Music compositions are a major asset in production. An art in their own right, music scores amplify the feelings inherent in any story. Through such music, viewers are spurred to react to what’s happening on screen, thus relating to a story’s characters on a deeper level.
Nashville is home to many musicians who’ve worked in film and television. But few are as recognizable as Stacy Widelitz. An award-winning film and television composer, songwriter, and pianist, Stacy’s music has helped entertain audiences across the globe. As a member of the local production scene, Stacy has been a staunch advocate for the arts. Serving in various top-level roles, Stacy has led organizations like the Nashville Film Festival, the Nashville Opera, and Leadership Music to the success of their more recent years.
Starting Off With a Sour Note
Stacy grew up in Plainview, New York as a shy child who loved music. He attended a public school on Long Island. “My first instrument was the flute,” he tells FilmNashville. “It was assigned to me as part of the band program in fourth grade.”
Despite his teacher’s recommendation, Stacy would learn that the flute was not his instrument. The finger placement (“fingering”) for flute notes was awkward, and therefore difficult to master. Weeks of serious practice yielded little progress.
After a full month of trying to figure the instrument out, Stacy was cut from the band program. He came home from school one day with a note from the band director. He gave the note to his parents, which read: “Please return the flute to the music store. I am dropping Stacy from the band program, as he exhibits no musical ability whatsoever.”
Stacy now looks back on this life event with humor. He says, “My mother ran into that teacher years later, in 1997… He was with his wife, and my mother approached them. She said, ‘You know, you dropped my son from the band program! You flunked him in flute.’ His wife evidently said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Look, it was my job as a teacher of music to determine who had ability and who didn’t have ability… .’ Then, the teacher asked, ‘Just out of curiosity, what is he doing now?’ And my mother said, ‘He’s a professional composer, and he’s just been nominated for an Emmy!’ His face just completely fell, and it was a great moment for my mother!”
“Hum a Few Bars!”
Stacy didn’t know it then, but his trials with the flute would teach him to trust his creative instincts when something didn’t feel right.
A few months after leaving the band program, Stacy’s parents picked up an old upright piano for their kids. They put it in the basement, letting Stacy and his brother play tunes by ear. Unlike the flute, the piano was easier to learn for Stacy, as the layout of the keys made sense to him.
Soon after getting the piano, Stacy’s cousin —a child prodigy of classical piano—came over to visit one day. Retreating to the basement, Stacy was treated to his cousin’s masterful performance of Chopin.
“Watching him play, I was enthralled,” Stacy recalls.
After teaching him “Chopsticks,” Stacy’s cousin picked up a method book that was sitting on the piano, and started to teach Stacy the basics. “After an hour, my cousin ran up the stairs. My parents and his mother were in the living room. And he said, ‘You’ve gotta get him piano lessons right away! Because he just went through the first ten weeks of that book in an hour!!’”
Later finding out through one of his grade school teachers that he had perfect pitch, and could guess a note just by hearing it, Stacy continued to learn the piano. He was also learning about music genres, listening to a little bit of everything.
Getting Performance Ready
“There were a lot of different types of music playing in the house at any given moment, ” Stacy says. “Eighty percent of the time, a stereo was on and something was playing.”
Indeed a passion for Stacy, music would first be seen as a career choice when he was 13 years old. Around this time, Stacy’s father purchased Stacy’s first electronic instrument, a Farfisa Duo Compact organ. At 14, Stacy accepted an offer to join a jazz group. At 15, Stacy and the combo started getting their first paid work, and he was off and running.
“I was naturally a very shy person. Being in a performance environment was fun,” Stacy says. Stacy joined Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AF of M) at 15 and was regularly playing union gigs in clubs on Long Island. Although he was a year underage to join the union, Stacy’s music knowledge impressed the union enough for him to gain admittance.
This was all happening pretty fast for Stacy and his parents. “My parents were kind of supportive and kind of terrified,” Stacy says. Though they loved the arts, both wanted their son to have a guaranteed career path to success. They didn’t see music as a way forward.
But Stacy did. By 1974, Stacy had already been experimenting with synthesizer compositions. He was attending Manhattanville College to study music, but in his sophomore year he started getting work writing music for a small studio in Stamford, CT. Feeling that college was holding him back, Stacy left to jumpstart his career at the age of 19.
Knowing the Score
Stacy’s work in composition started with writing music for film strips, which he describes as “still drawings with a soundtrack and narration.”
He says, “The very first group of them that I got were Ray Bradbury stories narrated by Ray Bradbury himself! I was thrilled to death because I was a huge science fiction fan.”
Initially hired to do five film strips, Stacy would go on to do 150 of these projects. “I brought a different sensibility to the work for these film strips because I was an obsessive movie watcher, and I was listening to a tremendous amount of music. How to put music behind a dramatic scene—like the incorporation of natural sound effects or keeping everything melodic—was all beginning to coalesce in my head.”
