Mancini's Peter Gunn Score Launched Dozens Of Careers, Page One

See sound samples at end of article!


Henry Mancini. Photo provided by Mancini estate.

On a late summer evening in 1958, at Radio Recorders, a legendary recording studio in Santa Monica, California, a mild-mannered 34-year old conductor, pipe in mouth, gives the downbeat, and a guitarist, also 34 years old, starts grinding out a heavy, rolling ostinato. Two bars later, a curly-haired 26-year-old pianist makes his entrance, banging out the same line in unison. Suddenly, a raucous horn section jumps in, soon joined by a boisterous alto sax. In two minutes, it ends with one final gasp of energy. The groundbreaking Peter Gunn theme is in the can.

The conductor was, of course, Henry Mancini, soon to become the most innovative and influential film composer of the last 50 years. The guitarist was Bob Bain, a stalwart who cut his teeth in the Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby bands after the war. The alto player was Ted Nash, on his way to becoming one of Hollywood's leading studio musicians. The pianist? It's now a great trivia question. It was Johnny T. (Curly) Williams, who later shed his curls and made his mark as the one and only John Williams, forever linked with the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Looking back at the TV show and the RCA album sessions, just about everyone connected with them built great careers on the strength of 40 minutes of music.

When NBC plugged Peter Gunn into the 1958 fall schedule, my father and I gave it a look and became faithful fans. I liked the background music, and for the first time, checked out Felix Grant's famous Washington, DC jazz radio show on WMAL. I became a jazz fan for life. When I headed off to the University of Maryland a year later, I discovered a plush listening room at the student center, complete with an audiophile stereo system.

I dropped in one night and played The Music from Peter Gunn. It was my first stereo experience, and I was blown away, both by the sound and the music. Nearly 50 years later, Gunn is my all-time favorite album. I now have the 1988 BMG reissue on CD (serial number 1956-2-R), and it sounds exactly like it did to my 18-year-old ears, only better. Other reissues haven't quite measured up.

Not Another TV Western

Blake Edwards. Photo provided by Film Score Monthly.

It all started with Blake Edwards, who had been knocking around the radio, TV and film industry as an actor, writer and director for more than a decade. He created the Richard Diamond, Private Detective radio series for Dick Powell back in 1949; and perhaps with that in mind, dreamed up the Peter Gunn character, wrote and directed a pilot, and landed a sponsor.

Mancini, who studied at Juilliard, had been working as an orchestrator and composer for Universal International Pictures since 1952, landing the job after a stint as pianist and arranger for Tex Beneke's version of the Glenn Miller band. After scoring the Glenn Miller Story, for which he won his first Oscar, and the Benny Goodman Story, he worked with Edwards on several Tony Curtis films, Mister Cory and The Perfect Furlough.


In 1958, Orson Welles hired him to score Touch of Evil, a now-classic film that takes place in a town on the Texas-Mexico border. Welles wanted only source music, and Mancini obliged with a raunchy jazz-rock score that not only brilliantly evoked all the seedy, film noir ambience of the movie, but also helped to establish American jazz as a credible alternative to the European-Romantic style of film composing that had dominated Hollywood for 30 years.

Shortly after, Universal laid off most of its music staff, including Mancini. Then Edwards showed up with the Peter Gunn idea and asked Mancini to do the score. According to his book, Did They Mention the Music? Mancini accepted the invitation and walked away thinking it was just another TV western.

The premise of the show called for Gunn (Craig Stevens), a private detective, to spend much of his time at Mother's, a nightclub where his girlfriend, Edie Hart (Lola Albright), sings with a jazz combo. So the use of jazz as source music was a natural choice; but when Mancini elected to score the action and dramatic scenes with jazz as well, he wound up giving the show its most identifiable and marketable quality.

In a recent interview, Ginny Mancini, Henry's widow (he passed away in 1994), told me that her husband was "inspired by the cool romantic side of the relationship between Peter and Edie. He thought the music needed to be strong, sexy, and get your attention. He would sit down with Blake and spot where the music should come in and where it should go out and what it had to say. He pretty much had it in his head before he sat down at the piano."

Ginny had sung with Mel Torme and the Meltones, and Tex Beneke, and she proved to be a valuable resource for her husband. "I was sort of a second pair of ears for him. If something he wrote reminded me of anything else, I'd tell him. He knew how well acquainted I was with the standards."

By the time of the first recording session for the pilot episode, Mancini had written the famous theme, several tunes for the night club sessions, and some of the now-familiar cues for the action scenes. He also went into the studio to back Lola Albright on her recording of the old standard, "Day In, Day Out," which was to be featured at Mother's.

Page Two: Interviews with musicians Ronny Lang, Gene Cipriano and Dick Nash

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