Not long ago, at the Warner Brothers movie lot in Burbank, on a scoring stage named for Clint Eastwood, there was a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of musical giants, among them trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, jazz great Herbie Hancock, and the legendary Quincy Jones. They came together to honor one man, and re-record one of his best-known songs: the theme from the TV show “Peter Gunn,” by the great Henry Mancini.
The original song, recorded in 1958, helped make Henry Mancini a household name. But back then, Henry was just “Hank,” a 34-year-old TV music composer, and his piano player was a 26-year-old kid named Johnny Williams.
“Johnny” has since moved on, but on this day, the maestro himself came back and took a seat at his Steinway grand, to perform “Peter Gunn.”
Smith asked, “What does it feel like to play it again?”
“It’s amazing,” said Williams. “It’s like a bicycle. You get back on, you know? Feels great!”
Willams (who just turned 91) is the only one left from the original recording session. “Already, Hank was known, but he wasn’t the Henry Mancini that we know now,” he said. “That night, he was Hank who worked at the studio. We knew him as a buddy and so on.”
“And you were Johnny?”
“I was Johnny, yes. I was covered with hair, by the way!” said Williams. “No, that’s a good many, happy years ago.”
Smith asked, “What do you think it is about this song that it transcends?”
“Well, it’s insistent. Isn’t it? It must be the great piano playing, don’t you think?” Williams laughed.
Of course, the piano! But there’s so much more to it.
To watch an excerpt of John Williams and Arturo Sandoval recording Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” click on the video player below:
In 1958, Mancini was a noted film composer at Universal Studios who’d already gotten an Oscar nod for his score for “The Glenn Miller Story.” But he’d just been laid off in a company cutback. So, when producer Blake Edwards approached him about scoring a TV show about a detective, he quickly said yes. With a wife, a son and twin girls, Mancini needed the money.
The show itself was well-received. But the jazz-inspired theme song was a smash.
“I think when Hank wrote that piece of music, he had – I presume he had – no idea the effect it was gonna have,” said Gregg Field, a Grammy-winning music producer. “You hear it all the time. It’s licensed for commercials. It’s just that little, you know, incredible bass line that Henry came up with and that simple melody. And it continues to resonate.”
“He couldn’t understand why it was so popular?” asked Smith.
“No. Because it was so simple.”
Simple, but brilliant: The “Peter Gunn” album won the first-ever Grammy Award for album of the year.
But even with all the success, twin sisters Felice and Monica Mancini say their dad stayed humble.
“He was a very quiet, reserved kind of guy – forget when he had some red wine!” said Felice.
“But his peers really admired him,” said Monica. “And you ask any one of them that are alive today, ‘What do you most admire about Henry?’ and they just said, ‘He was one of the nicest men we’ve ever known.’ They don’t talk about the music; that kind of speaks for itself. But as far as a human being, they just said, ‘No one comes close.'”
And as his reputation soared, Mancini was able to help lift up some of his friends: John Williams, of course; and Quincy Jones, in an era when it was nearly impossible for him to get into film scoring.
And Mancini himself went on to compose some of the best-loved, most-played film music of a generation. There was the haunting “Moon River,” from 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”:
In 1962, there was the quirky “Baby Elephant Walk,” from “Hatari”:
And later that same year, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” from the film of the same name.
Mancini seemed to have a talent for creating music that became not just popular, but indelible. And by 1994, when he died from pancreatic cancer at age 70, he’d amassed four Oscars, 20 Grammys, and a kind of musical immortality.
Take his theme for “The Pink Panther.” Field said, “You can go virtually anywhere in the world and go up to a ten-year-old and say, ‘Bah dup, bah dup, bah dup…’ and they immediately know it. And I can’t imagine another composer that has created music that, generation to generation, decade to decade, keeps resonating with people.”
Field, who also happens to be married to Monica Mancini, set out to re-record some of his father-in-law’s biggest hits for a new album that’ll come out later this year, starting with the “Peter Gunn” session. Quincy Jones wouldn’t have missed it.
When asked what it was like to be in the studio recording Mancini’s music, Jones replied, “It’s like having him back in my life. He was a very special person in my life, as were his two twin daughters, who used to kick my booty all the time on the pool table. No, there’s my family. That’s really family. All of them, Herbie, John Williams, we go all the way back, you know?”
“So, is this like a big family reunion?” asked Smith.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Exactly.”
And after all the hugs and the photos and the warm-ups, one of the greatest studio bands of all time was ready to lay it down.
Smith asked, “What do you think it is about the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme that endures?”
Jones replied, “Like anything that endures – Beethoven? – the composer did it right!”
And more than 60 years later, it can still raise the roof.
Somewhere in heaven, Henry Mancini must be smiling.
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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler.