Music seems to be second nature to JOHNNY MANDEL. His whole life has been comprised of musical achievement. He’s mastered composing, arranging, record producing, and recently being a bandleader. Johnny Mandel says he learned the early principles of his craft as a member of several big bands. As a trumpeter and trombonist he played in the bands of Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Woody Herman.
Next came arranging. As an arranger, Mandel worked with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee and Andy Williams…the greatest singers of the day. Yet, the genius of Johnny Mandel could not be confined to just making records.
He began composing scores for motion pictures and then with some of the greatest lyricists (like Johnny Mercer and Alan and Marilyn Bergman) Johnny Mandel has composed songs increasingly referred to as “standards”—“Emily,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Close Enough for Love” and “Where Do You Start?” Mandel also composed the unforgettable melody of the M*A*S*H theme.
Johnny Mandel has never been motivated by fame or recognition, but his work has always spoken for him. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, received several Grammy awards as well as Oscar and Emmy awards as well as the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award. As an arranger and producer, many of the top recording artists of today have called on Johnny Mandel… they include Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Willie Nelson and Barbra Streisand.
A versatile artist, with his big band he recently released the album Johnny Mandel: A Man and His Music, recorded live in New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
In this rare portrait, we get an inside look at a true genius of music. Let’s meet Johnny Mandel.
I think most stories are best from the beginning, if we could go back into your house when you were growing up, what would we hear?
In my house, when I was growing up which was in New York at the time in the late 20’s and early 30’s, you would hear a lot of jazz music, but you would also hear “Rhapsody in Blue,” the Gershwin recording of it quite a bit that my mother would play incessantly, things from shows that were popular in the 20’s. It was a great time of theatre then. Very little classical music.
What music did you love the most as a youth, when you were around 10, 11?
Oh, by then I really loved “big band” jazz, by then in 1935, let’s see I was born in 1925 so I was about 10 years old, that was when Benny Goodman broke through and the nation was “swing mad,” and so what I heard was constantly all these bands coming from different places. I’m sure you heard this kind of story from a lot of guys my age probably. At night you would hear one band after another being broadcast from high up the top of the Hotel McAlpin or someplace in Chicago.
You are known for many things—arranging, there’s many songs you’ve composed. What would you say your greatest ability in music is?
I don’t know. I am still trying to find it. (Laughs). It was always when I was in the business, I always did what was required at that time or tried to anyway and I did a lot of things. I played in a lot of bands first of all because that’s how you learn your craft. I was first a trumpet player and then a trombone player and I played with a lot of big name bands at the time—Alvino Rey, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, a lot of different people, it was the greatest experience in the world. I spent a lot of years travelling and one nighters, and the bus and all that. That wasn’t such a great experience but it was part of being a musician at that time, right up until the end of World War II.
Would you say you get equal joy out of all of the different things you have done: composing, arranging, is it all equally enjoyable?
Well no it depends on what you’re doing, usually you are doing a given task at one time or another unless I am composing for a record date or something or for a film score and if I find an enjoyable job or an enjoyable endeavour and it comes off well, I would say that’s very enjoyable. So much of it is a learning process as you go because you don’t start off knowing how to do all these different things and you learn how to do them sometimes in a hurry because of all of a sudden you are in a job that requires this particular skill. That’s kind of the way it is.
What is the most important thing to do when you are arranging? What is the most important thing to keep in mind?
Well, first of all to hear what it is going to sound like in your heard before you hear it played, that is the big thing and you only learn that through doing it, learning how to put it on paper so it will sound like you want it to and hope you do and the early attempts on writing music and arranging you’re in for a lot of shocks at first, but you learn by hearing it and what you should have done as opposed to what you do and then make sure the next time that you do it, do what you should have done and it will sound when it first comes off and you hear it for the first time it’s very gratifying. When you hear it and it sounds like it did in your head that kind of thing. Because you hear it in your head first while you’re doing it, at least I am speaking from personal.
