Ginny Mancini (1924-2021)

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Ginny Mancini, the wife of the late composer-arranger Henry Mancini, a polished singer who was one of the original Mel-Tones, and an elegant and graceful woman who was as down to earth as she was charming, died on October 25. She was 97.

An ardent JazzWax reader, Ginny's last email to me arrived in May, in response to my post on Brazilian singer Elis Regina:

“Dear Marc, I fell in love with Elise when we were in Rio in 1964 for Brazil's International Song Festival. An incredible performer gone way too soon. Thanks for bringing her back to life. xox Ginny."


I first met Ginny about seven years ago, following a Wall Street Journal piece I had written about her husband. She invited me over to her gorgeous Art Deco apartment overlooking the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden. After serving cookies and tea, we had a wonderful time talking about Hank and his music and Ginny's own superb career, at first with the Mel-Tones and then with Tex Beneke, where she met, dated and married the band's pianist and arranger, Henry Mancini. She also sang background harmony on Hank's Breakfast at Tiffany's soundtrack in 1961 and on Stan Kenton's Artistry in Voices and Brass in 1963.

I also accompanied Ginny to a jazz concert. Even at 90, heads turned as she entered the theater, moving with assured Hollywood poise and a smile that left you staring. Periodically, Ginny would write to comment on a JazzWax post or a WSJ piece, often offering a related story or insights into her own musical tastes.

A big fan of the early Mel-Tones, I persuaded Ginny to let me interview her on that period of her career. She agreed. In tribute to Ginny, here is my original post in 2014, which I left in Ginny's voice following my introduction:

Some of Artie Shaw and Mel Torme's finest recordings came in 1946, when both were signed to the Musicraft label in Los Angeles. Torme at the time fronted a vocal quartet known as the Mel-Tones. What set the Mel-Tones apart was their with-it spin on the band vocal groups popular at the time. Torme wrote the vocal arrangements, and their jazz sensibility impressed Shaw. The Mel-Tone who sang the “hot notes," giving the group its hip harmony, was Ginny O'Connor, who later would marry Henry Mancini.

When I had an opportunity to interview Ginny on her husband for a recent Wall Street Journal piece, I couldn't help but ask her about her Mel-Tones days. Ginny was taken aback: “How do you know about the Mel-Tones?" she asked with bemused surprise. When I told her how much I admired her and the group and told her about the Mel-Tones Soundies up on YouTube, she was flattered and wanted to see them. I sent them along and our chat began.

Here's Ginny's recollections of the her recordings with Mel Torme and Artie Shaw:

“The early 1940s was a pretty innocent time in Los Angeles, even though there was a war going on. The city was so alive and everyone was on the same page with the war effort. I attended Los Angeles City College, where four of us started a vocal group in our senior year called the School Kids. We sang around town, anywhere we could get attention. It was me, Bernie Parke, Diz Disruhd and Betty Beveridge. In 1944, we worked with Harry Schooler, a bandleader who was known as the Swing Shift Dance King.

“During the war, when people worked shifts at plants around the clock, Harry had figured out that by holding dances at midnight or later, you’d attract all the young single people in their early 20s who were just getting off in the early morning hours and had nothing to do. We worked with him at the Aragon Ballroom on the Lick Pier in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica. One night in early ’44, while we were singing, he was arrested for statutory rape and that was the end of him.

“In college, I loaded up my schedule in the morning with heavy courses so I could be in mixed chorus in the afternoon. We sang traditional choral music in the class, and we loved it. It’s hard to explain why but it was everything for us. It made us feel so good.

“When the School Kids’ performed outside of school, our arrangements were written by Tom Kenny, a singer and vocal arranger. At the time, we were singing lots of patriotic songs. All four of us hung out together all the time. We couldn’t get enough of each other. Then Tom was drafted.

“In the early 1940s, orchestra leader Ben Pollack had heard us sing and convinced Mel Torme’s family to move out to Hollywood from Chicago. Ben sensed Mel was a talented youngster and should be where the action is. Mel finished high school at Los Angeles High and then at 18 was in Frank Sinatra’s first film, Higher and Higher (1943).

“Ben arranged for us to meet Mel in ’44 and we hit it off. Mel took us on at face value based on Ben Pollack’s say-so. Mel arranged our vocals, and we started doing more sophisticated stuff. We loved singing Mel’s arrangements of hot tunes of the day.

