THE MAESTRO OF MOON RIVER
As a lover of music (look how many posts in this blog deal with music!), I like to call attention to luminaries younger music aficionados might not fully appreciate. Today's subject: Henry Mancini, one of the most prolific and influential composers for film and television. Born in Cleveland's Little Italy as Enrico Nicola Mancini, Henry was the son of Italian immigrants who settled in western Pennsylvania during the 1920s. He took up the piccolo at age eight, and he was so entranced by the musical scores of popular films that he dedicated himself to mastering the art of film score composition and orchestral arrangements, including work with some of the big bands popular during the 1940s. A Juilliard grad, Mancini took a brief hiatus to fight in WWII, even helping liberate one of the more notorious Nazi concentration camps.
By the 1950s, Mancini was regularly earning film score assignments for the big studios, earning in 1955 the first of his eighteen Oscar nominations! Before he went on a stunning Oscar run in the early 60s, Mancini wrote the theme song for a popular television series, Peter Gunn. It became an instant classic. Sopranos creator David Chase spent more time on selecting just right the music for that legendary series than almost any other aspect. In Season Three he had a little fun mashing up Mancini's Peter Gunn theme with "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. Here is a clip.
As I said, then came the Oscar run. In 1961, Mancini composed the score for Breakfast at Tiffany's, featuring the hit song "Moon River", indelibly connected to Audrey Hepburn, one of Hollywood's most luminous stars. Mancini actually composed the song with a limited vocal range, knowing that Audrey was actually going to sing the tune. Audrey balked at a producer's insistence that the song be removed during the final edit, exclaiming "Over My Dead Body!" The movie took the Academy Award for Best Musical Score and Best Song. The song is in the pantheon of the Great American Songbook. As I recall, it was the song I danced with my daughter to at her wedding, so it's pretty significant to my family.
In 1963, Mancini won another Oscar for the song "The Days of Wine and Roses, from the terribly sad movie of the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Mancini was one of the first film composers to incorporate jazz arrangements in his soundtracks, so I'm going to select a recording of the song by my favorite jazz musician, the sublime Bill Evans with the ageless Tony Bennett, from their first collaborative album, the greatest pairing of a piano player and a vocalist that I've ever heard.
The following year, Mancini was nominated again, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, for the song "Charade", a hit from the film Charade which I wrote about earlier in my post about the year 1963. It didn't win, but it's the Mancini song I will always associate with Audrey Hepburn! By the way, that is actually an American stamp honoring Mancini in the picture below.
And the following year? Though he didn't win an Oscar, he was nominated for composing one of the most famous and recognizable musical pieces ever "The Pink Panther Theme". Imagine, four straight years of songs that became standards, all worthy of Oscar nominations. Did I mention that he was nominated again the very next year for a lesser-known tune?
There would be many other nominations. Mancini recorded ninety albums, producing a haul of 72 Grammy nominations, from which he won 20! Virtually every leading vocalist over a forty-year period recorded Mancini compositions, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Andy Williams (who made a couple famous), and Tony Bennett. Many dedicated entire albums to Mancini songs. Even in the 1980s, Mancini was still productive, winning another Oscar for scoring the charming cross-dressing comedy Victor Victoria. There are some lovely numbers in the picture sung by Julie Andrews, but my favorite is a little, knockabout tribute to Vaudeville days, a song-and-dance duet starring Andrews and Robert Preston, who made The Music Man such a smash two decades earlier. Preston plays a gay man who manages Andrews, who is performing the role of a woman playing a man who is playing a woman. Here is that tune, which concludes with a melee in the supper club where the performers are engaged. The song is "You and Me".
Hope you enjoyed this retrospective of a titan in the film industry. Perhaps these melodies will come back to you again and again in the days ahead. You could do worse.