those guys everybody wanted to be friends with."
At Lamar, Walden was already playing in bands, eventually gravitating to the infamous Cellar on Market Square, where he played guitar in Elm Street Blues Band. Little Screamin' Kenny played bass.
"You know they sold fake booze, right?" recalls Walden. "Just Cokes with rum or whiskey flavoring. But they gave the musicians something called The Special, which was grain alcohol and grapefruit juice. It would tear your head off.
"We made $12 a night, and there was only one rule for musicians: If a waitress or a customer started stripping and you stopped playing, you were fired," Walden notes. "We played with the Moving Sidewalks a lot. I first met Billy Gibbons at The Cellar."
After a move to The Cellar in Fort Worth, Walden hooked up with Duke Davis and Linda Waring to form The Grits. They moved to Houston and played local hippie haunts Love Street and Catacombs as well as Austin's Vulcan Gas Company. But bigger things loomed.
"I was just kinda living in Hermann Park when I made a lucky connection with Nazz," says Walden. "Todd Rundgren had just left, so they brought me in to play guitar for a month of dates."
A rapid succession of bands, most notably Silver Spoon and Aphrodite, led to the formation of power trio Stray Dog. A move to London ensued, which led to associations with Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Paul Rodgers, who asked Walden to fill in for Paul Kossoff on the last Free tour. (Today, Stray Dog's album is a $36 collector's item on amazon.com; it features a song called "Chevrolet" that Walden wrote with Gibbons.)
Eventually Walden moved to L.A., where he did studio and tour work with Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Eric Burdon and Donna Summer. But he was coming to the end of his touring days.
"I imagined myself at 60 playing Holiday Inn six nights a week and just didn't really know what I was going to do," he says. "Then one night a couple of guys in the audience asked if I thought I could score a TV pilot. I'd never done anything like that and I don't read music, but I said, 'Sure I can.' You know, how hard can it be?"
The pilot turned out to be thirtysomething.
"Four months went by and I never heard a thing," Walden remembers. "Then out of the blue, they called and said they'd already drafted a contract with someone else when they put my tape in. And they loved it."
As thirtysomething became a television blockbuster, Walden got another call from people developing a pilot for a "little show" set to debut in the time slot after the Super Bowl. That turned out to be The Wonder Years, and suddenly Snuffy Walden was a very hot commodity in the world of television music.
He was nominated for an Emmy for the thirtysomething score in 1988, and has since worked on an amazing list of programs, garnering Emmy nominations for I'll Fly Away (1992); the Stephen King miniseries The Stand (1994); My So-Called Life (1995); Early Edition (1997); Felicity (2000); The West Wing (2001); Miracles (2003); Huff (2005); and Kidnapped (2007). He won for West Wing, and was awarded the Richard Kirk BMI Award for Outstanding Career Achievement in 2001. (He also scored Ellen DeGeneres's sitcom Ellen.)
But after 14-hour days seven days a week for years, Walden is finally slowing down a bit.
"We took on ten projects one season, and that's just too many. I've gotten more selective, which lets me devote more time to a project, and I've cut my work days down to about ten hours now," he says. "And I've gotten into surfing for relaxation."
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But Walden won't bite when asked the favorite theme he's done.
"They're like your children; it would be wrong to say one is better than another," he opines. "I've probably gotten the most comments and discussion about the West Wing theme, which a lot of people describe as Copland-esque. But really it's just a simple gospel tune set to orchestration."
So what is Walden's all-time favorite television theme, then? Without a second's hesitation, he says, "The Andy Griffith Show."
"That's just the epitome of a TV theme to me," says Walden. "It says what a theme is supposed to say, which is 'It's time to come join us.' Probably everyone in America of a certain age can whistle that tune. And it just works so well with that opening scene of Andy and Opie walking down a dirt road with fishing poles over their shoulders."