At the age of 24, Stacy got his first big break co-writing the theme song and music for “The Richard Simmons Show.” The opportunity to do music for this show came after Stacy hit a ceiling with the studio in Connecticut.
“This was my first national credit,” Stacy says. Stacy co-wrote this theme with his at-the-time girlfriend, Wendy Fraser. Her father and stepmother were producers of the show. They wanted to give Stacy and Wendy a chance, but only if what they wrote impressed the entire team. Accepting the challenge, Stacy and Wendy composed something that instantly won everyone over.
Living in New York City at the time, Stacy and his girlfriend had to fly to Los Angeles to record this theme. “I was just terrified,” he says. “But I was more terrified of failure than anything else, which is what drove me to get the work done.”
The show found a big audience across the country. When the show became a hit, it was clear to Stacy and Wendy that they would have to relocate to LA, which he wasn’t excited about. He made the move at the age of 25, booking another television theme within three weeks of arrival.
Bum Bum BUM…
In LA, Stacy got steady work. But he wanted to do more, particularly in the realm of film. Getting onto these bigger projects was only possible at the time with an agent. But getting an agent proved very difficult.
“They would say, ‘Well you need to show us a piece of film with your music, so that we get a sense of not just the music, but how you work with the film,’” Stacy shares.
Seeing that his career trajectory was obstructed by this catch-22, Stacy got creative. He was already studying the mechanics of film scoring at UCLA to continue his education when a peer advised that he look for UCLA or USC film graduate projects that needed a score. These thesis projects were used as a business card for young filmmakers wanting to break into the production business. Finding an ad in a trade newspaper, Stacy connected with Todd Holland (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Grace and Frankie”) to score music for a short suspense/monster film inspired by classic monster movies.
This was right up Stacy’s alley, and Stacy reached out to Todd. At UCLA, Todd and screened the work print for Stacy—sans music, sound effects, or even color—of Todd’s 12-minute film project “Chicken Thing.”
“It was brilliant,” Stacy says. “I think I shocked the hell out of Todd. When the screening was over, I turned to him and said, ‘I have to do this movie!’ He asked me ‘Why?’ I told him, ‘I understand the genre of this movie,’ and I know how to create the right tone.”
After winning Todd over, Stacy composed a score for “Chicken Thing” using his Emulator II, an advanced sampler for its time. Stacy says, “It ended up being a watershed moment for both of us. The film won thirty awards from organizations across the world. It was then seen by Steven Spielberg, which got Todd his first major directing job for an episode in the second season of ‘Amazing Stories.’ He got picked up by CAA, and I got picked up by Triad Artists.”
Nobody Puts Stacy in a Corner
Stacy had been an accompanist for singers since his teen years. In 1983, a friend asked that Stacy play for him in an acting class. After accompanying his friend on the piano, the class of sixty students and their teacher engaged Stacy in a conversation about theater and music.
Stacy says, “Afterward, I was getting my music and getting ready to go. This guy came up to me. He said, ‘Hi! I’m Buddy.’ I really liked hearing your talk about music and theater… We were chatting, and I said ‘You know, you look familiar.’ And he said, ‘Well, have you seen ‘The Outsiders?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Have you seen the TV show ‘The Renegades? And I said, ‘No. It’s not that kind of familiar.’ And then his wife came over, and he said ‘This is my wife, Lisa.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got it now! The two of you are always working on a black sports car on La Jolla Avenue!’ And they said, ‘Yeah! How do you know that?’ And I told them, ‘I live right around the block from you.’ And that’s how I met Patrick Swayze, whose friends and family knew him as Buddy.”
Stacy, Wendy, Patrick Swayze, and Swayze’s wife all became good friends. The four bonded over a love of music, theater, and film. In 1984, Swayze would do the romantic drama “Grandview U.S.A,” which also starred Jamie Lee Curtis. Swayze called up Stacy one day, telling him that the production was looking for songs for the film. Swayze told Stacy that he’d been struggling with a song for a few years, but couldn’t get anywhere with it. Coming over to visit, Swayze brought over his guitar, and some lists of lyrics.
“He had only two chords, C to E minor,” Stacy says. “But he had a lot of lyrics. The first couple of lines intrigued me: ‘She’s like the wind through my tree, she rides the night next to me.’ I wasn’t in love with the third and fourth lines and told him so. And he said, ‘Well, what would you say?’ And I blurted out, ‘She leads me through moonlight, Only to burn me with the sun!’ And he said, ‘What does that mean?’ And I said, ‘I don’t care, let’s just write it down!’ We expanded the musical content of the song, but when we realized that ‘She’s Like the Wind’ wasn’t just the opening line, but also the hook, we knew we had something.”
