Born Elliot Lawrence Broza, 14 February 1925, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he played piano from a very early age. His parents, Stan Lee Broza and Esther Broza, were involved in radio in Philadelphia, including creating and working on a children’s variety show, which ran from 1927-1958. Lawrence appeared on radio shows when only four years old. Also on radio, he led an orchestra of children in his teenage years in which one of the young musicians was Buddy DeFranco.
Lawrence’s musical activities grew through his time at Philadelphia University, including arranging for and leading dance bands. World War II brought an end to many big bands as musicians were drafted. Lawrence had health issues and was hence exempt and he continued to lead bands, mostly for live engagements but also often on radio where, from 1945, he was leader of Philadelphia’s WCAU radio’s house band.
Although never making any pretence of leading a jazz band, Lawrence was always aware of and comfortable with the form, his bands playing not only his own arrangements but also those of soon-to-be-notable jazzmen Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel and Tiny Kahn.
With the changes in popular music following the war, Lawrence, now settled in New York, continued to lead a touring band until 1956 and also appeared on records, radio and television. His 1949-51 band was tagged Elevation, which was the name of a work he co-wrote with Mulligan. His liking for jazz is apparent in this piece, which accommodated bop, and from his choice of session musicians with jazz leanings, among them Cohn, Red Rodney, Zoot Sims and Urbie Green, all of whom were often given solo opportunities.
Among his albums in these years, a good example of his style can be heard on Elliot Lawrence Plays Tiny Kahn And Johnny Mandel Arrangements, originally released in 1956 on Fantasy Records.
In 1959, he visited Moscow with The Ed Sullivan Show, an early instance of western entertainment broadcasting from the USSR. During this trip, he met dancers Marge and Gower Champion who hired him as musical director for their 1961 Broadway show, Bye Bye Birdie, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. This led to him working in the following year on Frank Loessor’s How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, for which he was again nominated for a Tony, this time successfully. Lawrence also composed music for television and films, the former including The Edge Of Night (1979-1984) and Search For Tomorrow (1984-1985). Among his film compositions is the opening sequence of The French Connection (1971) and he also composed the score for Network (1976).
Lawrence continued to work in television and the theatre for which he received recognition and awards, including a number of Emmys, the last coming in 2013, which was his 46th and final year as music director of the annual Tony Awards.
Elliot Lawrence died 2 July 2021 in New York City. He is survived by four children and five grandchildren. His wife, the former Amy Bunim, died in 2017.