1959: Henry Mancini’s The Music From Peter Gunn

In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.


1959: Henry Mancini’s The Music from Peter Gunn

In today’s fractured media landscape, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a time in history where everybody pretty much watched the same TV shows together. Back when TVs were first introduced commercially in the 1950s, all homes had one TV for the entire house and you only had the three major networks to choose from ABC, NBC, and CBS. You didn’t have cable networks, the Internet, or streaming platforms to give you other options. And you didn’t have VCR, DVR, or on-demand features to be able to catch up on all the shows you missed. You had to watch your show the moment it was on. That’s probably the best way of explaining how a music soundtrack from a short-lived detective show managed to become the best selling album of 1959, one that has arguably outlived the show it came from arranged by one of the most prolific composers of the 20th Century. 

Even if you don’t know Henry Mancini by name, you have most likely heard the music he either wrote and/or composed. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan put it best, Mancini’s music is so embedded into our popular culture that it’s weird to imagine someone actually having to come up with this music. Just from what I can think of, he’s done “Moon River“, “The Pink Panther Theme“, and “Days of Wine and Roses“. That’s a pretty impressive list!

Born in Cleveland, Ohio to Italian immigrants and growing up in a Pennsylvania factory town, Mancini took to music early in life when his father introduced him to the flute at age eight and age twelve started learning piano and eventually began showing interest in arranging music. After graduating high school in 1942, Mancini went to New York City to study music at the storied Julliard School For The Arts which only lasted a year before getting drafted into the Army during World War II. 

After getting out of the Army, Mancini went back to his love of music by joining The Glenn Miller Orchestra as a pianist and arranger. In 1952, Mancini joined Universal Studios in their music department helping to provide the soundtrack for over 100 films over his six-year stint at the studio after which he left to become an independent composer and arranger. It was around this time when he ran into producer and director Blake Edwards who asked Mancini if he could arrange the soundtrack for a new TV show he was creating about a detective who likes smooth jazz to which Mancini agreed to believing the show was a western. 

Peter Gunn was developed by Edwards from another detective series he had created, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which had aired as a radio series from 1949 to 1953 and later on TV from 1957 to 1960. Peter Gunn centered around the titular character as a smooth and sophisticated police detective who likes a lot of smooth jazz and is often seen in the show frequenting a jazz club. Premiering on NBC in September 1958, Peter Gunn wasn’t a huge ratings hit. It did decent enough reaching #17 in the ratings for its first season. But its modest ratings success was still enough for viewers to buy the show’s soundtrack, The Music from Peter Gunn, in droves spending 10 weeks atop Billboard’s album chart becoming 1959’s top-selling album. It also became the first album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year at the inaugural Grammys ceremony in 1959. 

A major part of the album’s legacy is how integral the music was to the show. Mancini began to popularize the concept of source music meaning the music that’s used in a film or TV show wouldn’t be used simply as background noise but would integrate itself into the program and the characters. And his use of then-modern American jazz helped to move Hollywood away from the more romantic sweeping cinematic orchestral music that had dominated since the ‘20s. Mancini’s widow, Ginny Mancini, described her husband being influenced for the album by the romance of Peter Gunn and his girlfriend character Edie believing the music needed to be strong, sexy, and enough to get your attention. She further talked about her husband being very precise with where his songs would be placed into the show working with Blake Edwards a lot pointing to where he wanted each song to go. So when you think about future examples of music being integrated into a story and its characters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver, thank Henry Mancini and The Music from Peter Gunn for that.

While the show has wound up largely forgotten, one thing that has remained in the popular conscience over 60 years since Peter Gunn is its theme song, a tense two minute epic with its famous guitar riff, horns, and a saxophone solo giving off this exciting yet frightening vibe. In the context of the show, “Peter Gunn” will immediately grab your attention and make you think you’re about to watch the coolest show ever. “Peter Gunn” eventually got released as a single with a new version Mancini arranged for trumpeter Ray Anthony which doesn’t sound all that different from the original and managed to peak at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Before I started writing this piece, I had never even remotely watched Peter Gunn and yet I must have heard its theme song like a million times in my life. Most of that exposure probably comes from its usage on Spongebob Squarepants growing up in many of the show’s action sequences. Outside of Spongebob, “Peter Gunn” has become this musical shorthand for any spy or action music. I even heard the song last weekend while at New York’s Spyscape Museum celebrating my friend’s birthday. It’s become that ubiquitous. 