Stacy and Patrick cut a demo of the song, with Swayze singing lead, Wendy doing back-up vocals, and Stacy programming the synths and drums. A guitarist was also brought in. The final demo of this song sounded great, but “Grandview U.S.A.” wound up not using the song for the film.
That meant that the song would be shelved for a few years until Swayze had gotten an offer to do the low-budget film “Dirty Dancing.” Swayze called Stacy from Lake Lure, NC, where they were shooting, and said he played the demo for the producers and director, and they wanted it for the film.
“Nobody knew anything about the film outside of people close to the project,” Stacy says. “The rumor was that this was going to be a terrible movie that would be in the theaters for about a week before disappearing into video. The production company was Vestron Pictures, and they were known only for video.”
A final version of the song was produced by the legendary record producer Michael Lloyd, and the film’s soundtrack was supervised by another legend, Jimmy Ienner. Stacy was asked to play the track’s synthesizer parts since he had performed those on the demo as well. This version was recorded in November 1986, with the film making its debut in the summer of 1987.
“It was completely off my radar… I was busy with other work,” Stacy says. “I had no expectations for ‘Dirty Dancing.’ Nobody did. And anyone who says that they did is lying.”
Attending the film’s premiere, Stacy was surprised at how good the film was, as well as its positive reception. After that premiere, Stacy says “The movie just exploded!”
A sleeper hit of 1987, “Dirty Dancing” was a global sensation. The film won tons of major awards, including an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” two ASCAP Film and Television Awards, a Grammy Award, and a Golden Globe Award. Stacy and Patrick won two BMI awards for their song. Along with “Hungry Eyes” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” “She’s Like the Wind” helped the soundtrack attain RIAA certification for 14 times platinum, meaning that 14,000,000 copies were sold just in the U.S. It is estimated that it has sold more than 40 million records worldwide. This propelled the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack to be one of the top 30 records of all time!
2022 marked the 35 anniversary of “Dirty Dancing,” which saw a lot of promotional content revisiting the success of the film. These offerings included a special vinyl re-releasing of the soundtrack, with the record’s coloring resembling a watermelon as a joke for the film’s fans.
Stacy says, “These commemorative efforts of the film are still going on. ‘She’s Like the Wind’ was used in 2023 for a popular ad campaign in the U.K. Several new covers of the song have also come out this year by artists in various genres.”
A Change of Tempo
“Both that song and the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack have never gone away,” Stacy says.
Stacy maintained a strong friendship with Swayze, working with him again on the track “Cliff’s Edge” for the “Roadhouse” soundtrack. But with the success also came pressure to keep career momentum going. Rather than let him enjoy doing what he wanted, Stacy’s peers tried to force him to do bigger things or use the fame to his benefit.
“LA is a very different songwriter’s environment… it’s not as collaborative and it’s not as friendly,” Stacy says. “I found that instead of writing from the heart, I was chasing another hit. And that doesn’t work.”
After a few years of trying to force another hit, Stacy paused songwriting in 1990, and told his agent that he wanted to get back to the scoring work.
“I never really considered myself a songwriter. I was a composer,” he says. After making that choice to not try and force the creative process, Stacy wound up landing every single gig his agent solicited. This included projects like “Freddy’s Nightmares,” “Eerie, Indiana,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “South of Sunset,” “Cro,” and over 20 made-for-TV movies for the networks. Stacy earned an Emmy nomination for a score he wrote for “ABC’s World of Discovery,” two BMI awards for “She’s Like the Wind,” and four Gold Addy awards for a Kentucky-based ad campaign. He has also worked with many noted musicians, such as Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Edgar Winter, and Danny Wilde of The Rembrandts.
Around 1996, Stacy decided that he wanted to get back into songwriting. Only this time, it would be on his terms. He decided to try this with two associates who had Nashville connections. One of these was Blaise Tosti, with whom Stacy co-wrote “Between Two Worlds” for “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” in 1997.
After working on a cache of songs, Stacy presented them to Michael Lloyd for his expertise. Michael praised the songs, saying that Stacy should consider flying to Nashville to co-write. After getting some recommended contacts from Lloyd, Stacy planned a visit.
“He told me, ‘Just make the rounds of Music Row.’ Spend four days meeting people. And make sure that you tell them that you are not looking for a publishing deal!’” Stacy says. Stacy fell in love with Nashville, revisiting the city for a ten-day trip only a month later to meet new people and workshop some of his songs.
“I liked the whole tone of the town. The respect that the creators got,” Stacy says.
In the summer of 2000, Stacy was living in Malibu. He had become disaffected with the production industry, as television music was now moving toward reality shows and game shows. There were also fewer TV movies being made.
