Johnny Mandel, the Oscar- and Grammy- winning composer, dies

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FILE - Johnny Mandel appears at the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Awards Ceremony and Concert in New York on Jan. 11, 2011. Mandel, the Oscar- and Grammy- winning composer, arranger and musician, died Monday, June 29, 2020, of a cardiac ailment at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes, File)

NEW YORK – Johnny Mandel, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer, arranger and musician who worked on albums by Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole and many others and whose songwriting credits included “The Shadow of Your Smile” and the theme from the film and TV show “M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H,” has died. He was 94.

Mandel died Monday of a cardiac ailment at his home in Ojai, California, according to Lauren Iossa, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of ASCAP. Mandel served on the ASCAP board of directors from 1989-2011.

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“Giant. Genius. Gentleman. There are many ways to describe the legendary composer Johnny Mandel. His incredible music spanned decades, mediums, oceans and firmly established him in the American Songbook canon," ASCAP Chairman and President Paul Williams said in tribute.

Mandel was among the last of the great songwriters to emerge in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, his career dating back to the 1940s, and he enjoyed a long and diverse career. He played trombone and trumpet with such big band and jazz artists as Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie and spent two years in the 1950s arranging music for Sid Caesar’s landmark TV sketch program “Your Show of Shows.” He collaborated on songs with Johnny Mercer, Paul Williams and the husband and wife team Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Artists recording his material ranged from Marvin Gaye to Stan Getz to Barbra Streisand.

He even worked on the soundtrack for “Caddyshack.”

“I don’t have a method or a style, and I never wanted one,” Mandel said during a 2010 interview with The National Endowment for the Arts, which the following year gave him a Jazz Masters award for lifetime achievement. “Some guys really try to have a style. I just work with what’s there and try to do the best with what’s there.”

As an arranger, Mandel worked with some of the greatest singers of his time. When Sinatra launched his own label, Reprise Records, in 1960 he chose Mandel to arrange his first album there, the exuberant “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!” In the early 1990s, Cole called upon him for her Grammy-winning smash “Unforgettable,” which featured duets with tapes of her late father (and Sinatra’s friend), Nat King Cole.

In recent years he contributed arrangements for Streisand’s “Love Is the Answer” and Tony Bennett’s “The Art of Romance.” Decades earlier, Bennett sang a memorable cover of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the theme from the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie “The Sandpiper.” The Mandel-Paul Francis Webster ballad won a Grammy in 1966 for song of the year, topping the Beatles’ “Yesterday” among others, and received an Oscar for best original song.

Mandel also helped write soundtracks for “Being There,” “I Want to Live!” and “The Americanization of Emily,” and songs originating from his film work included the Oscar-nominated “A Time for Love” and the Golden Globe-nominated “Molly and Lawless John.”

His most widely heard composition was likely “Suicide is Painless,” the droll theme from Robert Altman’s Korean War satire “M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H,” and later for the hit TV show that starred Alan Alda. In a 2008 interview with the blog JazzWax, Mandel explained that Altman had asked him to come up with a song and made two requests: Call it “Suicide is Painless” and make it as stupid as possible.

“I said to myself, ‘Well I can do stupid,’” Mandel recalled, adding that Altman brought in extra help for the lyrics.

“Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics. But he came back two days later and said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need.’ Bob said, ‘All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot.’ So Michael Altman, at age 15, wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them.”

Mandel was born in New York City in 1925, and credited some of his passion for music to his mother, Hannah, an opera singer. Aware from an early age he had perfect pitch, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School. By the 1940s, he was writing arrangements and performing with such stars as drummer Buddy Rich and such unlikely musicians as saxophonist Alan Greenspan, the future chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Mandel was primarily a melodist and would seek out lyricists for his songs. For “The Shadow of Your Smile,” he went first to Mercer, with whom he had written “Emily” from “The Americanization of Emily.” But Mercer turned him down, worrying that the song sounded too much like “New Orleans,” by Mercer’s friend Hoagy Carmichael. “Shadow of Your Smile” became a standard, and Mercer would long regret his decision.

“Years later, he and Hoagy were drinking at a party or something and Hoagy said, “There’s something I meant to ask you for a long time. Why didn’t you write the lyrics to ‘The Shadow of Your Smile?’” Mandel told the NEA. “He (Mercer) told him, ‘I didn’t want to do this to you,’ and Hoagy said, ‘I never noticed.’”

Mandel was predeceased by his wife, Martha, and survived by his daughter, Marissa Mandel, and her wife, Lauren Johnson.


AP Entertainment Writer Mark Kennedy contributed to this report.

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