While Mancini came from jazz, “Peter Gunn” was inspired by the rock and roll of the period as he explained in his autobiography Did They Mention The Music?, “The Peter Gunn title theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz. I used guitar and piano in unison, playing what is known in music as an ostinato, which means obstinate. It was sustained throughout the piece, giving it a sinister effect, with some frightened saxophone sounds and some shouting brass. The piece has one chord throughout and a super-simple top line.”

You can clearly hear the rock and roll inspiration in “Peter Gunn.” The early rock and roll music was all based on a simple beat and riff played in a raucous and fast-driven style. It’s that style that helps give “Peter Gunn” a more exciting and action-packed feel to it. It’s not hard to see how a song like “Peter Gunn” managed to be influential for other action and spy themes that came later like John Barry’s “James Bond Theme” that would come out a few years after “Peter Gunn”. 

Outside of the title theme, the rest of the album doesn’t continue down the path of exciting rock and roll inspired action. Instead, the rest of the songs are mellow jazz lounge songs that play throughout the show during scenes when Peter Gunn is at the jazz lounge and other scenes where he’s out and about performing his job. If there’s a way for me to describe the album is that it’s mood music for rich people. You know, the type of rich and sophisticated music that wealthy people play at house parties and hangouts. The type of music you would hear in really fancy settings like a restaurant. It’s the kind of music you can put on to liven up the atmosphere without sounding too obtrusive. 

For The Music from Peter Gunn, Mancini worked with a group of some of the best studio musicians in Los Angeles at the time. One of those studio musicians was a then-unknown John Williams on piano who’d later go on to rival Mancini as one of the most recognizable composers in history with the themes he composed for Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, among many, many more. On a technical level, the album functions as a pretty nice-sounding and well-made piece of lounge jazz. All of the musicians get their moments to shine on the record from the guitars, piano, bass, horns, saxophone, and xylophone. You can tell listening to the album that this is the work of professional musicians who know what they’re doing which is a given. If you’re playing on a soundtrack or any kind of Hollywood project, you had to be among the best players in town. 

The Music from Peter Gunn isn’t a life-changer of an album. It’s simply a perfectly fine and perfectly made jazz TV soundtrack album arranged by one of the most prolific composers of all time. If you’re in a sophisticated mood or throwing a fancy house party than the album will function just fine. But if you’re not in the mood or don’t have much association with the show outside its theme then you might just regard as perfectly fine enough musical wallpaper. You’ll still dig the theme but might find everything else to be uninteresting or just fine enough. Personally, for me, it’s nothing I would go out of my way to listen to but it’s good nonetheless. And “Peter Gunn” still rules so there’s that. 

The success of The Music from Peter Gunn led RCA Victor to capitalize on its success releasing a follow up soundtrack More Music from Peter Gunn but it wasn’t enough to keep the Peter Gunn show on the air for much longer. After its second season, Peter Gunn would move to ABC for its third season in 1960 before eventually getting canceled the next year. But Peter Gunn was only the beginning for Mancini and Edwards as they wound up collaborating long after. During the ‘60s, Mancini arguably hit his peak in composing as he soundtracked such classic films as Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Days of Wine And Roses, The Pink Panther among many, many more. He also released albums constantly, one of which landed him a #1 Hot 100 hit with his arrangement of Nino Rota’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” from the 1968 Shakespeare film adaptation hitting the top spot for two weeks in 1969 during the summer of the Apollo moon landing and Woodstock. 

Mancini kept going long after soundtracking more films and even more TV with NBC using his music as themes for NBC Nightly News and their election coverage. In 1988, he even wrote and composed the viewer email theme used on Late Night with David Letterman. He also continued with his live act performing many times throughout his life with many of the biggest orchestras in the world including the London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And he kept all this activity going until 1994 when he died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. 

Next time: 60 years on, the songs from The Sound of Music remain one of our favorite things

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