Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Even More Mancini in the Seventies

The Mancini magic – or madness – continues to infuse me. Please check out both of my earlier posts here and here to discover the highs and the lows of the brilliant composer, arranger, pianist, author, thinker and mentor to a whole generation of great film composers we now know so well, who released a slew of wonderful records during the 1970s.

Very few recording artists carried the clout of Henry Mancini during the 1970s and, more significantly, very few can claim to have had some three dozen records released bearing their name during the span of only ten years. The output is simply staggering – especially given all the other things he was doing at the time.

Unfortunately, things changed dramatically in the next decade (the death of vinyl, the rise of Top-40 soundtracks coupled with the decline of film-score albums, the vilification of easy-listening music, etc.) and far fewer Mancini records were made available to the buying public. Those that were often dominated by a bunch of crappy pop songs, lending Mancini only one or two slots for his own music. Henry Mancini virtually disappeared in the record buyer’s mind. It remained this way until his untimely 1994 death.

Fortunately, since then, Henry Mancini has enjoyed something of a mini-renaissance, with the Spanish Fresh Sound label issuing many of the composer’s 40-some RCA albums on CD, every label under the sun issuing some sort of Mancini compilation on CD and major talent releasing full-album tributes (daughter Monica Mancini, Dave Grusin, Joe Locke, James Moody, Oranj Symphonette and Mancini section progeny, Ted Nash) – most of which are just wonderful to behold, a testament to Henry Mancini’s enduring musical magic. (Not included here, but worth mentioning are the much earlier Mancini tribute albums recorded by Quincy Jones, Eumir Deodato, Sarah Vaughan and Bobby Hackett.) But still, much of the music I’ve covered remains generally unavailable.

There is much to enjoy here and elsewhere and it is with sincere appreciation that I hope to cover some of Mancini’s eighties recordings in a future post.

The Molly Maguires (Paramount, 1970): There’s more than a touch of Irish folk music in Henry Mancini’s score to this little remembered Martin Ritt film from 1970 starring Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Samantha Eggar, detailing the true story of Irish immigrants working in a nineteenth century Pennsylvania coalmine. As Mancini himself also came up in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a steel town close to my hometown of Pittsburgh, this story probably resonated deeply within the composer. Evidence can be heard in the truly inspired main theme, vocalized by a plaintive recorder, offset by a lovely harpist and a mournful orchestral reprieve, contrasted by an accordion in the second refrain. Despite the film’s incredibly downbeat story (and box office failure), Mancini fashions a majestic score, loaded with all the colors of life – particularly those of an Irish life – and the resonant tones of immigrant existence in a strange, developing world (something that had and continues to have parallels in contemporary humanity). Mancini contributes two main themes, “Theme From The Molly Maguires,” which gets three variations, and “The Hills Of Yesterday,” both of which are significantly and painfully lovely, as well as obvious, though perfectly enjoyable Irish ditties (“Fiddle and Fife,” “Pennywhistle Jig”) and a number of gorgeously mournful pieces of underscore. The soundtrack album was issued on the short-lived Paramount Records label and once a while back on Japanese CD and is incredibly difficult to find in any format these days, but worthwhile nonetheless. Mancini again covered the film’s excellent main theme and “The Hills of Yesterday” on his 1970 album Theme From “Z” And Other Film Music and later resurrected the main theme and “Pennywhistle Jig” (often mis-titled inexplicably in a number of places as “Pennsylvania Jig”) on his terrific 1984 album with James Galway, In The Pink.

