ASCAP Composer-Arranger Great Johnny Mandel Dies at 94
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • June 30, 2020
Johnny Mandel, the legendary composer-arranger who graced the silver screen and TV with dozens of sophisticated scores, and contributed countless classics to the Great American Songbook, has died at 94.
ASCAP President and Chairman of the Board Paul Williams offered this comment on Mandel’s passing: "Giant. Genius. Gentleman. There are many ways to describe the legendary composer Johnny Mandel. His incredible music spanned decades, mediums, oceans and firmly established him in the American Songbook canon. I had the great honor of witnessing his unique gifts personally when we co-wrote a song 'Close Enough for Love.' I cherish that experience. Johnny proudly served his fellow music creators on the ASCAP Board for many years and his work paved the way for future generations of songwriters and composers to pursue a life in music as he had. He was a true jazz spirit and that spirit will live on in his music and in our hearts for eternity."
As a film/TV composer, Mandel is best known for his work on The Sandpiper (which earned him a Grammy and an Oscar for the song “The Shadow of Your Smile”), An American Dream, I Want to Live! and of course M*A*S*H - the theme song of which, “Suicide Is Painless,” is one of the crowning achievements of Mandel’s career. He won the ASCAP Henry Mancini Award in 1997 for his film work.
His songwriting talents brought us “Emily,” "Close Enough for Love," "A Time for Love” and many more that have become standards in the pop and jazz canons. As an arranger, Mandel earned acclaimed for his work with Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Diana Krall, Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, Shirley Horn and Natalie Cole.
“I started writing arrangements early, before I studied at all,” Mandel told ASCAP in a 2019 interview. “I’d just hear something - four trumpets, or four trombones, and I’d say ‘Okay, is that it? That’s it.’ I’d write that down, that cluster, so that I’d know how it was voiced as I wanted to go forward. It was a ‘hunt and peck’ kind of thing…I’d screw around for a long time to see what made that sound.
“It’s a lot of hard work figuring out what it looks like on a keyboard, because I wasn’t piano player...I was amazed that a lot of the guys that did what I did - which was write for big bands - weren’t originally piano players...You’re anchored by your technique, or lack of it. If you want to imitate what it sounds like in the brass section, I just have to figure that out and write it.”
At the heart of so much of Mandel’s work was a deep understanding of jazz. Before his film career took off, he played brass, arranged and composed for jazz bands in the ‘40s and ‘50s, including combos led by Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Elliot Lawrence and Count Basie. Jazz inspired Mandel’s very first film score (I Want to Live!) and informed the elegant string and brass voicings that would become his signature.
Mandel was also a devoted advocate for music creators. More than three decades after the great Hoagy Carmichael urged him to join ASCAP, Mandel became a Board member in 1989 - a position he would hold for 22 years, including a stint as Vice Chair from 2005-2006.
Mandel is predeceased by his wife, Martha, and survived by his daughter, Marissa Mandel and her wife, Lauren Johnson.
Read our 1997 interview with Mandel to commemorate his ASCAP Henry Mancini Award
Read our 2019 interview with Mandel about a new interpretation of his songs by Ukamusic