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Henry Mancini´s remarkable life

By Ben Tibbetts


When I was eight, the musical opening to "The Pink Panther" was as familiar to me as a lullaby. The first four notes—a smooth, ascending chromatic lick—were known to me before I ever heard Beethoven's fifth symphony. That's a different famous four notes, which would also stay with me throughout my life. But the panther had an advantage back then, because the panther was a cartoon...

Earlier this month, Mogens Andresen published an arrangement of "The Pink Panther" for academic brass ensemble. In commemoration, I'd like to write about its composer, Henry Mancini, and offer some thoughts about his remarkable life and career.

* * *


Henry Mancini was born Enrico Nicola Mancini on April 16, 1924. He was born in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, but he grew up in the small mill city of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. His parents, Quintiliano and Anna Mancini, were Italian immigrants. His father went by "Quinto" and worked for the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. In his spare time Quinto was an amateur musician, playing the flute and piccolo in the local Sons of Italy band. He started teaching Henry to play those intruments when he was eight. Quinto wanted his son to become a teacher, but in time, these musical experiences were more influential on Henry's career choices.

Henry was eleven when Cecil B. DeMille's film "The Crusades" came out in 1935. That film—and in particular its music by Austrian composer Rudolph Kopp—probably changed his life, because it inspired him to pursue a career in writing music. After trying to teach himself the piano by imitating his neighbor's piano rolls, he started taking piano lessons at the age of twelve. Still playing the flute and piccolo, Henry practiced regularly and participated in the Aliquippa High School band before enrolling. In 1937, at the age of thirteen he was the first flutist in the Pennsylvania All State Band.

In 1939, Henry began studying orchestral arrangement with Max Adkins, the pianist and conductor of the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh (now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts). Mancini began arranging music for the pit ensemble. In his lessons, Henry learned to approach arranging like solving a puzzle: taking apart the elements of a piece, figuring out how they worked, and putting them together again. He became interested in jazz, a passion which was shared by his teacher. He was particularly fond of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. Henry wrote an arrangement for Goodman's ensemble and sent it to the legendary bandleader. Goodman replied and encouraged the young musician to continue writing.

This period was a formative time for the young Mancini. In his autobiography, he later wrote, "Max Adkins was to be the most important influence of my life." His fellow students included Billy Strayhorn, who would eventually become a close collaborator of Duke Ellington's; and Joshua Feldman, who would go on to lead a succesful jazz and film music career under the name "Jerry Fielding".

I think during this time something was kindled in Mancini which he probably never lost. Call it passion, creative delight, self-discipline, a hard work ethic, or a sense of curiosity; whatever it was, it seems he never lost his desire to create music from this point on.

College and the Army

In 1942, Mancini graduated from Aliquippa High School, and went to Pittsburgh to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). He only attended that school briefly, though, before auditioning for the Juilliard School of Music. In this audition, he demonstrated his interest in both classical and jazz music by playing a Beethoven sonata and an improvisation on "Night and Day" by Cole Porter. At the age of seventeen, he was accepted into the school on a scholarship.

However, higher education didn't go as planned. The orchestration and composition classes he wanted to take weren't scheduled until his second year, so he spent his first year majoring in piano performance. Then, as the war in Europe ramped up the following year, he enlisted in the army once he turned eighteen.

He was sent to basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There he met musicians that were being recruited by Glenn Miller, and on Miller's referral he was assigned to the 28th Air Force Band. As the war became worse and bands were broken up to provide more infantry soldiers, Mancini was sent overseas to the 1306th Engineers Brigade in France. In 1945, he helped liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp, the last of the camps in Nazi Germany to be liberated by the Allies. He wrote later that "the cremation ovens were still warm".

Once the war ended in 1945, Mancini was taken into an infantry band as a flute player. He was stationed in Nice, France until he was discharged in 1946. It was at this time that Henry Mancini joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra as a pianist and arranger. I imagine it must have delighted him to work directly with the group he'd idolized as a teenager (now led however by the saxophonist and singer Tex Beneke).

While he performed with that ensemble, Mancini continued to work on his composition skills. He began studying with composers Ernst Krenek, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Alfred Szendrei. Krenek was a Czeck composer focused on atonality and other mordernist styles; Castelnuovo-Tedesco was an Italian composer known for his operas and guitar music; and Szendrei was a Jewish Hungarian composer, musicologist, and conductor considered one of the leading pioneers of German radio.