The Hawaiians (United Artists, 1970): This excellent soundtrack confounds any number of expectations. First, the musical vibe composer Henry Mancini provides here is distinctly more Japanese than what has come to be known as traditionally Hawaiian, which, no doubt, is part of the film’s storyline. Second, the film’s grand main theme – which numbers among one of Mancini’s most memorable themes – never became the hit it deserved to be and that so many of the composer’s other film themes had become earlier on. Finally, this soundtrack album probably would not exist were it not for Mancini’s well-deserved reputation: only the title song registers memorably. But, fortunately, for Mancini fans, this unusual score was made available in 1970 on the United Artists label. This is Mancini’s second significant soundtrack for a Charlton Heston film and while the main theme is particularly notable (and Mancini-esque), several other prominent themes emerge here as well, including the beautifully moody “Pineapple Pirates” (which, nearer than anything else Mancini ever did, recalls the gorgeous glories of “Lujohn”) and “Fumiko (Japanese Love Theme).” There are many traditional Asian instruments heard here, performed by such specialists as David Ming Yueh Liang (Cheng, Chinese Zither, and Hsun, Chinese Ocarina), Kayoko Wakita (koto), Patti Shirai (bass koto), Art Smith (Chinese flute) and LA sessioneers Emil Richards (Santure, oriental cymbalum) and Gene Cipriano (Hichiriki, Japanese oboe). All in all, The Hawaiians is a beautiful – though far too brief – musical treat and a rather unfortunately buried treasure that has yet to appear anywhere on CD. Mancini re-recorded the film’s beautiful main theme for his 1970 album Mancini Plays The Theme From Love Story.

Oklahoma Crude (RCA, 1973): Henry Mancini’s peculiar score to Stanley Kramer’s little-known 1973 film starring George C. Scott, Faye Dunaway, John Mills and Jack Palance (what a cast!) often comes across as little more than high-class cartoon music. Kramer’s brief liner note says “Mancini has given us nostalgia in the modern idiom,” as if that’s a compliment or even something that’s possible. Even the main theme is given the oddly appropriate title “Over The Top” in one of its variations. One IMDb writer, who likes the film, complains that Mancini’s score is inappropriate and “very goofy,” arguing that it “seems to have been designed to ‘lighten up’ violent action scenes, but which in fact just sounds silly and out-of-place." While it isn’t much of a rewarding listen to on record (especially for a listener who has never seen the film), one must imagine that Mancini’s music must have somehow aided the vulgar lightheartedness the film’s makers were aiming for. The more typically Mancini moments shine through all of the crudity on “Cleon and Lena” (titled for John Mills’s negligent father and Faye Dunaway’s feminist daughter), the almost too trite “The Big Climb” and the gentle instrumental version of “Send A Little Love My Way,” making this rather disastrous affair somewhat more of a pleasure than it otherwise is. “Oklahoma Crude” was issued as a 45-rpm single (b/w “Amazing Grace” from The Mancini Generation - though which song was meant to be the “A” side is anybody’s guess) and the instrumental version of “Send A Little Love My Way” was issued on the flip side of the 45-rpm single of Mancini’s “Hangin’ Out.” Anne Murray also covered “Send A Little Love My Way” at the time.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (United Artists, 1976): By the time of the second of the three 70s-era Pink Panther sequels, the joke was wearing a bit thin and even the music was now beginning to sound like a joke losing its punch. The main title, which adapts “The Pink Panther Theme” to accommodate the animated parodies of Hitchcock, Batman, The Sound of Music and Singin’ In The Rain - while a joy to watch, and remarkably scored by Mancini – seems to indicate that everyone knew that there was not much left to say with this exceedingly tired comedy series. Mancini even composed a rather slight number called “The Inspector Clouseau Theme” for this film, which has confounded any number of fans who had long since thought of Mancini’s “A Shot In The Dark” as Clouseau’s theme. Still, the jokey theme, which seems to highlight some of Sellers’s worst comic tendencies, inexplicably became a Mancini favorite. Two rather lovely Mancini melodies, “Come To Me” and “Until You Love Me” are given incredibly hammy and unbearable vocal performances here; the first by Tom Jones and Peter Sellers in outrageous Clouseau mode and the second by someone named Ainsley Jarvis. Fortunately, both pieces give Mancini his due by getting appropriately instrumental performances. Both pieces, at least as melodies, are classic Mancini ballads and entirely worthy of the very first – and best – Panther soundtrack. Mancini presents several rather excellent cues of underscore (probably edited together to present something akin to fully developed compositions) that are given such oddly generic titles as “The Great Quasimodo Theme,” “Along Came Omar” and “The Evil Theme” one must wonder if someone wasn’t out to sabotage this production in every way. It’s one of those Mancini albums where you either have to program the CD player ahead of time or lift the needle of the turntable every other song or so. What’s good about The Pink Panther Strikes Again is very good. Unfortunately, what’s bad about it really drags it down. A 1998 Rykodisc CD release of the soundtrack included six additional titles that were not included on the 1976 United Artists LP and Mancini gave “The Inspector Clouseau Theme” another airing on his 1977 album Mancini’s Angels.

