Johnny Mandel

Composer, Arranger, Trumpeter, Trombonist
Portrait of Johnny Mandel

Photo by Frank Stewart


"I've been fortunate to have received so many awards in the past. To be names an NEA Jazz Master is, to me, the ultimate achievements and I am thrilled beyond belief. Since hearing live jazz on the radio at the age of twelve, I've known what I wanted to do with my life. I'm so thankful."

Johnny Mandel is considered one of the nation's top composer/arrangers in jazz, pop, and film music. The breadth and quality of his work made it possible to be recorded by a wide variety of jazz musicians and singers.

Mandel's parents discovered that he -- at the age of five -- had perfect pitch, and started him on piano lessons. He eventually moved on to playing horns ("I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss," he is quoted as saying), studying at the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard School, both in New York City. In the 1940s, he played the trumpet with Joe Venuti and Billy Rogers, and trombone in the orchestras of Boyd Rayburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Georgie Auld, and Chubby Jackson.

From 1951-53, he played and arranged music in the band of Elliott Lawrence and Count Basie. Later he relocated to Los Angeles, where he played the bass trumpet for Zoot Sims. He also showed a prowess for composing, writing the jazz compositions "Not Really the Blues" for Woody Herman, "Hershey Bar" and "Pot Luck" for Stan Getz, "Straight Life" and "Low Life" for Count Basie, and "Tommyhawk" for Chet Baker.

Mandel moved to Hollywood in 1957 and began working on film scores, utilizing his outstanding compositional and arranging gifts. His score for the Susan Heyward movie I Want To Live is considered the first time that jazz had been integrated successfully into a musical score. He went on to earn a reputation as a film composer/arranger, including two of his more famous numbers: "Suicide Is Painless," which was used as the theme for the movie (and later television series) M*A*S*H (whose soundtrack includes a version played by Ahmad Jamal), and "The Shadow of your Smile" for the movie The Sandpiper, which won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Song. He has provided music for more than 30 films, including The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and Being There.

By the early 1960s, Mandel's reputation was such that the biggest names in jazz and pop wanted to work with him. Frank Sinatra chose him as arranger for his 1961 release Ring-a-Ding-Ding! In 1966, he served as musical director on Tony Bennett's The Movie Song Album and collaborated again more recently, on Bennett's album The Art of Romance (2004). Other singers who have sought his talents out include Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Shirley Horn, Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day, Barbra Streisand, and Nancy Wilson.

Mandel has received five Grammy Awards: Song of the Year for Tony Bennett's performance of "The Shadow of your Smile" and Best Original Score for The Sandpiper (both 1965), Best Arrangment on an Instrumental Recording for Quincy Jones' song "Velas" (1981), Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s) for Natalie Cole's Unforgettable (1991) and for Shirley Horn's Here's to Life (1992).

Original Soundtrack Recording, I Want To Live, Rykodisc, 1958
Frank Sinatra, Ring-a-Ding-Ding!, Reprise, 1960
Anita O'Day, Trav'lin' Light, Verve, 1961
Original Soundtrack Recording, M*A*S*H, Columbia, 1970
Shirley Horn, Here's to Life, Verve, 1992

Interview by A.B. Spellman for the NEA September 23, 2010 Edited by Rebecca Gross


Q: You came from a musical family -- your mother sang opera?

Johnny Mandel: Well, sort of. She wasn't allowed, because it was in the very Victorian era. My grandfather said, "You're going to go on the stage? That means you sleep with the producer. Nothing doing." Very Victorian, and she was never allowed. But you know what?  As a result, she was extremely supportive of me. She was wonderful that way.

Q: She was trained?

Johnny Mandel: She went to [the] Chicago Conservatory. She was a coloratura and won the Diamond Medal there. The first piano I ever played on was a gift for winning it, as a matter of fact.

Q: I understand that she discovered you had perfect pitch when you were five years old.

Johnny Mandel: I guess she did, because I didn't know it. I'd call off things for her that she'd want.

Q: Your first instrument was piano?

