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.”


What’s most impressive is the fact that Mancini wrote full scores for all 114 episodes of Peter Gunn (1958-61), and all 34 episodes of Mr. Lucky (1959-60). That’s an astonishing amount of music, and far more than Mancini and his jazz combo delivered on the two soundtrack albums each show generated (all four of which were massive hits at the time).

“That’s an incredible amount of fun, melodic, interesting, compelling music,” Jon agreed.


But he hadn’t yet mentioned what impressed me most, so I asked how he was able to cite — by Mancini’s original titles — every single cue and theme in every single episode. As one typical example, the first season’s 10th episode — The Man with the Scar — includes “Fallout!,” “The Floater,” ‘The Little Man Theme,” “The Brothers Go to Mothers,” “Pete Finds Liz” and “A Quiet Gass.” Five of those themes were expanded onto the two Peter Gunn soundtrack albums, but “Pete Finds Liz” is unique to this episode. How, I wondered, was Jon able to cite all of those additional, sometimes fleeting cues?


“My wife is a film music historian,” Jon began (at which point I thought, Wow, there’s a marriage made in heaven!).


“Years ago, she inventoried the entire collection of Henry Mancini scores for the Mancini family, before they all went to the Library of Congress, along with all of his papers. Because she’s so detail-oriented, she literally wrote down every cue title of every film, and every episode of every TV show, within the material that she inventoried. 


“This was a starting point — Part A — along with the knowledge that all the music survived, in the shows themselves. I had a researcher in D.C. go through that material for me, and about 1/3 of the TV show cue sheets were in that collection, so I had them photographed.”


(A cue sheet is a legal document produced for every film and TV program, which specifies the title of every piece of music, its running time, the author, the publisher, and how it’s used.)


“Part B was then going to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), realizing what I didn’t have, and — after receiving permission from the Mancini family — an upper-echelon helpful soul there found all the rest of the cue sheets for both Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky.”


Okay, that gave Jon all of the what ... but not the when. He had a solution for that, as well.


Peter Gunn’s first season was done at Universal, but they moved to MGM for the second and third seasons. To my great good fortune, documentation survives for every single thing that occurred on the MGM lot — what was shooting, each day, and also what was being scored, on the MGM scoring stage — and it’s all available at USC. So that was Part C: I got complete dates for all the scoring that was done during those two seasons ... but not the first. 


“Then — Part D — I paid an archivist at Local 47, of the American Federation of Musicians, to track down the contracts of everybody who played on each recording session; those contracts included dates and locations. That left me with only a small handful of recording dates that I hadn’t yet nailed down.

“Happily, trombone player Dick Nash — 96, and still with us — saved all of his datebooks from that era. I wanted to jump for joy! I visited Dick, and he dug out the datebooks, and you’d see — on a given page — Wednesday, 8 p.m.: P. Gunn, Universal. That was Part E, and, ultimately, I was able to piece it all together.”


Naturally, I wondered if any of the numerous studio recording sessions survived.


“Sadly, no,” Jon lamented. “We have what we have on the albums, and — if you want to hear more — you can watch the shows.”


Actually, though, Jon’s book provides a road map for ambitious individuals who might want to create their own third (and fourth?) Peter Gunn soundtrack albums. Many shows include unreleased cues that run at length behind scenes with little or no dialogue or sound effects; Jon cites the best ones in bold-face type, making it easy to zero in and extract them. The numerous examples include “Cover Me,” “Jazz at Mother’s,” “Come On,” “Tramp,” “What Now,” “How Nice,” and “Tippy Toes,” along with many, many others.


I also was intrigued by the fact that one first-season cue — “Kool Killer,” in the episode The Blind Pianist — later wound up in Blake Edwards’ 1962 big-screen thriller, Experiment in Terror, where it was re-titled “White on White.” 


“Thanks to Edwards’ generosity, Mancini owned the publishing rights to all of his Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky music,” Jon explained. “So he could — if desired — re-use cues in another project, say a film score, where his company again was the publisher, which was the case with Experiment in Terror.”


This also explains the ironic inside joke in that film’s final scene: As the crowd disperses from Candlestick Park, the stadium organ can be heard playing a few bars of the title theme from Mr. Lucky.


