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Mancini Magic: An Interview with Ginny Mancini

Victor L. Schermer By

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About Henry and Ginny Mancini

AAJ: OK. Let's talk about the great Henry Mancini.

GM: That's easy. He was great, not only as a musician, but just the greatest human being. I've never known anyone quite like Henry, whose temperament was so gentle. He was a gentle giant.

AAJ: He came from a small town in Pennsylvania, correct?

GM: West Aliquippa, PA. That whole Beaver Valley area just died when the steel industry tanked. The town he grew up in was a dead town, and in the adjoining town, Midland, PA, another steel mill closed. All of a sudden, not long ago, a wonderful school superintendent decided to change it all through the arts. He got people in Beaver Valley to buy into the concept of building a charter school for the arts, that any kid in the valley could come to—in Midland itself. Alongside the charter school, there's going to be a Mancini Arts Academy. It's made the whole town come alive through the arts. It's provided jobs, there's life in the town again. I just signed a proclamation with Henry Steinway, of the Steinway Piano Company, whereby the Mancini Arts Academy would be the fiftieth All-Steinway school in the world!

AAJ: Congratulations!

GM: Getting back to the man, I was married to him for forty-seven incredibly wonderful years and was in on the birth of so much beautiful music that will last long after we're gone. Every time I go shopping at a market, and a song of Henry's comes on, I think, "God, that is so cool!"

AAJ: Do you have one or two of your own Mancini favorites?

GM: I always revert to "Two for the Road." Not only is it a beautiful, haunting melody, but Leslie Bricuse's lyrics kind of tell the story of what Hank and I were about as a couple. I think it's a lovely song, and that it would probably be his favorite of all the standards that he wrote.

AAJ: Did he have particular sources of inspiration? What was his "muse" like?

GM: He never just sat down at the piano to write music. He loved to write music on assignment. His greatest thrill was to write music to the visual image on the screen. He also loved to conduct concerts with symphony orchestras all over the world. That's why he was so beloved by the public, because he touched them and impacted their lives at one juncture or another. So many people have come to me and said, "O my gosh, our first dance was to 'Moon River.'" "I cry every time I see 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'"?"it goes on and on.

AAJ: He's part of our lives, much more than a writer of songs.

GM: He put out a product that is woven into the tapestry of the lives of our generation. And I have to tell you that I just okayed a rap version of "The Pink Panther!" by the Yin Yang Twins. I have to tell you that the Mancini family covets the music and would never license it to anything that wasn't terrific. They came up with a rap lyric that is so cool, and I think it's gonna turn on a whole young generation of rappers to "The Pink Panther."

AAJ: A friend of mine considers Eminem the greatest musician of all time.

GM: Let me tell you what else. Eminem is going to do a rap version based on "Peter Gunn" in the new movie, "The Longest Yard." They've remade the movie, and Eminem is doing the music.

AAJ: It's an amazing world. As for me, I go back a long way, and I'm into traditional jazz. For the interview, I did some research and noted a connection between Henry Mancini and Billy Strayhorn—I think they were both around the Pittsburgh area at the same time. I also noted that the lyricist for "Moon River" was Johnny Mercer. Can you tell us more about Mr. Mancini's connection with each of these great ones.

GM: I don't think that Henry ever knew Billy Strayhorn. He may have, but certainly was a fan of his. I think they were all there in Pittsburgh trying to find their way together at that time. As a matter of fact, tomorrow night, our band is going to play the Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." An incredible chart. So, Billy Strayhorn lives.

AAJ: That should be recorded!

GM: Well, I think Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra did record it.

AAJ: I gather that Henry Mancini was a very social person.

GM: When we were first married, he was extremely shy. I remember that when his first started to conduct on stage, he was almost too timid, but he certainly outgrew that and became a real performer.

AAJ: You yourself were once a vocalist with Mel Torme?

GM: Yes, I was one of the "Meltones" for three years when Mel was starting out and we were all still in our teens. It was a wonderful three years. I adored him, and miss him a lot. I had contact with him over the years until he died. Mel was a great force in my life and certainly led me on the path of music. When he was advised by his agent to focus on his movie roles, the vocal group was about to disband, and Henry had joined the Tex Beneke band when Tex took over for Glenn Miller. On their trip to California, the vocal group that had been with the band decided to make their fortune in Hollywood and left the band there. I went to an audition, and who was playing at the audition but this young, handsome, and talented Italian guy named Henry Mancini? As luck would have it, I got hired, and the rest is history.

AAJ: Your marriage sounds like a dream relationship.

