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Johnny Mandel, 94, writer of memorable movie scores, is dead
Johnny Mandel receives the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, at Lincoln Center in New York, Jan. 11, 2011. Mandel, who composed and arranged for some of the leading big bands of the 1940s and 1950s before establishing himself as a writer of memorable movie scores and themes like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Emily” and “Suicide Is Painless,” died on June 29, 2020, at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94. Chad Batka/The New York Times.

by Eric Grode

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Johnny Mandel, who composed and arranged for some of the leading big bands of the 1940s and ’50s before establishing himself as a writer of memorable movie scores and themes like “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Emily” and “Suicide Is Painless,” died Monday at his home in Ojai, California. He was 94.

His daughter, Marissa, confirmed the death.

Mandel was for many years a journeyman jazz trumpeter and trombonist, a reliable member of any band’s brass section but not an outstanding soloist. He found his calling when he branched out into arranging.

His arrangements were heard on Sid Caesar’s groundbreaking 1950s television series “Your Show of Shows” and on the first recordings Frank Sinatra made for Reprise, the record company founded by Sinatra in 1960. He wrote a Grammy-winning new arrangement (based on Nelson Riddle’s original one) of the Nat King Cole hit “Unforgettable” for the record that, through overdubbing, posthumously reunited Cole with his daughter Natalie.

The most lasting chapter in his musical career began in 1958, when he began writing for Hollywood.

His lush theme songs for the 1964 film “The Americanization of Emily” (“Emily”) and for “The Sandpiper,” released the next year (“The Shadow of Your Smile,” which won both an Academy Award and a Grammy Award for song of the year), are probably better remembered now than the movies themselves. His jarringly serene “Suicide Is Painless” became the theme of both the film “M*A*S*H” (1970) and the subsequent long-running TV version. Among the many other movies he scored were “The Last Detail” (1973), “Caddyshack” (1980) and “The Verdict” (1982).

In an interview with the website JazzWax in 2008, Mandel attributed his success as a film composer to his years writing for, among other things, Las Vegas floor shows. He recalled his experience on the first picture he scored, the Susan Hayward film noir “I Want to Live!” (1958), based on a true story, as unexpectedly harmonious.

“When I started on ‘I Want to Live!’ I realized, heck, where have I been all my life?” he said. “I’ve been writing and arranging by the clock and catching sight cues for dancers for years. I just put the two together and was able to do movies.” His score was one of the first to make extensive use of jazz.

Even after he was established in Hollywood, Mandel maintained a parallel career as an arranger for many well-known singers. He arranged Sinatra’s first Reprise album, “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!” He also worked with Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Rickie Lee Jones, Diana Krall and even Michael Jackson. He arranged several of the tracks on “Unforgettable,” the 1991 album of songs associated with Natalie Cole’s father that reinvigorated her career.

His approach, he explained to The New York Times in 1992, had as much to do with composing as arranging: “I always reharmonize everything. I like to leave singers alone and go where they’re not.”

In addition to winning an Academy Award and five Grammys, Mandel was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010 and recognized as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz artist, by the National Endowment for the Arts the next year.

John Alfred Mandel was born on Nov. 23, 1925, in Manhattan. His father, Alfred, worked in the garment district, and his mother, Hannah, had aspired to be an opera singer. His father’s clothing store, Mandel & Cash, foundered during the Depression, and the family moved to Los Angeles in 1934.

Although he, his mother and sister moved back to New York after his father died three years later, his time in California was pivotal for Mandel. When he was 11, a cousin came to visit while touring as a drummer with the bandleader Harry Reser, sparking a fascination with music that would last a lifetime.

That fascination soon developed into an interest in arranging. “Lying in bed with my ear glued to the radio listening to bands playing the same songs,” he told JazzWax, “I said to myself about the arrangements, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Those broadcasts were like a laboratory for me.

“It took a couple of weeks of listening when I was a kid before the light bulb went off,” he continued. “It wasn’t about the songs. It was about how the band interpreted the song.”

After enrolling in New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson upstate, where he played bugle, Mandel began taking a bus to Manhattan to study arranging with the noted bandleader and arranger Van Alexander.

With so many musicians serving overseas in World War II, Mandel spent summers playing trumpet at Catskills resorts as a teenager. He eventually played trumpet, bass trumpet and trombone in bands led by, among others, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Dorsey, Henry Jerome (where the saxophone section included Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chair, and Leonard Garment, the future White House counsel), before switching exclusively to arranging and composing in 1954.

A number of leading jazz musicians had Mandel tunes in their repertoires — Stan Getz recorded “Hershey Bar,” Chet Baker recorded “Tommy Hawk,” and “Not Really the Blues” was a staple of the Woody Herman band’s book — but he did not have a hit song until he collaborated with Johnny Mercer on “Emily” in 1964.

Other lyricists who worked with Mandel included Paul Francis Webster (“The Shadow of Your Smile,” “A Time for Love”); Paul Williams (“Close Enough for Love”); and, most unusually, Mike Altman, the teenage son of Robert Altman, director of “M*A*S*H.” Mike Altman wrote the words for “Suicide Is Painless,” Mandel told JazzWax, after his father tried writing them himself but decided, “I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need.”

His son apparently could, and Robert Altman later said that the song was far more lucrative for his son (and for Mandel) than the movie “M*A*S*H” was for him.

Mandel married Lois Lee in 1959. That marriage ended in divorce. In 1970 he married Martha Blanner; she died in December. Their daughter is his only immediate survivor.

Fittingly for a man who gave up life on the bandstand to focus on life behind the scenes, Mandel did not like it when songs from his film scores outshone the surrounding material.

“If you walk out of the theater saying it was a really good picture, it was a successful score,” he told Les Tomkins, the jazz journalist, in 1970. “If you walk out saying the picture was terrible but the music was good, I’m not so sure that the score succeeded, except maybe from the standpoint of the composer. It’s another way of upstaging.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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