Elmer Bernstein was born in New York on 4 April 1922. He studied piano, auditioning at Aaron Copland when he was thirteen and earning a chance to study with one of Copland’s students. Bernstein attended the Julliard School, where his piano training continued, along with the study of composition.
Drafted for duty in World War II, Elmer Bernstein received an assignment to arrange songs for the United States Army Air Force Band, and then to write music for Armed Forces Radio programming. After the war, he received a commission to compose for a United Nations radio program, which was heard by a network executive, and led to his being offered a chance to compose for a network program.
In turn, his television work led to Hollywood openings, and his first breakthrough came with The Man With the Golden Arm in 1955, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, and became his first film soundtrack to be released commercially.
The wide range of his abilities can be seen in the enormous generic variety of his efforts. His theme for The Magnificent Seven became known as the theme music for Marlboro cigarettes, epitomizing the Western hero, but he also scored Animal House, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Cape Fear.
Elmer Bernstein was nominated for and received numerous honors and awards. He received eleven Oscar nominations, and he won for Best Original Music Score for Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1968. Nominated for seven Golden Globes, he won two, for Best Original Score for Hawaii in 1967 and for Best Motion Picture Score in 1963 for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Elmer Bernstein has a star on the Walk of Fame and was twice nominated for Grammies — in 1994 for The Age of Innocence and in 1985 for Ghost Busters. On the other hand, he won a Razzie in 1985 for the worst musical score of 1984, awarded for Bolero, and shared with Peter Bernstein, his son.
Elmer Bernstein also created his own record label in order to produce recordings of soundtracks that were not available. He continued working both as composer and a conductor until his death on 18 August 2004.