Mancini leaves us with an eloquent musical legacy RETROSPECTIVE

June 15, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Henry Mancini, who died yesterday at age 70 of complications from liver and pancreatic cancer, was one of the quietest pop stars America ever had.

Never one for flash, he preferred staying in the background to playing in the foreground. Indeed, even those fans who knew his work well would be hard-pressed to name recordings that showcased his instrumental abilities. Many may not have realized he played at all (he was a pianist), assuming that the only work he did was on the podium, directing whatever orchestra happened to be in front of him.

But Mancini was much more than a bandleader. A gifted composer and arranger, he churned out dozens of TV themes and film scores, including such instantly recognizable classics as "Moon River," "Peter Gunn," "Days of Wine and Roses," "The Pink Panther Theme" and "Baby Elephant Walk."

His creative work wasn't always in sync with his pop side, however. Mancini may have written the "Peter Gunn" theme, but it was Ray Anthony who turned the tune into a Top-10 hit in 1959 (Duane Eddy unleashed a rock version the following year).

On the other hand, Mancini's most successful single, the chart-topping "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet," was actually written by Italian composer Nino Rota. Likewise, the music for "Theme from Love Story," which put Mancini in the Top 20 in

1971, was the work of Frenchman Francis Lai.

Pop success was never Mancini's bread-and-butter, however. Even though he earned four gold albums over the years -- 1959's "The Music from Peter Gunn" and 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" were his best-selling titles -- that success paled when compared with his unseen career as a soundtrack and TV score composer.

Glorious work it wasn't. "I'm usually the last man on the totem pole," he said in one interview. "Except for the sound effects and final sound mix, the score is the last element to be added to a picture. If the picture has gone over schedule, my work is speeded up, because a release date must be met."

Yet Mancini rarely let deadline pressure affect the quality of his work. Unlike the assembly-line arrangers and composers who filled Hollywood sound stages in the '40s, Mancini took each film on its own terms, tailoring the sound of the music to the demands of the drama on-screen.

Consequently, his best work conveyed a vivid sense of mood and emotion. It's easy to hear the offhand elegance of Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in the lush, lilting strains of "Moon River," and easy to feel the melancholy and nostalgia bubbling through each verse of "The Days of Wine and Roses."

Even Mancini's jazziest efforts conveyed a strong sense of character. Who could possibly miss the mischief implied by the insouciant saxophone in "The Pink Panther Theme," or the cool, impersonal menace suggested by the growling brass of "Peter Gunn"?

His peers certainly didn't. Over the course of his career, Mancini won four Oscars, more than any other film composer. He also took home 20 Grammy awards over the years (Quincy Jones, with 25, is the only pop artist to have exceeded that number).

Yet he remained humble about his achievements and was often quite cynical about a serious musician's chances for success. "If you want to make money in music," he once told Downbeat, "get into the band uniform business."

He himself got into the business first as a flutist. He was born in Cleveland, on April 16, 1924, and grew up in the steel town of Aliquippa, Pa., making the Pennsylvania All State Band at 13 before turning to the piano. After studying composition at Juilliard and a stint in the Army Air Corps, he took a job as a pianist and arranger with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, then under the direction of Tex Beneke.

By the early '50s, he was in Hollywood, where he made a name for himself by slyly updating big band arrangements for "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954) and "The Benny Goodman Story." But it was his moody, jazz-inflected score to Orson Welles' "A Touch of Evil" that established Mancini as a true original.

It wasn't just that he understood the jazz milieu, though clearly that was one of his talents. What made Mancini's work stand out was the ease with which he was able to work an accessible melody into the jazzy texture of his music. Mancini never played down to his listeners, nor did he try to dazzle them with difficulty. Instead, he expressed his ideas with an eloquent simplicity, one that generally left even the least sophisticated listeners humming along happily.

Not even the rise of rock, a style that by rights should have made Mancini's compositional style seem utterly out-of-date, kept him from winning over his audiences. It was his version of the "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" that pushed the Beatles' "Get Back" out of No. 1 in 1968, remember.

As a result, Mancini was able to keep his audiences enthralled to the end. He may never have been a star in the traditional sense, but that hardly made the applause he earned any softer.

MANCINI'S MAGIC

To hear a selection of songs written by Henry Mancini, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6174 after you hear the greeting.

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