In 1946, Henry met Ginny O'Connor, one of the original members of the "Mel-Tones" vocal group. They fell in love and were married in Hollywood in 1947.

Universal Pictures

After moving to Los Angeles, Henry worked as a freelance arranger and performer. He played the piano in studio sessions, worked on radio shows, conducted, orchestrated, and wrote arrangements for nightclub acts. This lasted for a few years until Mancini was hired to do fill-in work for the Abbott and Costello movie "Lost in Alaska" in 1952. After this film, Universal-International hired him to their music department as an in-house arranger and composer.

And so began another important period in his professional life. In six years, Mancini contributed music to more than a hundred movies. I think this experience laid the foundation for his career in film music. Speaking about it later, Mancini said, "I once referred to the music department at Universal as a salt mine. But it was a good salt mine, and younger composers in film today do not have access to that kind of on-the-job training. Being on staff there I was called upon to do everything. I mean, *everything*. Whenever they needed a piece of source music, music that comes from a source in the picture, such as a band, a jukebox, or a radio, they would call me in. I would do an arrangement on something that was in the Universal library, or I would write a new piece for a jazz band or a Latin band or whatever. I guess in every business you have to learn the routine—in film scoring, the cliches—before you can begin to find your own way."

While at Universal, Mancini contributed music to "Creature from the Black Lagoon", "The Silent Earth", "It Came From Outer Space", and "Tarantula"; and he also wrote a popular song for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians titled "I Won't Let You Out of my Heart".

Because of his background in music for big bands, Mancini was tapped to be the lead arranger on "The Glenn Miller Story" in 1954 and "The Benny Goodman Story" in 1956. In 1958, he was hired to write music for Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil". This assignment inspired him to bring in additional jazz performers for the soundtrack, including percussionists Shelly Manne, Jack Costanzo, and Mike Pacheco. Later he wrote, "'Touch of Evil' was one of the best things I did in that period of my life. It's one of the best things I've ever done."

Interlude: Some Thoughts on Quantity

I'd like to pause for a moment to reflect on something.

Have you ever had a friend or an acquaintance whose productivity blew you away? Maybe it was someone you met for coffee, and over conversation this person conveyed that they had a busier life than you'd have thought humanly possible.

When I was doing research for this article, I got that kind of impression about Henry Mancini. His level of output was extraordinary. As I read, I kept thinking, "wow, he did that too?!".

I think I have that reaction because I'm used to thinking of quality in opposition to quantity. It feels like one has a choice: either do a lot of things and sacrifice quality, or focus on a couple of projects and do them really well. It's like that quote: "You can't rush art."

However, there is another famous quote—unfortunately attributed to Joseph Stalin—that says "quantity has a quality all its own". I think there's something to that. It's possible to do many tasks related to a skillset--to drill, practice, and hone your craft--and produce high quality work in the process. I think Mancini strove hard to improve his abilities. Taking on many projects probably helped. Those years at Universal must have been hard, but viewed through this lens they might have been exhilarating as well.

Mancini Meets Edwards

In 1958, Mancini left the organization to work as an independent composer and arranger. Blake Edwards, a former editor at Universal who remembered his score for "Touch of Evil", reached out to him about writing music for his new TV series, "Peter Gunn".

The two were a good team. The music for "Peter Gunn", written for a small jazz ensemble and influenced by rock and roll, became almost as popular as the show itself. The "Peter Gunn' theme (featuring a young John Williams on the piano) was nominated for an Emmy Award and won two Grammys. The soundtrack album reached No. 1 in Billboard's Pop LP charts and won Album of the Year at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards in 1959.

"Peter Gunn" kicked off a long creative partnership between Henry Mancini and Blake Edwards. Over the course of thirty years, they would work together on twenty-nine feature films, three TV series, and a TV movie.

In 1961, Mancini and Edwards collaborated on "Breakfast at Tiffany's", a romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn. Mancini was tasked with writing music for Hepburn to sing in the film. The resultant song, "Moon River", with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was composed to accomodate Hepburn's limited vocal range. The scene was nearly cut during production, but once released the song became enormously popular. It won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1961, as well as the 1962 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It has since been covered by hundreds (maybe thousands) of artists including Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan, Rod Stewart, and Barbara Streisand.

Elephants, Panthers, Wine and Roses

In 1962, Mancini collaborated with director Howard Hawks on "Hatari!", an adventure romantic comedy starring John Wayne. The film and its music were well-received. One of Mancini's memorable tunes for the movie, "Baby Elephant Walk", earned him a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement. The music was composed for a scene in which 'Dallas' (played by Elsa Martinelli) leads three baby elephants to a waterhole to bathe. Mancini described the experience as follows:

"I looked at the scene several times [and] I thought, 'Yeah, they're walking eight to the bar', and that brought something to mind, an old Will Bradley boogie-woogie number called 'Down the Road a Piece' ... Those little elephants were definitely walking boogie-woogie, eight to the bar. I wrote 'Baby Elephant Walk' as a result."

In that same year, Mancini composed music for Edwards's more melancholy film, "Days of Wine and Roses". His song of that same name, another collaboration with Johnny Mercer, won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as the 1964 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Edwards released "The Pink Panther" the following year. The comedy, starring David Niven as a wealthy English playboy and Peter Sellers as the incompetent Inspector Clouseau, was a popular hit, and so too was its lurking musical ostinato written by Mancini. Many years later in 2005, when the American Film Institute celebrated classic American film music with its "100 Years of Film Scores", it placed Mancini's soundtrack for "The Pink Panther" at #20, alongside "Ben-Hur", "On the Waterfront", and "A Streetcar Named Desire".

"The Pink Panther" was eventually made into a cartoon in the form of "The Pink Panther Show". This series of short animations starring the pink panther character broadcast between 1969 and 1978. When I was a kid, the re-runs played on Saturday mornings.


At this point, you could say "the rest is history". By the mid 1960's, Henry Mancini was among the most successful film composers who ever lived. By the end of the decade, he'd produced over twenty hit singles and worked on dozens of films and TV series since his time at Universal-International. To stop here is to leave out some of his most popular work, such as his soundtracks for "The Great Race" (1965), "Two for the Road" (1967), "Wait Until Dark" (1967), "The Party" (1968), "White Dawn" (1974), "10" (1979), and "Victor/Victoria" (1982). To stop here is also to omit his popular arrangement and recording of the "Love Theme from 'Romeo and Juliet'", which spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1969.

As a concert performer Mancini gave over six hundred symphony performances during his lifetime, often conducting over fifty times a year. He conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, the Israel Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1966, 1980, and 1984 he performed for the Royal family. He collaborated with Sir James Galway, Johnny Mathis, Doc Severinsen, Andy Williams, and Luciano Pavarotti. He recorded over ninety albums. His music was often featured on the Lawrence Welk Show (and he himself appeared twice). He even hosted his own musical variety TV show, called "The Mancini Generation", from 1972-73. He won twenty Grammy awards and seventy-two nominations; and he won four Academy awards and eighteen nominations. His blend of jazz and traditional Hollywood aesthetics set the standard so thoroughly that for years composers around the world emulated his style.

Sometimes his personality and music appeared in surprising places. He composed the "Viewer Mail" theme for "Late Night with David Letterman", and his music was used in the TV shows "Newhart", "Hotel", and "Ripley's Believe it or Not!". He composed the NBC Nightly News theme used beginning in 1975, and a different theme for its election coverage from 1976-92. He made a cameo appearance in the first season of "Frasier" as a call-in patient to Dr. Crane's radio show (after his speaking lines, Frasier's radio played "Moon River"). He wrote two books: "Sounds and Scores: A Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration", and an autobiography with co-author Gene Lees titled, "Did They Mention The Music?"

From the 60's onward there could be no question of Mancini's popularity. But it seems he always felt suspicious about his status. In his autobiography, he wrote, "I've never trusted this thing called success; I have always been skeptical about it."


There's no reason to assume that talent should be paired with kindness, generosity, or an ethical character. Plenty of geniuses have been jerks, and being good at something doesn't make you a good person. But in addition to writing beautiful music Henry Mancini did some beautiful things. He established scholarships and fellowships at Juilliard, UCLA, USC, and the American Federation of Music's "Congress of Strings". He was active in the SHARE Foundation, an organization set up to help the mentally disabled. And he supported young musicians by allowing them access to film scoring sessions.