Jon’s book also is filled with fun little details, such as the fact that Herschel Bernardi — who co-starred as Pete’s long-suffering cop friend, Lt. Jacoby — voiced Charlie the Tuna, in a popular series of Starkist Tuna TV commercials that debuted in 1961 and continued well into the 1980s (and which, it must be mentioned, were incredibly tasteless in hindsight).

“Yep,” Jon laughed. “He was eager to be eaten, to commit suicide, on a weekly basis!”


I also had no idea that thriller novelist and TV/radio writer Henry Kane wrote a tie-in novel — 1960’s Peter Gunn(“Murder to a Jazz Beat”) — based on the TV show. This seems only fair, since — in the opinion of longtime author Lawrence Block — the show possibly was inspired by Kane’s series of books about private detective Peter Chambers. (And goodness, he wrote 35 of them between 1947 and ’72, with marvelously salacious titles such as Martinis and MurderHomicide at Yuletide and Death Is the Last Lover.)


Peter Gunn also generated two toys: a board game with rules that make it sound suspiciously like Clue, and a “Private Eye Gun and Holster Set.” (“But the gun was a .45,” Jon laughed, “and Pete never used a .45!”)


I didn’t realize that Ricardo Montalban had first been considered for the title role in Mr. Lucky, which eventually went to John Vivyan. And then there’s this whopper:

“John Williams had the option to be filmed in the Peter Gunn pilot episode, but declined,” Jon explained. “Mancini had written the name of Johnny Williams in his script, but he wasn’t interested in being on camera. That’s why actor/pianist Bill Chadney got the ongoing role of Emmett Ward, the pianist in the combo at Mother’s.” 


Ironically, Williams does appear on camera, as a band member, in two episodes of Staccato, a short-lived imitation of Peter Gunn, which ran for 27 episodes in 1959 and ’60.


No surprise: Edwards hated Staccato. “Oh, you should have heard him on the phone,” Jon laughed. “That show was a carbon-copy of Peter Gunn, and Blake was furious that his own agency, MCA, was behind it.”


When Edwards and Stevens revived the series for an under-appreciated 1967 feature film, Gunn, the Paramount studio head insisted that Albright, then 42, was too old to return as Edie. She was replaced by 35-year-old Laura Devon, who sings two songs during the film: “Dreamsville” and “I Like the Look.” Ironically, Mancini chose not to include her vocals on the film’s soundtrack album, and instead substituted a chorus. But — and this is something else I wasn’t aware of — Mancini also produced an RCA Victor 45 single that featured Devon performing those two songs, which became her professional recording debut.

“I love Mancini’s arrangements on that 45,” Jon enthused. “It’s great. It still mystifies me that Mancini couldn’t — or didn’t want to — add those two cuts to the 1967 soundtrack album.”


This year’s “Mancini Centennial,” mentioned above, honors the composer’s date of birth, on April 16, 1924. Musical celebrations thus far included a June 23 Hollywood Bowl concert that featured Michael Bublé, Cynthia Erivo, Dave Koz and Mancini’s daughter, Monica. Regional venues throughout the country are presenting similar events, such as Festival Napa Valley’s upcoming “Mancini at 100” concert on July 17. Also of note is the recently released EP, Henry Mancini: The 100th Sessions, which features a stunning arrangement of the “Peter Gunn Theme,” with high-profile participation by Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Arturo Sandoval and — back in the piano’s chair — none other than John Williams. You can watch a brief portion of that recording session here.


But the impact of Mancini’s work goes far beyond the two TV shows themselves. As Jon notes, in his book, “Henry Mancini altered our perceptions about film music, and about film composers.”


Jon also quotes Gene Lees, who collaborated on Mancini’s autobiography:


“Mancini changed film scoring. The Americanization of film scoring, which up to that time had been strongly European and symphonic in style and tradition, starts with Henry Mancini. He introduced all sorts of elements of orchestration, all sorts of sonorities, that had not been in use before.”


That seismic shift notwithstanding, I also love both shows for a simpler reason, and one with which Jon strongly agrees: They’re fun to watch, even all these years later. They hold up ... and that certainly can’t be said of most TV shows that old.

“They’re timeless to me,” Jon concludes. “It doesn’t matter that they’re in black-and-white; they need to be that way. The scripts were very sophisticated, the direction was fascinating and compelling. Both shows are television classics that are sadly forgotten today, but they should be revived — in their original form, of course — so that people have a chance to be exposed to them, to see how great they were.

“And are.” 

No comments: