Johnny Mandel has had an enviable career. In the 1940s, he was with bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw. In 1950 and 1951, Johnny arranged for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and in 1953-54 played in Count Basie's "New Testament" band. In the mid-1950s he arranged for Elliot Lawrence's band and wrote charts for albums recorded by Chet Baker and other jazz and pop artists. Then in 1958, Johnny scored the movie I Want to Live. [Pictured at top: Quincy Jones and Johnny Mandel in 2007; photo by Donna Zweig]
But Johnny's most successful years were yet to come. Over the next 12 years, he would go on to compose some of the most enduring movie themes and jazz standards of all time. These include Emily, The Shining Sea, You Are There, A Time for Love, The Shadow of Your Smile and Suicide is Painless.
In Part 5 of my interview series with the legendary composer-arranger, Johnny talks about I Want to Live, working with Frank Sinatra on Ring A Ding Ding and the stories behind three of Johnny's best-known compositions and melodies:
JazzWax: You wrote the score to I Want to Live in 1958. It was your first film. Were you back in L.A.?
Johnny Mandel: I moved back to California in 1958 to write the score. I had never done a picture before. I had ghosted for some people. They had given me the cues, and I orchestrated by doing the math—music against the clock. But I had never handled a film from start to finish on my own. So when I first got the project, I was scared.
JW: How did you get beyond your initial fear?
JM: I quickly realized I had already done a lot of stuff with sight cues, acts for dancers and for Sid Caesar on television. At the time of the movie assignment, I hadn't written many big band arrangements in some time because the era of the bands had passed. I had done plenty of nightclub revues and floorshows and things like that. I Want to Live was going to be a band album. Fortunately, I was used to catching sight cues for music in acts for dancers. So when I started on I Want to Live, I realized, heck, where have I been all my life? I’ve been writing and arranging by the clock and catching sight cues for dancers for years. I just put the two together and was able to do movies. I had the background and didn’t know it. [Pictured above, from left: Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan and Bud Shank in I Want to Live]
JW: How was it working on that film?
JM: I had a wonderful director who didn’t get in my way. Robert Wise just wanted me to do my best. The people working on the film didn’t really know how to do authentic jazz for the movies so they left me alone. It was a great experience for me. All the stuff the musicians were playing in the film was written by me, except, of course, the solos. That was my introduction to film, and I found I loved working on movies.
JW: In 1960, Frank Sinatra chose you to arrange Ring A Ding Ding, the first recording date for his new Reprise label.
JM: I was writing Vic Damone’s act in Vegas at the time. Sinatra was at the Sands. I had done a lot of arrangements for Damone, and Sinatra wanted to know who wrote them. Someone told him.
JW: What happened?
JM: Bill Miller, Frank's piano player, called me, and we went out to meet Frank. He was working on the film, The Devil at 4 O'clock, at the Columbia Ranch, where they shot a lot of films. That was my first contact with Frank.
JW: How did it go?
JM: What struck me most when I first met him was how he looks at you. He looks right through you, man, with those blue eyes coming at you. He was 100% there with you when he was talking to you. He was very amped up about starting this new company. He said they were going to have vinyl records and all different colors. He’d fill the room, and the energy would come off of him.
JW: How was Frank to deal with?
JM: I was blown away to have the job. The only rough word I ever heard from him came when I called and asked him if he wanted me to treat the project like a Billy May or Nelson Riddle date. He said [imitating Frank's voice], “If I wanted them, I’d of called 'em.” I told myself, “OK, schmuck, shut up.” [Pictured: Frank Sinatra being led by director of Mervyn Leroy on the set of The Devil at 4 O'clock.]
JW: How did you work together on the music?
JM: He gave Bill Miller [pictured] his choice keys, and Bill gave them to me. Frank would never rehearse. Even if he did, he wouldn’t sound like Frank Sinatra. He’d sound like a nervous singer voicing his way through the arrangement. He could hear an arrangement down once and know it cold the second time. He was like that.
JW: Did he like what you did?
