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Jon Burlingame on Peter Gunn


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In the late 1950s, millions of Americans were undergoing a midlife crisis. From their perspective, rock 'n' roll had turned their kids into teenage adversaries who took all of their hard work during World War II and the post-war years for granted. As baby boomers aged and the culture began shifting to a younger demographic, many middle aged men trapped in jobs yearned for their youth and freedom, while many women grew weary of their many thankless tasks in suburban homes. A good number of records and TV shows in 1958 reflected this shift.

Fueling this new zeitgeist came a music genre known as exotica that was marketed to suburban women fantasizing about passion and a stimulating adventure in warm, far-away places in Polynesia and South America. Instrumental exotica albums by Martin Deny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter and others transported them there. As for men, they watched shows like Peter Gunn, a TV detective series unlike any other. Instead of the detective being cast as a thick-necked, rule-breaking lug who always wore a rumpled suit, a loosened tie and a fedora, Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, was virtuous, natty, suave and a serious jazz fan. What's more, the series was as much about his romantic relationship with his girlfriend, a jazz singer, as it was about solving crimes. The music was radically new and matched the character. Instead of a Euro-classical soundtrack heavy on the strings that simply telegraphed suspense, Gunn's music by Henry Mancini was daring and sleek, and influenced by West Coast jazz. The show's finger-snapping score was relaxing and returned men to their former selves.

Now Jon Burlingame has written a delicious new book on the Peter Gunn TV series (1958-1961) and Mancini's music—Dreamsville: Henry Mancini, Peter Gunn, and Music for TV Noir. The book looks at Mancini's rise in Hollywood and his vision for the series and how it changed TV and movie music moving forward. Jon's earlier  book was equally terrific: The Music of James Bond

I recently caught up with Jon for an email interview on his latest book:

JazzWax: Hi Jon. Regarding the TV detective genre of the 1950s and ‘60s, the cool, jazzy thematic architecture really begins with Henry Mancini. Why did you decide to look into his work for the Peter Gunn series now?

Jon Burlingame: It's pretty simple, really. I knew the Mancini Centennial was coming up on April 16 and there were already two fine Mancini books out—his autobiography (Did They Mention the Music?) and John Caps' excellent analysis of his entire career (Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music). What had never been explored in depth, however, was that three-year period between 1958 and 1961 when he was composing and arranging theme and incidental music for TV’s Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. During this period, he built a relationship with filmmaker Blake Edwards that would become a cornerstone of his entire musical career.

JW: What made Mancini's revolutionary approach to TV detectives music possible and why did it transform how such shows were scored moving forward?

JB: A combination of two things, really: massive changes in the musicians union environment coupled with the sensational success of Mancini’s Peter Gunn music. Throughout the 1950s, the American Federation of Musicians had imposed hefty surcharges on any TV show that regularly used original music. But a power shift at the top of AFM, spurred by a revolt of Hollywood studio musicians over the issue, led to more favorable deals for original scores. This, coupled with the genius of Mancini and Edwards to use an original jazz score in Gunn, resulted in best-selling soundtrack albums. Virtually every producer of cop and detective shows that followed demanded jazz scores for their heroes. As for the clean-cut, sophisticated look of Craig Stevens as private eye Peter Gunn, that was Edwarts' idea. I talk about this quite a lot in the book.

JW: What were the big wows that stood out in your research on Mancini when it came to how he envisioned the music for Peter Gunn during the shows run from 1958 to 1961?

JB: I think today we take for granted Mancini's gift for melody and his comfort level with the West Coast jazz sound of that era. But the Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky soundtrack albums were the public’s first exposure to this. The fact that he wrote most of these timeless gems in a matter of weeks is astonishing. Dreamsville, which came to be known as the Gunn love theme, wasn't even written for a specific show but rather for the first Gunn album, The Music From Peter Gunn, released in January 1959. The ballad was then incorporated into the series later. It's also important to recognize that this was the first time a popular TV show resulted in a soundtrack album that was so immensely popular. It wouldn't happen again on this level until Miami Vice in the 1980s.

JW: Was TV’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective from 1957 to 1960, with music and arranging by Frank DeVol, Pete Rugolo and then Richard Shores, a big influence on Mancini?

JB: No. Frank DeVol wrote a fairly traditional orchestral theme for the first batch of Richard Diamond episodes in 1957 and '58—prior to the start of Peter Gunn. Pete Rugolo became the show's composer in 1959, notably in the aftermath of Mancini's success with Gunn. Rugolo's Richard Diamond scores in 1959 and '60 generated a great jazz album, but his music was subsequently replaced by a more conventional Richard Shores score, drawn from the music library of Diamond actor Dick Powell's Four Star Television production company, in 1960.

JW: What role did Gunn creator Blake Edwards play in Mancini’s scores?

JB: Shockingly, almost none. Blake liked and trusted Mancini and gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wished and whatever Mancini thought would work, dramatically. This process started with Gunn and continued throughout their film careers together. During my interviews with Edwards, he said they rarely even talked about what might be needed, musically. He knew Mancini would always provide the right accompaniment. And after the success of Mancini movie themes such as Moon River, The Days of Wine and Roses and the The Pink Panther, all for Edwards' projects, it wasn't even an issue.

JW: Did Mancini have multiple ideas for the Gunn theme and, if so, how did he decide on the one we know?

JB: I don't think so. All of his scores are now at the Library of Congress, and there is no hint that he wrote anything but the famed theme. I suppose it's possible he sketched out a few different ideas, but he talked a lot about Gunn through the years, often quite candidly, but never mentioned anything about struggling with the concept of a theme. I just think he was so tuned-in to what the show needed—the hippest possible approach—that he happened fairly quickly on that brilliant ostinato and, as he once put it, the “shouting brass."