When Henry Mancini passed away on June 14, 1994, he was survived by his wife and three children. His daughter Monica is a professional singer; his son Christopher is a music publisher and promoter; and his daughter Felice runs the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which donates musical instruments to under-funded music programs. Music definitely runs in the family.

In 2005, the Henry Mancini Arts Academy was opened as part of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. It's located in Midland, Pennsylvania, about ten miles from Henry's home town of Aliquippa.

Henry Mancini's Letter To An Aspiring Musician

On the official website for Henry Mancini, there is a letter posted from a young aspiring musician:

"Dear Mr. Mancini,

I am 17-years-old and soon will be graduating from high school. I have been playing the trumpet for three years and have been told by my teachers that I should continue with my music studies and become a professional musician. I would appreciate any advice you could give on what I should do now."

The website also posts Mancini's reply:

"The preceding letter is typical of several hundred that I have received during the past few years. In fact, it is a typical letter I would have written myself at the age of 17. The letters are not only from playing musicians but from young composers, arrangers, and singers.

The one basic problem with young people entering show business is that they are in a hurry. It takes many years to realize that success is the result of equal parts craftsmanship and experience. Both take time.

To acquire expert craftsmanship, the necessity of good teachers and good schools is obvious. Our colleges and universities abound in good teaching. Some more than others in certain fields. The problem is to find the one that will serve your own needs. By probing a little and asking many questions, you can find out for yourself if a particular school can meet your needs.

An instrumentalist has different needs than someone who wants to become a professional arranger or composer. The instrumentalist needs a teacher of his particular instrument that can guide the way. The arranger not only needs a teacher, but he also needs a good orchestra to play the things he writes. A school that does not have a playing group is of no value to him. Pick your school to fit your needs. It may not be a glamorous one with a winning football team, but it will set you on the right path in your chosen field and afford a reasonable chance of security in later life.

What to do after college graduation is the next problem. The security of the past four years is suddenly cast aside and the student is now face-to-face with having to make a living. For a time, applying a newfound craft in local surroundings is satisfactory, but soon, the more gifted people become restless from lack of challenge and opportunity. At this time, I say 'Go where the action is.' If you want to write for films and TV, you must go to Hollywood. If you play an instrument, New York, Hollywood or Chicago will hold most chance of success.
A singer will find that most of the recording companies are in New York and Hollywood. Those with stage aspirations must make Broadway their goal. Leaving familiar surroundings and receptive ears is a big move, but it must be done. Here is one word of advice that I feel will help you through the difficult period of adjustment in a new place: meet as many people in your own field as is humanly possible. If you arrange or compose, get to know as many arrangers and composers as you can. The same applies for woodwind, brass, string, and percussion players. I am not suggesting that you become a nuisance, but I am suggesting that you leave no stone unturned. This is also a period when you can further your education on a more professional level. There are many fine teachers that also work in the film and TV studios that can give you a perspective on what is expected from a professional.

Success is not usually easy or fast. The luxury of becoming discouraged and quitting is always present on the way up. Always stop and say to yourself in times of stress, 'I’m doing what I want to do most.' You will find that one simple sentence to be the greatest comfort you can have."

Closing Thoughts

Henry Mancini was an unusually prolific and gifted musician. His creative work was impactful within his industry and the larger popular culture. But that is not what draws me to him.

I think what draws me to him is that he was not only a musician, but also so clearly a fan of music. Long past the point of financial necessity, he continued to conduct concerts and produce albums, even toward the end of his life when he was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer. It is so obvious that he enjoyed what he did. Into his work he poured love and joy.

There is a scene in the 1966 "Pink Panther" cartoon in which the panther comandeers an orchestra. For six minutes the panther struggles to wrest control from the conductor, who's trying his best to lead the orchestra in Beethoven's fifth. The panther finally succeeds, tricking the conductor into holding a rocket and catapulting him to the heavens. The ensemble plays a rousing phrase of Mancinian swing, and the camera pans back to reveal Henry Mancini himself, sitting alone in an empty arena, applauding with evident pleasure. I am not sure that he was pretending.


Mogens Andresen has made a great arrangement of Mancini´s "Pink Panther Theme"