Just You And Me Together Love - Henry Mancini and his Orchestra, Narration by John Laws (RCA, 1977): Perhaps the most obscure of all of Henry Mancini’s records and also one of the most unusual as he is not known to have ever accompanied any other poet anywhere else. Accompanying the words and voice of Australian poet John Law, Mancini and his all-star Hollywood orchestra craft a rather lovely, yet seemingly anachronistic outing in the days of disco’s reign. This sort of thing had certainly become passé by this point, and Laws is a sentimentalist to be sure. But Mancini’s lush and lyrical backgrounds sound sincere and touching without ever dipping into the sugary sweetness the poetry seems to call for. These charts really deserve to be heard on their own, particularly with some of the talent involved, including daughter Monica, in one of her earliest recordings (whose occasional vocalisms, particularly on the title track, lend the proceedings a touch of Edda Dell Orso’s haunting vocals heard on so many Italian soundtracks), Mike Lang and Clark Spangler on keyboards, Dennis Budimir and Bob Bain on guitars, Chuck Domanico on bass, Tommy Vig on percussion, Dorothy Remsen on harp, Ronny Lang on sax and Shelly Manne on drums. After 40 some albums for the RCA label, this record – which most surely was Mancini’s indulgence for delivering for the label repeatedly over some 18 years – represented the composer’s penultimate RCA release. He became a free agent the following year, but sadly no other label ever stepped up to provide Mancini with the veritable outlet (or straight-jacket?) that RCA had provided him for years. Even though this sort of record would very rarely find its way into the mainstream in the future (outside of such “name” poets as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) and such poetry readings are worthwhile, Mancini’s music certainly outshines the words it accompanies here and deserves to be heard on its own.


Mac McCollum said...

Doug,I love your choices in music;so many of your interests are my favorites(Ollie Nelson,CTI,Mancini).And this Mancini column came up on a Google search for info about the Mancini/Laws "Just You & Me" album. I just picked up a copy for a buck,largely because it was autographed by Mancini. It looks real,as I received an autographed photo from him in 1967 after writing a fan letter(and the photo took forever to get to my house,and had an advance letter apologizing for the delay);signatures look similar. Apparently this LP was sold at Hank's live performances,as other autographs on the back are players from the orchestra. I knew Mancini did live shows,but thought he did local pick ups of hometown players. I've been able to decipher Al Cobine,who did the Plas Johnson parts live and Cecil Welch, principal trumpeter and soloist. two others are not showing results. Have you ever seen a list of regular touring musicians with Hank?Anyway,a buck well spent and the oddest Mancini record I own(never saw this before).-Mac McCollum

Anonymous said...

Al Cobine was Mancini's primary contractor for live shows beginning in the mid-1960's. Cobine, based in Bloomington, Indiana, had a big band. For several Mancini tours the orchestra was basically Cobine's big band, including my father, Don Johnson, on trumpet, combined with faculty and students from the Indiana University School of Music. Mancini's autobiography "Did They Mention the Music?" confirms the Cobine connection and mentions some of the players, like my old drum teacher, Jack Gilfoy.

Anonymous said...

In reference to my previous comment, if you can find a copy of the album "The big Band of Al Cobine Plays Songs of Yesterday and Today" (1967) you will find the names of many of the guys from that Mancini tour. - David Johnson