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More Than 'M*A*S*H': Songwriter Johnny Mandel

In June, the Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct the man who wrote the theme for M*A*S*H. At 84, composer and arranger Johnny Mandel has an Oscar and multiple Grammys, as well as credit for the arrangements on Barbra Streisand's latest album.

Mandel's mother was an opera singer. He was just a little boy when she realized that he had a unique musical gift. "Well, when I was 5 or something, she discovered I had perfect pitch," Mandel says. "She'd go play a note and I'd be in the next room or something and I'd call off the note."

Perfect pitch can drive people crazy. Squeaky brakes, ambulance sirens — they all have identifiable notes. Mandel says he pays no attention unless he's asked. At his home in Malibu, he's asked what note the crows outside his window are squawking.

"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 you're giving them," Mandel says, laughing.

Making M*A*S*H

Movie director Robert Altman hired Johnny Mandel to score his 1970 satire M*A*S*H. The first scene up was a fake funeral, and Altman needed a song for it.

" 'It should be the stupidest song ever written,' " Mandel recalls Altman saying. "I said, 'Well, I can do stupid.' He says, 'The song should be called 'Suicide Is Painless.' "

Altman took a stab at writing the lyrics, but it just wasn't stupid enough.

"[Altman] said, 'Ah, but all is not lost. I've got a 15-year-old kid who's a gibbering idiot. He's got a guitar. He'll run through this thing like a dose of salts,' " Mandel recalls Altman saying.

Mandel went home and wrote the melody. And the director's young son, Mike Altman, wrote the lyrics.

A brave man once requested me / to answer questions that are key / 'Is it to be or not to be' / And I replied, 'Oh, why ask me?' — "Suicide Is Painless"

Robert Altman later said his son made more than $1 million from the song, whereas he got just $70,000 for directing the movie. Then M*A*S*H became a TV series, now in perpetual reruns.

Mandel's Oscar

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

In addition to the score, the filmmakers wanted a song. Mandel plucked one out of his theme and Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyric. "The Shadow of Your Smile" won the Oscar for Best Song From a Motion Picture in 1965; then, dozens of musicians recorded it.

"You've seen an Oscar," Mandel says, taking it down from a shelf in his Malibu studio. "People have them all over the place. And the sea air isn't too kind to them anyway. You wouldn't believe how heavy these are. I just about dropped it on Natalie Wood's foot when she handed it to me."

Arranging Strings For Streisand

Mandel has written arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Diana Krall. Krall produced Barbra Streisand's latest album, Love Is the Answer, which was scored by Mandel.

First, he wrote arrangements for Krall's jazz quartet: simple, elegant groupings of instruments and notes. Mandel listened over and over to the quartet-only recording, then made an arrangement for orchestra.

"At that point, the idea is to stay out of the singer's way," Mandel says. "When I'm writing for this kind of a situation, I try to put a kind of scrim. You veil things to set off the main attraction rather than competing with it."

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

"With strings, nice bunch of strings in the back — now Barbra's carrying it," Mandel says while listening to the song "Here's That Rainy Day." "I've been writing vocal arrangements for a long time. The only thing the orchestra should do is provide a lovely cushion for her to sing against."

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," Mandel once said. "I wanted to play an instrument you could kiss."

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

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.