NASHVILLE, TN — Henry Mancini wrote many of the greatest themes in film and television history. A winner of four Oscars and 20 Grammys, Mancini created music that made good films and television shows better and great ones unforgettable. His career covered more than four decades, and also extended into records and radio.
Mancini’s TV hits included “Mr. Lucky,” the “NBC Mystery Movie” theme, signature tunes for “Newhart” and “Remington Steele,” and the score for the wildly popular 1980s miniseries “The Thorn Birds.” He died of cancer in 1994.
Several of the nation’s premier jazz and soundtrack musicians gathered last week to pay tribute to Mancini. Even though his centennial won’t be until 2024, some of his fellow award-winning friends and contemporaries gathered last week to record a tribute. They chose to re-record one of his first and most popular television themes “Peter Gunn.”
Herbie Hancock and John Williams were on keyboards, with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and Quincy Jones conducting an 89-piece band in redoing the 1958 hit. Jones and Williams once worked side by side at Universal Television in the ‘80s, winning Oscars and Grammys for soundtracks. Williams is now 90 and Jones is 89.
Williams was the only member of the band who was actually at the original “Peter Gunn” recording sessions 64 years ago. He not only performed on the “Peter Gunn” soundtrack album – which won the very first Album of the Year Grammy – he also played piano on the weekly scores for “Gunn,” a private-eye series that ran on NBC from 1958-1961.
“He had a wonderful, populist touch,” Williams told Variety after the session. “Things like this, ‘Peter Gunn,’ and those wonderful songs. People picked up right away on the broad humanity in his music. He was very gifted. He was a child of the big-band era so he knew that school of writing very well. He connected with people and they with him. That’s why we know and love him.”
Jones added: “I wouldn’t have been a film composer without Sidney Poitier, Sidney Lumet and Henry Mancini,” he said. “Henry had my back, man, they didn’t hire brothers in those days,” he added, referring to the mid-1960s when Universal was skeptical about trusting a Black composer with an orchestral film score. Mancini, already a major figure in Hollywood, guaranteed Jones’ work.
Sandoval called Mancini “one of our biggest heroes,” and Hancock said he was “at the top, with all the greatest. He was so kind, so selfless, even though he had tons of Grammys and Oscars. He did so much.”
Producer Gregg Field supervised the session, which included Hancock soloing on synthesizer, Sandoval reaching his usual high notes, and Williams providing support on piano. Mancini’s twin daughters, Monica and Felice, were also on hand for the historic session. Monica Mancini, a Grammy-nominated singer, explained that they are starting work on a documentary that will focus as much on the music as on the man, and that the “Peter Gunn” recording (documented via cameras all around the stage) will be “one piece of the puzzle. We have another three or four to fit in,” and those (to be recorded over the next year or so) are expected to include such other Mancini hits as “Moon River,” “The Pink Panther” and “Baby Elephant Walk.”
Felice Mancini, president and CEO of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, spoke of watching middle-school performances of “Peter Gunn” earlier in the day on YouTube and noting that this isn’t unusual. “Working in schools as I do on a daily basis, I hear them playing his music all the time,” she said.
The Mancinis are planning a concert tour, both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the documentary and other events yet to be announced.