Johnny Mandel: No. I always tried it, but I have no talent for the piano. I can't make my hands do different things. I can't play two clefs at the same time. I was always kind of a lousy reader. Even when I was playing the trombone or the trumpet, I'd read as well as I had to. If we were playing a lot of shows, and new music's coming, I would get better, but it would go away as soon as I didn't have to do it. I could write as fast as I could read, sometimes.

Q: I assume that music was always in the house.

Johnny Mandel: It was. It wasn't classical music, it was always the tunes of the day. The biggest way they could punish me was to take away the Victrola, [and] put it up on a shelf where I couldn't reach it. I'd yell like a banshee.

Q: What were your favorite songs from the period?

Johnny Mandel: They were all pretty lousy. Everybody recorded. The publishers ran the business and they'd turn out all kinds of junk. Everybody who made a record recorded them, and you had to play them on the air. My mother liked the better songs, so she'd pick the ones from the shows, like Irving Berlin, [Richard] Rodgers…the good ones. I started realizing that there were some [songs] better than the stuff that you were hearing on the radio.

Q: What drew you to the brass instruments, the trumpet and trombone?

Johnny Mandel: They had a violin in the family from some uncle or something. I wasn't about to play that. I didn't want to play the drums; I didn't want to play something that you struck. I wanted to have an instrument that you could kiss. And that, at that time, led to either the trumpet or the saxophone, and the trumpet won out.


Q: You went to study after high school at Juilliard. What was your concentration there?

Johnny Mandel: I was studying much earlier than that from my trumpet teacher. When I went to Manhattan, I only went to Juilliard for a summer session. I really didn't like it because it was full of "don'ts," and they were teaching an old-fashioned system called the Wedge System. It didn't allow you to do things I'd been doing all the time in big band writing by then. 

You know, no parallel fifths. Everything was tailored for Haydn, Mozart…the early classicists after Bach. Even Bach's son, who was considered to be the great Bach at that time. The old man was considered to be a relic. "Johan Sebastian?  We don't play him anymore." All that kind of stuff. Like what's happening to jazz. We've been termed out, as they say. But I don't believe that.

Q: So you said you'd been writing some pieces for big bands before you went to Manhattan?

Johnny Mandel: Oh sure. I went [to Manhattan] in 1947 but I'd been writing for big bands from about 1943, '44. I'd gone to study with Van Alexander, and he was wonderful.

I used to hear songs all the time. I was like any kid that grew up with his ear glued to the radio in those days. Now they're glued to something else, I don't know what, but it isn't the radio. What we had, which I didn't realize at the time, [was] a perfect laboratory. Ever since the swing thing hit with Benny Goodman in 1935, it suddenly became the popular music of the day. It wasn't just dance music anymore. 

All these places, all the hotels -- everything but the theaters, of course -- had a radio wire in and the publishers ran the business like dictators. They had their song pluggers out peppering the band with these songs. The bands really had to play songs that were on the hit parade. They couldn't play obscure things because the publishers wouldn't like it and the bandleaders…who knows what deals went on between the bandleaders and the publishers.

So you'd hear a song and it's the number one song or something at the time. And I'm saying to myself, "That's a very popular song. I don't like it much at all." Then another band would come on and it would sound wonderful, you know, like Tommy Dorsey or Dick Jurgens out in the Midwest or Lawrence Welk. And I said, "Now wait a minute, that's the same song I heard. What the hell is this?"

I was totally confused. This went on night after night because I'd listen sometimes after I went to bed. About two or three weeks later, the light bulb went on over my head: It's not the song at all. It's the way the band plays it.

I guess somebody writes the music for the band to play and, what sort of person is this? I inquired around and I found out he was called an arranger. Now in 1940, nobody knew what an arranger was. You'd maybe read about it in DownBeat or Metronome or one of those magazines, but people thought an arranger was somebody who moved chairs around or something. 