JW: The Gunn series resulted in a range of cool Mancini incidental tunes as well, yes?

JB: For sure. Dreamsville remains my favorite track on that first album, although the excitement of Fallout!, the opening music for nearly every episode, still gets my pulse racing. Session at Pete's Pad from the first album became the song Straight to Baby, which actress Lola Albright (as Edie Hart, Pete's girlfriend, the band singer at his hangout, Mother's) performed in the show and also on her Columbia LP, arranged by Mancini and which I consider an unofficial Gunn album.

JW: How about the second album, More Music From Peter Gunn, released later in 1959?

JB: I'm especially partial to the haunting Joanna, which led directly to Mancini's long collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer, which I detail in the book. I also love the lighthearted march Timothy, written for, of all things, a seal that figures prominently in a first-season episode. A Profound Gass is heard for the first time in a beatnik joint ("It's a profound gas, Mr. Gunn," says proprietor Wilbur). Many of the tunes on the Gunn albums were written for the combo that played at Mother's. Hearing the songs in context while watching the shows is such fun.

JW: Did Mancini’s score influence John Barry’s score for the James Bond films that would follow, starting in 1961 and '62? And how so?

JB: Yes, Barry was influenced by Mancini, although in a general way. Barry had a rock 'n' roll background and considerable experience with commercial recording in London, so he was well aware of the impact of Peter Gunn. His John Barry Seven jazz-rock band often played the Peter Gunn theme live. When James Bond came along in 1962, Barry's arrangement of the Bond Theme incorporated elements of jazz and also a decidedly dramatic sensibility, especially in that now iconic bass line. The early Bond scores were a unique blend of pop, jazz and traditional orchestral sounds, and the similarly tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. Meaning neither Gunn the detective nor Bond the spy took the proceedings all that seriously. That was reflected in the scores.

JW: How did Blake Edwards’ Mr. Lucky and Henry Mancini’s score for the new TV detective series come about in 1959 and '60 and why did it emerge at the same time Gunn was airing?

JB: Peter Gunn was so popular at the time that Edwards was able to sell CBS on his next show without even shooting a pilot. And Mancini's music would, as with Gunn, become an integral element. The show centered on a gambling ship moored just offshore, and required a more elegant and glamorous sound, including strings, for its theme. But the show also featured lots of great jazz as background.

JW: Why did Mr. Lucky last only one season?

JB: The untold story of Mr. Lucky involves Edwards' battles with the series sponsor and CBS, which led the network to cancel the series despite its strong ratings. Nevertheless, Mancini managed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of two Mr. Lucky albums—Music From Mr. Lucky and Mr. Lucky Goes Latin—during that 1959-'60 period, all while scoring episodes for both Gunn and Mr. Lucky every week.

JW: What was the issue with the sponsor?

JB: It's one of my favorite stories in the book. Back in 1959, a single company's ads for its products often paid the way for an entire series. Hence, program sponsors were very powerful, sometimes more powerful than the networks themselves. Lever Brothers, the maker of Lifebuoy soap and Rinso detergent, decided halfway through the season of Mr. Lucky that they didn't like the show's gambling milieu and demanded that the producers drop it. It was an outrageous request, as the gambling ship was the show's centerpiece. CBS sided with the sponsor, and Blake took his name off the show. There's more, but I'll save the rest for readers of the book.

JW: How did the two scores establish the Mancini sound, and which crime shows were influenced moving forward?

JB: The cool-jazz sound and all those memorable melodies from Gunn and Mr. Lucky introduced us to the composer's sound, and its success enabled him to sign with RCA Victor for the next 20 years. Partly because of his relationship with Edwards and because he was a hot young composer, Mancini was able to score a lot of great movies in the years that followed, showcasing his versatility in multiple genres. But regarding TV detective shows, almost every one rolling forward demanded a jazz theme: Elmer Bernstein's Johnny Staccato score, Count Basie's M Squad, Duke Ellington's Asphalt Jungle, John Williams' Checkmate and, still later, Quincy Jones' Ironside and Lalo Schifrin's Mannix were just some of the notable themes of the time.

JW: So who played the electric guitar on the opening of the Peter Gunn theme? Many people think it was Duane Eddy.

JB: The guitarist on the Gunn theme was the legendary Bob Bain, who had once played for Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby and would go on to become the guitarist on other TV themes that would become almost as culturally ubiquitous: Bonanza, The Munsters and Batman. Bain played on the TV scores and on the Gunn albums. Duane Eddy would later have a hit record with the Gunn theme, but he wasn’t a recording-session musician in Los Angeles. As for Bain’s guitar, he used a 1953 Fender Telecaster.

JazzWax clips: Here's Mancini's Peter Gunn theme...

Here's Dreamsville from Peter Gunn...

Here's Dreamsville at work in Peter Gunn as background...

Here's Lola Albright and Craig Stevens in Peter Gunn...

Here's Henry Mancini's theme for TV's Mr. Lucky...

Here's vocalist Sue Raney backed by the Henry Mancini Orchestra delivering one of the finest vocal versions of Dreamsville...

Here's one of my favorites by Mancini for Gunn, The Brothers Go to Mother's...

Here's guitarist Bob Bain on Mancini and Peter Gunn. The “Tommy" he refers to toward the end is studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco...

Here's John Barry's 1962 James Bond Theme from Dr. No...

And here again is the complete Fresh Sound release of The Music From Peter Gunn, which you can buy here... as well as The Music From Mr. Lucky here...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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