Themes in the Key of Johnny Mandel

By Jem Aswad  •  April 29, 1997

On June 29, 2020, we lost Johnny Mandel - a towering figure in film/TV music, jazz and pop who also served on the ASCAP Board of Directors from 1989 - 2011. Mandel injected sophisticated arrangements into his unforgettable scores for M*A*S*H, The Sandpiper and more, and gave us immortal songs like "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Close Enough for Love" and "Emily." To commemorate his legacy, here is an interview we conducted with him in 1997, celebrating his ASCAP Henry Mancini Award.



"At the table next to me is a guy named Johnny Mandel, a great songwriter. We both did the commencement exercises at the Berklee School of Music a few years back, and I did a long speech about the craft of songwriting. I went on for about an hour and the kids were like [snores]. Then Johnny Mandel got up and did his speech, which was pretty much this: 'If you don't do what you love, you're wastin' your time.' And the place went crazy!" — from Billy Joel's acceptance speech for his ASCAP Founders Award, March 18, 1997.

From the Moon (Song) to the (Shining) Sea, Johnny Mandel has just about done it all. From his teenage beginnings in swing bands to his Academy Award-winning film scores, from the classic songs he has written ("The Shadow Of Your Smile," "Emily," "The Shining Sea" and, perhaps best known of all, the "Theme from M*A*S*H) to his arranging and production work for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Chet Baker to Michael Jackson, to his work as an ASCAP Board member, Johnny Mandel's career gives a new meaning to the words "diversity" and "longevity."

Born and raised in Manhattan, Mandel, one might say, began his musical career at the age of 5, when his family discovered that he had perfect pitch. "My mother's brother wrote show tunes, he was very talented," he says, providing further evidence to the theory that musical talent is an inherited trait. "His name was George Rilling — 'George Roy' — and he worked mostly in England, although my family was all originally from Chicago." Piano lessons followed, but Johnny soon found his calling in the trumpet and, later, the trombone: "I never wanted to play an instrument that you plucked or struck; I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss!"

Weaned on pop, swing and Dixieland, he began writing big band arrangements at 12, and by the time he was 16, was working in bands in the Catskill Mountain resorts during his summer vacations. "What drew me into music was the magic and the alchemy of combining this instrument with that instrument and getting these big clusters of different sounds. I was really interested in painting with the orchestra."

After graduation, he began working with legendary violinist Joe Venuti, which led to many further gigs. "This was during World War II, and all the good musicians were overseas, so I got into a lot of professional bands that I couldn't have gotten into otherwise. A lot of the people I came up with — Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis; this is all the generation that I'm from — were out on the road from when we were 16 and 17 years old.

I did that for ten years, one-nighters all down the line. I did it the hard way, but the right way. You can't learn this; you have to live it. We were very lucky, because we had bands to play in, and it didn't matter how far you had to travel on bad roads every night, or how little sleep you got, or how many times you'd have to write your music on the bus — for weeks on end! That's how you learn."

Witness to the birth of bebop ("I was a total bebopper!"), he worked in that world and the still-burgeoning swing bands of the era, doing an astonishing amount of work in the late '40s and early '50s: arranging, writing and/or performing with Alvino Rey, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Elliott Lawrence, the Henry Jerome Orchestra (where he shared the stand with saxophonists/future Washington power-brokers Alan Greenspan and Leonard Garment — "Lenny was pretty good; Alan is a wonderful guy, but probably the best thing he did in that band was the payroll!"), and many others, as well as a brace of radio and television work, including Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. During this time, he also attended Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music to study symphonic music.

"Quite a few of us switched around bands," he says of that time. "We'd learn the music and play the same thing night after night, and we'd get a little bored — I wouldn't even need my [sheet] music after a week or two. So I'd get an offer from another band — either for more money, or because I liked the music better — and move on. I always wanted to go on to something else."

He then spent the better part of a year with the Count Basie Orchestra. "I had been writing for him, and he called one day and asked if I could join him the next night in St. Louis — could I ever! It was the best band I ever played in."

After that peak, Mandel settled in Los Angeles in 1954, where he did extensive session work over the ensuing years with the likes of Frank Sinatra (on his Ring-A-Ding-Ding album), Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee (with whom he co-wrote "The Shining Sea"), Anita O'Day, Maynard Ferguson, Mel Tormé, Andy Williams, and countless others, as well as work in "Rat Pack"-era Las Vegas shows.

It was also around this time that he laid down the trombone to concentrate on writing and arranging. In a characteristic show of modesty, the man who was good enough to play in Count Basie's band says, "I was never going to be a really great instrumentalist. I'd left Basie, and it had been so wonderful that I couldn't find anybody else I wanted to play with. I knew that the field was thinning out: bands had stopped being popular, the studios were starting not to use musicians anymore, and some of the best players in the world were starving. The more I wrote, the worse I played, and when almost anyone plays and writes, you've got to make a choice. To play an instrument well is a full-time job."

He then took on the equally challenging job of mastering studio work. "In those days, you were a bum if you couldn't do four tunes in three hours!" he laughs. "There was no overdubbing, you worked without a net at all times. With Sinatra, you were lucky if you got more than one take — one reason I didn't keep working with him is because I'd ask him to do a song again, and he hated that! He used to call himself 'One Take Charlie,' but he'd put all of his energy into that one take."

As the '50s progressed into the '60s, the next phase of Johnny's career gradually coalesced into film scoring. "The first movie I ever did under my own name was I Want to Live in 1958, which was certainly the first all-jazz score. I felt totally at home doing movies because I'd done everything else first. I'd worked Vegas shows and The Show of Shows where you had to write visual cues: you were catching dance accents, marrying music to sight cues, like somebody would kick something and you'd have to catch it. And I'd done some radio drama in the late '40s and early '50s, so I'd learned how to write to the second hand [of a clock]. Movies combine all of those things, so I realized — very late! — that I already knew how to do it. I discovered the same thing later with songs: 'Hey! I like this!'"

Johnny's film work has continued ever since, with An American Dream (featuring "A Time For Love"), The Russians Are Coming, The Last Detail, Deathtrap, Agatha, You're Never Too Young, Harper, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Caddyshack, M*A*S*H, The Verdict, as well as The Americanization of Emily (featuring his first hit, "Emily," with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer), and The Sandpiper — the latter of which featured "The Shadow of Your Smile," which garnered Academy and Grammy Awards for Mandel and lyricist Paul Webster in 1965.

"I was in the business for 20 years before I ever tried to write a song," he says, "and the first 'real' song I wrote was 'Emily.'" (Although he had written such jazz standards as "Pot Luck," "The Straight Life," and "Hershey Bar" — "Those were instrumentals; they weren't song songs.") Like everything else, Johnny took to it like a duck to water, and classics like "Take Me Home," "Sure As You're Born," "Cinnamon and Clove," "Where Do You Start" (all with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman) and many others followed in rapid succession.

"A song can come from anywhere," he says. "'The Shadow of Your Smile' started off as the instrumental theme for The Sandpiper — Paul Webster said, 'Y'know, this song should have a verse,' and we wrote it right then and there on the phone.

The 'Theme from M*A*S*H' wasn't even meant to be the theme. It was written for that last supper scene, and because it actually had to be played by one of the actors, it had to be written before the movie was shot. [Director Robert] Altman wanted something that was funny and kind of stupid to accompany this scene, and he came back after three days and said, 'I can't write anything that ridiculous.' So he got his teenage son to do it, and I wrote what you now know as the 'Theme from M*A*S*H' to those lyrics," he chuckles. "So they all come differently."

Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, Mandel has continued to add to his vast body of work, including arrangements and/or production for Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole (seven arrangements on her Grammy-winning Unforgettable album), and Shirley Horn, as well as his own solo work. In addition to his Academy Award and two nominations, he has won four Grammys and six nominations, as well as three Emmy nominations.

Despite the diversity of his career, Mandel considers himself first and foremost a jazz musician, and membership in that community is "something that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. If you saw a bunch of us together, you'd see something you don't see anywhere else — well, I guess it's a little like old sports figures or old test pilots or something. There's a real brotherhood, partly because this is what the world has made of us! It's not competitive like actors or dancers or even singers — we're ensemble people, people who are not really stars. There's always been a common language, and a universal kind of belief, if not love."

"Jazz players, it turns out, cover my songs a lot, maybe because they feel that I'm one of them. For which I'm very happy, because those songs would have been forgotten a long time ago without them." There have been at least four "tribute" albums, where an artist exclusively covers Mandel songs, and his songs have been performed by most of the above artists, as well as countless others, from Sergio Mendes to Joni Mitchell to George Shearing to Henry Mancini to Lawrence Welk to Lena Horne to Friends of Dean Martinez.

An ASCAP member since 1956 ("Hoagy Carmichael brought me in"), he has been on the Society's Board of Directors since 1989. "It's not something I ever expected to do," he says. "I'd been on the nominating committee a few times, and [incredulously] Hal David thought I would be a good Board member — I don't know why! But when the call came, I decided that if I was going to run, I was really going to do it."

Being an ASCAP Board member is an extremely time-consuming responsibility — especially for people who are generally very busy already. "The Board takes about a week a month," he says. "But there's so much to do. We're always juggling, and there are always several fires to put out — I don't know how we deal with it, we just happen to have a wonderful bunch of people."

Although he's been an avid listener for all of his life, he tends to echo the common sentiment that popular music has been in a bit of a rut. "In recent years my tastes have narrowed a lot. Up until the early '80s I listened to everything, but I stopped wanting to listen to pop music at around the time that MTV came in. And I'll tell you why: music before then was far more interesting because the music itself was far more important — you didn't have the visual element, so whatever went on the radio had to be pretty interesting. Now if record companies can't make a good video, they won't make a record."

"I thought the '70s were very interesting pop-wise — there was Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, a lot of the albums I worked on with Quincy Jones — whereas now..." he pauses for a moment, "Y'know, I'm trying not to sound like somebody who's old. Not that I care about that, but so many people talk about the 'good old days.' Well, the good old days were not so great. When I was growing up, music was very dull, as dull as it is right now. I think we're in a phase where everyone's waiting for something new to happen, like when rock exploded in the mid-'60s, or when swing exploded in the mid-'30s and big bands became big. Maybe, please God, another explosion like that will happen soon."

(Despite all that, he does single out Canadian jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall. "She's in her early thirties, but she sings like somebody who's in her fifties. She knows a lot, in order to be able to sing like that.")

Through his career, Johnny Mandel's trademarks have been his talent, his determination, and his rare ability to bring out the best in whomever is fortunate enough to be working with him. Characteristically, he puts his success down to luck.

"I've been lucky all of my life," he smiles. "I was always in the right place at the right time, and I really never wanted to do anything but what I'm doing. I woke up one day when I was 12 years old, and like a thunderclap, I knew I was going to be a musician. I meant what I said to those kids, which Billy Joel quoted the other night: 'If you're not doing what you love, you're wasting your time.' It's very true, and it's the right thing to tell a graduating class: not 'Get yourself a manager,' not 'Find the way to make the most money' — that has nothing to do with anything, because you don't know what you're going to end up doing. This is no dress rehearsal — this is the show! We're on! So you'd better enjoy it."