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Johnny Mandel, Who Set a Gold Standard in Popular Song and Movie Scores, Has Died at 94

Johnny Mandel speaks onstage during the 41st Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony.
Jemal Countess/WireImage
Johnny Mandel speaks onstage during the 41st Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Johnny Mandel, a composer and orchestrator who brought emotional depth and a sophisticated sheen to the realms of popular song, television and film, died on Monday at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94.

The cause was cardiac ailment, said Lauren Iossa, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers, where Mandel served on the Board of Directors for more than 20 years.

A prolific composer with a gift for elegant melodic contour, Mandel is best known for a handful of indelible soundtrack themes, like “Suicide is Painless,” the drifting, downcast title theme to M*A*S*H; “Emily,” from the 1964 drama The Americanization of Emily; “Close Enough For Love,” from the 1979 thriller Agatha; and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” also known as “Love Theme From The Sandpiper.”

As an arranger, Mandel worked with an honor roll of American songbook interpreters, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé.

On Tuesday, as news of Mandel’s passing spread widely, social media saw tributes and testimonials from some other former collaborators, like the singers Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, and one of his oldest and most distinguished associates, Tony Bennett.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1965. It also earned Mandel a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, and his larger effort on The Sandpiper won Best Original Score for a Motion Picture.

The other three of Mandel’s five Grammys are arranging awards, for Quincy Jones’ version of “Velas,” featuring Toots Thielemans (1981); Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…With Love (1991); and Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life (1992). Mandel received the Grammy Trustees Award in 2019; he was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2011.

John Alfred Mandel was born in New York City on Nov. 23, 1925. His parents had moved from Chicago — his mother, Hannah, to become an opera singer, and his father, Alfred, to establish a business in the garment district.  

Mandel started out on piano and brass instruments, playing the bugle at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. One of his tunes, “Not Really the Blues,” became a staple in the book of the Woody Herman Orchestra, and he had a few others played by Count Basie, Stan Getz and others. He also played trumpet and trombone in a number of big bands — Basie’s as well as those led by the likes of Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Rich.

Arranging had always fascinated Mandel, but he began to consider it seriously as the big band era waned. Through some combination of natural instinct and bandstand experience, he had an exceptional skill for orchestration almost from the start. “Nobody was more surprised than I was when I discovered I could do it – combine different sounds to make certain sounds in an orchestra,” he told Michael Feinstein in an interview with Song Travels on NPR in 2014.

As an indication of how quickly Mandel was admitted to the American songbook fraternity, consider that he was tapped as conductor and arranger of Hoagy Sings Carmichael, a jazz album by one of the landmark composers in the field. (He was 30 at the time.) By 1960 he was in the studio with Sinatra, making Ring-a-Ding-Ding! — the album that broke in Sinatra’s label, Reprise.

Mandel’s earliest film work was on I Want to Live! In 1958. Over the next two decades, he averaged more than one soundtrack credit every year, often to substantial acclaim. By the mid-‘60s, he was the obvious choice as musical director for Tony Bennett’s The Movie Song Album, which included two songs of his own.

Decades later, in 2004, Mandel would reunite with Bennett for The Art of Romance. He worked with Streisand on her 2009 album Love Is the Answer, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and featured piano playing by Diana Krall. An album called Johnny Mandel, A Man and His Music, released on Arbors Records in 2011, featured Mandel conducting The DIVA Jazz Orchestra at Dizzy’s Club.

Mandel worked with a number of prominent lyricists throughout his career, including Johnny Mercer, Dave Frishberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Paul Williams, the Chairman and President of ASCAP, is another of these, having cowritten “Close Enough For Love.”

In a statement, Williams hailed Mandel as a gentleman and a titan. “His incredible music spanned decades, mediums, oceans and firmly established him in the American Songbook canon,” he said. “Johnny proudly served his fellow music creators on the ASCAP Board for many years and his work paved the way for future generations of songwriters and composers to pursue a life in music as he had. He was a true jazz spirit and that spirit will live on in his music and in our hearts for eternity.”

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Nate Chinen
Nate Chinen joined WBGO as the Director of Editorial Content at the start of 2017. In addition to overseeing a range of coverage at WBGO.org, he works closely with programs including Jazz Night in America and The Checkout, and contributes to a range of jazz programming on NPR.