Peter Gunn's theme song: How Henry Mancini brought jazz to the masses

Mancini's music defined 'cool.'

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There are very few pieces of music more immediately identifiable than Henry Mancini's theme song from Peter Gunn. Even people who don't identify the series can quickly recognize the tune. The composition quickly outpaced the reputation of its creator; several bandleaders recorded their own versions of the Peter Gunn theme. When Ray Anthony and his orchestra recorded a version in 1958, the recording charted on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first television theme song to do so.

When Mancini composed the Peter Gunn theme, he was just thirty-three years old and completely unaware that he'd be changing the sound of melodrama and adventure on TV. His composition became shorthand for slyness and mystery. To imbue the show with all that aural tension and slinkiness, Mancini turned to the world of jazz, a genre then-underrepresented in the mainstream.

"The major outlets of jazz on television," said Mancini, "used to be occasional guest spots on variety shows or one of those expensive specials." He was speaking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1960, at the height of Gunn's popularity. "But this new trend provides concentrated weekly exposure of such music over long periods. Fortunately, I'm a fan as well as a writer of the stuff, so I couldn't be happier."

The success of Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme" meant the composer was nearly immediately in high demand in the TV music world. He was very quickly tasked with creating a similar theme for CBS' Mr. Lucky, a show and a theme that both proved less iconic. Nonetheless, his influence was inescapable. Like Gunn, Mr. Lucky didn't rely on Mancini just for its opening credits; both shows featured numerous compositions that served as incidental music as each episode unfolded. Mancini was putting more jazz in front of more listeners than ever before.

"I read each script a week or so before it is filmed. By the time shooting starts, I'm ready for the score to be dubbed in." 

"Then I confer with the director over each scene. Sometimes I have to cut some of my work. You know you can over-act with music, too."

Jazz proved incredibly versatile; that type of music conveys a wider spectrum of emotion than would be possible with a typical orchestral arrangement.

"Often we decide to drop a sound effect, such as the slamming of a door or the screaming of sirens, and let the music do its job. We've found out that there's no effect or motion you can't illustrate with jazz."


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13 Comments

JHP 8 months ago
peter gunn - I LOVE the show! it's 30 minutes long and then Lola Albright (1000x yummo - looks and talent) she could almost make me watch dancing with the has-beens
McGillahooala 9 months ago
You can’t forget his work in the Pink Panther.
Coldnorth McGillahooala 7 months ago
I love the pink panther music
Karellen 9 months ago
No mention of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's version? That's the first one I remember. Also, a very young John Williams played the piano on the original recording of the TV soundtrack.
Pacificsun 9 months ago
Very cool story! Thank you MeTV Writers!
MrsPhilHarris 9 months ago
Love that theme. It’s “cool”. 👓🚬🥃
daDoctah 9 months ago
One of those theme songs that everybody thinks is an instrumental, but it does have lyrics, just like the themes from Leave it to Beaver, Hogan's Heroes, and even The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (co-written by Johnny himself and Paul Anka).
Suzies1952 9 months ago
I love all of Mancini's music, he was a genius love watching mission impossible, Peter Gunn, fugitive, I don’t know what it is about the old shows?, but so much better than what’s on now! Glad we have me tv
justjeff 9 months ago
"M Squad" utilized a jazzy Count Basie theme after their first season, and the John Cassavetes 'jazz-musician-turned-detective' show "Johnny Staccato" featured Elmer Bernstein's "Staccato's theme"... and don't forget Nelson Riddle's "Route 66" theme... I'm sure there were others...
Peter_Falk_Fan 9 months ago
Sometimes, I stay up late Sunday night to watch "Mission: Impossible" on MeTV. Before I go to bed, I make sure that I watch the beginning of "Peter Gunn" just to hear the theme song (I also have the 45).
BrittReid 9 months ago
Art of Noise with Duane Eddy does a great version of the theme also.
Runeshaper 9 months ago
Love the show, love the theme song, and I love jazz!
ncadams27 9 months ago
It was Ray Anthony, not Allen, who had the hit single version. Another great theme song by Henry Mancini was for the 1962 movie Experiment in Terror, also directed by Blake Edwards.
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