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Going From Homeless In LA To Composing Music For Hit TV Shows

File: Composer Kurt Farquhar receives the BMI Film and Television Award for 'Being Mary Jane' onstage during the 2016 BMI Film/TV Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on May 11, 2016 in Beverly Hills. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BMI)
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You might not know Kurt Farquhar's name, but if you've watched any TV since 1989, you've heard his music. He composed for The King of Queens, Moesha, and Sister, Sister -- and he currently has multiple shows on the air, including The Neighborhood and Black Lightning.

He's written more music for TV than any other African-American composer -- both under his own name, and through his True Music production house. But when he first moved to L.A. in 1986, he ended up living on the street for a more than a year.

"Everybody that lives on the streets isn't insane, isn't a drug addict," Farquhar said. "Talk to folks. I'm now hearing more stories about so-and-so and that year they spent in their car. If I had a car, that would have been me."

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We visited Melrose Avenue near the La Brea intersection, where Farquhar often used to sleep. Not exactly the California dream.

"We're doing something crazy," he said. "We come out here from all around the country, all around the world, to think that we're going to be that one person that succeeds in music. I mean, it seemed perfectly logical to me then. But it really, it's a once in a lifetime ride, you know. And not everybody gets it. And a lot of things can happen on the way."

Farquhar grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

"They had created a whole music department inside a high school, and you could take music all day long -- music theory, music history," he said. "You could be in either the orchestra, the band, or choir. I had an orchestra at my disposal, to write for, as a child. And I'd write this really complex, either jazz pieces or classical pieces, and I'd just get infuriated that they couldn't play it exactly right. The teacher said, 'Kurt, these are kids!' I said, 'I'm a kid! I can do it!'"

With his parents' help, Farquhar studied music at Eastern Illinois University, then went on to the National Conservatory for Music in Versailles, France. After that, his brother Ralph suggested he come out to Los Angeles.

"He and his wife were going to New York. He says, 'Well, you can come and stay at our place.' So I did. And that's how I ended up in L.A. -- with 136 dollars in my pocket," Farquhar said.

Farquhar made some music out here, but not much money. Then his brother fell on hard times too, and because Farquhar didn't want to admit defeat or ask his parents for help yet again, he ended up homeless, walking up and down Melrose.

"My life at that point probably was a slow-moving car wreck, and just ended up... things weren't good," Farquhar said. "I just didn't understand how I could be there. I remember just thinking that, 'Oh, this wouldn't last long. This wouldn't last long.' And a year later, you're still there."

I asked him how he spent his days during that long year.

"I'd walk, I'd look in shops, I'd go to the park. Wander. You just wandered, a lot," Farquhar said. "There was a restaurant down here called Fellini's on Melrose, just east of Orange Drive. They had this amazing happy hour, and people used to know me for coming in there. Nobody ever thought twice about it. I'd go in there, and friends would see me and buy me a drink. These people did happy hour. I mean, hot wings, and pastas, and this-that-and-the-other. I mean, all of this food -- meatballs -- and you'd go there, and that was the primary way how I ate."

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Farquhar shared some of his techniques for life on the street.

"The place I slept most was right around the corner on Melrose, just east of La Brea. I think it was an architectural design place. I remember it was a white building, and it had a long, long corridor that was open, before you got to the door -- it was probably like 30 feet, and it was just about 4 or 5 feet across. I would go all the way up in there, and sleep in there so that nobody saw me. I do remember that, years later, they put a gate on there -- so I'm pretty sure that had something to do with me," he said with his boisterous, infectious laugh.

Another trick: "I would go to a place and act like I was going to rent an apartment. And I would always leave a window open, and then I'd come in there -- it had to be a place with carpet -- and I would come in and crawl in the window at night, and sleep on the carpet. I'd wash myself up in there in the morning, and then I'd leave. I'd always lock the window so I couldn't come back again. I'd just do it the one night, and it just made me feel better."

Farquhar's brother, Ralph, had become a TV writer, and in 1989 he was working on a new comedy called Livin' Large. He told his kid brother that he should try out for the theme song.

"I said, 'It pays?'" the composer recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, yeah. They'll pay you if you can get it.' And so I went out for it."

Farquhar's theme song got accepted, but the show didn't get picked up. Soon after, though, he got a small record deal -- it didn't pay much or really go anywhere, but he finally got an apartment. One day he was surfing TV channels and saw that the comedy pilot for Livin' Large was airing, thanks to a writer's strike. He called up the show's producer.

"Sir, I was just wondering... the show was on TV with my music. Do I get paid for that?" he recalled saying. "He said, 'Yeah. Yeah, sure.' I said, 'Well, how much would that be?' He said, 'Well, it's an end title. We probably could make a deal for about 10K.' I said, '10,000 dollars? Exactly when would I get that 10,000 dollars?'"

He got it in cash -- twenties and tens.

"I literally, honestly tossed it up in the air and was rolling around on it on my apartment floor," Farquhar said. "I had never seen that much money all at once in my life, and I was thinking: oh my God."

Kurt Farquhar stands near where he used to be homeless -- under a billboard for a show he's now composing for, The Neighborhood. (Courtesy Kurt Farquhar)

Farquhar's life started to change.

"I said 'I'm gonna see what it means to go after everything, to do everything, and to be the best that I can be at this.' And that year got better. And then the next year got better," Farquhar said. "My third year in, I had a breakout year where I picked up nine different shows during that year. And from that point on, it's been a pretty interesting ride. I haven't had less than five shows in production in a given year since then."

He looked around the spot on Melrose near the building where he used to sleep.

"To be back here, knowing that I was walking these streets, and then to see a billboard on this same street with a show of mine [The Neighborhood] that's currently the number one new show on CBS, is... quite a journey," Farquhar said.

This story is dedicated to Beth Krakower, Farquhar's publicist, who brought me this story before dying from breast cancer in September.

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