Long before I ever watched my first NFL snap, I knew the work of Sam Spence. I didn’t know that I knew it, but it was one of those things that most Americans subconsciously recognize. Very much like my early appreciation for Mozart, Rossini, Chopin, and Strauss came, without my knowing, from Looney Tunes, NFL Films has inundated popular culture in such a way that even its sound cues are iconic. The man behind the music is Sam Spence, a titan of football if ever there was one. His work, much like the Immaculate Reception and the Butt Fumble, has been on highlight reels and constant rotation since inception.
But who is this Sam Spence? Why should you learn his name?
Spence was a California native—born in San Francisco. A former University of Southern California music instructor living and working in Munich, Spence was hired in 1966 to score the mini-documentaries that conveyed NFL highlights and personalities.
Initially, Mahlon Merrick was asked to provide scores for NFL Films at the request of Ed Sabol, the founder of the NFL’s media arm. Sam Spence was a friend of Merrick’s and was asked to help with some arrangements. Merrick was proficient at writing marches, but Ed Sabol was most interested in Spence’s pieces. They provided a more cinematic flare— a larger range of instruments and more classical cues. Spence was offered a 3-year contract to write, conduct, and produce NFL Films music.
Spence would go on to write soundtracks for German TV, and eventually retired from composition in 1990. His name and work enjoyed a renaissance in 1998 with the success of a CD compilation named The Power and the Glory: The Original Music & Voices of NFL Films. Sam Spence passed away in 2016 at the age of 88.
Couldn’t you see this being in any Hollywood movie? Absolutely. That’s part of what made these songs so riveting and so timeless. There is drama in the structure and perceived grandeur in the use of heavy brass. This is heavily influenced by both Hollywood and Friday night marching bands. I find this tune to be the most emblematic and concise of Spence’s style.
Perhaps Sam Spence’s most prolific and recognizable theme, Round Up is featured in everything from Doritos commercials to The King of Queens and much more. Round Up is almost comical in its gritty tuba and trombone, but the horns take the listener “by the horns” and into the enduring melody. Strings are added for magnificent effect. His masterpiece.
Up She Rises (A Golden Boy Again)
Driving that unique line between military march and familiar tune, Spence takes a spin off of the old mariner shanty “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” and has some fun. There are many familiar motifs in these songs, and they help guide their use.
March to the Trenches
Many of the tunes were intended to be used for specific, or at least semi-specific, situations. Here we have a tune that exemplifies the grandeur of walking out to the open field and, eventually, lining up to face your adversary. The brass evokes an image of looking up at the crowds of a jousting match, with all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding.
The Magnificent Eleven
This song is one of the cues most often used by NFL Films, as it just makes for great highlight reel material. There’s a sort of calypso feel to this, so it pairs nicely with lots of action and quick-paced reviews.
There is some serious urgency in ‘Torpedo,’ and it helps the listener feel the drama of the moment. NFL Films enjoys using Torpedo when they are reviewing a close game and the clock is ticking down. The real menace in Torpedo is the pace— it is consistent, and there is a buildup in sound that ends with a crescendo. The final seconds, and game over!
There are so many more beautiful arrangements that you already know by heart. Although he’s never been on a depth chart or shined with his own rookie card, Sam Spence has more NFL scores than most folks we see on the highlight reel.
-Jason “Duck Season” Michaels