The centennial of Henry Mancini, composer of “The Pink Panther,” “Moon River” and other movie songs, isn’t until 2024. But the celebration began on Thursday when an all-star parade of Oscar, Emmy and Grammy-winning musicians got together to re-record one of his most famous works: “Peter Gunn.”
With legendary composers John Williams and Herbie Hancock on keyboards, jazz great Arturo Sandoval on trumpet and music mogul Quincy Jones conducting an 18-piece band of L.A. session players, Mancini’s 1958 TV theme rocked the Warner Bros. scoring stage all afternoon.
It was old home week for many, who seemingly spent half the three-hour session embracing, laughing and snapping photos. Williams and Jones called each other “Q” and “John T.,” the nicknames they had when the two were toiling side-by-side at Universal Television in the 1960s, before each started collecting Oscars and Grammys for their work in films and records.
Williams, 90, 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, and later ABC, from 1958 to 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, 89, 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.
Henry Mancini won 20 Grammys and four Oscars during his 40 years as a composer for films, TV and records. While his biggest hits were “Gunn,” “Pink Panther” and “Moon River,” he was also responsible for such popular movie songs as “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” “Two for the Road” and the songs in “Victor/Victoria.”
He was the first movie composer to become a household name in America and among the first to regularly perform film music in concert. His other 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.