With all of this weighing heavily on his mind, Stacy was approached by a real estate agent, asking Stacy if he wanted to sell his house. The house sold only five days later, and Stacy decided to relocate to Nashville.
Life In Music City
Stacy continued to score music until about 2009. It was then that he noticed that his fellow composers were not getting the compensation or respect they’d earned in previous decades.
“Budgets for projects on streaming don’t pay close to what they used to pay. Many of these projects offer almost nothing for royalties,” Stacy says.
Just like when he was assigned the flute, Stacy has learned that an artist cannot produce their best work when the tools and environment aren’t favorable. Songwriting is still on Stacy’s mind since he’s only learned more about it after moving to Nashville.
“I might consider doing something if the project was right,” Stacy says. “But it would have to be something really special.”
Putting his experience in the industry to use, Stacy spent the last decade taking leadership positions with music-focused organizations in the production community. Finding those leadership roles like president, chair, and board member to be a natural fit, Stacy also ran for office and served as Commissioner of Oak Hill between 2016-2020.
“Once you’ve found your success, the problem becomes ‘How do you keep things interesting?’”
Getting Into Photography
Music will always be in Stacy’s heart. But in 2015, he discovered a new passion as a fine art photographer.
“My work in photography started after I planned my first trip to Italy. I was going to Tuscany to attend a songwriter workshop held by Gretchen Peters, who happens to be one of my favorite songwriters. A week before leaving, I decided ‘I’m going to Italy, I should get a good camera. That way I can take better pictures,’” Stacy says.
He bought a more advanced Sony camera with a built-in zoom lens, capable of taking high-resolution images. Though not a seasoned photographer, Stacy knew that this camera would give him much better pictures than many of the other models on the market. Playing around with it while exploring Florence, he learned that it had a high-contrast monochrome function, capable of creating breathtaking black and white images.
“As soon as I looked through the viewfinder, it was like I was watching one of the B&W movies from my childhood!” Stacys says. He began taking pictures of people who caught his attention on the streets and in the various places he wandered. “I became fascinated with all of these different people!”
Later, Stacy shared these photos on social media. His friend Jerry Atnip—a commercial and fine art photographer of international acclaim—approached him to inquire about the images.
“He asked me if I’d been posting archival photos from Italy!” Stacy says. “I said, ‘No! Do you mean the black and whites? I took those photos.’” Jerry told Stacy that the photos were excellent, and recommended that he take a camera with him wherever he traveled.
And that’s precisely what Stacy did. Visiting Italy, France, England, and Cuba—as well as interesting cities within the continental U.S. like New Orleans and Washington D.C.—Stacy put together a wide portfolio of photos.
In Spring 2018, Stacy took a few of these images to Chromatics Nashville. The Chromatics staff recommended printing the photos on German cloth paper, which enhanced their archival aesthetic.
“The staff at Chromatics told me that they loved my work and that, ‘We think you’re on to something!’ I was told to pick up a portfolio, and print more of my work so that more people can see it.”
Stacy visited Anne Brown of The Arts Company (now Chauvet Arts). Anne was stunned and demanded to know how Stacy got into photography. She told him that his work was incredible, and asked about what his plans were with the photography. Setting up an art show for Stacy in June 2019, Anne signed him to The Arts Company for representation. Stacy is still represented under the gallery’s new name.
Through exploring social media, Stacy found the art curation site 1x.com. “I figured, ‘Hmmm… Let me submit one of my photos to this site.’ Because if they publish one of your photos, it’s a huge deal because they have 200K photographers submitting at a given moment!”
After submitting a photo, Stacy received a certificate of publication from the site, notifying him that his submission was accepted. Three days after the first certificate, he got another certificate from them, this time notifying Stacy that a submission had won an award.
“I didn’t even know that they gave out awards!” he says. To date, 26 of Stacy’s photos have been published by 1x, with six of these submissions receiving awards.
In 2022, Stacy had another successful art show at a local gallery, selling several more prints. This show was followed by another art show at the Gordon Jewish Community Center in January 2023, which was also well received. As of this writing, Stacy is currently preparing to have his artwork displayed at the Nashville International Airport (BNA).
“It’s incredible for me when I think about it… I just had no idea that I could be a good photographer, let alone someone whose work is now displayed for thousands of people to see!” Stacy says.
Stacy uses the same philosophy to take the photos that he uses for skeet shooting: “Don’t think – shoot.” This is particularly true when capturing people in a moment of thought, or when someone has a unique expression or gesture.
“If you think too much, you lose the magic, and the spontaneity is gone. As a photographer, especially in street photography, you’re capturing a moment that will never exist again, so you’ve got to make quick decisions. The great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, referred to this as “the decisive moment.”