The Peter Gunn Bass Line
I love Mancini. My appreciation for him has only grown as I’ve gotten older, especially of his lesser-known dramatic scores. I was watching the original Pink Panther on HBO Max (although that’s hardly one of the “lesser-known” ones!) and that’s why I thought of the below anecdote.
In spring 1992, I was invited by the Society for the Preservation of Film Music’s Jeannie Pool to attend their annual awards banquet in Los Angeles—they would pay my way. (Such a terrible name for their nonprofit—“Why is there a society to prevent film music?” Today they are The Film Music Society.) They were aware of my budding film music newsletter and charmed by this kid putting so much effort into documenting their beloved art form. I was 17 and a senior in high school. It was my first time in Los Angeles and an amazing experience...which I’ll write about, in full, some other time.
I was briefly introduced to Mancini at the awards banquet. I remember he was pretty tall— though to me (5'8" in shoes) most people seem tall—and it was intimidating to be meeting this famous musician with a famous face. He had been on television for years (see above video clip) and was a public figure. But he was super nice, gentle and easy-going...rather exactly what you’d expect from his warm, suave, world-famous music with the irresistible themes.
Somebody told him what I did, and he asked with genuine interest if I had seen the 1940s publication, Film Music Notes. (Vintage issues of it were on display at the event.) I dimly recall that I gave an answer to him that I thought would be charming or cute (I truly forget what I said) but was evidently neither. Because Mancini just shook it off and said, “No, really, did you see it?” And I said I had, but didn’t know what to add except that it seemed interesting. And then he was whisked away and that was it.
I also met John Williams at that event, who was there with his wife Samantha. The Maestro shook my hand with both of his hands like I was the most important person in the world, smiled and made a pleasantry, and then went on to the next person. Williams, in public, is faultless, like a master, veteran politician, but you also get the sense that it’s not too far away from his actual personality.
I also met Elmer Bernstein (who was shorter than I was) and Matthias Büdinger took a picture—which I put on the cover of the next FSM issue—and then, years later, kindly sent me a color scan. Here I am with Elmer...I remember vividly having a chin zit that I hoped would not be too visible in pictures. This doesn’t look like a formal affair, so I presume it was some other time during the weekend conference.
When it came time for the presentations to honor Mancini, what I remember is this: Mancini talked about how John (then Johnny) Williams had been his pianist on Peter Gunn. (I LOVE this theme! Of course, I knew it from its use in The Blues Brothers, and as the music for the Spy Hunter arcade game.) There was a piano on the dais and Mancini sat at it briefly and recalled that Williams had suggested, at the recording session for the theme, that instead of this (Mancini played the famous, low unison bass line), Williams had said, “Hank, how about this?” And Mancini played another version of the bass line that was the same melody—but a little bit higher, prettier and more refined. It went by so fast that it was hard to tell the difference, to be honest. And Mancini knew that, because he turned to the audience and said, “What’s the difference? About a million bucks.” And everybody laughed.
A little over two years later, Mancini would be gone from pancreatic cancer. As far as I am concerned, this is the worst cancer, because it also got my stepfather, Herb Putnam, in 2008. It’s fast-moving, undetectable until it’s far too late, and merciless. I seem to remember 20/20 did a piece with Mancini after his diagnosis where he was beautifully clear-eyed and gracious about his life and imminent passing—I’ve seen it on YouTube, but can’t find it now. Here’s Entertainment Tonight’s piece after he died:
R.I.P. to a one-of-a-kind legend. It remains true that his basslines are more memorable than most composers’ melodies—even to forgettable projects:
Here’s the Spy Hunter use of Peter Gunn—it was almost worth the quarter just to hear the music!