Jack Urbont

The last couple weeks I’ve written about the flexi-disc releases from Marvel Comics in the 1960s, and one of those featured two songs written by Jack Urbont. Jack Urbont’s Marvel output didn’t stop at the Marvel Superheroes show themes that found their way onto the flexidics. He also provide timeless themes capturing the collective essence of Captain America, The Hulk, The Sub-Mariner, Thor, and Iron Man — or at least presenting them in a playful manner that us kids way back when latched onto. These were the songs that accompanied the segments of the Marvel Superheroes shows and they may be the best part of them.

Jack Urbont is the son of a New York City concert master. His dad did Broadway shows, radio programs, concerts — he worked with the likes of Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen. Urbont’s mother was a singer.

Jack Urbont

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Urbont says he wrote his first music and lyrics when he was 12 years old. He started out as an actor, though, at the age of 9, appearing on radio shows like Mister District Attorney and early television like The Goldbergs. As he got older he did voices for Little Lulu and Popeye cartoons, but found his entry into professional songwriting when he wrote tunes for Shari Lewis’ children’s show.

One day in the mid-60s, Urbont was invited by a friend at a music publisher to show up at a meeting about writing music for a cartoon. The friend thought Urbont was a good fit because his past work on kids’ shows. The meeting was with representatives of Marvel Comics and the animation studio doing the show, so probably Krantz Films.

Actually, the meeting was with Stan Lee.

Jack UrbontThe story goes that Urbont stymied Lee by admitting that he knew nothing about Marvel, nothing about comic books or superheroes, and he didn’t even know who Lee was. But Lee was apparently charmed by Urbont and gave him a chance when he promised that if he was given a couple comic books to take home it would just take him a few days to write songs about the superheroes that would make Lee envious.

He had not lied. He was handed some comics that featured Captain America, The Hulk, The Sub-Mariner, Thor, Iron Man, and a few days later showed up at the offices with demo tapes for songs about those heroes PLUS the two Marvel Comics songs. Urbont saw the ads for the Merry Marvel Marching Society in the comics he had been given and thought it would make a good song. And sometime late, Lee did say, as Urbont had predicted, that he wished he had written those lyrics for the songs.

Urbont handled the actual recordings of the songs himself. The orchestrations were recorded in Munich, Germany, and the vocals were added in a session in Toronto using a 10-person chorus. All this was paid for out of Urbont’s pocket but he received $3000 for the work. The details of the payment would become crucial decades later when Urbont found himself in court over the ownership of the songs.

Urbont had initially been given a “certificate of registration” for the songs. In the 1990s he filed suit against Marvel for using the music in some way. That was settled and in the agreement, Urbont is named “owner.”

In 2011, Urbont sued Sony Entertainment and Ghostface Killah for sampling the Iron Man theme on two songs. Sony’s legal response was to challenge Urbont’s ownership of the music and that case came to a close in 2015 with the judge ruling that it was work for hire and that Marvel owned the music, even quoting from language in the Jack Kirby case that almost reached the Supreme Court in order to justify the decision.

Urbont appealed and in 2016, the courts ruled in his favor, reversing the previous decision and sending the case back to district court. I haven’t seen mention of any further action, so my assumption is that Jack Urbont is now recognized as the owner of the songs.

In 2013 Urbont appeared on the PBS documentary series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, where he performed the songs with exuberance while walking us through his thinking on the song-writing. It hearkens back to an era long-gone in the world of music, of which Urbont is definitely a charming representative character, and also one where the Marvel heroes weren’t so entrenched in popular culture at all. Urbont’s songs were really introductory pieces about the circumstances for each of the characters as much as they were prefaces to some cartoons.

But here are the originals versions for all you young’uns in the audience …

Marvel Superheroes Theme
I featured this song last week, but here is the actual clip of the animation that goes with it, which is apparently hard to come by.

Captain America
This is one song I vividly remember as a kid, watching the Marvel Superheroes show in the early ‘70s on Channel 31 out of Sacramento. It has a lyric that has always impressed me — “All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield.” That’s just not an easy one to write.

The Hulk
This is certainly my favorite of Urbont’s themes, and the other one I remember from childhood. I encountered the show about the same time as I picked up my first Hulk comic — Incredible Hulk #181, which introduced Wolverine. I see it sells for a few thousand dollars now. It was only 25 cents at the 7-11, and I probably got a Slurpee along with it.

Iron Man
Urbont has said that he saw Tony Stark as a Frank Sinatra-type character and adopted that perception to the Iron Man theme. The song can be also heard in the Apogee Award scene in the 2008 Iron Man movie.

Mighty Thor
More like the Merry Marching Club song. Features the classic Jack Urbont lyric “Where the booming heavens roar.”

Sub-Mariner
The song fails to mention that Namor is also a kind of conceited jerk. I never saw this cartoon as a kid, but that’s probably for the best since I was firmly in Aquaman’s camp anyhow.

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