“The House of the Rising Sun”
Composed by Alan Price; arranged by Henry Mancini.
Recorded by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on February 28, 1966 in Hollywood.
Henry Mancini, directing: Al Porcino, first trumpet; Ray Triscari, Pete Candoli, Bud Brisbois and Maury Harris, trumpets; Dick Nash, first trombone; John Halliburton, Jimmy Priddy, trombones; Karl DeKarske, bass trombone; Vince DeRosa, Dick Perissi, John Cave and Arthur Maebe, French horns; Ronny Lang, Ted Nash, Gene Cipriano and Harry Klee, bass flutes and saxophones; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Jack Sperling, drums; Milt Holland. percussion; Larry Bunker, vibraphone. Vince De Rosa, French horn soloist; Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone soloist.
The story – part one:
For those of you who visit swingandbeyond.com regularly, it may come as a surprise that I have some familiarity with music that is outside the scope of what is presented on this blog. I was a child in the 1950s and a teenager in the 1960s. After the mid-1960s American popular music changed rather dramatically. I will not pretend that I understood very well what was happening on the pop music scene then. But I was aware that it was changing. I was surrounded by family members and friends who participated rather deeply in listening to and discussing pop music in the wake of what was then called the “British invasion “ of American pop music, spearheaded by the Beatles. To say that I couldn’t get with that music would be something of an understatement. My musical interests lay elsewhere. But that didn’t stop my friends from persuading me to listen to various iterations of what came to be called “rock.”
I recall one friend in particular who fancied himself something of an expert regarding this music. He even wrote a series of articles in our high school newspaper about it that in my callow judgment then were pretty good. He was constantly inviting me to come to his house to listen to his latest rock records with him, and then discuss them. Those were largely one-sided discussions – I usually didn’t have very much to say.
I do recall however a particular discussion we had after he played the song “The House of the Rising Sun,” by a group called The Animals. After the music stopped, he asked me what I thought of it. I told him that their performance left me cold, but I definitely liked something about the melody of the song. Mind you, I didn’t criticize or put down what I had heard. It just didn’t speak to me. My friend was incredulous. He said to me something that I have never forgotten: “Mike, when it comes to music, you are hopeless.” (Above right: the “sophisticated” Mike Zirpolo in 1970.)
Not too long after this, I was driving my car with the radio tuned to a local AM middle-of-the-road pop music station, when I first heard that memorable melody again. The performance was instrumental, and it spoke to me. At the end of the tune, the DJ stated, ” that was ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’ performed by Henry Mancini.” Henry Mancini? I thought.
What caught my ear first in the Mancini recording was the unusual undulating ostinato that begins the performance, and continues behind the other-worldly solo that follows on an instrument I was only vaguely aware of then, the French horn. What instruments were making that mysterious sound, I wondered. I resolved to find out more about that recording.
The four bass flutes that created the haunting ostinato in Henry Mancini’s recording of “The House of the Rising Sun” were played by: L-R: Ronny Lang, Ted Nash, Gene Cipriano and Harry Klee.
Soon I had acquired the Henry Mancini RCA Victor LP that included “The House of the Rising Sun.” It is called Mancini ’67 …The Big Band Sound of Henry Mancini. I learned that the eerie sound at the beginning of the performance was created by four bass flutes, and that the ethereal French horn solo was played by Vince De Rosa. The massive sounding tenor saxophone solo a bit later in the piece was played by Plas Johnson.
In addition to being able to listen to the music on LPs, I liked many other parts of the LP experience. Finding an LP I was looking for was always fun. I have been in record stores from coast-to-coast looking for LPs that contained music that appealed to me. It was like a treasure hunt. I developed very strong muscles in my right hand and forearm from flipping through LPs in the bins of record stores. Then actually finding the LP was a joy. The anticipation I experienced between the time I found an LP I was looking for, and the moment I was able to carefully place the tone arm of my turntable on the disk was exciting. Then the actual listening to the music was a thrill, and a voyage of discovery. If the LP contained something that I had been looking for for a long time (sometimes this was years), hearing the music in my own home, and knowing that I could listen to it any time I wanted to, was most satisfying.
The other parts of the LP experience were icing on the cake—the cover art on the front of the dust jacket, and the liner notes on the back. Early on, I became a fan of liner notes. If they were well written and informative, which they often were, I learned a lot about the music I was hearing. Finally, if the liner notes contained the names and/or pictures of the musicians who actually played the music, I was fulfilled, at least for the moment. But the quest went on. One piece of information or list of names led to others, and those in turn led to still more.
The story – part two: Henry Mancini’s rise to fame and success as a Hollywood film composer came very gradually. After service in the U.S. Army in World War II, Mancini joined Tex Beneke’s band in June of 1946 as a pianist and arranger. It was with the Beneke band that Mancini first visited Los Angeles in September of 1946. Like many young musicians who were sidemen in big bands, Mancini saw what possibilities for work existed in Hollywood, and resolved to settle there whenever an opportune time to do so arrived.
It was also in the Beneke band that Mancini met and became a friend of the great swing era arranger Jerry Gray. I think it safe to say say that Mancini probably never studied arranging with Gray, nevertheless as a professional colleague he absorbed a great deal about how to write music for a swing band from Gray, who was a master of the idiom. As a teenager, Mancini transcribed many of Jerry Gray’s arrangements for Artie Shaw’s band, part by part, by simply listening to them over and over again on records. (Gray was later the best man at Mancini’s marriage to Ginny O’Connor, a singer in the Beneke band. She had previously worked with Mel Torme’ and the Mel-Tones.) One of the first arrangements Mancini wrote for the Beneke band in the summer of 1946 was on the great standard ballad “These Foolish Things.” It appears that Mancini continued to work in the Beneke band as a pianist until approximately August of 1947, when he ceded the piano bench to Art Wagner. Thereafter, he arranged for Beneke full-time for a while and then continued to maintain some connection with Tex Beneke’s various bands as an arranger (at $50.00 a score) into early 1952. By then, he was married with three children, and living in Los Angeles. (Above left: Henry Mancini in 1941. At right: Mancini on the road with Tex Beneke’s band – 1947.)