“Then Diz was drafted in ’44, and we replaced him with Les Baxter, who later became a bandleader and recorded all those exotica albums in the ‘50s. Les was pretty worldly even then. He was a saxophonist who had played with Freddie Slack on Cow Cow Boogie and had traveled and was knowledgeable. He turned us on to that world. After we’d rehearse, he’d tell us to lie on the floor and close our eyes, and he’d put on Ravel or Debussy. He introduced us to classical music. [Above, Les Baxter]

“We were enamored of Mel and his talent. He could do everything and do it all so well: sing, play, arrange, write—everything. We began recording tighter in 1944, things like Where Or When and A Stranger in Town. Around this time, with Mel on board, we made a couple of movies, including Let’s Go Steady. There was one for Columbia and one for Universal. They were cute teenage kind of movies. It was a very innocent time.



“We were up for any opportunity that came along. In 1945, we recorded a series of Soundies, including Lullaby of Broadway, which were early music videos. Mel wasn’t in them. He had just signed with Musicraft Records, and the label wouldn’t let him appear. So Bernie pretended to be Mel and lip-synched to Mel’s vocal.



“Actually, now that I think about it, those Soundies were done on Aug. 14, 1945, VJ day. I remember we were in the studio and after we were done, we walked out on Sunset Blvd. and saw throngs of people. We asked what was going on. Someone told us that the Japanese had surrendered. People were everywhere.

“In early ’46, Mel told us about the Artie Shaw opportunity. It sounded like a good idea to us. Sonny Burke was Artie’s arranger and he was a wonderful guy. He was a great musician and had a wonderful sense of humor and a great attitude.

“All four of us could read music, but Mel preferred to figure out the arrangements with us sitting around the piano. He’d play a five part-chord and whichever note we were supposed to sing we learned.

“I was the hot note in the middle, the one that gave us the jazz sound. There’s three-part harmony, which is pure, and when you add the hot note in the middle, that makes it fun. We learned Mel’s arrangements very quickly and nailed it before we recorded. We were always well prepared. Mel’s arrangements were so original and hip.

“The first time I met Artie was at the old Capitol Studios. Those Musicraft dates were recorded at Capitol and Radio Recorders. I remember that Artie’s mother was there. She and Artie were very close. She was such a grand lady and such a presence. She’d just sit there quietly. Artie had one of the best bands around. It was tight and smartly arranged. He was the first one to use strings with a big band, and his music was hugely optimistic. It was happy stuff to listen to and to sing.

“Each of the songs for Artie was done pretty quickly. There were three takes at the most, and that was usually because someone in the band blew a note. Singers didn’t blow notes. Back then, before tape, you had to record without a mistake. There was no cutting and pasting. If someone in the band hit a clinker, you’d have to take it from the top.

“We recorded out in the studio with the band. That’s how it was done then. Mel had his own mic, and the rest of us stood at a two-sided mic, which was typical then. It had two mics on one side and two on the other. It was set up that way so we could sing toward each other, which was ideal. By doing this, you could adjust your blend accordingly and watch each other.

“My favorite song from the Artie Shaw sessions was What Is This Thing Called Love. It was an interesting arrangement by Mel, and Artie’s solo was great. It was a different way to treat that song. By then, we were part of the Hollywood scene and always were invited to parties, where we’d sing.

“Artie was a nice guy back then. He was happening, handsome, married to Ava Gardner, and he was a great musician. He seemed to have it all. Later in life, he was miserable to be around. I never met someone so mean-spirited and full of himself. I’m not sure what happened to him along the way to cause such a change.

“Around this time, Carlos Gastel, who managed Mel, said to him, “You do a lot of things really well. You want to be a star, so you’re going to have to focus.” Mel had to make a career choice and in 1947 he decided to go out on his own. We all knew it was time. Actually I was the one who left first. I saw the writing on the wall. Mel never told us what he had planned. He never said, 'Hey kids, it’s over.' He used to call us 'kids.' He just let it go and you could see it coming.

“I had an opportunity to audition for the Tex Beneke Orchestra so I went. Tex had taken over Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band and was touring cross-country. When the band arrived in Hollywood, the band’s vocal group, the Crew Chiefs, decided they wanted to stay in California. Tex was stuck for a vocal group. I was hired and sang with the Mello-Larks— Tommy Hamm, Bob Smith, Jack Bierman and me. It was fun. Talk about divine intervention. If it hadn’t been for Mel’s ambition, I wouldn’t have auditioned for Tex’s band. That’s where I met the pianist and arranger—Henry Mancini."

JazzWax clip: Here's Ginny with the Mel-Tones on Back Home Again in Indiana...

 

Here's Artie Shaw with Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones in 1946 on What Is This Thing Called Love?...



Here's Guilty...



Here's Ginny with Tex Beneke's Mellolarks in 1946 with Henry Mancini on piano singing It Might Have Been a Different Story...



Here's Breakfast at Tiffany's from the soundtrack, with Ginny as part of the vocal choir...



And here's Ginny in the mix on Stan Kenton's It's Love, from Artistry in Voices and Brass...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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