Saturday, June 4, 2011

Composer of the Month: Henry Mancini

The most successful film composer of the 1960s and early 1970s, Henry Mancini enjoyed a contemporary celebrity status that eluded his predecessors. That can be attributed largely to Mancini's achievements on all media fronts. His theme for the TV series Peter Gunn earned an Emmy, two Grammys, and spawned two soundtrack albums. His recording of "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's became a huge pop hit, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1962. His themes for The Pink Panther, Charade, Hatari (the "Baby Elephant Walk"), and many other films were radio station staples. He even had his own TV specials in addition to appearing on variety programs like The Andy Williams Show.

Enrico Nicola Mancini was born to Italian immigrant parents in Cleveland in 1924. He studied music as a child and attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music for one year before being drafted during World War II. After the war, Mancini played piano with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and eventually landed a job in the music department at Universal Pictures in 1952. He worked there for six years, providing uncredited stock music to dozens of films such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Istanbul, and The Lady Takes a Flyer. The highlights of his Universal tenure were a 1955 Oscar nomination for the score to The Glenn Miller Story (co-written with Joseph Gershenson) and the music for Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. Still, Mancini didn't see a big future at the studio and left in 1958.

Shortly afterwards, Blake Edwards sought him out to compose the theme for the TV series Peter Gunn. With its driving beat and blaring horns, the jazzy "Theme from Peter Gunn" was an immediate smash, eventually spawning two soundtrack albums. For a follow-up, Mancini composed the lush theme to another Edwards TV series, Mr. Lucky, and scored his first hit on the Billboard charts.

But it was his next collaboration with Edwards that would seal Mancini's fame: the score for the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mancini won Oscars for both the soundtrack and the song "Moon River," which had lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Originally sung in the film by Audrey Hepburn, Mancini's own recording of "Moon River" blossomed into a big radio hit. It has been covered by many artists since, and though never released as a single by Andy Williams, it became his theme song.

The rest, as they say, is history. Over the next decade, Henry Mancini became the dominant composer in film and television while maintaining popularity as a recording artist. His amazing credits include:

- Days of Wine and Roses (won Oscar from Best Song, lyrics by Johnny Mercer)
- Charade
- The Pink Panther (his highest rated score, at No. 20, on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores)
- Hatari
- Dear Heart
- Arabesque
- Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (composed by Nina Rota, but Mancini's recording was a chart topper)
- The White Dawn
- Love Story (Francis Lai composed it, but Mancini had a No. 13 hit)
- The NBC Mystery Movie
- Victor/Victoria
- Remington Steele
- The Thorn Birds

Although Mancini teamed with Blake Edwards more than any other filmmaker, he also worked with Martin Ritt (The Molly Maguires), Stanley Kramer (Oklahoma Crude), Paul Newman (Sometimes a Great Notion), and others. He composed the original score for Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, although the director replaced it.

Henry Mancini died frrom pancreatic cancer in 1994. Over his career, he was nominated for 72 Grammys and won 20. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards and won four. His greatest legacy, though, is an impressive catalog of marvelous music that graced the silver screen and the little screen.

(In the clip below, Mancini conducts his orchestra in a medley of The Pink Panther, Baby Elephant Walk, and Peter Gunn (plus, it's a rare opportunity to see and hear Mancini play flute and piccolo.)


  1. I just heard the "Peter Gunn" theme on the radio yesterday and was reminded how fantastic it is. Mancini's contribution to film and music is extremely important. And - the joy he has brought us is immeasurable. Thanks for a great post and tribute!

    1. Hey here, but I just saw on Twitter this awesome script of an intro from Henry Mancini on Elton John from @HenryMancini. Anyone know where to get a clip of this show on YouTube or somewhere?

  2. There's one piece of music of his called "Lujon" that I just love. Definitely worth a listen.

  3. Rick, I was blessed to be able to be in RCA'S studio B in "The Music Center Of The World in Hollywood in the early 7o's with Mancini. It was a dream come true.RCA had a wall of all of his Lp's and it was huge.I still have at least 20 of his Lp's. One of my true musical heroes.

  4. I just went to youtube to listen to a segment from "The Thorn Birds" again. It was as lovely as I remembered. What a wonderful tribute, Rick. And, Paul, I loved reading your post, too.

  5. Paul, it's always interesting to learn about your music career and now to discover that you knew Mancini. Way cool! Toto, "The Thorn Bords" is one of my fave Mancini pieces. MovieNut, I checked out "Lujon" on YouTube--very nice! FlickChick, the PG Theme is what inspired this post. I forgot to mention another Mancini favorite: the little-known THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER from the Ryan O'Neal film of the same title. Very heavy on the electronic sound, but with some unexpected trumpets.

  6. I've always loved the music Mancini did for the John Wayne film shot mostly in Africa, HATARI.

    Great post.

  7. When my daughter was a young flute student she asked what we would like to hear. "Mancini" we told her. "Mancini" she learned. "Mancini" she loves.

    A couple of my favourite scores are "Experiment in Terror" and "The Great Mouse Detective", although there is nothing of his that I don't like.

  8. Thanks for a very nice look back on the career and music of Henry Mancini, Rick. "Mr. Lucky" has been running through my head lately - have always loved it, but I can't think of anything Mancini did that I didn't like. His music was so emblematic of the mood and style of late '50s through mid-'60s. Some of my favorite films that he scored from that era - "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Charade," "The Pink Panther."
    You made an excellent choice for composer of the month.

  9. Rick, Awesome post to one of my favorite composers of all time. Now, I will be thinking about "The Pink Panther." theme song for the rest of the day....


  10. Rick, did Henry Mancini ever compose a bad score? :-) If I was forced to pick only a handful of favorite Mancini scores, I'd pick CHARADE, THE PINK PANTHER, ARABESQUE, PETER GUNN, and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. I recently caught up with "Lujon," too -- wonderful stuff, especially for a hot date! :-) Great post!

  11. My favorite Mancini score may be one of his later efforts, "Lifeforce" which is one of the best scores ever written for a science fiction movie. The end title is one of the all-time best.

    Also very fond of "Victor/Victoria", and as much as I like the songs, they don't seem to fit into the time period of the film. They sound like modern songs instead of 1930s songs. But I don't mind because they're so good.

  12. I have to agree with Kevin about Lifeforce. I love that score so much. I am a big fan of the Pink Panther music too.