Barry De Vorzon has always enjoyed creating music; he certainly never expected to be revered for it. It was quite the shock, then, when the musician, composer, and songwriter found himself being fawned over like some kind of rock god at the music conferences he’s attended for the past three decades. “My gosh, I was treated like a hero!” De Vorzon, 81, recalls of his fellow musicians’ praise for his soundtrack work on the gritty 1979 film The Warriors. Adding to his surprise was the fact that the film was in many ways a critical and commercial flop upon its release. “I said, ‘Wow! How did that happen?’ ” De Vorzon recalls with a chuckle. “But it did! The film just became this cult classic.”
To hear him tell it, De Vorzon remains baffled even today by the resonance of his work on the film’s time-tested soundtrack. He needn’t be: In composing the ominous, synthesizer-driven rock theme for The Warriors — a menacing aural undercurrent roiling amid the beloved tale of street gangs in Seventies-era New York City — the man single-handedly showed that rock music could provide the backbone for an entire film.
“I think it probably really was the first rock ‘n’ roll score,” De Vorzon says today. “By that, I mean the entire score was rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of times they had rock ‘n’ roll songs in movies as the main title or the end title or in the middle of the picture. But this score was all rock ‘n’ roll.” De Vorzon admits he was never an obvious choice to helm the project. Unlike many film composers at the time, who typically came from a classical or jazz background, De Vorzon cut his teeth in the pop-music scene: He founded Valiant Records, which would eventually be folded under the Warner Music umbrella in 1960, and penned songs for vocal acts like the Cascades. But it was the film’s hard-nosed script, he says, as well as his relationships with producer Larry Gordon and director Walter Hill that ultimately earned him the job.
As for the soundtrack’s rock-centric direction? De Vorzon says the material dictated the sound. “An orchestral score just didn’t seem to make any sense for this picture. Plus, I was dying to try out bringing in some contemporary sounds and a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm into the score. Especially with the subject matter: the young guys and the gangs and all that.”
It didn’t hurt the soundtrack’s chances for success when De Vorzon successfully recruited his longtime friend Joe Walsh to co-write and perform the track “In the City,” which appeared over the film’s closing credits. A hit when first released, the song would later become a bona fide global smash when Walsh’s legendary band, the Eagles, included it on their album released that same year, 1979’s The Long Run. “Joe and I were friends and I just saw an opportunity to work with him,” De Vorzon recalls of getting Walsh involved in the project. “And plus, I thought it’d be great to have Joe Walsh sing the end title. So I said, ‘Hey, Joe! Would you consider singing the end title and we’ll write a song together?’ And he said, ‘Great!’ So I brought [‘In the City’] to the studio and the producers, and of course they were very happy about that.”
Walsh related to the material on a personal level. “The Warriors was made about gang-type city situations, and I related to that, having grown up in New York City,” the guitarist told the BBC in a 1981 interview. “It was a positive statement to go against the desperation of miles and miles of concrete and growing up in a city.”
Still, much like the film, the soundtrack received a lukewarm response upon its release: The LP peaked at No. 125 on the Billboard 200 before being further negatively affected on the radio side when a shooting occurred during one of the film’s screenings. “Nobody wanted to encourage the violence, and suddenly radio wouldn’t play the ‘Theme From The Warriors‘ because they felt it was contributing to this violence,” De Vorzon says. “It certainly hurt the music because radio was saying, ‘Uh oh. This is too hot to handle.’ ”
The film’s theme song conveyed its brooding sense of terror, but it was the soundtrack’s additional cuts — commissioned for the soundtrack by one of its masterminds, the musician and producer Kenny Vance — that truly fleshed out its street flavor. “I didn’t really know what a traditional soundtrack was,” Vance, who had previously worked on the music for classic Seventies films like American Hot Wax and Animal House, admits now. He laughs. “I guess that’s why they called me. I just did what I thought was the right thing.”
A founding member of Jay and the Americans who worked around the famous Brill Building scene, Vance had developed a wide-ranging Rolodex of musicians by the time The Warriors came calling; he was primed to round up a diverse roster of underground musical geniuses to soundtrack the film. “These are guys who [were] unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll,” Vance says of the soundtrack’s sonic architects, including acclaimed session musicians Al Kooper, Paul Griffin, and Elliott Randall — all of whom had worked previously with Bob Dylan or Steely Dan, and performed on nearly every track on the Warriors soundtrack.
In addition, Vance recalls a then- unknown Luther Vandross singing backup on many of the soundtrack’s cuts, including a striking vocal rendition of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Nowhere to Run” performed by acclaimed singer Arnold McCuller. Some of Vance’s choices, however, were admittedly left-field: The studio veteran recalls the odd looks he received when deciding to commission musicians like Ten Wheel Drive’s Genya Ravan (“She signified punk at the time: maybe like a precursor to Joan Jett”) on “Love Is a Fire,” Ismael Miranda for “In Havana,” and the street outfit Mandrill on “Echoes in My Mind.”
Now 35 years after its release, those involved in the film’s soundtrack remain humbled — if not slightly mystified — by its continued reverberation. De Vorzon points to Rockstar Games’ 2005 video-game adaptation of the film, and their subsequent desire to use its original music, as a prime example of how the movie’s music has truly stood the test of time. “They came up with an amazing amount of money for that music, which I was very flattered by,” he says of the video game. “Twenty-five or 30 years after the picture they felt that music was still current enough to want it in the video game….I must have been ahead of my time.”
“If you do good work, you do it from your heart, and you’re on the pulse of something at the time, many years later you look at it and you might surprise yourself,” adds Vance. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be recognized for something that you do, even if it’s 35 years later. It’s never too late.”