The composer, pianist, and theme song scorer Henry Mancini (1924-1994) was a major figure in American music from 1954 until his death. He spear-headed a change in film scoring, replacing the use of symphonic arrangements with elements of jazz, tin pan alley, and popular music.
Henry Mancini composed a legacy of famous and enjoyable film music which moved beyond film's former use of symphonic scores and incorporated elements of jazz and popular music. Mancini won many awards for his music, including four Oscars, 20 Grammys, and two Emmys. Much of his music became even more well known as film soundtracks; he produced over 50 albums and published over 500 of his compositions. His music was characterized by clean melody lines, usually on piano, with a background of French horns and strings. His theme songs for film, including Moon River and The Pink Panther are some of his most well known accomplishments.
Working Class Musical Roots
Mancini was born on April 16, 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio. His family later relocated to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a factory town. His father, a steelworker, was a musician who played flute in the Sons of Italy Band. He encouraged young Mancini to take up music as a way to rise above the options of working for a factory. As a child, Mancini was exposed to such composers as Puccini and Rossini; he played and took lessons in flute and piano. He also studied with a theater conductor and began arranging music in his teen years. Mancini discovered early on that he had a knack for arranging music. He took a job arranging for Benny Goodman, but later remarked that "it didn't take long for both Benny and me to find out I wasn't ready for such an ambitious assignment."
Mancini attended college and studied composition and theory at Julliard, but dropped out to serve in the military during World War II. After the war, he moved into the musical arena again, working as a pianist and arranger for the Glenn Miller-Tex Beneke orchestra. He married Ginny O'Connnor, the vocalist for the Mel-Tones band, in 1947. They had three children together.
Mancini broke into Hollywood in 1952 when he was given a small two week job at Universal Studios to arrange the music for the Abbott and Costello comedy Lost in Alaska. He continued to work at Universal for the next six years where he arranged or part-scored music for over 100 films. Notable during this period was the popular score that he created to The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which incorporated his background in jazz. One of his first outstanding scores was for the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil (1958). Touch of Evil was unique in that it was one of the first films to use source music, or music that didn't just play in the background but actually came from a visible source in the film story, such as a radio or a nightclub. In the film Mancini used jazz, Latin, and rock tunes. The Glass Menagerie (1987) was another example of a Mancini scored film that uses both source and regular music.
At this point in Mancini's career, he caught the attention of movie producer Blake Edwards, who asked Mancini to score the music for the television series Peter Gunn (1958). The Edwards/Mancini collaboration was to extend into a partnership that spanned the rest of Mancini's life and included 28 films. Some of their work together included: The Great Race, The Days of Wine and Roses, 10, S.O.B, and several of the Pink Panther comedies.
Music Madea Difference
Th e popular music for Peter Gunn was another breakthrough that served to get Mancini more widely recognized and stood apart as an example of a television show where the music really had an impact. The music was notable in its jazzy sparseness, a style that record companies had caught onto but was in its infancy in movie studios. Mancini remarked that "It was the score I wrote for the Peter Gunn TV series that was the big break for me. That use of the jazz idiom, applied dramatically to the story, put music on everybody's mind as far as TV is concerned." Mancini's work for Peter Gunn won him a number of awards, including two Grammys and Best Jazz Record of the Year (in a Down Beat poll).
Mancini continued to produced creative and award winning film music. The score and a theme song (Moon River) to the Edwards film Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) earned Oscars for Mancini, even though Moon River was almost cut out of the film during production.
Contributed to Musical Trends
Mancini's contribution to film music occurred during a time when changes were shaping the film industry and American culture. In the early 1950s and 1960s, in part due to Mancini's influence, studios began to move away from the traditional symphonic sounds that had served as the backdrop for films. Mancini contributed to this trend by offering jazzy and popular alternatives that were more sparsely scored instrumentally. By the early 1960s, studios were facing increased competition from television and the musical scene in America was hugely impacted by the evolution of rock and roll. Mancini responded well to the changes and took advantages of opportunities to compose for new media, as in his work for television series such as Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky.
In his studio work, Mancini made an effort to break down pre-existing barriers and to introduce and jazz and contemporary influences to film music that had in the past been predominantly influenced and served by classical musicians. Mancini made a point to bring young musicians of varying backgrounds and interests to film scoring sessions. Mancini was able to see the bigger picture in film production, caring not only about the music but about the quality of the rest of the film making process. Due to his foresight and efforts, his music worked not only for films, but as soundtracks that were sold separately and successfully. He recorded music for the soundtrack so that for listeners, the music stood by itself even without the film. Mancini had the foresight to collaborate with talented lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, which added to the popularity of music such as Moon River.
During his time at Universal, Mancini had opportunities to compose music for a diversity of films. Some of these included: Man Afraid (1957), Summer Love (1958), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and It Came from Outer Space (1953). In 1961 he scored the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, another musical breakthrough in his career which resulted in an Academy Award for the song Moon River from the film. The song used folk influences and was easy to sing. Mancini continued to receive recognition and fame for his film theme songs such as music from the film Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and the well known Pink Panther theme song. No other film composer received as much recognition for theme song composition until Star Wars was released in the 1970s.
Mancini had an appreciation of the art of scoring music to films. A reviewer from the Journal of Popular Film and Television claimed that Mancini's music for the films Touch of Evil (1958) and White Dawn (1974) showed a side of Mancini that many had not seen; the music, in this reviewer's opinion was well composed even though it hadn't been a hit commercially. In later life, Mancini remained busy with the scoring for Victor/Victoria (1982), as well as scores for television shows such as The Thorn Birds (1983), Hotel, Newhart, and Remington Steele.
As a professional musician, Mancini was known to be modest and unpretentious. He made no time for musical elitism, claiming that he had written Moon River in a half hour and that his Italian background helped him musically. Mancini had strong feelings about the role of music in film; he saw the film score as something which facilitated the film rather than standing on its own. Less was more, in his opinion. He hoped that he could "paint pictures with his music." Mancini also felt that his success with such popular compositions as The Pink Panther theme song overshadowed some of his better work; which included the score for Experiment in Terror (1962), Wait Until Dark (1967), and White Dawn (1974).
In his last interview, Mancini claimed that music writing was his therapy, because when he wrote, he thought of nothing else. He continued conducting an average of 30 pops concerts a year and producing albums even after being diagnosed with cancer. He also continued work on the score for an upcoming stage version of Victor/Victoria. Mancini died in 1994 at the age of seventy, from complications of liver and pancreatic cancer. When he died, he left behind a legacy of popular and artistic film music.
Further Reading on Henry Mancini
Gannett News Service, June 14, 1994.
Independent, June 16, 1994; June 27, 1994.
Journal of Popular Film and Television, March 1, 1996.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 3, 1994.
USA Today, June 15, 1994.