Rest in peace, Johnny Mandel: “Suicide is Painless” (1970)


Award-winning composer Johnny Mandel passed away on Monday at the age of 94.

A classically-trained musician, Mandel was responsible for a wide variety of movie soundtrack music. His first notable work was 1958’s I Want to Live!, which earned him three Grammy nominations. Mandel was no stranger to the Grammys; he was nominated for a total of 17 of them through his career, with his most notable win coming in 1966 for “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from the film The Sandpiper. The song also netted Mandel an Oscar for Best Original Song. It is, of course, probably best known as a single recorded by Tony Bennett. While the single didn’t get much AM radio airplay, it made it to #8 on the Easy Listening chart.

Mandel worked on soundtrack for movies and television through the 1980s. I had forgotten that he did the music for the TV series Too Close For Comfort starring Ted Knight. Speaking of Knight, Mandel also did the memorable incidental music in Caddyshack. That jaunty background at the yacht club? It’s called “Marina,” and I’m thinking it would make a fantastic ringtone. The final scene in the movie features a stylized adaptation of the 1812 Overture called “The Big Bang,” and Mandel did that too.  (We can’t credit him for the music playing while Bishop Pickering is trying to break the club record in the thunderstorm; that’s Elmer Bernstein from The Ten Commandments.)

But if we’re talking about memorable film and TV music of the 1970s, we can’t leave out the theme song from M*A*S*H. Called “Suicide is Painless,” it was penned by Mandel with lyrics by a then-14-year-old Michael Altman, the son of the film’s director Robert Altman. The song has been covered a number of times by a variety of artists; just a few weeks ago on June 13 I noted the Al DeLory instrumental version making the charts. Interpretations range from the elevator stylings of Ray Conniff to more jazzed-up arrangements from Cal Tjader and Paul Desmond.  Given the tremendous success of the television show, and the fact that it’s still running in perpetuity on cable somewhere, it’s arguably one of the most recognizable TV themes of all-time.

The Johnny Mandel version from the soundtrack LP got some local radio airplay, notably here in Grand Rapids, where it made #4 on WZZM-FM and #5 on WTAS in nearby Holland, MI. The artist on that release was listed as “The Mash,” interestingly enough. Radio stations often struggled with the title of the record, opting for “the theme from Mash” in backsells so as not to reference suicide out of a shotgun jingle.

You can hear Johnny’s version, complete with vocal, by clicking here.


One thought on “Rest in peace, Johnny Mandel: “Suicide is Painless” (1970)

  1. Suicide Is Painless by the Mash on Columbia Records brings back memories for me as the new music director at WZZM-FM in June of 1970. Bill Hollon, the program director, came into the studio on music day and told me he was adding the song as a favor he owed to the Columbia record rep. He said I could debut the record where ever I wanted (#31 of 40), then move it to 10 the second week, then drop it down to 25 the next week and we would be done with it. I wasn’t really on board with this idea, but as an 18 year old kid who had been in the MD job only 2 weeks, I thought it was probably a good idea to do what Bill wanted me to do. When I did the music research the week that we were going to drop the song to 25, I told Bill the our requests and sales in the market made it a legitimate top 10 song. Long story short, we played the song for 13 weeks and it peaked for 2 weeks at #4. In my 5 years as music director at WZZM, Bill never requested that I do this with any other record. Fortunately for us it worked out fine. Our other 2 competitors in the market, WLAV and WGRD refused to play the song due to the song title and content. However, GRD did chart and play the Al Delory instrumental version.


    Liked by 1 person

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