And I discovered that that's what I wanted to do. I got sort of mesmerized by the whole thing of mixing the colors of the various instruments. There weren't any books, really. There was an old Frank Skinner book, but that was all 1920s kind of writing. You know, just three of everything and I didn't like three-part harmony. I fell in love with four-part harmony and five-part harmony.

That's why I didn't like folk and rock when it came in, because it went back to very simple harmonies. Anyway, I listened to shows like Make Believe Ballroom and you'd hear records by Van Alexander, who was a working bandleader at the time and happened to be writing for Chick Webb a lot. I think [Van's] name was Al Feldman, originally. I think that was his maiden name. Chick really liked what he did and he wrote "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" and a bunch of things.

I heard that [Van] was taking students, and I hit up my mother hard. That's when I started going to Van. He right away opened the whole thing up to me. He was sure that this is really what I wanted to do. And he goes over to the closet in his apartment and pulls out a big bunch of yellow papers and brings it over to me.  I said, "What's that?" He said, "That's a score," and I said, "What's a score?" He said, "This is a snapshot of what everybody in the band is doing for eight bars." I'm looking at all these different instruments, and I see that they're all in different keys and everything, like altos and the tenors and trumpets and trombones.

He explained right away what transposition [was]. You hear that for the first time and you're not aware of it. It's like getting a math problem that you don't understand. He couldn't give me a good answer for something I said: "Why are the trombones written so high up off the thing with all those ledger lines?" He gave me an answer I always hated, which is, "Well, that's the way they did it and always done it." I always thought it should be written like the tenor saxophone or something. It would make more sense, but no, this is how you did it.

So he said, "You see what it looks like now, what you've got to do is hear what it sounds like," and he takes out a record, like a brand new Bluebird record he'd just made of a song. It was an old Harry Warren song from a movie called Naughty But Nice, but it was kind of a nice song. He puts it on and the record's going on and he turns the pages as it's going. He said, "We're here now." He gets to the girl singer -- they always had the vocal in the middle of the song in the ‘30s -- and I said, "Why'd you change keys there?" and he said, "Well, that's the key the girl sings in." And I said, "Oh, that's a whole new one for me, girls sing in keys." I didn't know that. Then they get to the big ride-out ending and that's it. 

He said, "Now you've heard what it sounds like and you see what it looks like and you've got to put those two things together. That takes a long time, but eventually you'll be able to look at a score and hear in your head what it should sound like. And vice-versa, too. If you hear something on a record and you'd like to write that for a band, you just play it over and over again." You'd get dizzy following the 78s around, you know. You'd play it over until you find something that sounds like that on a piano and you make that sound and you'd write it down. 

Learning how to write, in big band or anything like that, is a process of screwing up. Your first arrangements always sound horrible. But if you find something that sounded good, then you say, well, if that sounded good why did it sound good, and if I took it and moved it over here somewhere and…it's that kind of a thing.  Then he handed me a big pad of yellow paper and said, "Go home and write something." He tossed me into the water and yelled "swim." You can't teach this.

You learn it by screwing up. And if you screw up, you don't do that anymore. You do something else that sounded good. That's how you learn. It was a whole thing of spreading all the parts to a stock arrangement out and trying to construct a score for it. That's how all of us learned. 

A bunch of us, like Al Cohn, Manny Albam -- guys that I hadn't met yet -- Gerry Mulligan, we came up together, along with Zoot [Sims] and Stan [Getz] and all those people. That's the generation that I came up in. We were all doing the same thing but we didn't know each other. Then we all ended up playing in the bands later on.


Q: You went to play for the Venuti Band. Was that your first serious job as a musician?

Johnny Mandel: Oh, no, I'd worked up in the Catskills playing shows and that kind of thing. I was the musical director at a summer camp a year, two years before that. In 1943, that's how I spent my summer vacation. At that time I was going to the New York Military Academy on a band scholarship. One of my classmates was Stumpy Brown and we were in there together. There were three Brown brothers, Les was there in 1932 and he was Phi Beta Kappa. Warren Brown, the middle brother was there…

Q: Tell me about the Venuti band.