JM: You could tell how much he liked the charts by the way he was. I never had to redo any of them. I did run out of time on the project, though, because I was slow and there was little time to complete them all. So I had to farm out some of the charts.
JW: Which ones?
JM: I think I farmed out Be Careful It’s My Heart, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm and When I Take My Sugar to Tea. The rest were mine.
JW: How did you work with the ghost arrangers?
JM: I’d write an intro and maybe a modulation or something and that would be it. I’d have someone else do the rest. My favorite tracks of mine on the album were Ring A Ding Ding, The Coffee Song and In the Still of the Night.
JW: In 1964, The Americanization of Emily was released with your wonderful score and title song, which remains a jazz and pop classic.
JM: I had never written a song before Emily. Of course, I had written plenty of original instrumentals, you see, but not a so-called pop song with lyrics. My problem is I had spent too many nights in New York's Brill Building years earlier.
JW: What happened there?
JM: To get three or four arrangements done by the following day in the 1950s, I'd have to ask guys I knew who worked at the Brill Building to loan me their offices overnight. These arrangements often had to be recorded the next morning, and that kind of crap. While I was there in the evenings, I’d see songwriters with sheet music under their arms looking totally depressed. They'd be going from office to office begging publishers to play and buy their songs.
JW: What did you think?
JM: I’d say to myself, "Thank god I can arrange and don’t have to do that." When I started to write songs for the movies, it was hard for a while to get over those images. So I stuck to jazz and became the jazz film-score guy for a while. The old school film composers looked at me as if I was some sort of interloper. Many of those guys were doing movies and TV shows at that point.
JW: Why didn't you do more TV work?
JM: I hated writing for television. It was like doing movies, but for a third of the money and a third of time in which to do it. It was like factory work. You had to turn out episodes every week. I always thought of it as crap work. I did a few of shows but I didn’t like it. I loved doing movies, though. I did some TV movies and a few pictures in the early '60s I’d just soon forget, like The Lawbreakers, The 3d Voice and Drums of Africa with Frankie Avalon.
JW: How did The Americanization of Emily come about?
JM: I was lucky to get that job. I was asked to write a theme song. This was the beginning of the era of movie theme songs. So I wrote a melody that I felt fit Julie Andrews' character: an uptight English nurse who had no love for the Americans stationed in England during World War II. She was very Brit, and the English had been doing without for a long time over there before the Americans arrived. The theme I wrote was Emily. The studio liked it and said, "We'd like to make a song of it." I said, "OK, I’ll need a lyricist." They said, "Who do you want?" I said, "We may as well start at the top. How about Johnny Mercer?" So Johnny was brought on to write the lyrics. That experience changed my attitude toward songwriting quite a bit. The song, of course, was a hit.
JW: How did you work with Mercer?
JM: He just put lyrics to the theme I wrote. I had five weeks to score the movie. The song was just what I pictured for Julie Andrews, and it worked for the airport scene in the rain and when Julie and James Garner were getting it on.
JW: Emily is a beautiful waltz with a melody that moves in so many different directions.
JM: I've always loved key changes or lines and chords that sounded like key changes. That’s where my ear takes me when I’m writing a song. You have to push yourself to go somewhere else after eight bars. I was always doing that instrumentally.
JW: A year later, you wrote The Shadow of Your Smile for The Sandpiper.
JM: When I took on the project, I called Johnny Mercer right away. But after I played him the melody I had come up with, Johnny said, "I can’t write that song." I was stunned. I said, "Why not?" He said, "It’s a steal." I said, "My god, a steal from what?" He said, "From Hoagy's New Orleans."
JW: You must have flipped.
JM: When Johnny said that, I wanted to fall through the floor. I said, "Wait a minute, New Orleans is the last thing I'd think of." Whatever similarities exist were in other parts of the song and all that sort of thing.
JW: Why did Johnny think it was a lift of New Orleans?
JM: It wasn't. But later I realized he was thinking like a songwriter when he heard it. The first thing a songwriter looks for in a melody is a title for the song [sings a few notes of New Orleans]. Well the first five notes may sound similar but they resolve completely different. That's what his ears were hearing, the title notes. It was really out of left field for me. Johnny said, "I can’t do this to Hoagy [pictured]." They had written quite a few things together.
