Saturday, August 16, 2008

My Huckleberry Friend Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini from Geneva College

Henry Mancini was born Enrico Nicola Mancini in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, on April 16, 1924, and grew up in the mill town of West Aliquippa in Beaver County.

His parents emigrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Mancini's father, Quinto, was a steelworker, who had his only child begin flute lessons at the age of eight. In fact, father and son played the flute together for a local Italian band, the "Sons of Italy". When Mancini was 12 years old, he began piano lessons.

But he was a bit more than home schooled. Max Adkins, a Pittsburgh concertmaster and jazz fan, taught Mancini, and among his fellow classmates were Billy Strayhorn and Jerry Fielding. Adkins introduced him to Benny Goodman, who encouraged Mancini to study at Juilliard.

After graduating from Aliquippa HS in 1942, Mancini took his advice and attended the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York. A flute & keyboard can get you out of a milltown just as well as a football scholarship, hey?

In 1943, after a year at Juilliard, his studies were interrupted when he was drafted during WW2. He participated in the liberation of a German concentration camp, so he didn't spend all his time with an USO unit, but toted a rifle some, too.

After his discharge in 1946, he became a pianist and arranger for the newly re-formed Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Tex Beneke (Miller died in a plane crash over the English Channel during the war).

Pretty good gig, too - he hooked up with his future bride there, singer Ginny O'Connor, who he married in 1947. It was a reunion of sorts; they had first met when she was a vocalist backing Mel Torme. What's meant to be...

In 1952, Mancini headed west and joined the Universal Pictures music department, where he honed his composing craft.

During the next six years, he contributed music to over 100 movies, mostly B flicks like "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," and "It Came from Outer Space," before finally landing some meatier cinema such as "The Glenn Miller Story" (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination), "The Benny Goodman Story" and Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

While there, he was credited with adding jazz scores to otherwise vanilla movie themes, bringing in outside sidemen to lay down a few licks with the studio players.

Mancini left Universal to free lance in 1958. Soon after, he scored the television series "Peter Gunn" for Blake Edwards, forming a partnership which lasted over 35 years and produced nearly 30 films.

Mancini's scores for Edwards included "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (with the classic "Moon River"), "Days of Wine and Roses," and all The Pink Panther films.

He also scored movies for Stanley Donen ("Charade," "Arabesque," "Two for the Road") and Howard Hawks, including "Hatari!" which featured the well-known "Baby Elephant Walk," among others.

Not everything was a bed of roses, though. Mancini's score for the Alfred Hitchcock film, "Frenzy", was rejected. Not weird enough for the master of suspense, we guess.

Mancini scored many TV movies and themes, including "Mr. Lucky," "Newhart," "Remington Steele," and "Hotel." He also composed the "Viewer Mail" theme for "Late Night with David Letterman."

Mancini recorded over 90 albums. Eight were certified gold by The Recording Industry Association of America. He had a 20 year contract with RCA Records, resulting in 60 pop albums that made him a household name whose music played in elevators the world over.

And it's a lucky speaker that has "The Love Theme" from Romeo and Juliet, "Moon River," "The Theme from Peter Gunn," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Dear Heart," and "The Theme from the Pink Panther" coming out of its tweeters.

Mancini was also a hard-working concert performer, conducting over fifty engagements per year, waving the baton and playing in over 600 symphony performances during his lifetime.

Among the symphony orchestras he conducted are the London Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

He also appeared in three command performances for the British Royal Family, and toured several times with Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.

Mancini had some TV & film cameos as an actor rather than showman, too. Most notably, he had an uncredited performance as a pianist in the 1967 movie "Gunn," the movie version of the series "Peter Gunn," which used a famous Mancini-authored theme.

Not enough? He also wrote two books - "Sounds and Scores," a music industry bible, and his autobiography, "Did They Mention the Music?"

Mancini was nominated for an unprecedented 72 Grammys, winning 20. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards, winning four Oscars. Mancini also won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for two Emmys. Not too shabby for a 'Quip kid, hey?

Henry Mancini died at the age of 71 in Beverly Hills of pancreatic cancer.

At the time of his death, he was still happily married to Ginny, with whom he had three children, Chris, Felice, and Monica, who's a singer. And like the folk in "Dear Heart," he was well known for shunning Hollywood's hedonistic lifestyle and staying a down-home, Western Pennsylvanian family guy to the end.

Scholarship programs have been set up in his memory at Juilliard, UCLA, and Southern Cal's music schools, among others.

"We're after the same rainbow's end
Waiting around the bend
My Huckleberry friend
Moon River and me..."

(There's a fairly elaborate Mancini web site at Henry Mancini.)

Moon River, with Andy Williams.

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