Johnny Mandel: Well, you might say that's a baptism of fire. Joe was great, he was extremely funny. There are great Joe Venuti stories. Kay Starr was our singer, it was that early. Kay was wonderful. She was a real trooper and fun to be around. I can tell you some stories.

Q: Do you have a clean one?

Johnny Mandel: Well, everybody was getting drafted. He was losing guys and he couldn't get musicians. He didn't give a damn, so he just wouldn't replace [them] -- he lost all his trombone players. Tex Satterwhite went over to Tommy Dorsey and when the last trombone player left, they didn't have any trombones. The thing that used to bug me, and it still does, was to hear music played by less people than it was written for. It's a horrible feeling for me, when you're missing the part. 

I was good at making up the missing part, and I'd wear out my lips just playing with the saxophones and with everything else. Joe couldn't have cared less. It was really a baptism of fire, but it was a lot of fun. He used to have me come down and play a solo like "Stardust," just so he could introduce me. "Now we're going to have our young trumpet player John Foreskin play "'Stardust.'" He'd do things like that. Why, I don't know -- that was Joe's type of humor. "John Peckerhead, give him a big hand!" These things were funnier than I'm making them at the time.


Q: At about age 20 you went to work in a sequence of really important bands.

Johnny Mandel: I think the next band after I graduated was Billie Rogers, the great trumpet player, who was a really good musician. It's not the only band I got fired from, but I did get fired from her. I probably wasn't playing the trumpet very well, and that was when I switched to the trombone. 

Before that I was with Henry Jerome. We were down underneath the Paramount Theater, and we had Leonard Garment in there. Lenny was doing the whole thing in Harlem [and] later became Nixon's lawyer, much to his regret. And Alan Greenspan. Probably the best thing Alan did in the band was the payroll. But he was a beautiful guy, and he's the same guy he is now.

That was sort of a nice band. Henry was a wonderful guy to work with, to work for. We were playing early bebop, I don't think very well, but there were a lot of guys in that band that went to Boyd Raeburn's band with me. Tiny Kahn was there. He was a drummer who wrote wonderful arrangements. He was very funny and I miss him. A lot of drummers were influenced by him, [like] Mel Lewis. He also wrote great big band arrangements. He could write funny songs and play them on the piano; he wasn't just a drummer.

Q: The Raeburn band was another band that also always had great sound and great writing.

Johnny Mandel: Oh yeah, a lot of experimenting in that band. We had George Handy writing a lot of arrangements, and I wrote some of them.

Q: Did that whole experience affect your writing in a meaningful way?

Johnny Mandel: Well, a lot of things affected my writing because that's just when bebop was really coming, in 1945. I've got a lot of recordings that we did. We did a lot of broadcasting out of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. That was a wonderful summer. The band was going to break up because it was too far in advance. It was trying to play a lot of music that was very adventurous and was great to play, but nobody really was getting the message.

And it did break up. Somebody was going to Jimmy Dorsey and he said, "Why don't you come with me, Buddy Morrow's going to leave." I was the first trombone player when I started playing trombone, because I could play very high. I don't think I played very well low, but within three or four months I'm playing the first trombone chair with Jimmy Dorsey, playing all those high solos that originally Tommy played when they were the Dorsey Brothers.

I couldn't quite believe it. I did that through the rest of '45. Jimmy was a wonderful guy, great to work with, but it was a band that got stuck in its 1940 groove. It wasn't even late ‘40s. It was like playing with a cement mixer. It was a large band with five trumpets, nine brass, all that kind of stuff. 

It was no fun. Buddy Rich was just organizing his first band, and I went to that and went through about three different Buddy Rich bands. I got fired from that [first] one because I was a real bebopper and Buddy hated bebop at that time. He said, "I hate Charlie Parker and I hate Dizzy Gillespie." In six months he was a convert and all of a sudden he loved all that. I really started off hating Buddy Rich and I ended up loving him. He was quite a guy. 

