Many have attempted to fuse classical and rock music, but few have achieved that goal more successfully than Louis Clark, who has died aged 73 after suffering a suspected stroke. His arranging and orchestration work with the Electric Light Orchestra lay at the core of their unusual and hugely successful sound. His subsequent creation of the Hooked on Classics series, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, turned vintage classical pieces into huge pop hits, and in turn demonstrated how the works of pop and rock artists such as Queen or the Beatles could be classicalised. “It appears that it has introduced a lot of people to the classics,” he said in 2000. “People come away and say ‘this is different, it’s OK, it’s not as stuffy as I thought’.”
Clark’s partnership with Jeff Lynne of ELO came about when he was at De Lane Lea studios in London, working on string arrangements for a musical about William Shakespeare by Raymond Froggatt (though the album was never released). Lynne, also working there, liked what he heard, and asked Clark to arrange and conduct the orchestra and choir for what would become ELO’s album Eldorado (1974).
It reached No 16 in the US charts, and Clark’s tenure with the group over their next five albums, collaborating closely with Lynne and the multi-keyboard player Richard Tandy, saw them regularly featuring at the top end of the album charts around the world. Face the Music (1975) took them into the American Top 10, A New World Record (1975) and Out of the Blue (1977) went to the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, and Discovery (1979) was their first British chart-topper.
ELO’s inventive vocal and instrumental blend, often with a Beatles-esque flavour, also helped them notch up a stream of notable singles, including Evil Woman, Livin’ Thing, Mr Blue Sky, Telephone Line and the Olivia Newton-John collaboration Xanadu. Between 1972 and 1986 ELO scored more Top 40 hits in Britain and the US than any other band.
Clark, who released the all-instrumental solo album per-spek-tiv in 1979, did not appear on ELO’s album Time in 1981, though he played keyboards on the subsequent tour, because that was the year he branched out into Hooked on Classics. The notion of stringing classical themes together over a rock beat was the idea of Don Reedman at K-Tel records, and he recruited Clark to steer it to fruition on the original Hooked on Classics album and single.
The melange of well-known pieces by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart, Sibelius and many more was not to the taste of classical purists, but Clark had knitted it all together over the unswerving beat of a drum machine with consummate skill. The Hooked on Classics single reached No 2 in the UK and No 10 in the US, while the original Hooked on Classics album peaked at No 4 in the UK. The second and third albums in the series entered the UK Top 20 in 1982 and in 1983.
Huge record sales, combined with extensive world touring, rescued the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from impending bankruptcy, and at the end of 1981 Clark, who wielded the conductor’s baton on tour, had the unique experience of playing with ELO at Wembley Arena and with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall on successive nights. In 1983 he was made an honorary member of the orchestra, and his other projects with the RPO included albums of pieces by the Beatles, Queen and Abba, plus excursions into opera, baroque music and waltzes.
Clark was born in Kempston, Bedfordshire, the third child of Francis Clark, a bricklayer, and his wife, Anna (nee Ruoss), a maid of Swiss and Polish heritage who had come to England before the second world war. When Louis was two his mother died in childbirth and he was sent to live with his aunt Nancy in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, while his older siblings went to boarding school.
He attended Bridgnorth grammar school, where he learned the piano and viola in his teens. Then, as Beatlemania swept the country, he found himself gripped by pop music. “The Beatles came out and that was it,” he said later. “I went out and bought a bass guitar and taught myself how to play it.”
After taking his A-levels he moved to Birmingham and joined his first band, the Buccaneers. They morphed into the Monopoly, then in 1969 became the Raymond Froggatt Band, releasing 10 singles and two albums, with Clark writing string arrangements for the second album. This prompted him, at the age of 24, to enrol at the City of Leeds College of Music (now Leeds Conservatoire) to study composition and orchestration as well as the flute and keyboards. He married Jocelyn Carter in 1971, and their son, Louis Jr, was born that year, with a daughter, Jemma, arriving in 1974.
Clark’s expertise was called upon by many other artists, including Ozzy Osbourne, Roy Wood, America, Carl Wayne, Renaissance and Asia. He made his final appearance on an ELO album with his string arrangements on Secret Messages (1983), then toured with them until 1986. He worked with Lynne once again on Roy Orbison’s album Mystery Girl (1989).
In 1991 he was recruited as musical director for ELO Part II, which was formed by ELO’s former drummer Bev Bevan after legal wrangling with Lynne over rights to the band’s name. Clark was involved in their debut album and wrote orchestrations of ELO’s original hits for a concert tour with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. He also contributed pieces to their second album, Moment of Truth.
More recently he had toured with the ensemble called the Orchestra, which featured his former ELO colleagues Kelly Groucutt and Mik Kaminski. In 2015 Louis Jr deputised for him as conductor and keyboard player on a US tour, after he had become ill with kidney disease. Clark made his final appearance with the Orchestra in March 2020.
His marriage to Jocelyn ended in divorce. In 1986 he married Gloria Bentley, and she survives him, along with their daughter, Rachel, the two children from his first marriage, his brother Francis and two grandchildren, Loretta and John.
• Louis Clark, musician, born 27 February 1947; died 13 February 2021