Soundtrack Of The Times

Easy listening window into the 1960s: Jukebox Saturday Night delivers vinyl record classics with “The Music of Mancini” concert at the Bosque Arts Center in Clifton

CLIFTON – Baby Boomers grew up with the wooden Zenith console record player prominently and proudly displayed in the home. Usually there would be a stack of favorite 45s ready on the pin. And undoubtedly, the vinyl record player would contain easy listening songs like Bert Kaempfert’s “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” and several Henry Mancini songs like “Moon River,” “Charade” and the “The Pink Panther” theme.

The fact that movie soundtrack songs made it into the mainstream music scene and onto the turntables at home can be attributed to the way Mancini transformed motion picture music and scores. His music made filmgoers listen more intently to the soundtrack, and they left a lasting impression. At the Bosque Arts Center’s “The Music of Mancini” concert Saturday, July 8, the Jukebox Saturday Night orchestra filled the Frazier Performance Hall in Clifton with many most popular and lesser-known Mancini melodies, with the audience toe-tapping and humming along.

Jukebox Saturday Night celebrated Mancini’s extraordinary musical legacy and the indelible impact on music on what would be his 100th birthday year. Mancini’s name remains synonymous with great motion picture and television music, fine easy-listening recordings and international concert performances.

The outstanding tribute took the audience on a musical journey, replaying music from Mancini's early days with the Glenn Miller Orchestra to his own successful and timeless melodies composed for movies, television and records. The evening’s 17-song set list allowed different band members to highlight their talent and skills.

JSN bandleader and drummer Greg Parnell interspersed the evening’s song list with interesting insights into Mancini's illustrious career, calling it a “classic example of the American Dream.” Mancini’s story started being a son of blue-collar Italian immigrants, born in Ohio and growing up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburg. He learned to play the piccolo from his father and played in the Sons of Italy band.

Seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s movie “The Crusades” and hearing the musical score at age eight, Mancini knew he wanted to pursue film music composition. After one year of studying at Julliard, Mancini enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the 28th Air Force Band. After discharge from the Army in 1946, he became the pianist for the newly-formed Glenn Miller Orchestra led by Tex Beneke.

“He soaked up all the great big band arrangements and started to arrange and compose on his own,” Parnell said. “It was a great learning experience and the band enjoyed playing his songs.”

As an example of the music Mancini started playing at that time, JSB played “DJ Jump.” The Jump blues is a mix of up-tempo blues, jazz, and boogie woogie. The big band sound of the 10-piece JSN orchestra completely filled all the nooks and crannies of the Frazier Performance Hall, requiring very little amplified sound.

Mancini and his wife Ginny moved to Los Angeles when he was employed with Universal Studios to write the score for different film projects, including the 1954 biographical film The Glenn Miller Story. While most of the movie’s music material was Miller’s, Mancini got the opportunity to write the movie’s beautiful ballad love theme “Too Little Time.”

Even after Universal stopped employing contract employees in 1958, Mancini could visit the film lots. After running into film director Blake Edwards at the barber shop, he was hired to write the Peter Gunn television series theme song. Mancini allegedly only had $5 in his pocket at that time, and this song made him a lot of money. It would be the beginning of a professional relationship lasting over 30 years and collaborating on 26 films.

The JSN band chose that iconic Peter Gunn theme song to round up an evening of amazing songs that constituted the easy listening soundtrack of the 50s and 60s. But they also took the audience into the jazz club Mothers featured in the television series with the swing song “The Brothers go to Mothers;” and played the recurring dreamy, soft “Dreamsville” theme that accompanied scenes with Gunn’s girlfriend. The songs featured trombonist Jack Courtright, bass player Henry Beal, guitarist Ariel Glassman and pianist Michael Clement.

“The Peter Gunn title theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz,” Mancini said in his autobiography “Did They Mention the Music.” “I used guitar and piano in unison, playing what is known in music as an ostinato, which means obstinate. It was sustained throughout the piece, giving it a sinister effect, with some frightened saxophone sounds and some shouting brass. The piece has one chord throughout and a super-simple top line.”

The music from Peter Gunn was selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

After Peter Gunn, Mancini wrote the theme song for Mr. Lucky, a 1960 television series about a casino boat. If you didn’t recall that television show, the opening bars of the song are extremely similar to the opening of the song “Big Spender” from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. The song showed off all the horns, including Isaac Swanson and Pete Clagett on trumpet.