Mancini’s entry into the musical world of Hollywood was slow, but steady. After he left the Beneke band, he assisted Jerry Gray with the music needed for a radio show where Gray was the bandleader/conductor/arranger. It was The Bob Crosby Show, and it was on the air five days a week, with each program lasting 15 minutes. A lot of music was needed each week, quickly. From there, Mancini went to Universal Studios and basically learned the art of writing music for films and TV. This led to his work on the TV series Peter Gunn in the late 1950s with writer/director Blake Edwards. From TV, Mancini followed Edwards into feature films. The rest, as they say, is history.
In addition, Mancini, who would have been the first to deny his ability as a businessman, came to understand that no matter how great one’s arrangements are, and no matter how much an arranger gets paid per score, the only way to make money over a long period of time in the music business as an arranger was to also write tunes, and have them copyrighted. Then, when your tunes are played on radio, TV, on a record or in movies, you as the composer receive compensation based on the number of performances the composition receives. The largest agency that monitored such things and secured and paid residuals (compensation) to composers was the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Mancini took the steps necessary to become an ASCAP member in the early 1950s. His first check for residuals was for $14.73. In the late 1950s, after his music for the Peter Gunn television show became popular, he received his first sizeable check, for over $32,000.00. Many more large checks would follow over the next thirty years as Mancini’s movie music became internationally popular.(1) (Above left: Mancini in the mid-1950s.)
The music: Despite Henry Mancini’s great success writing music for A-grade Hollywood films, and composing songs that have become a part of the fabric of American Popular Song, like “Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” and “Charade,” he was, at heart, always a musician whose roots extended deeply into the swing era. By the mid-1960s, Mancini’s LP records of the music from his films were often best-sellers. Nevertheless, he stated then “Every couple of years I get an urge to return to where I came from.” (2) The result of that urge was the Mancini ’67 album, which contained covers of songs from many genres and eras done in the unique Mancini style.
As was mentioned above, Mancini’s arrangement of “The House of the Rising Sun” begins with a gentle rising and falling fragment played by four bass flutes as a section. Henry Mancini later explained how that happened: “…I started using bass flutes (in the music for the ‘Peter Gunn’ TV series.) The instrument was virtually unused at the time, and still isn’t used much. The reason is simple: it has little power and doesn’t project. You can use it only with microphones; it’s impractical for a symphony orchestra. The first time I recall hearing a bass flute was in Alex North’s score for ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I knew what the sound was, and as a flute player (myself) I’d seen a few of the instruments. A man in Los Angeles named Oglevie made bass flutes. Harry Klee, one of my fine flute players, owned one. Some of the other players acquired them, and I used three at first in the ‘Peter Gunn’ music, then four when another instrument became available. It was probably the first time a section of bass flutes had ever been used. I used them for a dark effect, sometimes writing a fall–a descending figure–at the end of a note, which created a kind of paranoid effect.” (3)
The melody is stated in magnificent fashion by Vince De Rosa on French horn (shown at left in the early 1960s) against a background ostinato provided by the bass flutes, and whispering rhythm. As this is written, Vince De Rosa is still with us, now 100 years old. De Rosa, who had a career that spanned 70 years, is one of the most recorded instrumentalists in history. He has worked in radio, TV, feature films, and on literally thousands of recordings with artists ranging from Frank Sinatra (who revered his playing and used him on various sessions from the mid-1940s into the 1980s), to jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, to big band legend Stan Kenton, to rock icon Frank Zappa. On any Henry Mancini session that called for French horns, De Rosa was always sitting in the first chair.
(When Mancini composed what would become the Oscar winning title song for the film “The Days of Wine and Roses,” he wrote the haunting French horn introduction for that (which rappears at particularly poignant moments throughout the film), with Vince De Rosa in mind. De Rosa then played it beautifully on the film’s soundtrack, and on Mancini’s later recordings of it. That wistfully sad melody, along with the great performances in that film by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, were permanently etched in my memory the first time I saw that film.)
The next melodic sequence in “The House of the Rising Sun” is played by a section of four French horns (with De Rosa playing lead), subtly supported by the four trombones, with Dick Nash playing lead and Karl De Karske playing bass trombone.
A transition led by Jimmy Rowles on piano leads to the massive sound of Plas Johnson’s tenor saxophone. He improvises and builds his solo as the orchestra, now with the flutists playing their saxophones and the French horns and trombones intensifying dynamically, warm up the background. (Plas Johnson is pictured at right.) Johnson, another Hollywood studio legend, is also still alive, now 90 years old. (Plas Johnson had earlier played the great tenor saxophone solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”)
At the conclusion of Johnson’s solo, the orchestra erupts, with Al Porcino’s ringing first trumpet at the apex of the fiery sonic mix. (Al Porcino is shown at left.) After this masterfully executed climax, the music quiets down, De Rosa returns to recap the melody, and the oscillating bass flutes reappear to close the performance in whispers.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Information about Henry Mancini’s early life and career comes from: Did They Mention the Music? …The Autobiography of Henry Mancini, with Gene Lees (1989), hereafter Mancini.
(2) This quote comes from the liner notes for Mancini ’67 …The Big Band Sound of Henry Mancini.
(3) Mancini, 88.
Here is a link to Monk Rowe’s April 12, 1996 interview with tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hMcdXeRtAw