GM: It was a marriage made in heaven, that's for sure. We were very young when we got married, but we seemed to be going in the same direction, and always found ourselves on the same page. We both wanted that, and it worked out great.

AAJ: Do you think it was just a good match, or do you have advice you'd give to married couples?

GM: I think you have to want it. It's not really realistic to expect one person to fulfill all of your needs for a lifetime. When they used to say, "'til death do us part," people died at forty or forty-five. It wasn't a big deal. People are living twice as long now. I think it's really fortunate when people are first married and still on the same page and still cooking with each other—but it's rare for it to last that way—you have to really want it.

AAJ: What drives you to do all your work advancing various causes?

GM: I think what drives me is the desire to give back. I've been so fortunate. I don't think in my lifetime I will have to worry about too many things. And I think that I have an obligation to give back, and certainly I have an obligation to keep Henry alive. And I'm doing that through the Henry Mancini Institute. I'm trying very hard to keep it alive—it takes money, and so I'm "working the room," as they say. Never thought I'd be working so hard at this stage of my life, but I have to do it! That's what drives me.

AAJ: It must be very fulfilling to meet the young musicians, and experience the performances and the progress.

GM: It's just great to really hob-nob with really talented people, good people who also understand about giving back—that whole concept.

AAJ: How about if we close the interview with some fun? I found a passage on the cover of the album, Martinis with Mancini—it's very lighthearted. I'll read parts of it, and you can respond with whatever comes to mind. First, it says that you "were dressed like Mary Tyler Moore with a pedal pusher's flip [laughter!]" What does that mean?

GM: Well, in fashion, there was a time when pedal pushers were in fashion. They were not long pants. They were not culottes or Capri pants, they were pedal pushers, and they came to a certain height on your leg. And I guess MTM wore them on her series.

AAJ: It says that you "were part of the original jet set, traveling to Rio with Jacques Brel one month and to Rome with Peter Sellers the next." Then it goes on, "Mancini and Sellers reportedly did a silly impromptu ballet together on the Spanish Steps."

GM: Yes, they did. They were a couple of rowdy boys. Too much vino. But that was one of the beautiful things about Hank. He never lost sight of the little boy in him. And that was one of his best qualities.

AAJ: Was he close to Peter Sellers?

GM: He was, for a time, yes.

AAJ: The liner notes say, "When Henry threw a party, he threw it far and wide. The famous Mancini shindigs were frequented by such personalities as Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Mel Torme, Sean Connery, and Jimmy Stewart." Also mentioned are Andre Previn, Michel Legrand, George Shearing, Paul Newman.

GM: You name them—they came through our living room. We cast some wonderful parties that were special musical evenings. Such a treat to have Andre Previn or George Shearing sit down at the piano. I remember one time after George had played a performance, we all came back to the house, and George sat down at the piano and sang "I Remember Sky." I hadn't heard that song before—it was written by Sondheim. And the lyrics depicted watching snow come down out of the sky. And these little white snowflakes would come down, and... this is being sung by a blind man who'd never seen this. I started to cry. When he finished, I said, "George, I don't even know that song." He said, "Stephen Sondheim wrote it." I said, "Would you record that on a cassette and send it to me"? A year would go by, and I'd remind him, and another year. Ironically, the cassette of Shearing singing "I Remember Sky" arrived on the day that Henry died. Of course, I didn't listen to it that day, but a few days went by and I put it on. It's one of my treasures, still.

And then to have Lalo Schiffrin come in and start playing. And then one time at a party, I passed out percussion instruments to everyone, a triangle, pots and pans, and Lalo at the piano, and everybody was just samba-ing all over my house banging on something. It was really great.

AAJ: I can't imagine what it must have been like having parties with Previn, Shearing, Legrand, Schiffrin taking turns at the piano.

GM: Wonderful, wonderful times.

AAJ: I saw Shearing just a few years ago at the Blue Note in New York. What a beautiful musician and what a wonderful human being. Did he ever record that song, "I Remember Sky"?

GM: No. To my knowledge, he didn't. He didn't sing much—but that one was quite something.

AAJ: I feel we could go on talking forever.

GM: Well, maybe we'll do another one at some point. And I can fill you in on how the Mancini Institute is coming along.

AAJ: Let's do it.

GM: And please remind your readers to look into our website.

AAJ: Especially, you young musicians and teachers out there—look into the Mancini Institute. They have much to offer.

GM: Thanks so much for this opportunity—and I hope we speak again soon.

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Visit the Henry Mancini Institute on the web.

Color Photo Credit
Matthew Peyton


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