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The music man

Composer Henry Mancini, who with tuneful songs and imaginative arrangements set the standard for today's film scores, is honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

April 12, 2004|Jon Burlingame | Special to The Times

The gutsy, driving jazz of "Peter Gunn." The plaintive harmonica melody of "Moon River." The smart-aleck saxophone riffs of "The Pink Panther." The lush string elegance of "Mr. Lucky." The boogie-woogie silliness of "The Baby Elephant Walk."

Henry Mancini created all of those musical moods over a six-year period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nowadays his tunes are frequently dismissed as "lounge music," the obnoxious and often inaccurate label for so many popular songs of that era.

In fact, Mancini -- who will be honored with a U.S. postage stamp and a concert at Walt Disney Hall on Tuesday, nearly a decade after his death -- was a highly influential musician whose groundbreaking ideas, savvy business sense and immense personal popularity not only helped kick start today's billion-dollar soundtrack business but also altered the pop-culture scene in subtle but significant ways. The artists at the tribute concert, from Stevie Wonder to Julie Andrews, Quincy Jones to James Galway, provide evidence of Mancini's far-ranging impact. Then in a few weeks, the UCLA Film and Television Archive will hold a weeklong film festival devoted to the composer. It's called "The Coolest Cat: The Film Music of Henry Mancini" at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus. The music of "Peter Gunn" caused a sensation in 1958. Jazz had been featured in movies occasionally, usually to depict the seedy side of life, as in Elmer Bernstein's "The Man With the Golden Arm" or Johnny Mandel's "I Want to Live" scores. But it was "Gunn," a television series about a private eye, that popularized the use of jazz scoring. It was one of only a handful of shows throughout TV history where the music carried equal weight with the actors.

" 'Gunn' could never have attained the popularity that it did without Hank," series creator Blake Edwards concedes. "If you took away the music, 'Gunn' wouldn't be all that important."

In succeeding years, no self-respecting Hollywood cop or private detective would dare skulk around dark streets without a jazz backdrop. The "Peter Gunn" soundtrack album sold in the millions, spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the charts and earned Mancini the first two of his 20 Grammy Awards. The series also launched one of the most prolific and successful composer-director relationships in movie history; Mancini and Edwards did 28 films, three TV series and two TV movies.

Mancini pioneered a new sound in American movies, one based as much on the big-band tradition as in serious classical music. "Film scoring up until that time had been largely European in style and influence," says Gene Lees, the former Down Beat editor who co-wrote Mancini's 1989 autobiography. "Hank was the one who opened the door wide to jazz writers."

Mancini's score for Orson Welles' 1958 "Touch of Evil," although barely noticed at the time, was an unconventional collection of Latin-styled, bongo-laden "source cues" -- music that emanated from loudspeakers, radios and jukeboxes in the Mexican-border town where Welles' film noir takes place -- rather than a standard orchestral score.

His back-to-back Oscar wins for the songs of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" ("Moon River") and "Days of Wine and Roses" signaled the arrival of the popular song as cornerstone of the modern movie score. "It was one thing to be a songwriter and stick a song into a movie," says composer Patrick Williams, artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles. "It was another to use the songs the way he did, as the fabric of the drama, part of the storytelling process. He created an acceptance for the whole wave of popular music with film."

Mancini also brought a sly sense of humor to movie music that had previously been absent. And his insistence on "casting" his recording dates with specific musicians, the way a director would cast a film, became commonplace. The classic example of both was the whimsical theme for "The Pink Panther," written specifically for tenor saxophone player Plas Johnson.

Trailblazer

All this artistic and commercial success made Henry Mancini a household name, the first movie composer to attain that status. "His film and television work launched his career, but he became a very successful performer on his own," notes famed movie composer John Williams, who in his days as a studio pianist often performed on Mancini sessions. "He was a kind of triple threat: songwriter, recording artist, conductor, all wrapped into one package."

Mancini regularly played concerts of film music (his own, and that of others) throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s. He hosted his own television series, "The Mancini Generation," in 1972.

He also became the richest composer in movies, setting new highs for fees and sharing copyright ownership of several of his most popular songs. In doing so, he paved the way for a few future superstar composers of film music -- principally Williams.

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