Obituary: Henry Mancini
Thursday 16 June 1994
HENRY MANCINI wrote some of the most popular melodies of all time including 'Moon River' and the 'Pink Panther' theme, and helped change the style of film background music in the Fifties. He used jazz and employed recording industry techniques to enhance the sound of smaller bands and highlight distinctive instrumentation rather than the symphonic sounds to which cinemagoers had become accustomed. In a distinguished career he won four Oscars, 20 Grammys and two Emmys, made over 50 albums and had over 500 works published. He was also one of the most popular and respected men in the industry, with an engaging sense of humour and disarming modesty.
Born Enrico Mancini in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio, but raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, he was the son of a steelworker who played the flute in the local Sons of Italy band and saw music as the way to give his son a better life outside the factories. Henry had mastered the piccolo at eight before moving to the flute and finally the piano, but it was arranging that aroused his own interest in music.
Attracted to big-band and jazz music, he made some jazz arrangements that he sent to Benny Goodman, who used one and offered Mancini a job. 'It didn t take long for both Benny and me to find out I wasn't ready for such an ambitious assignment,' Mancini said later, and he enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York in 1942 to study theory and composition before military service. He was befriended by Norman Leyden, an arranger with Glenn Miller, and after the war Leyden suggested Mancini join the reorganised Miller band under Tex Beneke as arranger-pianist. During this period, Mancini met and married Ginny O'Connor, the vocalist with the legendary group the Mel-tones.
In 1952 Mancini was given a two-week assignment to work on the scoring of an Abbott and Costello comedy, Lost in Alaska, at Universal Studios, and stayed there for six years. He part-scored over 100 films, from 'Francis the Mule' and 'Ma and Pa Kettle' movies to major musicals. His early experience was put to great effect in the enormously popular The Glenn Miller Story (1954) for which he coached the studio musicians in the Miller sound and composed a love theme, 'Too Little Time', which became popular. The Benny Goodman Story followed, though Mancini was also purveying more contemporary sounds with Rock Pretty Baby (1956) and Summer Love (1957). His first outstanding solo score was Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), an early example of scoring using primarily 'source' material such as juke-boxes, street music or radios. Mancini's skilful use of jazz and rock styles prompted Blake Edwards to ask him to score his new television series Peter Gunn (1958). The show could afford only an 11-piece band and Mancini's jazzy scoring was hailed as an innovation.
'I think one of the reasons the Peter Gunn music caught the ear was its sparseness - the economy of the scoring. When I told the engineers I wanted a microphone put on the drums, one on the piano and another on the bass they looked at me as if I was crazy . . . the record companies had already created a fresh, 'alive' sound but it took the film studios years to catch up.' Mancini's recording of themes from the show won the Down Beat poll as best jazz record of the year and won him his first Grammys as both best album and best arrangement.
Another television hit show, Mr Lucky, which made effective use of the Hammond organ, preceded Mancini's durable score for Edwards's film version of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). The opening harmonica solo as Audrey Hepburn stands wistfully outside Tiffany's as dawn breaks is a piece of inspired musical economy, while the film's theme tune 'Moon River' (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) was an instant standard. Mancini loved to tell how the Oscar-winning song was nearly cut from the film after the first over-long preview. The film also brought Mancini an Oscar for best score. Mancini became the first composer to win Oscars in two successive years when the title song from Days of Wine and Roses (1962), again with Mercer, followed. He won his last Oscar, for original song score, in Edwards's Victor/Victoria (1982).
Other hit songs included 'Charade', 'Two for the Road' and his 'Pink Panther' theme, one of the most famous of instrumental numbers. Mancini would sometimes feel himself the victim of his own success, stating that pieces like the 'Pink Panther' and his novelty 'Baby Elephant Walk' from Hawks's Hatari] (1962), which has a calliope playing boogie-woogie rhythm behind a clarinet, caused some of his best scores to be overlooked. These included Edwards's Experiment in Terror (1962) in which two auto-harps, one playing the theme, the other as background, provided a chilling motif for the villain; Wait Until Dark (1967) in which he achieved a uniquely sinister and unsettling effect by having a piano chord immediately followed by the same chord on a second piano de-tuned a quarter-tone down; and a strangely eerie score for the whaling yarn White Dawn (1974).
Mancini continued working after his illness was diagnosed, conducting concerts, making albums and working with the lyricist Leslie Bricusse on a forthcoming stage version of Victor/Victoria.
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