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15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “Moon River”

With this year’s Academy Awards telecast coming up on the 26th, I will be sharing some Oscars content over the next two weeks, right up until the day of the actual event. This will include a daily feature emphasizing some of the greatest songs to win a statuette in the Best Original Song category. These are going to reflect tunes which are my own favorites, but not all of the ones I really like and in no particular order. I tried to arrange them into some sort of ranking at first, but found that the exercise was both maddening and time consuming. Only songs which actually won the award will be included, so you won’t be seeing anything about “Everything is Awesome,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “The Look of Love,” or “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

Today’s song is certainly one of my favorites in the bunch. I love it for the beautiful simplicity of its melody and lyrics and for the wonderfully unadorned way in which it is presented in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I also love the story of how it was written.

Henry Mancini was already a fast rising star as a songwriter and composer when he was tabbed to write music for the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s book Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He had made a couple of real splashes in the preceding several years, including his widely admired score for the television series Peter Gunn (if you think you don’t know it, look it up on YouTube. I’m betting you will recognize it within seconds), his Oscar-nominated work for The Glenn Miller Story, and the top40 hit recording “Mr Lucky.”

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Tasked with creating a song for the film’s star Audrey Hepburn, whose singing talents were definitely in question, Mancini heard her rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On” from Funny Face and went directly to a piano to pick the tune out. He reasoned that if Hepburn could handle that song reasonably well she’d be able to sing most anything he gave her in the same vocal range. Inspiration for the eventual melody within that range didn’t strike for a few months, but according to Mancini’s widow, once he had the first three notes, the rest followed on in the space of a half hour. He then sent the song on to lyricist Johnny Mercer to finish it off with words. The two men never sat down over the project, but spoke about what it should say.

Shockingly, this classic song almost hit the cutting room floor when the movie ran long at an early screening. One of the top guys at the studio shrugged and announced that they’d simply cut out the song and that would solve their problem, but several people on hand, including Hepburn herself stood up for keeping “Moon River.” History has judged those people to be right. Obviously based on the title of this series, the song went on to win Oscars for Mancini and Mercer, with Mancini taking home a second award that night for the film’s score.

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In the years since, “Moon River” has maintained strong popularity with both young and older music fans, in part due to a long list of artists who have recorded cover versions of it. Jerry Butler’s version of the song scored a spot at #11 on the pop charts and Andy Williams made it his own signature tune, playing it at the opening of his television show each week and working its title into his autobiography. Performers who are perhaps better known such as Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Judy Garland, The Killers, Frank Sinatra, Morrissey, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, and Louis Armstrong have also covered the song.

You might notice that I’ve emphasized the contributions of Henry Mancini in the writing of “Moon River.” That might be in reaction to my experience in Johnny Mercer’s home town of Savannah, where the residents appeared to need reminding that Mancini had a role in it at all. At least two people I met while visiting forced me to google the information before they would believe me. Or maybe I was just being a know-it-all.

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a statue of Johnny Mercer in Savannah, Georgia

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Posted on February 11, 2017, in Awards, Movies, Music, Oscars and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. What a great song! I like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and the song is one of my favorite parts of the movie. The part where George Peppard listens to Audrey Hepburn singing inspired me to put something similar in one of my recent movie plots. (The person in my movie plot still sings “Moon River”, but you know what I mean.)

    It was also nice seeing the gorgeous George Peppard. 😉

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    • Like most people my age, my introduction to Peppard was through his cartoony TV show the A-Team. He stayed busy after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but never really managed to parlay it into real film stardom. Until the teamed up with Face, Animal, and BA he was mostly just a standard working actor (but of course that’s a pretty nice accomplishment in and of itself).

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      • Stories I heard from Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz over the years indicated Peppard was difficult during the show’s run. (You can thank YouTube for those stories.) Dwight Schultz remembered Peppard telling him he wasn’t a nice man. Then he flipped out when Schultz touched a framed picture of his dearest friend, Robert Vaughn, that was in his trailer. Dirk Benedict told a British TV host (whose name I can’t remember) he used to be a messenger between Peppard and Mr. T. (Benedict admitted he thought it was ridiculous.)

        After Peppard’s dearest friend Vaughn was brought in for the final season, Vaughn’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” co-star David McCallum was a guest star on the episode “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair”. Peppard was extremely J-E-A-L-O-U-S.

        Peppard was gorgeous and a good actor, but these stories of him being difficult can tell you why he never became a major movie star.

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  2. well Mancini did write the music, so good on you for recognizing that 😉 Mercer’s lyrics are stand along poetry for sure and go with that melody like butter on bread.
    I too love the history of Audrey Hepburn taking a strong stand in favor of keeping the song.
    Great series.

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