“The Pink Panther Theme” (1963) Henry Mancini with Plas Johnson/”Piano and Strings” Henry Mancini with Jimmy Rowles

“The Pink Panther Theme”

Composed and arranged by Henry Mancini.

Recorded by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on September 16, 1963 in Hollywood.

Henry Mancini, directing an orchestra of Hollywood studio musicians including: Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone; (and possibly) Pete Candoli, Ray Triscari, Frank Beach and Don Fagerquist, trumpest; Dick Nash, Jimmy Priddy, John Halliburton, tenor trombones; Karl De Karske, bass trombone; Ted Nash and Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophones and flutes; Gene Cipriano and Justin Gordon, tenor saxophones and flutes; Ronny Lang, baritone saxophone and flute; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Bob Bain, guitar; Rollie Bundock, bass; Larry Bunker, vibraphone; Shelly Manne, drums, plus a string section.

Note: Here is the personnel listed on the Wikipedia post on “The Pink Panther Theme”:

The story:

Recently, I was in Manhattan visiting my adult children, and attending to a number of other matters. As is always the case, I was amazed, delighted, saddened, exasperated, invigorated, exhausted, depressed and inspired, often at the same time, by that incredible metropolis. I learned long ago that whenever I travel from my home in a sleepy midwestern town to New York City, I have to first adjust my attitude to make the most of the visit. Although I am not a fan of Billy Joel’s music, I recognize that whatever he does musically, he has a lot of talent. His song, “New York State of Mind,” though hardly a masterwork musically or lyrically, nevertheless has always struck a chord with me. It reminds me that before I set foot in New York City, I must get into a New York state of mind. If one is uneasy being challenged minute to minute, or being jostled out of one’s comfort zone, I strongly suggest not going to New York City. But if one is willing to seek and find the myriad riches that are available there, and maintain one’s sense of humor when dealing with the endless variations and permutations of the human condition one will encounter while searching, the rewards can be great.

One thing, among many, that has always astonished me about New York is the colossal level of self-expression one finds there. The atmosphere of Manhattan is very conducive to allowing talented people to blossom and grow. (Above right: a budding Itzhak Perlman busking on the Mall in Central Park. Note how he has his colors together.)

While walking with my daughter on Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, we talked as we always do, about many subjects. On this particular walk, at around 48th Street, she suddenly stopped and said to me: “This is where I saw a pink dog the other day.” I was puzzled. A pink dog?… I said. “Yes, a pink dog. I saw it right here, and I have a picture to prove it!” She then took out her phone and swiped through her pictures until she came to the one of the pink dog. She showed it to me. “There it is,” she said, “a pink dog.” Although I will be the first one to admit that a pink dog is very unusual, I simply accepted it. This is New York after all. I laughed, and said: “Natalie, you just provided me with the inspiration for a new post at swingandbeyond.com.”

The music- part one – the film:

The Pink Panther started out as a one-shot comedy-mystery film project featuring an inept French police detective, Inspector Jacques Clouseau(*), but its immense popularity spawned that most treasured of entertainment creations, a media “franchise.” In Hollywood, the word “franchise” means the gift that keeps on giving. The Pink Panther franchise began with the release of the eponymous classic film in 1963. The role of Clouseau in that film was originated by and is most closely associated with actor Peter Sellers. The original and most of the subsequent Pink Panther films were written and directed by Blake Edwards, with theme music for the first Pink Panther film (and some of the sequels) being composed by Henry Mancini. Elements and characters from The Pink Panther films have been adapted into other media, including books, comic books, video games and an animated TV series.

The name Pink Panther comes from a fictitious pink diamond of enormous size and value. The stone is called the “Pink Panther” because the flaw at its center, when viewed closely, is said to resemble a leaping pink panther. The term reappears in the title of the fourth film The Return of the Pink Panther, in which the theft of the diamond is again the center of the plot. The words “Pink Panther,” which had become a box-office people magnet after release of the first film in the series, were used for all the subsequent films, even when the jewel did not figure in the plot. The jewel concept ultimately appeared in six of the eleven Pink Panther films.(1)

The making of a feature film is always a collaborative process on a large scale. The collaborative relationship between a film’s director and the composer of that film’s music is always an interesting one. There have been a number of historic collaborations between a film director and a film music composer: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann; Steven Spielberg and John Williams; and Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini, among others. Mancini was a Hollywood film composer who understood this relationship very well, and was inspired by it. On projects when they collaborated, Edwards basically left the music to Mancini, did not interfere in its creation, and was seldom disappointed.

In 1958, after an apprenticeship as a film composer at Universal Studios covering several years, Mancini began to work as an independent composer. His first major success was in creating the music for the television series Peter Gunn, collaborating on it for the first time with Blake Edwards, who directed the series. Mancini and Edwards followed this up with another successful TV collaboration, Mr. Lucky. These successes were the genesis of a relationship in which Edwards and Mancini collaborated on 30 feature films over the next 30+ years. (At left: collaborators Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini – mid-1960s.)

Mancini later recalled the genesis of The Pink Panther as a film. In 1963, after completing work on the film Charade in London, he and his wife Ginny returned to the United States by sea. They fell in love with ocean travel. Upon returning to Los Angeles, they booked passage aboard the luxury liner SS France, which was sailing into an Italian port. When Mancini later ran into Blake Edwards, he mentioned this, and was surprised when Edwards told him that he and his frequent writing partner, Maurice Richlin, were going to take the same voyage. Edwards explained that he and Richlin intended to write the script for a new film while onboard, which would be made in Rome and which he would direct.

On the voyage, Edwards and Richlin sequestered themselves in their stateroom during the day, emerging at night for dinner with the Mancinis. By the time the ship reached Italy, they had written the basic script for The Pink Panther. Edwards was eager to gather his cast, which included David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Capucine, Robert Wagner and Claudia Cardinale, and start production. (At right: Blake Edwards around 1960.)

As is often the case, one of the lead players, Peter Ustinov, who was playing Inspector Jacques Clouseau, dropped out of the project in the early stages of production. A frantic Edwards had to find a replacement on short notice. In what can aptly be described as a fantastic stroke of good luck and perfect casting, Edwards secured the services of Peter Sellers to play the role of Inspector Clouseau. Sellers flew from London to Rome immediately, and started collaborating with Edwards on pieces of comedic business to enliven the character of Inspector Clouseau. Within a few days, they had created the character of Jacques Clouseau that appears so memorably in the film.

While all of this was going on, Henry and Ginny Mancini were basically on vacation in Italy for a couple of weeks, and then returned to Los Angeles. Weeks after that, Edwards returned to Los Angeles to edit The Pink Panther. He told Mancini, whom he wanted to write the music for the film, that he was going to use a cartoon to present the credits at the beginning of the picture. At that point, no music existed for the film.

Mancini familiarized himself with the script, and began developing music for the phantom jewel thief, played by David Niven. “There were a number of scenes in which David would be slinking around on tippy-toes. I started to write a theme for him — one of the few times I wrote a theme before seeing the actual picture. The music was designed as the phantom-thief music, not to be ‘The Pink Panther Theme.’” (2) Meanwhile, the cartoonists were developing the animated image of The Pink Panther, which would be used in the opening title sequence of the film. (Above: Henry Mancini creating memorable music – March 1962.)

”They finished the sequence and I looked at it. All the accents in the music were timed to actions on the screen. The brass accents and of course the theme worked perfectly with the little ‘dead ant’ figure, as it came to be known, in the beginning of the piece. I had a specific saxophone player in mind — Plas Johnson. I nearly always precast my players and write for them and around them, and Plas had the sound and style I wanted. He is the saxophonist on the original Pink Panther film.”

”I realized that the theme I had written for David Niven’s character, the jewel thief, was also perfect for the opening credits and the cartoon of the little Pink Panther character. I used it for both.” (3)

The music itself: This performance starts with a quiet, sustained piano chord played by Jimmy Rowles, then drummer Shelly Manne tapping his closed high-hat cymbals ever so lightly to set the tempo. An ostinato follows, played by the piano, guitar, bass and vibraphone in unison. This continues as a sparse background as tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson plays the melody for sixteen bars.

Shelly Manne’s crisp drum fill sets the stage for  the next sequence in which the muscular brass play the secondary melody in classic swing era fashion, that is, nicely syncopated, with a couple of bursts from the saxophones. Plas Johnson returns to improvise in robust fashion for sixteen bars. Notice how Mancini deftly contrasts Johnson’s big sound with floating strings, and tasty guitar chords.

After the solo ends, the quiet opening ostinato returns providing a sonic and dynamic contrast. In this sequence, the saxophonists play the melody using their flutes, a quintessential Mancini touch. A blast of brass provides yet another contrast. Mr. Johnson then returns for some quieter saxophone ruminations, with the finale being another blast of brass, and a humorous fall-off at the very end. (Above right: Plas Johnson in 2008.)

