Book Talk: Did They Mention the Music?

“I seemed to myself such an unlikely person for all this to be happening to. All the major singers were recording my songs. I was getting the best film assignments. Nearly every film score I wrote was being issued in album form by RCA. I had broken out of the anonymity that is the lot of most film composers – and which I fully expected to last all my life.”

“Did They Mention the Music? The Autobiography of Henry Mancini” by Henry Mancini with Gene Lees (1989)

There is simply no larger figure in this particular idiom than Henry Mancini. When the discussion turns to lounge music, cocktail jazz or film scores with that certain swank style, no one can be said to have contributed more than Mancini. I don’t believe it is up for debate. And try to comprehend his 72 Grammy nominations and 20 wins or his 18 Oscar nominations and four wins. He released singles and, though he was an orchestra conductor issuing instrumentals, seven of these songs reached the Top 40 of the Pop charts – including a Number One song with the perhaps incongruous “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” topping the charts in 1969, of all years. In addition and perhaps more than all this is the “Mancini touch”. Few could create the mood – that mood – like Henry Mancini. Hank simply checks every box.

Debbie Reynolds presents Hank and Johnny Mercer with Oscars for “Moon River” in 1962.

One of the many Garage Sale Miracles I’ve experienced occurred when I found the Henry Mancini box set – The Days of Wine and Roses – at a sale for $5. One day soon after I decided to look for a book on Hank and discovered the one we’re looking at today. I was particularly intrigued by who he had chosen to write it with. Canada’s Own, Gene Lees was born in Hamilton, Ontario. A music critic and prolific writer, Lees wrote novels and liner notes, for newspapers and magazines. He has written biographies on Oscar Peterson and Johnny Mercer. I came to know of Mr. Lees though through his having written the English lyrics to most every significant Antonio Carlos Jobim song. Think about how many singers have sang his words to “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”, words he wrote while riding on a bus in Brazil. Mancini and Lees decided to create this book by travelling together while Hank told his life story which Gene transcribed. Most updated editions you will find contain a poignant and heartfelt postscript by Lees added after Mancini’s death.

There’s some great art in the Mancini box set, The Days of Wine and Roses (1999).

The book begins with Gene’s preface in which he establishes that, before Mancini, film scoring had been in the European tradition but Hank changed that with his Americanized, jazz-based scores. Lees says “Mancini proved that the vocabulary of jazz could be used to express tenderness, romance, fear, laughter, pensiveness”. He also notes that Mancini was the first film composer to emerge from anonymity and to become a public figure and a recording artist.

When Henry takes over, you realize immediately that he has a gentle way about him. The book is unadorned and Hank’s classy but regular guy persona is on display. Mancini talks about his childhood and mentions key events in his life like going to the theatre and seeing Cecil B. De Mille’s The Crusades and being blown away by the might of the orchestral score. He talks of being mesmerized by a friend’s player piano into which he would put roll after roll of the hits of the day. He had his first experience as a musician when he stumbled on the fact that you could also sit down and play this piano yourself. Henry also resignedly laments that his surname was never pronounced as it should be; Man-chee-nee.

Born in Cleveland, Mancini was raised in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a small suburb of Aliquippa that you entered through a tunnel; there was one way in and one way out. It was a town of steel mills and soot. Hank makes note of two significant influences in his early life. A young black friend played for 14-year-old Henry a nine-six chord on his trumpet. Hank says he was mesmerized and that one chord opened a door for him and sent him off in a different direction. The other instance came when an anonymous big band came through town to perform. They were nobody, Hank says, but he spent 8 hours listening intently to the way they played jazz. Henry doesn’t mince words. He says that this group of black musicians gave him a “metaphysical” feeling and the blood drained from his head. I found it fascinating that Henry Mancini – someone you might say was little influenced by black music or musicians – should rate these experiences so highly in his musical formation.

Hank. Swank. Get it? My man.

Henry details his first small steps in the business working for Artie Shaw and Tex Beneke’s Glenn Miller band and he says he made a point to study all composers so that he would gain a versatility that would equip him to write music for any film moment. Odd that he says he had a nickname at the time; “Weirdo”. So earned because of his quirky sense of humour. Again, hard to reconcile that with the refined Hank you think you know but it’s a nice addition to his persona. He gives much credit to his longtime wife Ginny who was a prolific studio singer who had sang with Mel Tormé. Ginny was connected with Hollywood types and helped Henry get his first job working on radio with a man who became Hank’s good friend and “idol”, David Rose. Henry shares a funny story involving Rose. Later when the two friends were wealthy and both owned yachts, they were out sailing each on their own craft. As Rose approached Mancini going in the opposite direction, Rose raised his glass and yelled to Hank “Aren’t you glad you practiced, Henry?”

