Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
I discovered the music of Michael Salvatori through his 1980s private-press loner-folk LP—it’s a sought-after item among fans of such obscurities—but most people who know his name have probably heard about him because he’s a composer for hit video games. Salvatori’s career has taken a few twists and turns I never would’ve anticipated, but Secret History finally has the story on this underappreciated music maker.
Salvatori was born in Elmhurst, Illinois, in 1954, and attended Visitation Catholic School till eighth grade. Inspired by West Side Story and the Beatles (and playing a guitar he’d gotten for Christmas), he joined his first band at age 12, covering pop favorites in the 13th Hour with longtime friend Gary Polkow on keyboards. At York High School in the early 70s, the two of them moved on to heavier sounds with Psychlotron (who were inspired by the Doors and Iron Butterfly and opened for the Cryan’ Shames) and Strapperjak (a horn-rock band that did originals plus covers of Chicago and the Ides of March).
After graduation Salvatori married his high school sweetheart, Gail, and started a short-lived prog band with her on keyboards and his brother Tom on bass. They only played a couple gigs, mostly for friends and family, while Salvatori was working at a print shop to put Gail through college. Soon he and Gail had a mortgage and a family, and as that reality sank in, Salvatori restricted his musical activity to relatively manageable solo work. Luckily he was able to secure a bank loan to build a basement studio in his Wheaton home, where he recorded local musicians on evenings and weekends. When the studio wasn’t booked, he picked away at his own music. It took him a few years to record his only solo album, but at age 28, Salvatori self-released the sublime 1982 LP Waiting for Autumn.
He pressed the album in a run of 500, and it’s now very rare. Salvatori kept only a few. “I still had about half a dozen unopened copies, but lost them several years ago during a move,” he says. “So I had to buy them back on eBay, and it took me a while, because they rarely came up for sale and sellers were asking ridiculous prices for them.”
Salvatori never even got around to gigging as a solo artist, because another opportunity came knocking shortly after the release of Waiting for Autumn: his college friend Martin O’Donnell, who knew Salvatori had his own studio, proposed a film-soundtrack collaboration. The two of them soon started working on music for TV commercials, and struck gold with a 1985 campaign for Flintstones vitamins. If you’re around my age, you probably remember it: “We are Flintstones kids / Ten million strong and growing” (Salvatori’s two young daughters sang on the first version).
This success led to a full-time jingle-writing partnership, and O’Donnell and Salvatori moved out of his Wheaton basement and formed their own downtown Chicago agency. By the mid-90s, O’Donnell was starting to get tired of writing jingles and approached video-game developer Bungie, whose offices were located close to their studio, about writing music for its games. The first Bungie project for which the duo composed was the beloved 1997 fantasy-strategy game Myth: The Fallen Lords, and for a few years they continued splitting their time between games and jingles. But scoring the massive hit Halo in 2001 changed everything—Microsoft had just bought Bungie, and positioned Halo as the game that would launch its new Xbox console that year. It sold a million copies in its first five months, and is now considered a genre-defining classic.
Over the next nine years, O’Donnell and Salvatori worked on four more Halo games, including two that broke sales records (the last was 2010’s Halo: Reach). In 2011 Salvatori took a staff job with Bungie, which had by then moved to Washington State (O’Donnell had been hired years earlier), in order to work on music for the 2014 game Destiny. O’Donnell eventually left Bungie, but Salvatori is still composing for the company today.
Salvatori’s years at Bungie have taken him to some unexpected places. “In 2012 and ’13 we got to collaborate with Paul McCartney, who cowrote some of the music on the first Destiny release,” he remembers. “That was one of those ‘full circle’ moments for me—seeing him on TV in 1964 was what caused me to gravitate toward music as a career.” Now that, my friends, is what they call a journey! v