By Ken Zurski
Singer Louille Jean Norman is certainly not a household name, but her voice is an unmistakable part of television history. More on that in a moment. First a little background.
Norman was a coloratura soprano, a vocal range most commonly suited for the opera stage. Unlike counterparts like Maria Callas, however, Norman took her gift to radio instead. It was the 1930’s, and radio was just starting to emerge as an entertainment force. Louille Jean was in her twenties at the time. Her voice and beauty were being noticed. She moved from her native Birmingham, Alabama to New York City to jump start her career. Modeling jobs paid the bills at first, but singing was her passion.
She eventually got bit parts in singing ensembles on several musical variety shows including one with Bing Crosby who would signal her out several times for her solo passages. Norman provided studio background vocals to hitmakers like Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Elvis Presley. On TV, she appeared on the Dinah Shore Show. with Dean Martin, and back-up on Carol Burnett’s popular variety program. “When you sang,” a colleague once told Norman, “it was the angels.”
But perhaps her most unaccredited and influential contribution is the reason why Norman is unremembered today. It’s why science fiction fans may know her soaring voice, but not her name.
In 1964, when television producer Gene Roddenberry introduced a new space serial titled Star Trek he asked a friend Jerry Goldsmith to write the theme music. Goldsmith was too busy but enlisted fellow composer and collaborator Alexander Courage, who was said to be no fan of the science fiction genre, but drew inspiration from a song he heard on the radio titled “Beyond the Blue Horizon, ” which was featured in the 1930 movie “Monte Carlo” and sung by actress Jeannette McDonald, a soprano.
Courage wrote the theme for the TV series in about a week. Roddenberry heard the music and for reasons some explain were financially motivated, wrote lyrics for the tune. Courage, surprised – and perhaps, a bit offended – by Roddenberry’s contribution, had included a voice in his recording, but no words. The lyric version of the song was never used.
The singer Courage chose for his work was similar to MacDonald, who ironically died the year the theme was written. Norman was another soprano and known for her studio work. Plus she wasn’t a big enough star to turn down such an offer. Norman had the range Courage needed to make the tune work.
Star Trek: The Original Series ran for only three seasons and 79 episodes. In the third and final year, the theme was re-recording without the vocals.
Despite a growing fan base, Roddenberry was hopelessly fighting low ratings, high production costs, and threats from the network to cancel.
He reportedly couldn’t pay Norman her royalty cut that year.