Henry Mancini died a quarter-century ago on June 14th 1994. He had barely eked out his three-score-and-ten, and thus the grim reaper surely deprived us of melodies we'll never get to hear. Here, by way of consolation, are a few of my favorite songs by Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Mercer was the first great writing partner of Mancini's life, and the last great writing partner of Mercer's. The team produced three big songs in the early Sixties and a lot of lesser ones that have percolated up in the years since.
Hank Mancini was a kid piccolo player in Pennsylvania, who graduated to piano, and orchestration, and arranging for Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and composing scores for pictures and television. But it was Mercer who made him a songwriter - and, for a lyricist who'd written with Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen, a collaboration with Mancini didn't seem such an obviously great idea at the time. It began, like so many things in Mercer's life, with a stray tune he chanced to catch one day. "Johnny was in the habit of writing lyrics for melodies he just happened to hear and like," Mancini told Gene Lees. "He'd hear some music on his car radio and call the station to ask what it was; that was another of his habits. The tune was 'Joanna', from the second 'Peter Gunn' album. He wrote a lyric on it":
Mike Clifford, accompanied by Johnny Williams and his orchestra, made the above record and the song died and was promptly forgotten. But it remains the first composition to bear the credit "Music by Henry Mancini, words by Johnny Mercer".
"Peter Gunn", with its eponymous and extremely cool private eye, was a famous TV show in its day, and its Mancini theme tune is still known by millions of people who've never seen the show: It was revived in the film The Blues Brothers, and it's been covered by everyone from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to The Art Of Noise. And eventually someone got asked to put a lyric to it - not Mercer in this case, but Jay Livingston & Ray Evans:
That's from the album Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook, released in 1965. Just four years earlier, there was no such thing as "the Mancini songbook", and nobody who mattered thought Mancini had a songbook in him. The creator of "Peter Gunn" was Blake Edwards, and a couple of years later, working on a film called Breakfast At Tiffany's and in need of a composer, he called in his old friend. That's what Mancini was pre-1961: a "score" guy, the man who did the background music in a movie. He'd come up through the big bands, and moved into scoring with such acclaimed dramas as Creature From The Black Lagoon and Abbott And Costello Go To Mars.
But he wasn't a songwriter. So, for the point in the Breakfast script when Holly Golightly goes out on the fire escape and strums a number on her guitar, the producers decided to bring in a bigtime song man. As the film was set in New York, they figured they'd hire a couple of Broadway guys to come up with something. Mancini begged and begged Edwards to be given a shot at the song. He knew he could write a tune - not just incidental music, mood music, instrumental themes, but an actual song-type tune. The studio decided to give him a chance. At that point, they were also planning on getting a singer in to dub Audrey Hepburn. But Mancini figured she could sing something if you wrote it with her in mind. So he wrote a simple, diatonic tune in C and kept it within her range. Blake Edwards loved it and asked who he wanted for the lyric. Mancini said Johnny Mercer.
It was 1961. "Hank, who's going to record a waltz?" sighed Johnny. "It hasn't any future commercially." Nonetheless, he took the melody away and called up a while later to tell his composer that he had three possible lyrics. Mancini was conducting the orchestra for a benefit dinner that evening, and asked Mercer to meet him in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire. He sat down at the piano, and started to play the tune. Mercer sang:
Like I want to be
Like holly on a tree
Just plain Holly
With no dolly
No mama, no papa
Wherever I roam...
"I don't know about that one," said Mercer. Then he sang a second lyric, and finally a third:
Wider than a mile
I'm crossing you in style
And wrapping up:
We're after the same rainbow's end
Waitin' round the bend
My huckleberry friend
Blue River and me.
He didn't know about that one, either. There's no copyright in titles but Mercer subsequently riffled through the Ascap archives and discovered some friends of his, like Joseph Meyer (writer of "California, Here I Come"), had already written songs called "Blue River". He said he had an alternate title: "Moon River". And Mancini replied that there used to be a radio show in Cincinnati by that name. Immediately, Mercer wanted to know whether the show had had a title song. "No," said Mancini, "it was just a late-night show where a guy would talk in a deep voice about various things."
