Friday, August 11, 2023

Demonstrating the Enduring Importance of the Musical Legacy of Henry Mancini as one of the best Song writers in the last seventy years.

I have long been an admirer of the work of composer/arranger/conductor Henry Mancini. Of all the most prolific music writers for soundtracks of big-screen or television productions, Henry Mancini, and his musical work stands at the apex of that profession. I am going to try to make a case that his iconic and enduring music makes him one of the most important music writers of the last seventy years.

Enrico Nicola Mancini, was born in Ohio and raised predominantly in western Pennsylvania. He studied the piccolo from the age of eight. His first encounter with what would later become a fascination with movie music was his exposure to a Cecile B. DeMille film titled The Crusades from 1935. In 1942 he attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon) and then Julliard in NYC. eventually studying piano, composition, and orchestration. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Mancini enlisted in the US Army Air Forces and played with the 28th Air Force Band through the end of the war. 

After being discharged, Mancini worked with a reestablished Glenn Miller Orchestra as a pianist and arranger before he joined Universal-International's music department working on film scores. Here he began a prolific career as a major contributor to the music of over one hundred movie soundtracks. His score for The Glenn Miller Story won an Academy Award nomination.

In 1958 he became an independent composer/arranger where he scored his first television series, the producer Blake Edwards's show Peter Gunn. From there Mancini's career never looked back.

To recall some of Henry Mancini's memorable music tracks from both television and film is to appreciate just how important this man's music was to our musical heritage.  A short list of his more memorable music includes the scores of TV shows Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Television movies like The Thorn Birds and The Moneychangers. Television theme songs for shows like Newhart, Hotel, and Remington Steele. Film scores included Breakfast at Tiffany's, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, The Pink Panther Series, and Victoria Victoria, just a few that he did just with director Edwards. He also scored Charade, Arabesque, and Two For the Road for director Stanley Donen. This list goes on with scores for films by Martin Ritt, The Molly Maguires; Howard Hawks' Hatari, and Man's Favorite Sport? ,  Stanley Kramer's Oklahoma Crude; Vittorio de Sica's Sunflower; Arthur Hiller's Silver Streak, and a score to Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy that was ultimately not used.

Mancini's songs have become standards that retain their appeal to this day. They include Mr. Lucky, Peter Gunn, Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, Charade, The  Pink Panther Theme, A Shot in the Dark, Two for the Road,  Theme from Hatari, Baby Elephant's Walk,  Dreamsville, and perhaps my favorite Lujan also know as The Slow Hot Wind which was originally released in the Mr. Lucky Goes Latin album from  1961. 

My Contention is that one of the true benchmarks used to judge the importance of a composer's work is to see just how many fellow musicians choose to sing and/or play that person's work. Clearly Mancini meets this benchmark.

Let's just use one of my favorite compositions from Mancini. Lujon (also recorded as Slow Hot Wind from the lyrics by Norman Gimbel), is the name of the percussive instrument used in the artist's original release. Though it was not related to anything in the show Mr. Lucky despite being part of the album Mr. Lucky Goes Latin, it did have a durable and endearing effect on the world of jazz music. Here are several different takes on this superb song. Let me know what is your favorite version.

The original from Henry Mancini :

Here is one of the definitive vocal performances of this great song by the inimitable voice of Johnny Hartman with Norman Gimbel's lyrics from his album from 1994.

Here is another version from the album Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 with Lani Hall doing her most seductive vocals on the Gimbel lyrics.

Sarah Vaughan is the kind of vocalist who could do whatever she wanted. Her voice was exquisite and she often chose songs that others could only dream of doing justice to them. See for yourself

Who better to express this song's nuanced emotionality on his solo guitar than master artist Pat Metheny from his album What's It All About from 2011. 

The Harmonica and Vibraphonist ace Hendrik Meurkens did a seductively emotional version of this song on his album Hendrik Meurken's Cobb's Pocket from 2013. The group included drumming great Jimmy Cobb, Mike LeDonne on B3 Organ, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Meurkins on chromatic harmonica. Just Beautiful

Ted Nash is a descendant of two of Mancini's original band players.
Both his uncle saxophonist Ted and his father trombonist Dick Nash were active Hollywood studio musicians and often played in Mancini's bands. If anyone can be true to the master composer/arranger's intent then certainly Ted can do so and do so with his own unique read on the song.
Here from his Ted Nash The Mancini Project is Lujon

There is a terrific instrumental jazz version of the song performed by the underappreciated multi-reed player Gerry Niewood from his album Slow Hot Wind from 1975 w Bill Dobbins, piano; Gene Perla, bass; Lew Soloff, trumpet/flugelhorn; Bill Reichenbach, trombone and Gerry Niewood, Alto, Tenor, Soprano and Flute. I have it, but unfortunately, I couldn't find a clean youtube to post but trust me it's great.

If these tremendous renditions of this beautiful composition by such an esteemed and talented group of artists are not enough to make you acknowledge Henry Mancini's sustained impact on our world, maybe a few movies that have chosen to use this song in their soundtracks like Sexy Beast, W.E. and Two Lovers and this more famous one may change your mind.  

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