Don Gillis, composer, conductor, musician, teacher, and producer, was born in Cameron, Missouri, on June 17, 1912. He and his family moved in 1931 to Fort Worth, where he attended Texas Christian University and studied composition with Keith Mixson. At TCU Gillis played trombone in and served as assistant director of the university band and wrote music for two musicals. He also played trombone in the staff orchestra of radio station WBAP from 1932 to 1935 and directed a symphony orchestra of his own at Polytechnic Baptist Church from 1935 to 1942. He earned a B.M. degree at TCU in 1935 and continued to serve on the faculty there until 1942. He also taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary during this period. He did graduate work in composition at North Texas State Teachers College (now University of North Texas) in Denton in 1942 and was awarded his M.M. degree in 1943. He also attended Louisiana State and Columbia universities.
In 1942 Gillis became production director for radio station WBAP. In December 1943 he transferred to the NBC affiliate in Chicago. A year later he went to New York to become producer and scriptwriter for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Arturo Toscanini. Gillis produced several NBC radio programs, including Serenade to America and NBC Concert Hour. After Toscanini retired in 1954 Gillis, serving as president of the Symphony Foundation of America, was instrumental in helping to form the Symphony of the Air, using members of the old NBC Symphony. He also produced the radio program Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend, which ran for several years on NBC after the Italian conductor's death. Other posts held by Gillis during his long and varied career include vice president of the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan (1958–61), chairman of the music department at Southern Methodist University (1967–68), chairman of the arts department at Dallas Baptist College (1968–72), and composer-in-residence and chairman of the Institute of Media Arts at the University of South Carolina (1973–78). From 1968 on, Gillis was vitally interested in mixed media.
He composed prolifically in virtually all contemporary styles and genres. Much of his music emphasizes the comical, and his works often carry whimsical titles that convey the satire and humor of his music. One of his artistic goals was to interpret his American background musically. His music therefore draws on popular material, particularly emphasizing jazz, which Gillis viewed as a dynamic and revitalizing element in American music. He assimilated popular influences in a simple and straightforward style aimed at communicating with his audiences through an emphasis on clear, accessible, melodic writing. As a result of his popular appeal, his music has achieved considerable success and has been performed by a number of major orchestras, including the NBC Symphony and the Boston Pops.
His more than 150 works include ten symphonies; six string quartets; The Panhandle, a symphonic suite; The Alamo; Symphony No. 5½, "a symphony for fun," the world premiere of which was conducted by Toscanini; Portrait of a Frontier Town; Alice in Orchestralia; Texas Centennial March; Amarillo—A Symphonic Celebration; and Toscanini: A Portrait of a Century. Gillis also wrote three books: a humorous unpublished autobiography, And Then I Wrote (1948); a satirical conducting methodology, The Unfinished Symphony Conductor (1967); and an important textbook in the media field, The Art of Media Instruction (1973). Gillis died in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 10, 1978. He was survived by his wife Barbara, two daughters, and one son. His papers are housed at the University of North Texas in Denton.