Mancini, Henry (1924-1994)

views updated

Mancini, Henry (1924-1994)

Although he was a highly gifted composer/arranger capable of scoring films of any genre, Henry Mancini is probably best known to the general public for the jazzy, light-hearted, cocktail-confection themes from Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther, and as the melodist behind such wistful songs as "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses." A product of the big-band era who ended up in Hollywood in the early 1950s, Mancini served his cinematic apprenticeship as a staff composer (mostly for "B" movies) at Universal. His big break came in 1958 when writer-director Blake Edwards offered him the opportunity to score the private-eye series, Peter Gunn. Mancini's main-title theme pioneered the use of jazz music in TV background music and became a hit single from one of the bestselling LP's of all time. Soon Mancini scores were gracing some of Hollywood's most stylish big-screen productions, and his music was almost as much a star of these films as Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. Record albums and concert tours helped to make the shy musician from Pennsylvania one of the few film-composers whose name had public recognition. Although Mancini died suddenly in 1994 while working on his first Broadway musical, his legacy is a lasting one. The adult, sophisticated comedies and romances graced by Mancini scores are no longer made in modern Hollywood, but his songs have become standards, an indelible contribution to the soundtrack of our lives.

Mancini was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 16, 1924, but grew up in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. His Italian immigrant father was a steelworker who loved music and insisted that his only child learn the flute and the piccolo. Young Hank played in the school band and also studied piano, but his most important instruction was self-administered: listening to recordings of the popular big bands, young Mancini taught himself how to arrange music. More formal schooling came later from Pittsburgh theater arranger-conductor Max Adkins. Although Adkins created an opportunity for his student to audition an arrangement for the great Benny Goodman in 1942, the famed clarinetist did not think the young man was ready yet for the big time. (Ironically, years later, Mancini would arrange the music for the film The Benny Goodman Story.) Mancini spent a fruitful year studying at the Julliard School of Music in New York, but a draft notice interrupted his education. A brief encounter with Glenn Miller saved the young man from the perilous duty of a tail-gunner and transferred him into an Air Force band. Following the war, Mancini became pianist and arranger for the newly-formed band of Miller veteran Tex Beneke, a move that proved decisive for Mancini's personal and professional life. Hank fell in love with Ginny O'Connor, a member of Mel Torme's singing group, The Meltones, and they were soon married. O'Connor eventually joined another group, the Mello-Larks, and when the singers made a short film at Universal, Mancini got the assignment to arrange their music.

Joseph Gershenson, head of the studio's music department, offered the young musician a couple of weeks' work on an Abbott and Costello picture, and this assignment stretched into a six-year apprenticeship in the art and craft of film scoring. With his Beneke background, Mancini was a natural to assist Gershenson on 1953's The Glenn Miller Story, and their joint work was nominated for an Academy Award-the first of eighteen for Mancini. (He would eventually win four Oscars.) Mancini's on-the-job training involved composition for virtually every genre at the Universal film factory, from westerns to Ma and Pa Kettle comedies, from gangster movies and mysteries to such science-fiction/horror thrillers (often in collaboration with Herman Stein) as The Creature From the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth. Because the budgets often didn't allow for complete original scores, Mancini would frequently be assigned to cobble together music from the scores of older pictures. This afforded Mancini another opportunity for self-instruction, studying the work of such veteran film composers as Frank Skinner, Hans J. Salter, and Miklos Rozsa.

But Mancini was about to make his own distinctive mark on film scoring. The first sign of the new direction which Mancini would be taking film music came in 1958 with his score for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. A neglected film in its day, but regarded as a cult classic—particularly in the version which restores Welles' original editing—Touch featured a most unusual score. For his gritty film noir set in American and Mexican border towns, Welles decided against the customary practice of providing a dramatic underscore. Instead, nearly all of the music heard in Touch was source music: the music which would realistically be heard coming from radios and jukeboxes. Nevertheless, with his jazz and pop expertise, Mancini managed to make this music suitably menacing. In its way, it was as essential to the film's mood and as memorable as the famous zither source music in Carol Reed's The Third Man (which had starred Welles). Unfortunately for Mancini, the influx of television was causing the movie studios to cut back on their payrolls, and, shortly after Touch of Evil, the composer was let go. Ironically, it was television that proved to be Mancini's salvation. Writer-director Blake Edwards, who had known Mancini at Universal, was about to start a new private eye series for NBC, Peter Gunn. Bumping into Mancini by chance one day, on the spur of the moment Edwards offered Mancini the job of scoring his upcoming program.