Q: But he could swing a band, though…

Johnny Mandel: Oh God, yeah -- when he felt like playing. He played great for every band except his own.  For some reason it was uncomfortable being in his band. He was probably the greatest drummer in the world at that time. Every drummer bows down to him, I don't care how modern they are. He brought Tommy Dorsey's band -- which was a very dull band -- to life.

Q: In those days there were black bands and white bands.

Johnny Mandel: Yeah, it was like that. The musicians didn't like it because most of their favorite players were in the bands of the other color. Thank God that slowly eroded.

Q: How did the bebop revolution strike you?

Johnny Mandel: I was excited by it, but then pretty soon I found it dull and boring. I mean, with the exception of Diz and Bird and a bunch of other guys that really could play it. I sort of went back to the kind of feeling that the Basie band was the band for me. When I was in Basie in '53, he had a bunch of modern arrangements that didn't feel right. It was like a shotgun wedding. There were two good things that didn't mesh. It was just a whole other world. I never loved bebop for bebop -- [it] didn't fit into big bands very well. When I was with Basie, the only thing that was bebop influenced was "Blee Blop Blues," and that was a great arrangement by A.K. Salim. Frank Wess started doing a few things like that, but not really extreme, and so did Thad [Jones].

Dizzy had a great big band when he was doing it, but only he could do it. A lot of people weren't buying it; he couldn't stay in business. Then he'd take small band gigs until he could finally get something go with the big band, and so forth -- it was back and forth.


Q: Tell me about some of your experiences in the Basie band.

Johnny Mandel: The nicest place I ever was, I just loved being there. It was just heaven. You couldn't wait to get to work every night. "Sweets" [Harry Edison] used to feel that way with Basie.

[Harry] was my man, you know. He was the one that rang my bell when I first heard him. There was so much joy in his playing. This was putting him up against Roy [Eldridge] and Dizzy and Louis [Armstrong]. I loved Bunny Berigan originally, as versus Harry James, but they were all great. But there's always somebody that rings your bell, and that was Sweets for me…and he never changed. 

I remember him saying, "You know, everyone's playing up in the ceiling. I know I can't do that and if I try, I know I'm not going to have a very long [career]. So I have to make a style. I have to figure out a style that allows me to be able to go on for 50 years." And that's just what he did. He had the best time of anybody. I don't know anybody that swung harder than him.

Q: What was Basie like to work for?

Johnny Mandel: Heaven. Just heaven. The holy man, that's what everybody called him and it wasn't just because he paid them. There's nobody more beautiful to work for than Basie. He just allowed you to be, and made you glad you were there. He seldom, if ever, said much to the guys. If he liked them, they were there, and if he didn't, they somehow weren't there anymore.

Q: Freddie Green was sort of the policeman of the band?

Johnny Mandel: Sort of, not really. Freddie had to live with things he wasn't too happy with, either. When I was there, Gus Johnson was the drummer and I just adored him, and Freddie did, too. I think [Gus] got into an argument with Henry Coker, another beautiful guy -- great trombone player. 

I guess one of them had to go and Gus went. I think Basie wanted to get somebody who was a little more showy, and so [Sonny Payne] came in. He used to drive Freddie crazy, because Freddie was always trying to hold the tempo and [Sonny] tended to rush in his excitement. He was a young man versus old man.

Q: Did you do any writing for that band?

Johnny Mandel: I did some. Not much. We were on the road quite a bit. I did "Straight Life" and "Low Life" and a few others.

Q: Stan Getz was one of the pivotal musicians. What was he like to work with?

Johnny Mandel: He was always wonderful to me. He was kind. There were many sides to Stan Getz. Zoot described him as a real interesting bunch of guys. Zoot was so funny, to begin with.


Q: What's your approach to writing? Is there a Mandel Method?

Johnny Mandel: No. That's why all the things sound different. I don't have a method or a style, and I never wanted one. Some guys really try to have a style. I just work with what's there and try to do the best with what's there.

Q: As a poet, I make a distinction between style and voice. I aspire to have a voice but I also aspire to be broader than a style. Does that translate to you?

