RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Songwriters Hall of Fame is preparing to induct the man who wrote the theme for "M*A*S*H." Composer/arranger Johnny Mandel has an Oscar and Grammys, and did the arrangements for Barbra Streisand's latest album.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited the composer at his home in Malibu.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel's mother was an opera singer. He was just a little boy when she realized his unique musical gift.

Mr. JOHNNY MANDEL (Composer/Arranger): Well, when I was, like, five or something, she discovered I had perfect pitch. And she'd go play a note, and I'd be in the next room or something and I'd call off the note.

STAMBERG: Perfect pitch can drive people crazy. Squeaky brakes, ambulance sirens all have identifiable notes. Johnny Mandel pays no attention, unless he's asked.

Do you hear the crows?

Mr. MANDEL: Oh, there's crows all over here.

STAMBERG: What note are they singing? You have perfect pitch.

(Soundbite of crows sing)

Mr. MANDEL: Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah.

(Soundbite of piano notes)

Mr. MANDEL: E-flat. That was a crow in E-flat. Is this going on NPR? I can't say much for the future of radio if this is what we're going to give them.

(Soundbite of song, "Suicide is Painless")

STAMBERG: Movie director Robert Altman hired Johnny Mandel to score his 1970 satire "M*A*S*H."

Mr. MANDEL: Altman and I are sitting around just by ourselves. It was the day before the beginning of shooting.

STAMBERG: The first scene up was a fake funeral. Altman said he needed a song for it.

Mr. MANDEL: And it should be the stupidest song ever written. I said, well, yeah. I can do stupid. He says, the song should be called "Suicide is Painless."

STAMBERG: Altman takes a stab at writing the lyrics - not stupid enough.

Mr. MANDEL: He said, ah, but all is not lost. I've got a 15-year-old kid who is a gibbering idiot. He's got a guitar, and he'll run through this thing like a dose of salts.

STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel went home and wrote the melody, and the kid wrote the lyrics.

Mr. MANDEL: Michael Altman.

STAMBERG: Michael Altman.

Mr. MANDEL: Yeah. And it's the only lyric he ever wrote.

STAMBERG: An actor recorded the song the next day.

(Soundbite of movie, "M*A*S*H")

(Soundbite of song, "Suicide is Painless")

Mr. KEN PRYMUS (Actor): (as Private Seidman) (Singing) Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be. The pains that are withheld for me, I realize and I can see that suicide is painless.

STAMBERG: Robert Altman later said his kid made more than a million dollars from the song, whereas he, the director, just got 70,000. Then the movie became a TV series, now in rerun perpetuity. Lots of people got rich.

(Soundbite of song, "The Shadow of Your Smile")

STAMBERG: Mandel wrote the score for the 1965 film "The Sandpiper," starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the glorious Central California coast.

(Soundbite of song, "The Shadow of Your Smile")

STAMBERG: Come and show us your Oscar.

Mr. MANDEL: My Oscar?

STAMBERG: Yes, would you?

Mr. MANDEL: Oh. Well, youve seen an Oscar. People have them all over the place. And the sea air isn't very kind to them, anyway.

STAMBERG: Heavy.

Mr. MANDEL: You wouldn't believe how heavy these are.

STAMBERG: Oh, my gosh.

Mr. MANDEL: And I just about dropped it on Natalie Wood's foot when she handed it to me.

STAMBERG: In addition to the score, the filmmakers wanted a song. Mandel plucked one out of his theme. Paul Francis Webster did the lyrics. It won the Oscar, then everyone recorded it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Shadow of Your Smile")

Ms. ASTRUD GILBERTO (Singer): (Singing) The shadow of your smile, when you are gone...

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) ...will color of my dreams and light...

Unidentified Woman: ...the dawn. Looking into my eyes...

Mr. TONY BENNETT (Singer): (Singing) ...my love, and see all the lovely things you are to me.

STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel has written arrangements for Sinatra, Basie, Diana Krall. She was involved as producer of Barbra Streisand's latest album, scored by Mandel.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

First, he wrote arrangements for Krall's jazz quartet - simple, elegant groupings of instruments and notes.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

STAMBERG: Mandel listened over and over to the quartet-only recording, then made an arrangement for orchestra. Now the idea, he says, is to stay out of the singer's way.

Mr. MANDEL: When I'm writing for this kind of a situation, I try to put a scrim, you know, you veil things to set off the main attraction rather than competing with it.

STAMBERG: The orchestration is also simple, elegant, but fuller. Mandel put in a flute and translucent strings.

Mr. MANDEL: Oh, with strings, a nice bunch of strings in the back, and now she's - now Barbra's carrying it, and here we go.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

Ms. BARBARA STREISAND (Singer): (Singing) Maybe I should have saved those leftover dreams.

Mr. MANDEL: The only thing the orchestra should do is provide a lovely cushion for her to sing against.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

Ms. STREISAND: (Singing) ...but here's that rainy day.

STAMBERG: Johnny Mandel studied piano as a kid, but the trumpet and trombone won his heart. I never wanted to play an instrument that you plucked or struck, he once said. I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss.

Throughout his long career as arranger, composer, record producer and instrumentalist, Johnny Mandel has made music that caresses the ear.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

STAMBERG: Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Here's That Rainy Day")

Ms. STREISAND: (Singing) Where is that worn out wish that I threw aside?

MONTAGNE: Oh, well. You can hear the music and arrangements of Johnny Mandel at our Web site: nprmusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.