Henry discusses crafting night club acts for singers while he also began working for Universal. Mancini details the method of the time of having a staff of writers who would work by committee to score a film, yielding any credit on the film to their boss, the “Music Supervisor”. Mancini says he worked on scores of pictures the six years he worked for Universal; upwards of 116, including Ma and Pa Kettle films, Abbott and Costello pictures and “creature features”.

Hank and Ginny. May 27, 1967.

Another fascinating story Hank shares involves Sammy Davis, Jr. Somehow, Hank got to writing songs with actor Jeff Chandler. Mancini and Chandler had written the title track for the Universal film Six Bridges to Cross. Chandler asked Sammy to record the song for them and Sam agreed. Mancini and Chandler were at the studio with full orchestra waiting for Sammy to come lay down his vocal but Davis didn’t show up. Not knowing Sammy to ever be late, Jeff Chandler called the police and found out that Sammy had been in the car wreck that had cost him his eye. First thing out of the hospital, though, Sammy came and recorded the song for his friends.

Mancini says that his score for Touch of Evil was one of the best things he ever did. He had high praise for director Orson Welles as well saying that Orson and he were in total harmony regarding the film’s underscoring and Hank says that Welles “truly understood film scoring” adding simply “He knew”.

Hank working with Craig Stevens and Lola Albright on Peter Gunn. Photo: Henry Mancini Estate

Hank talks about wrapping work at Universal but moving right into a new phase of his career after a chance meeting with Blake Edwards. With Peter Gunn, Mancini created the jazz TV score but Henry humbly says there was simply no other way to write music for such a series.

“I used guitar and piano in unison, playing what is known as ostinato, which means obstinate. It was sustained throughout the piece, giving it a sinister effect, with some frightened saxophone sounds and some shouting brass.”

– Hank describes the Peter Gunn theme well, saying it derived more from rock & roll than jazz.

Henry relates that RCA wanted to make an album of the music from the show – to be recorded by Shorty Rogers. While Rogers was already an established recording artist, he told Hank that there was no point in him making the record, Mancini should put it out under his own name. Hank says Shorty then became another significant person in his life; “I don’t know what would have happened to my career if Shorty had decided that day to make the record”. The Music from Peter Gunn LP sold 8,000 copies in the first week and put Henry in the public eye.

“Every once in awhile you hear something so right that it gives you chills, and when he sang that ‘huckleberry friend’ line, I got them.”

– Hank recognized immediately the perfect “echoes of America” in the words of Johnny Mercer.

Mancini spends an appropriate amount of time discussing the creation, with lyricist Johnny Mercer, of his two Oscar-winning classic songs “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses”. He discloses his two favourites from among his themes (they’re not what you’d think) and talks about touring with Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. When he talks about his family, Mancini is honest about his failings as a father. This was interesting to me as it made me realize that it’s not only absentee, decadent, drug-ingesting rockers that can drop the ball in this department. Any of us – even a classy, dignified, refined man like Henry Mancini – can make parenting mistakes.

The Mancini family, circa 1988.

Mancini reports that as time went by, Blake Edwards would simply call him to tell him what his next film would be and Hank would get started on the music. He talks about writing the iconic theme music for The Pink Panther on the back of a menu on a flight to Rome, music originally intended to be the theme for David Niven’s cat burglar character. His love for Blake Edwards and his wife Julie Andrews is apparent and Hank devotes a chapter to his friends and the 30 years and 25 films he and Edwards went through together.

Along the way Henry Mancini discourses on leaving RCA after 20 years and 60 albums, watching Carlo Ponti and Vittorio de Sica yell at each other in Italy, Paul Newman’s dislike of strings and the process of scoring a film, a procedure he details in a chapter devoted to it. He discusses playing at the White House for presidents and in clubs for Sam Giancana, owning a piece of the Phoenix Suns and he also makes the embarrassing admission that he supports Arsenal Football Club.

“Since 1958, I have been averaging about three pictures a year…I conduct at least fifty concerts a year…I have recorded more than ninety albums, all of them my arrangements. I examine what I’ve done and it seems to be a considerable body or work.”

Did They Mention the Music? was published in 1989 and Henry Mancini passed in 1994. Gene Lees returned to his book with Hank and added a touching postscript that ties up the story of Henry Mancini with particular attention paid to his legacy and the family he left behind. All this adds up to a book that reads like a Mancini score; moving and poignant but also joyous, fun and edifying. You will feel that you know Hank by the time you put this excellent book down. Get your copy at AbeBooks.

Yes, they did, Mr. Mancini. Are we are still mentioning the music.

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