“Moon River”… “Dear Heart”… “Peter Gunn”… “The Pink Panther”… “Days of Wine and Roses.”
These are a tiny sampling of Henry Mancini’s mountainous musical legacy. From the late ‘50s through the mid ‘60s, Mancini composed some of the best loved popular music of the day. In a forty year film scoring career that only ended with his death in 1994, he wrote much of the soundtrack of our lives, not only in the movies, but also in television themes like “Newhart,” “Remington Steele” and the oft-heard theme for NBC’s election coverage. He recorded more than 90 albums, was nominated for 72 Grammys, won 20, and took home four Oscars out of 18 nominations.
Next Tuesday, February 17th, “Mancini at the Movies” comes to the 400-seat American Theatre in the Phoebus section of Hampton. The show’s title has a double meaning, as Henry Mancini’s daughter Monica is the star of the show.
“It’s not a complete, total Mancini show,” she told me last week from Florida, in the midst of a 10-week national tour. “A lot of other people wrote movie music too. But it’s pretty heavy handed on the Mancini side.”
Monica Mancini has been making a name in her own right in recent years. After an extensive career doing studio work singing for television shows, movies, commercials, and background vocals for recordings and other performers on tour, she stepped into the spotlight ten years ago.
“When Dad got ill, he had to start canceling,” she recalls. “A lot of what he would do throughout the year were pops symphony dates around the country. When he got sick, he had to start canceling some of those dates. So Bill Conti stepped in and replaced him on some of these dates.
“Bill thought that since he was replacing Dad he would do a Mancini second half. He said, ‘Would you like to come on board and do some symphony dates with me as tribute concerts?’ So that’s what really introduced me to that whole world, and it hasn’t stopped since.”
She recorded her first album as a leader in 1998, a self-titled disc on which she covered thirteen of her dad’s songs. Suddenly there was a new Mancini on the scene, and the recording garnered much critical acclaim. The New York Times reviewer called her voice “the glamorous vocal equivalent to diamonds flashing.”
Her sophomore effort two years later, The Dreams of Johnny Mercer, was devoted to the songs of the man who wrote the lyrics to many of her dad’s most famous songs. The 2002 release, Cinema Paradiso, expanded the range of composers whose music she recorded while continuing the movie music theme that has dominated her output thus far.
But when Monica Mancini was growing up in the ‘60s, she was a typical child of the era, more interested in rock and roll.
“I listened to every minute of it,” she says, “and so did Dad. He always liked to keep very current with everything going on. He liked hearing all this different music around the house. We certainly didn’t put him on all the time!”
Still, she heard him working on the tunes that are so familiar they seem like they’ve always existed. And she had the opportunity to meet many of his famous and talented friends.
“He had a studio at home,” she remembers. “I’m sure he was there creating all these masterpieces right under my nose but I was not terribly interested at the time.
“Now, in retrospect, I wish I had appreciated more of the people that were there. When Johnny Mercer would come over I knew who he was, but I didn’t really care. But now I do, and I wish I’d paid a bit more attention. I guess when Sean Connery came over, that’s when I knew that this was good stuff. When James Bond shows up, you know he’s pretty important.”
Unlike other offspring of famous musicians who have followed in their parent’s footsteps, Monica Mancini is not competing directly with her father’s legacy.
“You can’t draw the same comparisons that you can with other father-daughter duos,” she points out. “With Nat Cole, he was a singer. With Liza, Judy was a singer. You can’t say I’m not as good a singer as my Dad because I’m a much better singer than my Dad! And I don’t pretend to write songs either. So we’re not on the same playing field that way.”
In fact, it was her mother who was the singer in the family:
“She did what I used to do. Back in her day was when all those television variety shows were so popular. So she sang on the Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Red Skelton…all those people who had variety shows. But before that, she sang with Mel Torme. She was one of the Mel-Tones years ago. So Mel was another one that was always around. She’s my inspiration. This is from my mom’s side because Dad’s side didn’t have that singing gene going on!”
But Monica Mancini definitely does have that “singing gene going on.” She is very good. While her albums are generally placed in the jazz section, she demurs.
“I guess if you were to categorize me, it would be traditional pop, adult pop music. I wouldn’t say I’m a jazz singer, but I do like singing jazz.
“I like to stick to the melody,” she continues. “I don’t like to fool around with people’s art. I think that composers and lyricists are real specific in what they write and it’s not my business to come and mess it up. So I take what they give you. It’s up to you as a singer to figure it out and put it out there in a way that connects with you. It’s a cool process.”
On Tuesday night, she’ll be accompanied by an 11-piece band made up of alumni of the Mancini Institute, an intensive summer program at UCLA that attracts young musicians from around the world. It will be a multi-media production, with clips from the films interspersed with family footage.
“The music is so timeless,” she says. “I go back and sign CDs after the show and people are telling me that, whatever their ages, they grew up on this music either because they were listening to it or their parents were playing it around the house. It really crosses a lot of generations.”
copyright © 2004 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.