The score for the 1961 romantic comedy film Breakfast at Tiffany’s became the next chronological achievement in Mancini’s successful career. But instead of playing the well-known, somewhat melancholy “Moon River” first, the orchestra chose to play “Best Party Ever,” the jazzy song that accompanies the party scene in Miss Golightly’s over-crowded apartment. And it was as fun as the chaos of a boozy 60s party.

The song “Moon River” – a collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer – is in the movie twice; as an instrumental for the iconic opening scene and when Katherine Hepburn sings it, sitting in her fire escape window. The fire escape scene was going to be cut, but Hepburn insisted it stayed in the movie. JSN’s Amy Parnell channeled Hepburn in her classy, full-length black gown, elbow-length black gloves, accented with pearls and wrist bling. The Frazier Performance Hall’s outstanding acoustics emphasized her crystal-clear voice.

The orchestra then played the song “Count Basie” style – taking the smooth ballad to a jazzy, swing number – highlighting the horns and piano. Bandleader Parnell shone in Pink Panther’s “It had Better be Tonight – Meglio Stasera,” with his drum solo. The energetic and catchy Samba song transported the audience to New York’s Copacabana night club. His wife Amy literally shone in her rose gold shimmering high-low hem, silk dress, swaying to the Latin rhythms that were so popular in the 60s.

A busy year came next for Mancini in 1962 with musical scores for three motion pictures, Charade, Days of Wine and Roses and Hatari. Clarinetist Grace Frairy stood front and center for the fun “Baby Elephant Walk,” dedicated to BAC board president and organizer of the musical evening Linda Pfeiffer. As a young girl, Pfeiffer remembered wanting to study the song during her piano lessons. Her piano teacher was not convinced Pfeiffer was ready to master the “eight to the bar” boogie rhythm song. With many, many hours of practice, Pfeiffer was able to prove her tutor wrong, opening up a whole new level of songs for her to play.

After a brief intermission, the audience finally got to hear another of Mancini’s most popular songs, the theme song for the Pink Panther movies. The theme song also accompanied the Pink Panther cartoon often played on Saturday morning television. Saxophone player Chris Pauer took center stage for this one. The band also played the “other” Pink Panther theme “A Shot in the Dark,” featuring saxophone player Chris Evetts.

Another Mancini song made popular by many of the 1960s top vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, Bobby Darin, Brenda Lee and Bobby Vinton was the beautiful slow waltz “Dear Heart” from the 1964 comedy movie Out of Towners.

The lesser-known but not less special songs “Sweetheart Tree,”“Cheers,” and “Two for the Road” followed; all songs that were part of Mancini’s huge success. Mancini considered “Two for the Road” the song he was most proud of. The initial Billboard review from May 20, 1967 wrote that Mancini "scores again" in his "inimitable style," and that the album "contains the freshness and dexterity that Mancini injects in all of his award-winning tracks. A polished performance throughout."

But that Number One Hit Chart single remained elusive until 1969 when he bumped the Beatles’ “Get Back” off the number one slot with his arrangement and recording of the oh-so romantic "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet: A Time For Us" – a true evergreen, as beautiful now as when it was written nearly 55 years ago.

Each BAC musical evening becomes possible thanks to the wonderful help of many volunteers, and band leader Parnell graciously thanked all of those who assisted getting the instruments ready and taking care of the band and sound. He himself was playing on a drum set loaned from local drummer Glenn Pfeiffer. The evening of music was introduced by local vocalist/guitarist Chad Holt, bass guitarist Penny Burden helped sell refreshment tickets, and sound man Steve Schmidt plays a mean guitar. He also mentioned the wonderful acoustics in the Frazier Performance Hall.

The orchestra’s name Jukebox Saturday Night comes from the title of a song written by Al Stillman and Paul McGrave recorded by Glenn Miller in 1942, and the orchestra represents an offshoot of the popular Glenn Miller Productions. Because the audience has enjoyed the jazz musical offerings at the BAC, Pfeiffer hopes to book the JSN orchestra again. their latest CD celebrates America’s Swing Era with the orchestra performing big band classics made popular by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and more.


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