JW: What was Johnny afraid of?
JM: Johnny feared Hoagy would get upset and angry if he wrote the lyrics to a song that sounded like one of his own. The two songs don't sound anything alike, but Johnny got hooked on that one series of notes, which weren't even an inspiration for me. Fortunately, he sent me to Paul Francis Webster [pictured], whom I had never met. Paul turned out to be a lovely guy.
JW: Given how massive The Shadow of Your Smile became, Johnny must have been kicking himself for years after taking a pass.
JM: Several years later, probably in the early 1970s, I ran into Johnny [pictured]. He told me a funny story. Johnny said he and Hoagy liked to drink together. One time in the late 1960s, they were at a bar and Hoagy asked him why he never wrote the lyrics to The Shadow of Your Smile. Hoagy said, "You had just written Emily with Johnny Mandel with great success." Johnny said he told Hoagy the story about fearing Hoagy would think the song was a steal of New Orleans. Johnny told me Hoagy paused and thought for a minute. Then Hoagy said, "I never even noticed." [laughs].
JW: Johnny must have groaned.
JM: Every time Johnny Mercer and I would meet, he'd hit himself on the head with his open palm and say, “I turned that song down, what a dummy.” [laughs]
JW: In 1970 you wrote Suicide is Painless for the movie M*A*S*H, another classic.
JM: Director Robert Altman [pictured] and I were friends. I had scored a picture for him a year earlier called That Cold Day in the Park, with Sandy Dennis. At that time, I was intrigued with music from the 19th century. You know, mechanical musical instruments, orchestrations, music boxes and so on. I scored most of Cold Day with a disc music box and wrote orchestral arrangements around it. Bob and I had gotten pretty friendly. We loved to hang out. So I got hired onto M*A*S*H.
JW: How did you work on the project?
JM: I was brought in before the movie was even shot, which was highly unusual. In most cases, you’re the last one in the line to see the film when scoring it. So Bob and I were sitting around getting rather ripped one night. Bob said to me, "You know, I need a song for the film. It’s that Last Supper scene, after the guy says he’d going to do himself with a pill because his life is over, because couldn’t get it up with the WAC the night before." I said, "A song for that?" He said, "Yeah, that Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket and everybody walks around the box dropping in things like scotch, Playboy and other stuff to see him into the next world. There’s just dead air there."
JW: But if I recall, the scene features just a guy singing with an acoustic guitar.
JM: Right. Bob said, "We’ve got one guy in the shot who can sing and there's another guy who knows three chords on the guitar so we can’t use an orchestra." Bob also said the song had to be called Suicide Is Painless. "Since [Capt.] Painless commits suicide with a pill, that would be a good title," he said. Then he said, "It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written."
JW: What went through your mind?
JM: I said to myself, "Well I can do stupid." Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics. But he came back two days later and said, "I’m sorry but there’s just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need."
JW: So who wrote the lyrics?
JM: Bob said, "All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot." So Michael Altman, at age 15, wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them. It was the first scene in the movie that they were going to shoot. They had to have the song for it as a pre-record, so the actor could mouth the words, allowing for a dub later.
JW: So if you had seen the movie before composing Suicide, the song that has become so famous would likely have turned out quite differently, and perhaps not nearly as endearing.
JM: Oh sure, it's quite possible.
JW: When you gave them the song, what did Bob think?
JM: He loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that they started trying it over the title credits.
JW: What did you think?
JM: I said, "You guys are crazy. It doesn’t fit." You have these army medic helicopters flying in a war zone with this soft melody playing. It felt odd. But I wasn’t about to get into a fight over it. So I left the screening room. Sure enough, when I saw the film, the song was used over the opening credits. Then it was used on the TV series in 1972.
JW: Bill Evans recorded Suicide Is Painless, Emily and quite a few of your compositions. Did you ever talk to him about his interpretations?
JM: No, we never talked about them. He was always kind to me. I’m glad he liked Suicide Is Painless. Nobody could play like Bill.