CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Johnny Mandel 1925–2020

The multiple Grammy- and Oscar-winning arranger and composer left lasting marks in jazz

Johnny Mandel
Johnny Mandel (photo: John Reeves)

Johnny Mandel, a beloved and much-honored composer and arranger of American popular song, jazz, and film scores over a career of more than 70 years, died June 29 at his home in Ojai, California. He was 94.

His death was announced by his daughter, Marissa Mandel, who said that her father had suffered from a heart ailment.

Mandel began his career as a trumpet and trombone section player in 1940s big bands, but it was as an arranger that he truly made his mark, writing for those same big bands before moving on to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, and, perhaps most fruitfully, Tony Bennett.

From the late 1950s on, Mandel scored dozens of films, including such classics as M*A*S*H, Caddyshack, and Being There. Three of his songs written for movies became especially revered: “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from The Sandpiper; “Emily,” from The Americanization of Emily; and “Suicide Is Painless,” the theme from the movie and TV show M*A*S*H.

“Some guys really try to have a style,” he remarked in a 2010 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “I just work with what’s there and try to do the best with what’s there.”

“The world will never be quite the same without his humor, wit and wry view of life and the human condition,” wrote vocalist Michael Feinstein in marking Mandel’s passing. “He was truly beyond compare, and nobody could write or arrange the way he did. Lord will we miss him.”

John Alfred Mandel was born November 23, 1925 in Manhattan to a father who owned a clothing shop in the city’s garment district, and a mother who had at one time aspired to sing opera. In 1934, after the Depression wreaked havoc on his father’s business, the family moved to Los Angeles—returning east in 1937 after his father died.

By that time, Mandel’s mother had already determined that her son had perfect pitch and encouraged him to take piano lessons. He switched to horns after returning to New York and taking in the jazz bands that then dominated the city’s nightlife. He went to the New York State Military Academy, where he played trumpet in the marching band; took arranging lessons with Van Alexander; and over one summer worked in violinist Joe Venuti’s band as it toured the Catskills.

After studying at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, Mandel joined a succession of big bands, including those led by Billie Rogers, Henry Jerome (in whose band he exchanged trumpet for trombone), Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, and Count Basie. He began professionally arranging while he played with Raeburn, and writing became an increasingly prominent part of his portfolio thenceforth—he began working as a freelancer as well, in particular for Stan Getz (“Hershey Bar,” “Pot Luck”) and Woody Herman (“Not Really the Blues”)—before leaving the bandstand in 1954 to become a full-time composer and arranger.

Mandel had permanently relocated to the West Coast in 1953, when he began playing in Count Basie’s band. Five years later, he received his first film score commission, for Robert Wise’s I Want to Live. From then on, writing for film was Mandel’s major revenue stream, and it gave him his first hit song with 1964’s “Emily,” the theme from The Americanization of Emily. The following year’s The Sandpiper yielded “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which won Mandel two Academy Awards; 1970’s “Suicide Is Painless,” the theme from the Robert Altman movie M*A*S*H (on which Mandel collaborated with Altman’s 15-year-old son as lyricist), became his best-known song and carried over to the television show of the same name, which ran for 11 seasons.

Mandel’s success as a film composer did not diminish his career as a studio composer and arranger, especially for vocalists. He was a favorite of Sinatra, as well as Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, and Streisand. Bennett was perhaps his most frequent and longest-running collaborator, recording successful versions (arranged by Mandel) of “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile” on his 1966 Movie Song Album; nearly 50 years later, on 2004’s The Art of Romance, they were still working together. In addition, Mandel collaborated with Quincy Jones, arranging “Velas” for his 1981 album The Dude, and Natalie Cole, for whom he wrote the Grammy-winning arrangement of her 1991 duo “Unforgettable” with her father, Nat “King” Cole.

That “Unforgettable” Grammy was one of five that Mandel won across his career, along with a 2019 Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. He was nominated for multiple Emmys and Oscars in addition to his two wins; was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010; and received the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2011. He also spent several years on the ASCAP Board of Directors.

Mandel was predeceased by his wife of 47 years, the former Martha Blanner, who died in December 2019. He is survived by their daughter Marissa.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.