Mancini Magic

“Ah, Mancini, you’re a mascot’s best friend,” said the Capitol City Goofball in an episode of The Simpsons. He and Homer were talking about using the composer’s “Baby Elephant Walk” for their routine.

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“Baby Elephant Walk” came from the 1962 Howard Hawks film Hatari!, an adventure set in Africa. The music is actually for a group of baby elephants.

Henry Mancini was born in Cleveland in 1924, and his first musical experiences were playing piccolo in an Italian band with his father, Quinto. He studied at Juilliard for a year before he was drafted, serving in the infantry and the Army band. Mancini participated in the last liberation of a concentration camp by Allied forces, the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria.

He was fortunate enough to land a job writing arrangements for the re-formed Glenn Miller Orchestra after the war, while he also continued to study composition. In his next job at Universal Studios he churned out music for more than a hundred movies, including things like It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. He also got to produce jazz scores for The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story, winning his first Academy Award nomination for the former.

He left Universal to work independently, and began recording for RCA/Victor. This is when he first worked with director Blake Edwards, writing music for his television series Peter Gunn.

blues and the beat

The Blues and the Beat is one of the best albums from Henry Mancini’s early catalog. The moody title track, “The Blues,” reflects his television work to date, especially the gritty score to Peter Gunn, a private eye program long since eclipsed by the popularity of its soundtrack.

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Mancini’s name is hardly found on Terribly Sophisticated Songs, a delightful collection of Spike Jones-like novelty numbers, but he did conduct the orchestra for this novelty album.

This copy has an amusingly altered cover, probably given to someone with a sense of humor named Murph (“A collection of Unpopular Songs for Popular People” has been changed to “A collection of Unpopular Songs for Unpopular People Like Murph“).

The songs were written by Irving Taylor, and include such goofy gems as a song about picking crabgrass and a song about having your car repossessed.

Mancini is best known today for his film scores, although many onf those were rearranged by the composer for their release on Lp. He wrote the music for more than forty movies, including a long collaboration with director Blake Edwards. For the animated opening of Edwards’ 1963 comedy The Pink Panther, Mancini provided one of his most memorable melodies.

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One year before The Pink Panther, Mancini scored a thriller directed by Edwards with lightly-swinging, Benny Carter-esque jazz arrangements. His theme for the heroine of Experiment in Terror is a great big band number.

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And for another Blake Edwards comedy sixteen years later, Mancini performed the opening theme on the piano himself, with only the accompaniment of subtle strings. The song at the beginning of 10 was called “Don’t Call it Love,” and so far as we can recall is one of the only times Mancini recorded a solo piano piece.

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Mancini wrote the score for Me, Natalie, a 1969 movie featuring the late Patty Duke. This score has another unique feature: Mancini playing the Hammond organ on “A Groovy Mood.”

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symphonic soul

Mancini revisited his famous theme from Peter Gunn with a cast of jazz fusion stars in 1975 on Symphonic Soul. The re-vamped jam features a heavy slap bass solo by Abraham Laboriel and an organ solo by Joe Sample of the Crusaders. Mexican bassist Laboriel was just at the beginning of an extraordinarily prolific career — while he’s only recorded three albums under his own name, he has appeared on more than four thousand recordings, ranging from Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous.

Henry Mancini made nearly a hundred albums. Sometimes he reworked popular songs, occasionally featuring himself as a pianist on easy listening recordings. At his best, however, he remained a jazz arranger. He also conducted several of the world’s great orchestras, including our own Minnesota Orchestra, who debuted his Thorn Birds Suite in 1983. This music was based on a television score which was not released until decades later.

Mancini made a cameo appearance at the end of a 1966 Pink Panther cartoon, applauding a performance of his theme.

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