Monday, July 8, 2024

Spotlight on Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky

Film music journalist/historian Jon Burlingame has been an invaluable resource over the years; he’s also a thoroughly entertaining writer. I’ve long followed his Los Angeles Times and Daily Variety articles, and I often refer to his books: 1996’s TV’s Biggest Hits, updated and expanded last year, as Music for Prime Time; and 2012’s The Music of James Bond.

His just-published newest book is the perfect topic for this post: Dreamsville: Henry Mancini, Peter Gunn and Music for TV Noir. Had it existed while I was working on my crime/spy jazz project, it would’ve been footnoted extensively in the first volume’s Chapter 2. 


Jon was gracious enough to spend nearly an hour discussing what led to this book, at this particular point in time. After all, we’re talking about two TV shows — Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky — that are more than six decades old. Aside from creator/producer/director/writer Blake Edwards, they also share a second, equally important individual: Mancini. The impact his music had on that show — and on TV and film scoring at that time, and later — cannot be overstated.


That became the obvious starting point for our chat.


“I’ve been a fan of Peter Gunn dating back to my childhood, via early 1960s reruns,” Jon explained. “When I got older, and moved to Los Angeles for work reasons in 1986, I discovered that the show was running five days a week on local television. I was thrilled, and started recording them. (This was long before they were commercially available on DVD.) I’ve also been a Mancini fan, dating back to the 1960s. I later had the opportunity to interview him and Blake Edwards, when I was writing regularly for the Los Angeles Times, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 


“I wanted to contribute something to the Mancini Centennial, which is this year. I knew that two solid books on Mancini’s life and career already existed: his 1989 autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?; and John Caps’ excellent 2012 book, Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music. What was missing, though, was an in-depth look at that three-year period from 1958 to 1961, which became the launching pad for Mancini and his entire career. He and Edwards formed such a solid bond that Edwards essentially made Mancini his in-house composer for the rest of his career. 


“That period also led to Mancini’s big-screen success with “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Pink Panther,” “The Baby Elephant Walk” and all manner of other hits during the 1960s and ’70s. So I thought that a book focused on that three-year period, with Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, was worth doing.


“Besides,” Jon added, with a chuckle, “at my age, I didn’t want to write a book that I wouldn’t have fun with, and I knew this would be fun to write ... and it was.

“Actually, the research was more fun than the writing!”


Jon’s prose is engaging, as always, but I’m also impressed by the wealth of detailed information.


“The book is designed to satisfy two different constituencies,” Jon admitted. “First, it’s a ‘TV book’ about two shows, so I felt obliged to write about every episode of both shows, listing director, writer, guest cast and a little bit about the plot. 


“The second constituency is music fans, and/or people interested in Mancini, and his career. As a result, it was important — to me — to single out the musicians who played on all those shows. Luckily, it was mostly the same guys who played on every episode of both: Ronnie Lang, Gene Cipriano, Bob Bain, Ted Nash, Pete Candoli, Dick Nash, John(ny) Williams and others ... a real Who’s Who of late 1950s West Coast jazz.”