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'M*A*S*H' Theme Composer Johnny Mandel Dead at 94

Rolling Stone 2020-06-30 19:07:22

Johnny Mandel, the prolific composer and arranger who worked with Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Barbra Streisand and more — and famously composed the theme song for M*A*S*H — has died, Variety reports. He was 94.

No specifics about Mandel’s death have been revealed. The news was shared by singer and friend Michael Feinstein on Facebook early Tuesday morning: “A dear friend and extraordinary composer-arranger and all-around brilliant talent Johnny Mandel just passed away. The world will never be quite the same without his humor, wit and wry view of life and the human condition. He was truly beyond compare, and nobody could write or arrange the way he did. Lord will we miss him. Let’s celebrate him with his music! He would like that.”

Throughout his career, Mandel bounced easily between the worlds of popular song and film and television music. Along with “Suicide Is Painless,” the M*A*S*H theme, his most famous compositions include “Emily” (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer), “A Time for Love” (with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) and “The Shadow of Your Smile” (also with Webster). The latter track was part of Mandel’s score for the 1965 drama, The Sandpiper, and it not only earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Song, but also the Grammy for Song of the Year.


Born in New York City, Mandel’s musical education began with the trumpet, although he would also play the trombone. He was trained at the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, studied arranging with bandleader Van Alexander and played in the swing bands of Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey and Buddy Rich. As he embarked on a career of his own, Mandel would write and arrange songs for the likes of Basie, Chet Baker, Woody Herman and Stan Getz, while he also plied his trade as an arranger on Sid Caesar’s variety series, Your Show of Shows.

Near the end of the Fifties, Mandel relocated to Los Angeles, where he would spend the next four decades writing music for a remarkable mix of projects, from noir mysteries like Harper to family flicks like Freaky Friday to comedies like Caddyshack and legal dramas like The Verdict. In 1969, Mandel worked with filmmaker Robert Altman for the first time on That Cold Day in the Park, and soon after Altman tapped him again to write the music for M*A*S*H, his satire about medical personnel during the Korean War.

In a 2008 interview with JazzWax’s Marc Myers, Mandel recalled Altman’s unique instructions for one particular song: “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.” While Mandel said he was confident he could “do stupid,” Altman took a stab at the lyrics himself, didn’t like the results and passed along the project to his teenage son, Michael. The filmmaker loved his son’s words and Mandel’s music so much, he ended up putting “Suicide Is Painless” over the opening credits.

When asked what he thought of that decision, Mandel recalled, “I said, ‘You guys are crazy. It doesn’t fit.’ You have these army medic helicopters flying in a war zone with this soft melody playing. It felt odd. But I wasn’t about to get into a fight over it. So I left the screening room. Sure enough, when I saw the film, the song was used over the opening credits.” A few years later, “Suicide Is Painless” would appear again in the opening credits to the M*A*S*H TV show, which ran from 1972 to 1983.

Along with his extensive work in film and television, Mandel took on plenty of jazz and pop projects as well. He picked up five Grammys over the course of his career, including three for his work with Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn, while in 2018 he received the Grammy Trustees Award.