Herschel Burke Gilbert was a prolific composer of television and film theme songs, including the musical scores of Chuck Connors' The Rifleman, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, Robert Taylor's The Detectives, Gene Barry's Burke's Law, and Bob Denver's Gilligan's Island. Gilbert once estimated that his compositions had been used in at least three thousand individual episodes of various television series.
Gilbert was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age of nine, he began studying the violin in Shorewood in Milwaukee County. By the time he was fifteen, he had formed his own dance band. He attended Milwaukee State Teachers College (now University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and studied for four years, two undergraduate and two graduate, from 1939–1943 at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After Juilliard, Gilbert won a music scholarship to the Berkshire Music Festival in Massachusetts, where he studied under Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
After a two-year stint with the Harry James band, as both viola player and arranger, brought him to Hollywood. He arranged and orchestrated for Dimitri Tiomkin on James Stewart's It's a Wonderful Life and Duel in the Sun (both 1946). He composed the scores for some three dozen films throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, including The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Comanche (1956), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and Sam Whiskey (1969).
Gilbert was nominated for three Academy Awards in consecutive years: the original score for The Thief (1952), his title tune for The Moon Is Blue (1953), and for his direction on Carmen Jones (1954). Gilbert assigned opera star Marilyn Horne her first professional job as the voice of Carmen. The Thief, a spy film starring Ray Milland, relied heavily on Gilbert's music because the picture lacked dialogue.
Gilbert was president of the Film Music Society, also known as the Society for the Preservation of Film Music, from 1989–1992. He also served on the society's board until his death. In 1998, Gilbert was presented the organization's "Film Music Preservation Award".
As music director for Dick Powell's Four Star Television, Gilbert also wrote themes for The Dick Powell Show, Robert Taylor's The Detectives, The Westerner starring Brian Keith, and the DuPont Show with Powell's wife, June Allyson. At Four Star, Gilbert supervised the music of an estimated 1,500 television program over a six-year period. Two of his The Dick Powell Show scores were nominated for music Emmy Awards. He also handled the composition for The Rogues and The Gertrude Berg Show. Gilbert also did the music for The Loretta Young Show on NBC. He produced a popular LP entitled Dick Powell Presents Themes from Four Star Television, one of the first television soundtrack albums to feature the actual music heard weekly on various series.
One of his last assignments at Four Star resulted in another memorable television theme: Burke's Law (1963–1966), with its breathy female voice and jazzy brass opening for the Rolls Royce-chauffeured police detective Amos Burke. (Ironically "Burke" was also Gilbert's middle name.) Gilbert thereafter did the theme songs for Gilligan's Island, a series about comical castaways, and Clint Eastwood's Rawhide, both on CBS. He went to Oklahoma City in 1964 to receive the National Cowboy Hall of Fame's "Western Heritage Award" for "Damon's Road", a two-part episode of Rawhide.
While in Europe in the early 1950s, Gilbert composed music libraries. Many of these works became the underscore of classic television programs, including The Adventures of Superman, M Squad starring Lee Marvin, Topper, Sky King, and Ramar of the Jungle. His association with producers Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy, and Arnold Laven led to his music for The Rifleman, which ran on ABC from 1958-1963. In addition to his famous theme, he wrote a library of dramatic music for The Rifleman, which was recorded in Munich, Germany.
Gilbert retired from television in 1966 to form Laurel Records, which eventually produced more than sixty LPs and nearly thirty CDs, mostly of contemporary American chamber music. Laurel became one of the nation's premier classical labels, acclaimed for its outstanding engineering.
In his last years, Gilbert was joined by his son, John Gilbert of Berkeley, to produce more than sixty LPs and twenty-eight CDs featuring the music of Ernest Bloch, Henri Lazarof, Paul Hindemith, David Baker, and Robert Muczynski.
Gilbert was heavily involved in civic affairs. Through his Rotary International chapters in both Hollywood and West Hollywood, he sponsored classical musical competitions for high school students. He was a strong supporter of the Boy Scouts of America.
Gilbert suffered a stroke on March 23, 2003. He died some three months later, at the age of eighty-five, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.