In 2004 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Henry Mancini, portraying the late composer with baton in hand, in front of a movie screen. There’s a partial list of the films he scored: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, Charade, Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther, Two for the Road, Touch of Evil, Hatari!, The Great Race … The stamp would need to be about 30 times its size to accommodate Mancini’s cinematic achievements.
Over 35 years, he scored 81 movies, won 20 Grammys and four Oscars (he was nominated for 19). He also had a successful solo recording career, with more than 30 million copies of his albums sold worldwide.
Mancini, a quiet man with a dry wit, was fond of saying that he owed all of this success to a single haircut.
He was 36 and had just lost his position as staff composer at Universal. “Though I was out of a job, I still had my pass to the studio,” he recalled in his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music? “I went in one day, not to work but to get a haircut and have lunch. After getting the haircut, I went out into the sunlight and encountered Blake Edwards and some other men. They had just ended a meeting at which they’d been planning a television show.
“We stood chatting for a few minutes, then Blake said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing a TV show for me?’ Not exactly overwhelmed with offers, I said, ‘Yes. What’s the name of it?’ Peter Gunn.”
The stylish noir theme and incidental music Mancini wrote for the private eye series (along with Quincy Jones and Elmer Bernstein, he redefined the use of jazz in film) would give him his first million-selling record and spark a long, fruitful relationship with auteur Edwards on such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Days of Wine and Roses and the wildly popular Pink Panther series.
Mancini may have attributed his good fortune to a serendipitous day at the barbershop, but as a wise man once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Henry Mancini (b. April 16, 1924 in Pittsburgh) had been preparing for his big break ever since he started playing the piccolo at age 8. The same year, Mancini’s father took the boy to the cinema for the first time. “I knew right then I wanted to write music for movies,” Mancini said.
As he entered his teens, Mancini spent hours at the family’s wind-up phonograph, studying arrangements and writing out parts from the big band records of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. After a stint at Juilliard, Mancini served his professional apprenticeship writing arrangements and songs for Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Dorsey, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Betty Hutton and many more. In 1952, he was invited to join the staff of in-house composers at Universal Studios.
“The very first film writing I did was for a scene in an Abbott & Costello picture called Lost in Alaska,” Mancini said. “It was a sequence in which Lou Costello is bitten on the ass by a crab—high-class stuff. But I took the assignment seriously.”
While Mancini learned his craft through a bevy of B-movies, including Tarantula, Ma and Pa Kettle at Home, Veils of Baghdad and Rock, Pretty Baby, his stay at Universal culminated in what he considered one of his best scores, for the Orson Welles-directed Touch of Evil. The director’s cut of that classic on DVD—which restores the interplay between Welles’ grisly cinematic vision and the demented, Latin-flavored soundtrack—is all the proof you need of Mancini’s range and inventiveness as a master of putting the right notes with the right scenes.
After Peter Gunn, Mancini’s name was all over the screen, both small and silver, usually in connection with Blake Edwards. In 1961, one of his best-loved themes, “Moon River,” penned for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, brought him his first Academy Award.
Of the song, written for Audrey Hepburn’s free-spirited character, Mancini recalled the night his collaborator Johnny Mercer first sang him the lyric. “Every once in a while you hear something so right that it gives you chills, and when he sang that ‘huckleberry friend’ line, I got them. I don’t know whether he knew what effect those words had or if it was just something that came to him, but it was thrilling.”
The Mancini-Mercer perennial, recorded by over a thousand different artists, led to collaborations on further soundtrack standards such as “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Charade.”
Then there was the melody that would become Mancini’s signature, “Theme from The Pink Panther.” He recalled, “I saw the David Niven character, the phantom jewel thief, as an interesting character to score. It was a beautifully written role. He was suave and sophisticated, with a lot of class. The character reminded me of a song called ‘Jimmy Valentine.’ There were a number of scenes in which David would be slinking around on tippy-toes. I started to write a theme for him—one of the few times I wrote a theme before seeing the actual picture. That music was designed as the phantom-thief music, not to be the Pink Panther Theme.”
After the animated panther character was created (by artists David DePatie and Fritz Freleng), Mancini realized that his creeping jewel thief melody was perfect for the cartoon. He used it for both and one of Hollywood’s most beloved and recognized themes was born.
By 1965, the time of the Pink Panther’s first sequel, Shot in the Dark, Mancini’s cool, melodic style had made him a star. He become so popular that when he wasn’t behind a Moviola, he was touring the world as a concert attraction, playing programs that showcased his catalog, from the lushly romantic “Too Little Time” to the suspenseful “Experiment In Terror” to the playful “Baby Elephant Walk.”
From his first score in 1956 to his last (for the Broadway version of Victor/Victoria, written a year before he died in 1994), Mancini never stopped working, always juggling two or three projects at once. Toward the end of his career, he reflected on the film composer’s role and the digital technology that was then beginning to revolutionize the industry.
“I feel that the old adage, ‘A good score is one that you’re not aware of,’ is only half true. To be sure, this is so of scenes with important dialogue. But if the viewer is unaware of the music during a three-minute main title—as the part of the film giving the opening credits is called—the composer isn’t saying much. The importance of music at this point in the picture is attested to by the ‘Moon River’ title sequence in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Bill Conti’s music for the opening of Rocky, and John Williams’ music for Star Wars, among the many examples I could cite.
“With the new technology that keeps entering the media, film composers are constantly being placed in new learning situations. Acknowledging this and realizing that one must keep up, I maintain, nonetheless, that the real creative power is in the mind and heart of the composer.”
— by Bill DeMain
All quotes from Henry Mancini’s autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?, Cooper Square Publishers, 2002
Category: Legends of Song