Tom Whitlock, who wrote lyrics to ‘Top Gun’ hits, dies at 68

Tom Whitlock, an Oscar-winning songwriter who helped “Top Gun” and its soundtrack reach the heights of 1980s culture, penning the lyrics to the chart-topping love theme “Take My Breath Away” as well as hard-rock anthem “Danger Zone” — a song that conjured up images of motorcycles, fighter jets and speed demon pilots for a generation of moviegoers — died Feb. memory in Nashville. He was 68 years old.

His death was confirmed by the Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. Long-time friend Larry Lipscomb said Mr Whitlock suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Along with his musical wing, Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, Mr. Whitlock co-wrote songs that helped make “Top Gun” (1986) a pop culture phenomenon. Directed by Tony Scott and produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the film was a bright and enjoyable celebration of naval aviators, male friendship, beach volleyball and aviator sunglasses, starring Tom Cruise in the role that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. , as star pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.

While it opened to mixed reviews, the film grossed over $350 million worldwide, more than any other film that year. He relied heavily on his soundtrack: The opening sequence began with a synthesizer theme by German composer Harold Faltermeyer, as fighter jets rolled into position on the deck of an aircraft carrier, then launched into “Dangerous zone,” performed by vocalist and guitarist Kenny Loggins. “Turn on your engine, listen to its howling roar,” he sang, before inviting the audience to take a “highway to the danger zone.”

“This film seems determined to break the sound barrier” writing New York Times critic Walter Goodman. “If it’s not the roar of jets, it’s the roar of Maverick’s motorcycle, and when that dies down, there’s always the roar of music,” one reviewer wrote. described as “martial hard pop”.

The audience couldn’t get enough. The soundtrack sold over 9 million copies and topped the pop charts for five weeks, powered by singles including “Danger Zone,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the dreamy ballad ” Breathtaking “, sung by Terri Nunn of new wave band Berlin. The track won an Oscar for best original song, although Mr Whitlock said he struggled to keep the Oscar statuette.

“Every time I got up from the table” during the after-party, he recalled, actor Dennis “Hopper hid my Oscar somewhere.”

Mr. Whitlock, an unassuming Missouri native, was somewhat unusual in a show business world known more for his big egos and brash personalities. “He came across as a real level nut-and-bolt guy. I loved it,” Nunn said in a phone interview. “There just aren’t many of those guys in music. We’re usually weird people – he wasn’t. He was really a nice guy.

He was also a versatile musician, learning drums at age 11 before writing songs on the piano. He moved to Los Angeles in 1983, hoping to make it in a rock band, and later recalled arriving in town “with four hundred dollars in my pocket and a 1970 Volvo with no front seat, to that I can install my battery there”.

But he found it too expensive to book rehearsal space for his band and began doing odd jobs at recording studios, including the former Davlen Sound Studios in North Hollywood, where he said he came one day to help a friend remove the speakers from the control room. “While we’re up there on ladders, the back door slams shut, and this guy comes down the hall with this incredible Italian accent, dropping every swear word ever made up in multiple languages,” he said. said in 2013looking back on his career as part of a local musical series in Springfield.

It was Moroder, who had recently bought the studio and, according to Mr Whitlock, was complaining about the brakes on his Ferrari. Mr. Whitlock offered to take a look and ended up replacing the brake fluid. He was soon hired as a studio assistant, where he cleaned floors, picked up bagels, ordered groceries for the composer’s mother and, in his spare time, learned the ins and outs of the recording industry, cutting demos of his own songs. on the side until Moroder found out he was also writing lyrics.

When the composer’s usual songwriting partners were busy on other projects, Moroder asked Mr. Whitlock to fill in. a 2014 interview for Kickin’ It Old School, a cultural blog.

Mr. Whitlock underestimated his talent. “I always let him do what he wanted,” the three-time Oscar winner Moroder said in a phone interview. “I’m not good at lyrics and I trusted him.”

The duo then co-wrote the theme song for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, “Together,” as well as the theme of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, “To be number one.” They also worked on films such as “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987) and the Sylvester Stallone films “Rambo III” (1988) and “Over the Top” (1987), which featured Loggins performing their Top 40 single. “Meet me halfway.”

But they remained best known as a duo for their work in “Top Gun.”

Their song “Take My Breath Away” impressed the filmmakers so much, according to Mr. Whitlock, that they decided to film a love scene around the track, shooting new footage between Cruise and co-star Kelly McGillis after the end of production.

“Danger Zone” took a little longer to set up. The song was reportedly gifted to Rod Stewart, Toto, REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, and Jefferson Starship’s Mickey Thomas, and was edited by Loggins after he agreed to record the track. The singer made some changes to chords and lyrics, much to the chagrin of Mr Whitlock, who praised Loggins’ “masterful voice” but criticized his work as a lyricist. “Everything that makes you cringe is Kenny’s fault – like, ‘You’ll never say hi / Until you get it on red line overload.’ Give me a break,” he said. “But it’s Kenny Loggins, and not me.”

The changes stuck and the song lasted, kicking off the sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) in an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original film’s opener.

The youngest of two children, Thomas Ross Whitlock was born in Springfield on February 20, 1954. His father, a lawyer, died when Mr Whitlock was 5 years old. His mother then raised him as a single parent, supporting his musical ambitions. allowing him to practice with his friends in the garage even though some neighbors were less tolerant of noise.

“Well, you know how much young boys like to start small groups,” she told the Springfield News-Leader in 1987. “The police came by many times,” she added, but “Tom was usually quite considerate when he played his drums.”

Mr. Whitlock played as a fill-in drummer for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a local band that released a pair of Top 40 hits, and studied music theory and composition at Drury College in Springfield. Eager to launch his career, he left school – now a university – before taking a series of piano proficiency exams.

The school awarded him a bachelor’s degree in 2012, according to the News-Leadershortly after Mr. Whitlock was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers at a Library of Congress event in Washington.

His marriage to Hollie Sherman ended in divorce, but the couple remained close, with Mr Whitlock’s ex-wife caring for him after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, friends have said. Survivors include his sister.

After finding success in Hollywood in the 1980s, Mr. Whitlock built log cabins and recording studios, including in Bellingham, Washington. He also played drums, recorded records and wrote songs – “all the usual things a budding songwriter does”, as he put it. in the 2014 blog interview.

“Ambitions? I would like to meet someone who would give me more amazing melodies,” he added, “and I would like to meet a singer who can tear your heart out. Regrets? None.”

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