The eventful career of Johnny Mandel is grounded by a thorough background in music that has resulted in his being acclaimed in the pantheon of American composers, arrangers, record producers and songwriters. His is a career that has had both duration and substance and continues to flourish.
He was born in New York City. At the age of 12, he was playing the trumpet and beginning to write big band arrangements. After graduating from New York Military Academy, where he had received a band scholarship, he immediately went on the road working in the Catskill Mountains at various resort hotels. He then joined the orchestra of the legendary violinist Joe Venuti. He was also a member of the Henry Jerome Orchestra at Child's Paramount Restaurant in Times Square during 1945.
At 19, he was playing trombone and writing arrangements for the revolutionary Boyd Rayburn Orchestra and soon after, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. This was followed by stints with Buddy Rich's first band (as well as Rich's 1947 and 1948 bands), the Georgie Auld Orchestra, and Alvino Rey's band, all in 1946. His first important arrangement was written in 1948 when he wrote the classic big band composition for Woody Herman, "Not Really the Blues." He also wrote for Artie Shaw and his only bebop-oriented orchestra, which was recently showcased in the MusicMasters album 1949.
Around this time, Johnny attended Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music in order to study symphonic forms and how to write for the symphony orchestra. These studies were later continued with Stephan Volpe in New York and subsequently with George Tremblay in Los Angeles.
Also in 1949, Johnny joined the music department at radio station WMGM, where he wrote arrangements for the staff orchestra. He had his first experience in composing dramatic music for the series, The MGM Theatre of the Air, at the very end of the era of radio dramas. In 1950 and 1951, he was an arranger for one of the most important television variety shows of all time, Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.
He spent most of 1952 working with the great jazz orchestra of Elliott Lawrence. In 1953 he joined the Count Basie Orchestra on trombone, shortly after Basie had reformed his orchestra and remained for a year, although he first started writing for the Basie band in 1952 and continued to write for the band until 1956 as "The Most Explosive Force in Jazz" returned to prominence. The Basie band recorded Mandel's well-known composition, "Straight Life" in 1953. He remembers the period working for Count Basie as the most enjoyable experience of his musical life. He observed, "I couldn't wait to get to work every night."