I was interested first in arranging rather than composing. I wanted to know how to write for the different people in an orchestra, all the saxophones, the trumpets, the trombones, piano, guitar, bass, drums all that sort of thing. I didn’t learn to write for strings and orchestras until later, but I was really interested first in writing big band music and luckily was able to write for a lot of them and travel with them too and hearing your stuff played you want to bring what you are hearing in your head as you’re writing closer to what it’s going to sound like when you hear it played, that is part of the whole educational process of writing music. When you are writing for, you know not just writing songs or something, but when you are arranging because arranging was the first thing I was interested in.
I wasn’t interested in writing songs. I’d write songs as instrumentals to begin with because there was a record date that had to have that sort of thing. I would write original pieces then for people to blow on, but it was always with jazz, I wasn’t interested in writing symphonies or any of that stuff, not at that time. You know what happens when you start writing for films you’re going to run into all kinds of situations including writing symphonic music, but that is a whole other thing, came decades later really.
What was the first song you wrote that was recorded by another artist?
Probably “Emily,” when I was into writing songs because it was for a very good movie and I had to get a lyricist. They said “who do you want?” and I said well let’s start at the top and I got Johnny Mercer. There was no finer lyricist than that and that was a very successful song. It would have undoubtedly won an Academy Award, but the rules up at the Academy that determined what songs were eligible for being picked as a song from a film were very strict at that time and they loosened up a lot later. I won for the next year for the “Shadow of Your Smile,” but I didn’t want to write music so I could win an Academy Award for God’s sakes. That wasn’t what it was all about at all.
On the note of “Emily,” what are your recollections of composing that?
Julie Andrews was the central character. She was Emily, and I wrote something that I felt was her. She was very English in that film. It felt right to me. That was the theme I sort of picked to depict her. To this day as a matter of fact, I still call her “Emily” instead of Julie, and she likes it.
The lyricist Johnny Mercer—what did you find his personality to be like?
There were several of them. Johnny Mercer was I think the greatest lyricist in history. Honestly, I don’t think there was anybody that quite came up to him as far as my own opinion is concerned. He was a lovely gentleman who was very giving and all and he became a totally different person when he drank and unfortunately he drank quite a bit, but not when he was working. He was a very dedicated worker when he worked, but when he drank he became abusive, he became totally different from the Johnny Mercer who you always saw and loved, but that was his particular thing. But as a lyricist and a work man he was just the best I think, and I’ve worked with some good lyricists, but I think Johnny was overall the best.
In general do you like collaborating?
Well, sure with a lyricist. I don’t like collaborating music-wise as a rule, but I usually don’t have to because I am called to write a score or to write an arrangement so the only collaboration is with a songwriter. I’ve worked with Paul Francis Webster, that was a lovely experience, a very good lyricist and a nice guy to work with and Johnny Mercer was always a nice guy to work with he was very professional. It was only when he drank and that was only on his off hours, did he drink.
You arranged the Frank Sinatra album “Ring-a-Ding-Ding.” What was your first impression of Mr. Sinatra when you met him?
I met him when he was doing a movie. Bill Miller his pianist brought me out to where he was shooting a movie called “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” for Columbia I think, he was out at the Columbia ranch then. He had just left Capitol and started his own company called Reprise. I came into the room where he was and he was in between shooting scenes and all and he was just great.
He was very hyped up and enthusiastic about the new label he was starting: Reprise, where he was going to give all the artists their own, a whole lot of rights that other companies didn’t give you like they could own their own masters and could do what they want and this and that and he said they were going to be different colored records and that kind of thing and I was watching him and he’d look right at you with those blue eyes and I never saw a pair of eyes like that. They saw everything. I just found him very pleasant, really. Regardless of anything you’ve ever heard and all, I was very impressed with him. He seemed very altogether.
Was there a memory from the recording of that album “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” that stands out?
Oh yeah. I will tell you something about him that I have never seen anywhere else ever. Usually he always rehearsed his songs in private with Bill Miller so he would do all that kind of thing, he’d know the songs beforehand and usually a singer would come in and you’d be playing it with the band and all and they would be listening to the arrangement and trying to find out where they fit in, what they do at a certain place and sort of suss it. You know all of them like Tony Bennet, Andy Williams they’d do, they just listen to the arrangement and see how they fit in to it.
