Movies, Melodies and Memories: Remembering the Life of Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini was one of the most prolific film composers – and certainly the most famous – in Hollywood throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His popularity outside of the film community was due in no small part to the numerous albums he released as an independent artist (90 albums to be precise). Mancini had a particular knack for jazz and some of his greatest film scores (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther). combined lilting jazz with his signature smooth string arrangements. During his lifetime he was nominated for 72 Grammy Awards, 18 Academy Awards, and two Emmy Awards. Impressive indeed!

Mancini was born in Cleveland, Ohio and took up music arranging at the young age of 12 years old having been introduced to music by his father, a flutist. After serving overseas in the Air Force during World War II, he joined up with the Glenn Miller/Tex Beneke Orchestra as a pianist/arranger, which is also where he met his wife, Ginny O’Connor, one of the original members of Mel Torme’s Mel-Tones.

In 1952, he was given a two-week assignment to work on the Abbott and Costello vehicle Lost in Alaska at Universal Pictures and ended up staying for six years, working uncredited on background music to numerous comedies and dramas for the studio. It was his scoring of the television series Peter Gunn (1958) that launched Mancini to musical stardom. This hard-core rock and roll jazz beat earned him an Emmy award and two Grammys, as well as a 30-year collaboration with writer/producer Blake Edwards.

Throughout the 1960s, Henry Mancini was one of the most sought-after composers of comedy films, working on such classics as The Great Imposter (1960), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), Man’s Favorite Sport (1964), The Great Race (1965), and The Party (1968), as well as dramas like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Experiment in Terror (1962), Charade (1963), Dear Heart (1964), and Two for the Road (1967).

He continued his success throughout the 1970s and 1980s, tackling both film (The Molly McGuires, Darling Lili, Oklahoma Crude, The Great Waldo Pepper, Victor/Victoria) as well as television (The Moneychangers, What’s Happening!, The Thorn Birds) while touring around the world giving concert performances. Mancini passed away in 1994 of complications arising from pancreatic cancer, but, today, his three children continue his legacy with their own music — his daughter Monica is a singer, and his son Chris is a composer — and through concert tours performing the music of their father.

Signature Style

Mancini’s musical arrangements are vibrant, different, and downright fun. He infused jazz into traditional film music scoring, creating themes that were catchy as well as lush and beautiful. Many of his songs feature marimbas, xylophones, and saxophones…instruments not often heard in traditional movie music. When Mancini turned the romance on high he often utilized slow strings, tinkling piano keys, and gentle choral background singing. He was a maestro of every style.

The Noteworthy Five

Mancini is probably the most difficult composer to select just five scores from, since he made so many marvelous ones…and it’s tempting to pick personal favorites! Peter Gunn and The Thorn Birds should be included but since they were written for television we have omitted them.

1. The Pink Panther (1963) – Undoubtedly, Henry Mancini’s most famous piece…and it is one of the few tunes that can be recognized just by hearing two notes! Mancini’s theme perfectly captured the slow stealth motions of the film’s cat burglar, the “Phantom”, infused with that iconic sassy brass.

2. Charade (1963) – Mancini set the tone for the film from the first few minutes : Getting chased by criminals is serious business, but when you have Cary Grant as an ally, running hard and fast can be fun.

3. “The Sweetheart Tree” from The Great Race (1965) – Natalie Wood sings this beautiful love song in a sequence in The Great Race, but the original version – the player-piano styling – can be heard in the background throughout the film. It’s a touching tribute to a bygone era.

4. “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Another one of Mancini’s enduring legacies. This is probably the most romantic song to appear in a motion picture and it is certainly one of the most covered tunes of the 20th century. Andy Williams made “Moon River” a personal chart-topping hit in 1962.

5. The Days of Wine and Roses 1962) – This theme features some gorgeous lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who had a long and fruitful collaboration with Mancini for years. You can hear Mancini’s lovely chorus in this piece too.

What’s your favorite piece of music from Henry Mancini? Let us know in the comments!