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Griffin '99 finds success with 'Millionaire' music

Some people struggle their entire lives to break their way into show business. John Griffin '99 has managed to make a name for himself in less than six months.

His name might be unfamiliar to you, but he's there behind the scenes of one of today's most popular television game shows, ABC's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" Griffin wrote "U.S. Millionaire," the three-cord musical progression that is played at the beginning of each "Millionaire" series. The theme introduces every episode of "Millionaire," and in fact, aside from host Regis Philbin, Griffin provides the only truly American aspect of the show. Every other component is taken directly from Great Britain's original version of the game show.


Cultivating his musical talent without any formal training, Griffin has made a career for himself. He believes that musicians do not need to know extensive musical theory "to write a kickin' game-show tune," he said. "If you listen to anything on TV, it's not Beethoven."

Griffin, who works at CBS as the associate producer for "The Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel, was commissioned to give the British game show an American feel, he said. ABC producers gave him creative freedom in his musical composition; they just wanted something "that sounds like you're flying through the city," he said.

To ensure that Griffin's American pride was stimulated, the producers showed him aerial views of the Statue of Liberty for inspiration, he added.

Child star

Even before he came to Princeton as a freshman in 1995, Griffin was spreading joy to the masses through art, with an eight-month stint in "Arcadia" at New York City's famed Lincoln Center. With enough credits to graduate, Griffin was allowed to spend his second semester during his senior year of high school living alone in New York while performing. He performed 205 straight shows and even missed his high school graduation.

The "Arcadia" gig landed Griffin a coveted role as Jeffrey Zandermost in director Woody Allen's 1995 musical movie "Everybody Says I Love You."

Griffin believes that it was the strength of his acting that brought him to Princeton in the first place. But once on campus, he found that he no longer enjoyed acting the way he had before.


But his love for theater didn't disappear completely. It was transformed into a musical enthusiasm enhanced by the piano skills he had been developing for years on his own.

Princeton experience

A self-taught virtuoso, 'Griff' — as his brothers in the Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity and friends in Tower Club often refer to him — started composing music for Princeton theatrical presentations at Theatre Intime and 185 Nassau, an activity that merged his artistic passions in a unique way.

While completing course work for his theater and dance certificate, Griffin began to work on music and sound design for plays such as "Richard III" and "Hamlet Machine." In addition, Griffin composed the entire musical score for Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie." All in all, Griffin's Princeton portfolio lists 14 credits for musical contributions in various performances.

During senior year, under the guidance of Michael Cadden — the director of the theater and dance program — Griffin wrote a music-based thesis.

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"John pioneered the field of sound design at Princeton," Cadden said. "The field of sound design is about two days old. It's really not as if there were any books or articles that he could turn to to figure out the theory of what he was doing. He was improvising, and it worked out extremely well."

His love of theater and appreciation of fine literature enhanced the creative juices within Griffin's head.

"Writing always helped the music," Griffin said. He added that most often he "pulled stuff out of the text" and expressed it musically. Because Griffin plays by ear, his music is guided by the mood it engenders within him and consequently reflects his perception of the literature, he explained.

His work on "The Crucible" at Princeton is a perfect example of Griffin's style. Though the bulk of Arthur Miller's play is fairly disturbing, Griffin did not feel that the music driving the play needed to be heavy and somber.

He said he wrote "light, airy" music for the scenes where Salem's would-be witches frolic wildly in the woods. Others probably would not have attributed the same innocence to what is perceived as devil worship. In this way, Griffin reinterpreted the action of the play through music.

"I was loving life back then," Griffin said of his time at Princeton. In light of his recent success, he added, "And I still am. I'm doing pretty good."

Lindsay Tasher '00, one of Griffin's close friends, said, "He was always fiddling around in his room and coming up with little musical tidbits."

Tasher, who first met Griffin while working on a Princeton production of "Guys and Dolls" during her freshman year, added, "John is literally one of the most fun people. You can talk to him for hours about anything."


Princeton theater work is still a far cry from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" As far as natural talent is concerned, Griffin has his share, but getting to where he is so quickly also takes some good fortune, he said.

Griffin stands with President Lyndon B. Johnson as one of the only innocent benefactors of the Kennedy family curse. Misfortune turned out to be a blessing for him this past summer when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash opened a door for Griffin to the world of television music.

While rescue people were searching for the plane off the coast of Cape Cod, television news stations were scrambling to put together coverage of the unfolding tragedy. Fortuitously, Griffin had just pitched the music he had written for "The Crucible" to the Fox News Network.

Fitting its inherent sadness, Griffin's "dark" style was chosen as the eerie theme song for Fox News' coverage of the crash and its aftermath, playing as often as 14 times per hour, he said.

Griffin heard about an upcoming game show on ABC from an acquaintance at Fox whose contract prohibited him from pitching the show himself. Incorporating some suggestions from "Millionaire" executive producer Michael Davies, Griffin came up with "U.S. Millionaire," the only somber game-show theme song.

Despite his upbeat personality, Griffin says that this type of music is his specialty. He hinted as well to the cruel psychological effects of a game show that dangles thousands of dollars before a contestant's eyes and sends him home empty handed in front of the whole world.

Future prospects

His face isn't plastered on rock posters and he doesn't have a new video playing on MTV, but Griffin is quickly becoming a success in the entertainment business.

"Millionaire" is just another step in Griffin's continuing professional music career. He is currently in discussions with representatives from NBC Sports and is collaborating on CBS news coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. He is also investigating soundtrack possibilities for independent movies and has a demo tape circulating around the industry.

In his spare time, which is limited these days, Griffin continues to write music, mostly of the instrumental variety, but occasionally he tinkers with lyrics. Despite his rich background in literature from his studies as an English major, Griffin says he has trouble coming up with lyrics that don't "sound stupid" in his head. In fact, he extends an open offer to anyone who can give verse to his music.

Griffin's biggest influences are Billy Joel and Elton John, artists from whom Griffin admits he sometimes finds himself stealing. Though music is intensely personal for Griffin, he is always eager to perform his latest creation.

"I love to play for my friends," he said. "Ask them, they'll tell you, I bore them to tears. Let me play you a song I'm working on."

And across 100 miles of telephone wire he proceeded to play his most recent musical creation, tentatively titled "You'll Always Be My Home." The truth is that John Griffin was born to entertain people in one way or another.