Long ago, as I recount on our Mercer podcast, Henry Mancini told me about sitting in that darkened ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire and getting chills up his spine as he heard for the very first time the line "My huckleberry friend". It's the essence of lyric-writing: a minimal number of words that seem to conjure a whole world. "Echoes of America," Mancini called it: Tom and Huck on the Mississippi, and a whole lot more:
Many people congratulated Mercer on that line, but usually by way of praising its allusive qualities. As far as I know, the only person to ask him directly what a "Moon River" has to do with a "huckleberry friend" was the musical historian Miles Kreuger. "You're the only one who has asked me," said a sheepish Mercer. "Everybody loves that image, but it's really a terrible mistake." Back when the song was "Blue River", the river itself was the huckleberry friend - huckleberry blue. In his haste to change the title from "Blue River" to "Moon River", he forgot to amend the image - to "my goldenroddy friend" or "my xanthodonty friend" or whatever. And for a while every time he heard "Moon River" on the radio, he cringed .
It made some other people cringe, too, for entirely different reasons. As Mercer gleefully reveals on our audio show, after a disastrous preview in San Francisco, Marty Rackin, Paramount's head honcho, said, "I don't know what you guys are gonna do, but I'll tell you one thing: that damn song can go" - or, as Mancini told it to me, "that f***in' song can go." It didn't, and it won the Oscar. And, after that, Henry Mancini was a bona fide songwriter, and Mercer & Mancini were a team. In my book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn there's an essay on Mercer that Hugh Hewitt particularly liked:
HUGH HEWITT: It's just a beautiful piece of writing, Mark. And I loved your little touch of the personal, which is not often in your writing, about your country club experience with "Moon River".
MARK STEYN: Yes, when I was - many, many years ago, I was 18 or 19, I took a girl I adored to a country club dance I couldn't really afford, which as you know is never a good idea.
MS: ...particularly if you're hoping the evening will work out well with the lady in question, because you're like just incredibly nervous about it. Because you're trying to be smooth - "Well, what would you care to drink, darling?" - terrified that she's going to do more than just order the cheapest items on the menu. And the master of ceremonies announced a competition. And to win you had to answer a very simple question, and the question was how wide is Moon River? And of course, I immediately jumped up and said, as the song says, "wider than a mile". And we won a magnum of champagne, and the waiters were fawning on us. And it was just the best, it was just the best night. And as you say, I don't write about personal things terribly often - because it's often not of interest to people. But I always loved the way just knowing that one silly little bit of song lyric just transformed that evening into a magical evening for me.
"Moon River" was such a hit - beginning with Mancini's own recording - that for the rest of the decade and much of the next it seemed to be playing in every elevator and every restaurant and every time you sat on the phone waiting to be put through to the dentist's secretary. And familiarity bred a kind of contempt, as I discuss toward the end of that Mercer audio tribute. But, because of that goofy teenage date all those years ago, the song is vivid and intense for me, and always will be.
For another Audrey Hepburn picture, this time with Cary Grant, Mercer & Mancini wrote "Charade", which I tend to prefer in finger-snappy Bobby Darin/Harry Connick Jr fashion. For another Blake Edwards movie, The Pink Panther, they wrote "Meglio Stasera (It Had Better To Be Tonight)" - for the all-time great après-ski scene with Fran Jeffries wiggling round the room in sweater and pedal pushers:
It's the best moment in the picture, and one the leaden Steve Martin remake sorely lacks. A few years back, I suggested to a friend of mine that "Meglio Stasera" was (as I like to think of them) a truffle - a potential hit lying out there just waiting to be snuffled out the ground. Ten minutes later, I discovered that the very savvy David Foster and Michael Bublé were about to release it. I think their somewhat bombastic treatment comes close to burying the song, but it's a good example of how even minor Mercer has legs. Some of their later ballads - "Whistling Away The Dark" - have picked up steam over the years, too.
Mercer and Mancini's second Oscar winner came just a year after "Moon River", and for another Blake Edwards picture. Days of Wine and Roses was a bleak little tale starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as a young married couple in a ménage à trois: "You and me and booze - a threesome," as Lemmon's character tells Remick's. He becomes an alcoholic. Then she becomes an alcoholic. Then he claws his way back up from the depths. And she can't quite navigate that journey.
You wonder what Mercer made of the theme. I touched on his own drinking when we did "One For My Baby", and, as for days of wine and roses, for a famously mean drunk a lot of Mercer's days devolved into nights of wine, and roses on the morning after, with hasty calls to florists to dispatch a compensatory bouquet to whichever close friend, casual acquaintance or hat-check girl he'd bawled out the night before. The half-decade before "Moon River" was the biggest drought in Mercer's career. "I haven't had a hit song in years," he told his son-in-law, Bob Corwin, on the night Mancini happened to call up to tell him how well "Moon" was doing. It was a dry patch professionally but not alcoholically, and it fell to Corwin to accompany him from one bar to the next night after night and "get him out of there before he got killed because he was so belligerent". For Days of Wine and Roses, he certainly knew whereof he wrote.