Peter Gunn was the breakthrough moment for Mancini, and the beginning of the Americanization of film music. Edwards wanted a fresh sound for his series, which often found the detective visiting a jazz club called Mother's. Taking his cue from the milieu, Mancini injected jazz inflections into the dramatic underscore. Distinguished film composers prior to Mancini had pioneered the use of jazz in movie scoring. Chief among these composers were Alex North in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Elmer Bernstein in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). But jazz had rarely been given the emphasis Mancini gave it in Gunn ; and it had never been used on television, which reached a wider audience than the movies. The now-famous main-title theme, with its hard-driving piano base, gained such immediate popularity that RCA commissioned an entire album of Mancini's Peter Gunn music. The LP became a runaway bestseller, earning a Grammy Award as album of the year and generating a follow-up disc, More Music From Peter Gunn. Mancini's gift for innovative, pop-oriented orchestration demonstrated itself again with the score (and LP) for Edwards' next TV series, Mr. Lucky, whose main theme featured a jazz organ against strings.

It was Edwards who brought Mancini back into the movie scoring fold with the Bing Crosby comedy High Time in 1960. From then on, movies were Mancini's chief occupation, with occasional forays back into television. He was also persuaded to inaugurate a series of "pops" concert tours that proved immensely successful and, coupled with the continued success of his soundtrack recordings, kept Mancini in the public eye more than any film composer until the advent of John Williams. Many of Mancini's most important movies were written and directed by Blake Edwards, chief among them Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Days of Wine and Roses, and The Pink Panther. The title theme for Panther, and the "Baby Elephant Walk" from Howard Hawks' Hatari!, became popular instrumental hits which are still heard to this day. The title songs from Wine and Roses and Charade, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, also made the hit parade and remain standards. But Mancini's most enduring achievement was written for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Having heard her sing the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?" in Funny Face, Mancini knew that Miss Hepburn could handle a range of an octave plus a note. Noodling at the keyboard with that range of notes, Mancini in the space of half an hour came up with the melody which, again with Mercer's masterful lyric, has become immortal under the name, "Moon River." (After the first preview of Tiffany's, the studio executives wanted to cut the song, but Edwards fought for its inclusion; ironically, the same near-disaster once befell "Over the Rainbow" after a preview of The Wizard of Oz.)

Film composers can become as typecast as film actors, and Mancini sometimes had difficulty convincing producers to give him something more weighty than his usual assignments. But with such films as The Molly Maguires and The Glass Menagerie, Mancini proved that his range was not limited to frothy romances and comedies. Mancini wrote some delightful songs, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, for Julie Andrews and Robert Preston to sing in Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria, (1982), perhaps the last original screen musical in the classic tradition. While preparing a Broadway stage version of Victor in 1994, Henry Mancini discovered that he had inoperable cancer; before the year was out, the composer was gone. In the timeline of American popular music, Mancini made it in just under the wire. His career blossomed just as rock and roll was taking the stage, but there were still a few years left in which the classic song-writing craft of men like Mercer and Mancini could produce elegant, touching songs, which would become popular and, eventually, stand the test of time. With the passing of Mancini, we may never again see a songwriter rise to join the ranks of men like Berlin and Kern. The song is ended, but "Moon River" just keeps rolling along.

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Mancini, Henry. Did They Mention the Music? Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1989.

——. Mancini Music: New and Enlarged Songbook. New York, Northridge Music, 1971.

——. Sounds and Scores: A Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration, Miami, Florida, Warner Bros. Publications, 1986.

Thomas, Tony Film Score: The View From the Podium, Cranbury, New Jersey, A. S. Barnes, 1979.