Johnny Mandel: It does in the sense that I don't think of a style of music, but I like a lot of chords. I like things that have harmonies that flow, regardless of whether it's bebop or whether it's Basie, or whether it's some other style of music. The first thing I pay attention to is the chords. But I don't write melodies that try to copy the chords. A lot of bop things were done trying to spell out the chords in the melody. I didn't do that at all. 

I just loved harmony for itself, but not as a style in itself. That's why [if] I'm doing a standard of any kind, I'll re-harmonize it the way I like it. I don't use original chords. I don't try to do something sort of far out. When you re-harmonize something, when you're writing an arrangement, you're going to write lines that go against the melody, or in back of a singer or in back of a player. What I wanted to do was to just furnish a nice smooth pathway with the chords. Unless you harmonize something, it's like all of a sudden you'll create an obstacle by putting an angular kind of chord in there that doesn't feel comfortable. You have to write something that bypasses it. 

That's what I think of it: making trails. There are many ways of harmonizing a standard song, for instance, and I just like to take the one that gives you more opportunities to write nice lines against it. You're not hemmed in by harmony that's very angular and you're [not] limited by one or two choices. I try to avoid that.


Q: How did you get into writing for film and television?

Johnny Mandel: Jazz is still my middle name; this is what I loved. I just learned to write a lot of different kinds of music because it was required and I was very happy to have done it. The first thing I did apart from bands was I got a job on one of the last sustaining radio [stations]. Just as radio was being eclipsed by television, somebody recommended me for a job with WMGM, which was a station owned by MGM to publicize their product.

They had a band there, so I had to write about four arrangements a week or something for it. I was doing that in '49 and '50. I was able to write for different instruments and things. It was a pretty good band. 

Then I got an offer to do Your Show of Shows. I was thrown into that [and] did the first two years of [it]. You wouldn't believe what a gig that was. I was working with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and this was all the beginning.

Q: Woody Allen wrote for that show.

Johnny Mandel: Much later. I think Neil Simon did [too], but this was before. But we did have Carl Reiner and Imogene and Sid. They were all wonderful. And Judy Johnson, who lives right down the block here from me, was originally a singer with Les Brown. She had that hit on "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio." So all of a sudden we were thrown into this circus. Oh, Mel Brooks was there. 

Picture this now: we had to do a 90-minute show every week. A show that runs 90 minutes is almost like a Broadway show, it's that length. The show went on Saturday night and the one rest day was Sunday. Then Monday morning we'd start out [in] all the rehearsal rooms up above the Civic Center. You know, that Moroccan-looking building, up where all the ballets are.

We'd spend 18 hours a day in that room, because we had to start from scratch. All the sketches had to be done, all the comedy bits. We had the Williams Brothers, I had to do two or three things for them, the Hamilton Trio…all these different things. We'd have to do an excerpt from an opera, usually a mini-opera because we had Robert Merrill and Marguerite Piazza.

Then we had these huge eight-minute things -- the dancers with Judy [Johnson] and Bill Hayes. They'd do, say, a Rodgers and Hart song, "Thou Swell" or something like that, with choreography. They had 16 dancers and we had an eight-voice chorus and we'd have to put together two or three of those.

They were like movie musicals they way they'd do it. We'd stand up with the singers, and maybe they'd do a second chorus with variations with the chorus. Then [the] dance section would go on longer than a bass solo and we'd have to catch all those accents and everything. And then a big finish, like the MGM musicals of the ‘40s with the singers and the dancers and everybody else. We had to do two or three of those a week. 

Irwin Kostal and I were writing all the music, and eventually Billy Byers came in. I'd gotten Billy on the MGM show and then I said, "Come on over here," because we were turning out 200 pages of music a week. You wrote as fast as you could and hoped you got to the end. On those long numbers we'd split them up. Irv Kostal [would] say, "I'll take through the vocals then you catch the dance." Then Billy would catch the ending, or by then Irv would catch the ending. Those things would go on six, eight minutes. 