The film was adapted by J P Miller from his Playhouse 90 TV drama of the same name, and Blake Edwards was insistent that the song also use the title. Mercer didn't like it. "It sounds like a French operetta, or the War of the Roses, or Sigmund Romberg, or Hammerstein and Kern," he said, "and you go in and you see two kids getting stoned out of their heads, and it's pretty depressing." Even worse, the title came from a Victorian poem:
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Those words were written by the English poet Ernest Dowson. So Mercer had to come up with a lyric that could hold its own with a pre-existing verse. And, just to add a cautionary note, the poem's title "Vittae Summa Brevis" turned out to be self-fulfilling: Dowson - like Mercer, an alcoholic - died at the age of 32 in 1900.
A good professional movie composer, Henry Mancini listened to what Blake Edwards wanted. "The title determined the melody - six words, seven syllables," he said. "I went to the piano and started on middle C and went up to A, 'The days...'" He reprised the title phrase halfway through. When he played the tune for his lyricist, Mercer taped it on one of the first cassette recorders and took it home.
He poured himself a drink, leaned against the wall, and stared thoughtfully at the bar. An image came to him - of fleeting time, of days that "run away like a child at play". And at that point the lyric too just ran away:
The Days Of Wine And Roses
Laugh and run away
Like a child at play
Through the meadowland
Towards a closing door
A door marked 'Nevermore'
That wasn't there before.
Usually (as with, say, "Blues in the Night") Mercer wrote sheet after sheet of lyrics - words, lines, couplets, quatrains, choruses - and then he'd go back through them all and pick out the best. Not this time. What you hear is all there is. "I wrote it in five minutes," he said. "I couldn't get it down fast enough. It was like taking dictation. It just poured out of me." Mercer's entire text is just two sentences. That's the first one above. Here's the second:
The lonely night discloses
Just a passing breeze
Filled with memories
Of the golden face that introduced me to
The Days Of Wine And Roses
That was the one bit of rewriting he did: he changed "golden face" to "golden smile", which in keeping with the rest of the words is softer and less obtrusive. He didn't write about the demon booze. Instead, he fleshed out Ernest Dowson - the "misty dream" and the path that "emerges for a while, then closes" - or, more singably, laughs and runs away like a child at play through the meadowland towards a closing door, a door marked "Nevermore"...
When I was very young, I interviewed Andy Williams, who, as he did with "Moon River" and "Charade", had a big record with "Days Of Wine And Roses". "I love that song," I said, "The closing door marked 'Nevermore' in the meadow. But what does it mean?"
"I wish you hadn't asked that," he said, "because I don't really know."
As we've noted, Mercer got autumnal early. Indeed, he wrote a song called "Early Autumn", and he lived it. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the marriage, maybe it was just a tendency he shared with many other writers to overthink the whole intimations-of-mortality shtick. But from before his 40th birthday and through songs like "Laura", "Autumn Leaves" and "When The World Was Young" there's a sense in his work of a man trying to pin down memories, of life and love in all their elusiveness. And, as soon as you do, they swim away again just out of focus - or laugh and run away. That's what Mercer is acknowledging here, and that's why the two-sentence text, unwinding with the contours of the melody, captures it so perfectly. Staccato phrases, lots of consonants, would have killed the song. That one rhyme for the title - "discloses" - could so easily have overbalanced the lyric, but instead it's perfectly poised to serve the number's point: the notion of the past slipping away, forever out of reach, except for grudging, fleeting sensations, "a passing breeze filled with memories".
Here's Andy Williams with the composer himself and a brace of Oscar winners:
It wasn't only Andy Williams who loved "Days of Wine and Roses". Jack Lemmon told me about the first time Mercer and Mancini played it. It was after a long day's shoot of a grueling scene, and Blake Edwards insisted Lemmon accompany him to a big empty soundstage with a small upright piano in the middle. "I didn't want to go, but it turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my professional life," he said. "I'll never forget it. Hank began noodling just softly, softly, and Johnny pulls out an envelope and looks at the back just to remind himself, and Hank gives him the key note, and off he goes":
The Days Of Wine And Roses
Laugh and run away
Like a child at play...
Sitting at the piano, Mancini had his back to Lemmon and Edwards. At the end of the song, there was silence. Mancini stared down at the keyboard. Still silence. Nothing. Eventually, he turned around to see what was going on, and there were his director and his star with tears streaming down their faces.
~There's more on Mancini, Mercer and "Moon River" in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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