The Shadow of Johnny Mandel

RIP to a deep cat, someone who knew his way around the thorny environs of American entertainment and always left beauty in his wake.

Naturally, it was time for a quick rendition of “Suicide is Painless” for all my socials. During quarantine I had done two dozen TV themes, thought that was probably enough, but Johnny Mandel’s passing prompted a gentle encore:

I have been working on Johnny Mandel lately, specifically an appraisal of two of his greatest film scores Harper and Point Blank, to be published in the next issue of Noir City. You’ll have to wait for that, but for now, a few bits and pieces….

Bill Kirchner interviewed Mandel for the Smithsonian.

Marc Myers interviewed Mandel for JazzWax.

From 1958, there is audio of Leonard Feather giving Mandel a blindfold test. Mandel generally impresses with who he recognizes, even though Feather pitches him a few unfair curveballs. Mandel is also strikingly critical: “The recording quality is bad enough to be Norman Granz, who has put the worst sounds on records ever made with probably the best talent involved.”

Thanks to Loren Schoenberg for sending along the relevant pages from DownBeat.

Mandel wrote a few songs that were among the last “standards,” conventional themes generally taken up by jazz singers and instrumentalists. After The Sandpiper was released in theaters, dozens of eminent jazzers recorded “The Shadow of Your Smile.” One of the earliest was by Eddie Harris with Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, and Billy Higgins.

Carter told Mark Stryker, “I got a call from Eddie Harris saying he was going to do a song called “The Shadow of Your Smile” and so far he didn’t have a lead sheet. That was the theme song for the movie The Sandpiper. I was in Boston working with Tony Williams and Gábor Szabó, so I had to go into a theater in Copley Square with a pencil, a pad and a flashlight and write down the melody of this song…”

Mandel didn’t begin as a songwriter. He’d be the first one to tell you: He began as an arranger. As an appropriate memorial, Mark Stryker offers a careful listen to Mandel’s arrangement of “In the Still of the Night” for Frank Sinatra.

Two of my favorite Mandel songs have definitive performances. “I Never Told You” is played by Toots Thielemans over Quincy Jones’s sparse orchestration on Walking in Space. Shirley Horn sings and plays “Close Enough for Love” all by herself on the album of the same name.

The correct adjective is “haunting,” which the dictionary defines as, “poignant and evocative; difficult to ignore or forget.” These are the songs and the performances you need at certain points in your life. Don’t worry about finding them: They will find you.

Most of Mandel’s work was for the movies.

In the later 20th century, movies became the great connector in American society. A personal anecdote:

When I was very young I saw Point Blank with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson on television. However, I was just too young to understand the expressionist language employed by director John Boorman. Later on, in college, I took a course on film music, and ended up with a copy of Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music by Irwin Bazelon. Mandel is interviewed in the book, and talks quite a bit about Marvin, Boorman, and Point Blank. Mandel’s comments made me curious, so I rented the VHS tape and watched again. The penny dropped and I started telling everyone I knew that this was one of the greatest movies of all time.

The movie was based on a book by Richard Stark, a name unfamiliar to me. Eventually I found a copy of The Green Eagle Score. Huh. Weird but good. Oh, Stark is a pen name. Who’s Donald E. Westlake?

In time I read all of Westlake, chased him down in person, and produced a major overview after he died. So, one could say that thanks to Johnny Mandel, I met Donald Westlake.

I write many more words about Mandel and his — why not use this adjective once more — haunting score for Point Blank in my forthcoming essay for Noir City.

However, space there didn’t allow for much comment on “Count Source,” a big band chart briefly danced to by Angie Dickinson oncreen.

The two minute cue can be heard on YouTube.

It’s a tribute to his old employer Count Basie, of course, and probably took Mandel all of half an hour to write. Still, “Count Source” is perfectly scored and perfectly played…a reminder of the breadth of American music, especially in those heady post-war years before rock, pop, and eventually hip-hop controlled the market.