By Friday we'd be doing the whole thing for the cameras. Saturday there was a dress rehearsal. Then you had to do two shows because there was no such thing as tape in those days, just kinescopes, which were very premature and primitive. They weren't really suitable for broadcasting. They looked like old soundies almost, like early films. 

We'd do one at five o'clock for the East Coast and then another one at eight for the West Coast. You always did the West Coast in those days. There was no such thing as tape, so you had to do the whole 39 weeks because you couldn't do any repeats. 

Everybody was ready for the funny farm by then. You wouldn't want to be in the control room during the show. The directors and all the technicians had never done this kind of live TV, so sets would fall down while we were on the air, and the mic would constantly be getting in the picture. Everybody was doing it for the first time, and everybody was screaming at everybody else. It was quite a scene. And I was in there checking for notes.

Q: It was a great show. It always seemed fresh and spontaneous to me. I never thought about all the work that must have gone into it.

Johnny Mandel: Oh yeah. Then you had to start from scratch on Monday morning, with one day's rest. By the time the 39 weeks were over, everybody knew that we were doing something that nobody's going to do again. Pretty soon after that, maybe a year or two, you had videotape and so that solved some of the problem. There was just no way you could do it, and nobody knew you couldn't do it. They were thinking like a 90-minute radio show. That's a whole different thing.

Q: How did you take your jazz background and feed it into film and television music?

Johnny Mandel: Well, it wasn't necessarily a matter of skill. It was that the producers discovered [that] this was a hell of a way to get a cheap score. No big orchestra, and all that overtime and the string players, who are always a pain. When it comes to doing favors, they won't. No matter how great they are, you have to realize [that] every [string player] is a frustrated concert artist who spent their whole life, whole childhood having to do that, hoping to be the next Mischa Elman. 

They're sitting there in big groups with guys just like them, so they're not about to do any favors for the union. They're going to take every nickel they can get. So the producers were delighted when all of a sudden you could have a Peter Gunn. You know, somebody noodling on the piano and maybe a clarinet and a trumpet player and a bunch of flutes. That's why it didn't take any skill on my part; it was just a matter of going with the flow. They said, "Good, the more jazz the better," and they're seeing dollar signs in their heads. This time they're not floating away.


Q: Most people know you from things you've written for television and for film, and they know you by the melodies.

Johnny Mandel: Well, also by songs. The first real song I wrote was "Emily," and I'd been in the business [of] writing arrangements for 20 years. I didn't want to write songs. I used to work in the Brill Building, sometimes having to get three or four tunes done for a ten o'clock in the morning date. And I'd see these songwriters walking in and out of offices with music under their arms looking like the world was going to end. You know, rejection after rejection and looking so depressed. 

I said, "I don't want to do that. I really don't want to do that at all." I was kind of backed into writing my first song, which was "Emily." I had written for The Americanization of Emily -- I wrote the theme that I thought really captured Julie Andrews' character. They said, "We like this." This was the era of the big title song, you know, the high and mighty. Dimitri Tiomkin, [Henry] Mancini had a few like "Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses"…one after another.

They said, "We want to make a song out of [the theme]." I said, "Well, I'm really going to need a lyricist." They said, "Who do you want?" I said, "Well let's start at the top -- Johnny Mercer." "You got him."  So Johnny came in and wrote "Emily" with me. I've always loved his work to begin with, from very early. I'd hear a song and say, "Who wrote it?" Johnny Mercer, of course. I loved working with him. 

Then I did The Sandpiper and we had "The Shadow of your Smile." I put the song to [Johnny] and he said, "I can't write that song. I've had a long association with Hoagy Carmichael. We wrote ‘Lazybones' and ‘In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening' and ‘Skylark.' I can't do this to Hoagy, because this song is a steal from a song of Hoagy's."

I said, "What?" He said, "'New Orleans.'" I said, "That's from left field! The opening phrase comes in a whole different part of the bar. Those five notes I sang you were a pickup." I about wanted to fall through the floor.

I didn't realize that a lyricist always wants to grab the title. The title is more important than anything else. So he's hearing that five note phrase as a title. It was a pickup rather than something that was in the body of the song, which "New Orleans" was -- it just starts right out in the song. I said, "It's not a steal." He said, "Well, I can't do that to Hoagy."

I said, "There's nobody else I know that I'd want to write with." He said, "Why don't you try Paul Francis Webster, he's a poetic fellow. I'll call him for you." So he calls Paul. Paul is a beautiful guy and the whole family -- I was sort of single at the time -- would have me to dinner. They sort of took me in. 

"The Shadow of Your Smile" was written and the thing got very big because of the picture. The publishers really did their job for once. When I saw Johnny Mercer from then on, he'd hit himself on the head and say, "I turned that thing down, look at it!" I'd say, "Well, you win some and you lose some."

Years later, he and Hoagy were drinking at a party or something and Hoagy said, "There's something I meant to ask you for a long time. Why didn't you write the lyrics to "The Shadow of Your Smile?" He told him, "I didn't want to do this to you," and Hoagy said, "I never noticed."

Q: How did you come up with "Emily"?  Can you talk to us about what's going on in there?

Johnny Mandel: I wrote it to be a trumpet solo. Did you see the movie The Sandpiper? It's not a good movie; it's got a stupid script. But it's a beautiful movie to watch, because the whole thing is beautifully photographed in Big Sur. I scored the scenery more than I scored the movie. It was just a physically beautiful movie to watch, the interiors, everything. 

I wanted it to be a trumpet solo and Jack Sheldon did a magnificent job over these great vistas of the sea. I wrote the kind of orchestra that gave it a lot of room to be. 


Q: You've written some great music for singers. You won three Grammys for that, involving a couple of NEA Jazz Masters including Quincy Jones.

Johnny Mandel: Quincy and I are very close friends, from 1952 [when] I was with Basie and he was with [Lionel Hampton]. We connected right away.

Q: And Shirley Horn.

Johnny Mandel: I loved her from hearing her sing. She had become a big fan of things I'd done. I met her at the Roosevelt Hotel, where she used to stay all the time. She said, "I trust you implicitly," and that's all she ever said to me. And we made the tracks.

Q: Here's to Life

Johnny Mandel: Here's to Life, yeah. I said, "I don't want to get anywhere near her musically." The tracks were flawless and I'd just write down everything she sang and everything she played. I'd write scrims and things that would provide background…it depends on what was required. I'd do sound, and I'd never go near here at all. I just left her all in the clear. I did that on the second album, too, the one we did about ten years later, You're My Thrill. We never had to talk. I love Shirley.

Q: She was around Washington, D.C. forever.

Johnny Mandel: Yeah, and she gave up her career to raise [her daughter] Rainy. But we never talked about what we were doing. She just said, "I trust you implicitly," and she did. If somebody tells you that, usually they're in your face every minute.

Q: Tell me about the Unforgettable album with Natalie Cole.

Johnny Mandel: Well, she was doing it on the road, as part of her act. It was more of a technical thing of trying to get the two voices. Nelson Riddle had written the score that Nat [King Cole] had been singing to. Nat was a guy who would never say no to somebody. He just went along and was so agreeable. He was a total professional. Les Baxter had written the original arrangement and it was awful.

He had written a bunch of things for Nat, but this time [Nat] said, "There's places in this arrangement…could [you] think of something else to do?" [Les] says, "Well, I've got a guy sometimes that helps me when I get into these things, a copyist." And Nelson comes in and write the thing we know. Nat was delighted. He said, "Will you mind giving me this copyist's phone number?" And that was the end of Les, and the big break for Nelson. 

So, I had the Nelson Riddle arrangement in back, but it was in different keys because of Natalie. I just wrote that, that's all. The parts where she was singing I did completely different things and floated things above her. I got a Grammy for that. Naomi Riddle and Chris Riddle, [Nelson's] son, were furious and they tried to get that Grammy taken away from me because I had stolen Nelson's arrangement, which was the last thing I would do. I loved Nelson to begin with.