Sinatra was a different thing altogether, he had already rehearsed the songs with Bill Miller. He had the full band in for the first rehearsal and I mean full band with the strings, the brass, the whole thing and all the woodwinds, a large band and he says “Ok let’s take it from the top,” and he taps off a tempo that he thinks would be good and he says let’s do the title song first “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” and there is a lot of stuff going on in this arrangement—believe me.
If you have heard it you know and he listens to it with the whole band and after that he didn’t sing, he just listened and said „It is very good, I think I tapped it off a little slow, it should be a little faster. In the 3rd chorus I heard the wrong note, there is a wrong chord in the trumpets, in the brass” and he named a couple of other things like that, but he heard the whole thing, I mean this is the 3rd chorus and he heard it first time with the full band and he picked out different things like that.
I’ve never run into anyone who could do that. Then he would kick it off again at the tempo he liked and he’d hear it and he said great next one and we would go through them like that and the next one was like that is the only time we did “Let’s Fall In Love” and right on the date he said…you are familiar with that whole things aren’t you? The Ring A Ding?
Well it has a verse on it „da da da da da I’ve got a feeling da da da” it’s a verse nobody ever heard before and he did it and then it goes into “let’s (Pause) fall in love,” he says why don’t we right before we end up the verse “why be shy,”he says let’s stick a bar rest in there, leave it nothing „da da da da da da why be shy” one, two, three…one, two, three, four „lets fall in love” he did that right on the date. Boom! In other words he was always the driving force and you knew exactly what was going on.
I never met anyone who had this ability even though he didn’t read music or any of that, it didn’t matter. Buddy Rich didn’t read music for that matter, but Sinatra was just unbelievable talented and he also conducted. He didn’t do any conducting for me, but he did albums where he did that “Tone Poems with Color” for Capitol, with different composers he conducted every one of them and they found him very easy to follow although he didn’t read a score or anything he instinctively knew what should be done and he was very easy to follow. He was an enormously talented man. I have never met anyone with that ability.
Yeah he was, he was. I loved working with him.
Another song you wrote it was recorded by a lot of people “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Who do you think did the definitive interpretation?
Tony Bennet. Yep, that is the one. Tony just ate that song up, he did the best version of it
Another song that you wrote, “Close Enough For Love” with Paul Williams. What is Paul Williams like to work with?
Wonderful lyricist. He’s funny, he’s an extremely funny guy and I of course have served with him on the ASCAP Board for many years. I was on the board for I don’t even know how many years, probably 34 years probably but I had known Paul before that. He was delightful to work with, he was very funny, extremely funny and he has been a hell of a President of ASCAP.
Another pair of lyricists that you’ve worked with, absolutely legends—Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
Oh yeah we’ve written a lot of songs together.
And the one song “Where Do You Start?” Tell us about that one.
It’s an interesting story. Somebody gave me a lyric, it was by some play writer or another, he said “take a look at all these lyrics,” he gave me several of them and I picked that one out, I don’t know why but that was one of maybe say a half a dozen, 9-10 that I had picked out and I wrote, I looked at it and I wrote that song, what would have been the bridge didn’t seem like it fit so I just made up another bridge myself without a lyric.
I gave the song to Alan and Marilyn Bergman, never telling them where this song came from and they wrote almost the exact lyric to it and it was about a break up between this guy who wrote the lyric and his wife and they were, all the things that go through dissolving a relationship and they wrote the same damn lyric for me just through the music so I said “How the hell did you write this lyric?” They said “we heard it in the music,” I don’t know I told them nothing.
Then after that I showed them the lyric that I wrote the music to and it was kept very quiet because it was a playwright who was well known who wrote the lyric. They looked at it and they said “Whew. Man.” They wrote about the same thing this guy wrote about it, evidently I must have captured that in the music, but that is one of those kind of things that happens to you when you are writing songs.Semnat de Paul Leslie