Monica Mancini continues the rich musical legacy of her father, Grammy and Academy award-winning composer Henry Mancini.
Courtesy Photo

Her father's daughter: Making music the Mancini way

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

June 17, 2008 - Henry Mancini (1924-1994) was one of the music world's most honored composers. He was nominated for 72 Grammys. He won 20. His peers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated him 18 times for the Oscar. He won four. Mancini also won a Golden Globe and was nominated for two Emmys. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his memory in 2004.

There was a reason why Mancini's work reaped so many rewards.

Who can forget the poignant scene in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" when good-time girl Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) sat on the fire escape of her New York City apartment, strummed her guitar and sang "Moon River?" Mancini also composed the quirky score for "The Pink Panther" film series and the jazzy theme song for "Peter Gunn," the popular 1960s television series.

Mancini's vast musical legacy endures, due in part to his daughter Monica, a singer who honors her father's memory as she tours and appears with orchestras throughout the country.

"When I go out to symphony concerts, the audience is vast," Mancini said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Studio City, Calif. "There are young people who respond to 'The Pink Panther' and 'Peter Gunn.' Then, there are the people who tell me about playing my dad's music in the house or listening to it because their parents had it on the stereo. His music really does cross generations."

According to Mancini, orchestras enjoy playing her dad's music as much as she does singing it.

"I do a lot of the same arrangements he used," she said. "When he wasn't scoring music for films, he was out conducting orchestras, so my charts are written for them. He made sure the orchestras were used."

Mancini's musical heritage doesn't come solely from her father. Her mother, Ginny O'Connor Mancini, was a busy Los Angeles studio singer.

"I used to go to work with my mom," she explained. "She did shows for everyone - Dinah Shore Show, Judy Garland Show and Red Skelton. She'd go into the studios after school, so my (twin) sister and I would go with her. I thought, 'This is the best way to make a living I could ever dream of.'"

Mancini, who also spent 20 years as a studio singer, began her career at age 14 when she toured as a vocalist with her father, beginning at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe.

"My father went out (on tour)` in the summer. My sister and brother and I were part of the show," she said. "Johnny Mathis opened for him."

Mancini's debut CD, released in 1998, is a love letter to the music her father created, each tune revealing a new layer in the lyrics.

"I don't write songs, so I'm at the mercy of songwriters," the former studio singer said. "When I decide on a piece of music, I read the lyric as if it were a conversation. I take my time so that it will communicate something new."

Mancini's commitment to the lyrics are obvious in her rendition of the "The Days of Wine and Roses," the Oscar winning song from the 1962 film. Mancini's phrasing of Johnny Mercer's haunting lyrics is reminiscent of the way Frank Sinatra breathed new life into familiar tunes.

"That's the best compliment you could ever pay me," she said. "My husband, Gregg Field, was Sinatra's drummer and was on the road with him for the last six years he performed live."

One of her favorite songs on the CD is "Moon River."

"Believe it or not, I really love singing the song," she said. "My biggest challenge was to make the song my own."

Mancini also covered two of her dad's favorites, "Two for the Road" and "Moment to Moment."

"'Two for the Road' was one of my dad's best," she says. "When you ask any of his peers to name a favorite, they almost always pick that one."

"'Moment to Moment' is a Johnny Mercer lyric," she said. "Mercer was a true poet."

Mancini relates to Mercer's lyrics so much that, in 2000, she covered 12 of her favorites on the "Dreams of Johnny Mercer" CD, even though one of the songs gave her fits during recording sessions.

She sings all the female voices on the snappy 1940s influenced version of Mercer's "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive."

"That was a hard one. It took forever," she said. "I used to do that when I was a studio singer. I love the harmonies."

Mancini put "Skylark," Johnny Carson's favorite song, on the Mercer CD. The song was also used as the opening number on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's 1997 movie, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

"Clint's done amazing things for music in his movies," she said.

One of the most beautiful songs on the Mercer CD is "When October Goes," completed after his death in 1975.

According to Mancini, Mercer's widow, Ginger, found unpublished lyrics among his papers. She asked Barry Manilow to write the music for one of them, "When October Goes." Manilow put the song on his 1996 concept CD, "2:00 a.m. Paradise Cafe."

"I think it's one of the most gorgeous songs ever written," Mancini said. "I like to do it in concert. It really should be up there with all the great American standards."

In 2002, Mancini gave a nod to the film industry with her release of "Cinema Paradiso." The title track, from the 1998 Italian film, has special meaning for the singer.

"My husband wrote the lyrics," she explained. "My dad had done an album covering the music from his favorite Italian films. (The song's composer) Ennio Morricone was so knocked out by it that he wrote a personal letter to my dad and told him that even he couldn't have thought of it as beautifully as my dad had arranged it."

When Mancini was putting the Mercer CD together, she wanted to include it, but it didn't have lyrics.

"One day, Gregg said, 'Let me try,'" she said. "I guess he got inspired. He sent the lyrics to Morricone, who approved them. It's nice to have the writer's blessing."

While other singers have covered their famous parents' work, Mancini says the inevitable comparsions haven't happened to her.

"The cool thing is that none of the comparisons that are made of Liza (Minnelli) and Judy Garland, or Natalie and Nat King Cole or even Nancy and Frank Sinatra, for that matter, apply here because my dad didn't sing," Mancini said. "It's apples and oranges. That's why it's such a good fit. He wrote the songs. I interpret them."

Mancini is currently working on a new CD and continues to sing with orchestras. She last performed with the Dallas and Forth Worth symphonies in 2004, as she was touring to support the CD "Ultimate Mancini," which was recorded to honor her dad's 80th birthday. When asked when she was coming back to the Lone Star state, she laughed and said, "We're overdue. We have a blast in Texas."

Mancini's CDs are available online at her website: www.monicamancini.com.

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