Post script:

I was once lucky enough to get into a Mancini rehearsal here in my home town. Hank was booked to present a concert of his music. The guy he contacted to hire the musicians was a good friend of mine. As I recall, Mancini had a lead trumpeter, Al Cobine on tenor sax, a bassist and a drummer that he brought with him. All the other musicians were local talent, and they had plenty of talent. Hank specified that he wanted musicians from symphony orchestras who could perform his music in concert at sight after one rehearsal.
Mancini was a tall dude, about 6’2″ or 6’3″. It was winter in Ohio, and it was snowing like crazy when his limo pulled up to the auditorium where the rehearsal and concert were to be held. When he got out of the car, he put his topcoat over his shoulders and wore it like a cape. Very cool. As he entered the hall, the musicians who were all set up and in place sort of froze. He made a couple of humorous cracks, they laughed, and the tension was broken.
I thought Hank was a marvelous conductor in rehearsal. He let the musicians play the music, he listened carefully, and at the end of each piece he made a few concise comments about what had been played, and then he moved on to the next piece. In one piece, there was a part that called for the percussionist, who happened to be a woman I knew, to make a fairly complicated two-bar roll. When the orchestra came to her two-bar roll, she executed it perfectly on the first try. I saw a smile flicker across Mancini’s face for a brief moment. When that piece was over, he said absolutely deadpan to the percussionist: “will you please play that two-bar roll again?” My friend turned ashen as she played the two-bar roll again, all alone in front of 40 musicians and Henry Mancini. Then Mancini said, “You played that perfectly not once, but twice. I enjoyed it so much the first time that I wanted to hear it again.” The orchestra and my friend burst out laughing, and then the rehearsal continued. Mancini had every one of those musicians in the palm of his hand.

***************

As a special treat, here is another of Mancini’s compositions from the film The Pink Panther. It is the sublime “Piano and Strings,” with the piano part performed superbly by Jimmy Rowles.

“Piano and Strings”

Composed and arranged by Henry Mancini.

Recorded by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra for RCA Victor on September 18, 1963 in Hollywood.

Henry Mancini directing a grouping of strings, piano, guitar, bass and drums, with the piano solo played by Jimmy Rowles.

The music: As well-known as “The Pink Panther Theme” is, “Piano and Strings” is obscure, except among Mancini cognoscenti, who cherish it as another of Hank’s most beautiful melodies. This performance features the marvelous piano playing of Jimmy Rowles, which is  incredibly understated, yet, paradoxically, charged with emotion. In listening to Rowles’s crystalline keyboard technique, I am reminded of the words of another pianist who understood the power of understatement, Claude Thornhill: “It seems to me that touch and tone are pretty much overlooked by pianists …nowadays. You can get so many more and better musical effects if you pay attention to these little, shall I say, niceties.”  Mr. Rowles obviously paid attention to those niceties. (Above left: pianist Jimmy Rowles.)

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) I have always thought that the name Jacques Clouseau was a parody of the name of the French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, scientist, photographer, author and researcher Jacques Cousteau, who studied the sea and all forms of life in water. Cousteau’s films were often broadcast on American television in the period 1960-1980.

(1) The summary of information about the first Pink Panther film was derived from the Wikipedia post on that subject.

(2) Did They Mention the Music?  …The Autobiography of Henry Mancini, with Gene Lees, (1989 and 2001) 137-141.

Here are links to other Mancini performances:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/09/16/the-mancini-touch-robbins-nest-1959/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/04/01/the-house-of-the-rising-sun-1966-henry-mancini-with-vince-derosa-and-plas-johnson/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/02/16/bijou-1945-woody-herman-with-bill-harris-and-dave-tough-and-1959-henry-mancini/

Here are a couple link to Claude Thornhill performances that demonstrate his concept of “touch and tone”:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/12/26/snowfall-1941-claude-thornhill/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/06/the-happy-stranger-1947-claude-thornhill-dutch-jazz-orchestra-2006/

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4 Comments

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cJuK9MAwnk
    If this link works, at 3:29 in, Henry Mancini conducts The Lawrence Welk Orchestra playing “The Pink Panther Theme.” I wanted to hear how the arrangement might sound different by Welk’s band instead of Mancini’s studio men. I can only guess that the Welk band had that arrangement, as there are slight differences from Mancini’s own. Pretty close, but, to me, it sounds like neither Mancini’s studio band nor the usual Welk ensemble

  2. Piano and Strings is a master class on rubato and how to lay back on the beat… especially in contrast to the metronome-steady rhythm section. If Jimmy Rowles was leaning back any more his chair would fall over!

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