You the Mancini

Successful beyond belief in his chosen trade of making soundtrack music, Henry Mancini also enjoyed good fortune (made one, too) with forays into the pop charts. When he hit, he hit big. His Theme from Peter Gunn not only sold but landed Mancini an Emmy and two Grammy Awards. The show, meanwhile, is lost to the mists of time and channels in the 500s on basic cable. He could have retired off the royalties of the many versions of Moon River. The slinky Pink Panther Theme did okay, too.

But he had never reached the toppermost of the poppermost. Until July of 1969. The Love Theme from “Romeo and Juliet,” from the blockbuster Franco Zeffirelli film of Shakespeare’s young adult play, raised Mancini (and his Orchestra) in the coveted Number One position. Mancini’s arrangement of Nino Rota’s music made that season the summer of easy listening love. On the way up Mancini prevailed over the Beatles’ “Get Back,” the previous chart-topper. Alas, even amour had limits, for Mancini’s music of passion and sorrow was soon pushed off Top Forty Mountain by the dystopian folk of “In the Year 2525.”

John Caps plays Casey Kasem and gives us some background on the song in his acclaimed UIP biography Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music:

This quiet, introverted arrangement of a tune that was not even Mancini’s own, and with its soft piano line, mild strummed beat, muted strings and horns behind Rota’s mannerly minstrel melody, was unlikely material for such hype in the era of the Vietnam War. Indeed it was an eclectic time: the Rolling Stones were howling out “Honky Tonk Woman” on the same stations that were broadcasting Mancini.

Success, however, brought new problems:

The unfortunate aftermath of that huge career surprise was to encourage him and RCA to embark on a series of similarly meek and subdued piano/orchestra Muzak albums over the next several years and to emphasize Mancini’s life as a recording artist independent of his movie-scoring life—and very far afield from his cool-jazz past. Morgan Ames, now a critic for magazines like High Fidelity, wrote that these piano/orchestra albums were beautifully arranged but meaningless. Listening today, one is struck by just how slow these album tracks are—there is a dead weight to them that is inexplicable. Everything in pop music was up for grabs, it seemed, as the whole industry was changing, and, at least for the record, Mancini was playing it safe with his piano programs.