Charlie McCoy’s new Inglehood EP pays tribute to the late composer, arranger, and conductor

  •      It all started with an idea Inglehood Records impresario Cowboy Keith Thompson had — he wanted to make a record of songs by renowned composer/arranger Henry Mancini featuring harmonica. It was just another of Thompson’s retro-drenched dreams — nine releases and counting — that have turned a hobby into a label. Sort of.
         When he’s not pursuing postmodern twists on niche ’60s music with his label, Thompson is on the road working as an in-demand front-of-house engineer, currently handling live sound for both Peter Cetera and The Blues Brothers. Originally, he thought he would do the record with Rob Paparozzi, the harmonica player for The Blues Brothers, but the concept didn’t appeal to Paparozzi.
         Dreaming bigger, Thompson wondered if harmonica superstar Charlie McCoy might be interested. “I worked with Charlie when I was the technical director of the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Thompson recalls. “He was fantastic, he was so talented.”
         As it so happened, one of the guitarists in Cetera’s band, hit songwriter Bruce Gaitsch, was a friend and neighbor of McCoy’s. Thompson asked Gaitsch if he thought the harp master would be interested in his Mancini idea. “You ask him,” Gaitsch said and gave him McCoy’s number.
         Thompson called him and said, “Charlie, we think it would be really cool to do a harmonica record, the songs of Mancini.”
         McCoy loved the idea. “I’ve always wanted to record ‘Moon River,’ ” he says of the award-winning Mancini standard first performed by actress Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The song was composed by Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer and has been covered countless times, but is most identified with singer Andy Williams, who opened each episode of his long-running weekly NBC television series with it.
         “It’s probably the most famous harmonica song of all time,” Thompson says. The late jazz harmonica pioneer Toots Thielemans, who was a friend of McCoy’s, played on Mancini’s original recording.
         At Thompson’s suggestion, the two men met for lunch to discuss the idea further. When Thompson explained the terms of the deal, McCoy had never heard anything like it. There was no contract, Thompson was going to pay for everything, and when the record was released, McCoy would get a percentage of the CDs to sell with no strings attached.
         Recalling that meeting, McCoy says, “I thought, ‘Something’s wrong with this picture.’ This doesn’t happen much in our business, you know.”
         “Trepidatious” is how Thompson recalls the harmonica legend’s reaction to his offer. “As anybody would be,” he continues, “if someone came and offered them the moon. Like, ‘What’s you’re angle, man?’ ”
         When McCoy asked Thompson pointblank what he got out of it, he immediately answered: “I get to make a record with Charlie McCoy!”
         The plan was to record an EP, something McCoy had never done in his long career, which includes 39 full-length albums and counting — he’ll be dropping his 40th in early spring.
         In consultation with two of his musical cohorts, bassist James “Hags” Haggerty and drummer Martin Lynds, Thompson came up with 12 Mancini compositions, then narrowed it to six and sent arrangements to McCoy for those songs: “Baby Elephant Walk” and “Theme from ‘Hatari!’ ” from the film Hatari, “A Shot in the Dark” from the second Pink Panther film, “Mr. Lucky” from the CBS drama of the same name, the theme from the ABC sitcom “What’s Happening!!,” and, of course, “Moon River.”
         “We were going to try to keep it away from the on-the-nose Mancini stuff that everybody’s done, like ‘Peter Gunn’ and ‘Pink Panther,’ ” Thompson explains.
         As it turned out, “Mr. Lucky” didn’t quite work for McCoy, so Thompson asked if he wanted to find a replacement. “Sure, I’ll look for one,” McCoy told him. As he began his search, he was amazed at the volume of material by Mancini. “There’re lots and lots of songs to choose from,” he says.
         Ultimately, McCoy settled on another tune from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the thoroughly delightful “Something for Cat.” “He said, ‘Look, I found this mambo, I think it would be cool,’ ” Thompson recalls. “Our five-piece rhythm section is very good at mambo, mambo really suits us. ... So when he brought that to the table, it was a natural fit.”
         McCoy wrote the arrangement for “Something for Cat,” and reworked the arrangement Thompson had sent him for “Moon River.” “I love all the songs,” he enthuses.
         The bulk of the EP was recorded on Wednesday, June 1, at Thompson’s home. Not his home studio, his home! McCoy was in one of the bedrooms, and at the end of the session, he overdubbed vibes from the living room. Baritone sax player Randy Leago was in the attic, Lynds was in the living room, and the rest of the Inglehood Rhythm Section — Haggerty, guitarist Joe V. McMahan, and keyboardist Michah Hulscher — were in Thompson’s office/control room. Percussionist Glen Caruba and guitarist Gaitsch also got the call that day: Caruba was in the dining room, while Gaitsch moved around some, but was primarily set up in the hallway.
         None of that mattered. The result sounds huge, full and rich, as if it could have been recorded in a large room, such as RCA Studio A. Thompson is something of an audio conjuror. People with “real” studios scratch their heads and ask, “How does he do it?”
         “The sound he came up with was amazing,” McCoy says of Thompson. “He’s got the right idea. He said, ‘You know, the secret to making good music is you put good microphones in front of good musicians.’ ”
         While McCoy had met Leago once, he didn’t know the rest of the Inglehood crew, but they knew who he was. McMahan even had a stack of LPs for him to sign.
         “We were all blown away,” Haggerty says. “Everything he played was perfect on the first take and sounded like a hit.
         “He was amazing, but totally down to earth,” the bassist continues. “A true gentleman and an inspiration.”
         In addition to Gaitsch and Caruba, there also were a couple of other special guest musicians present that day. “I brought in some famous friends to sit in on it, like Shane Keister and Paul Leim,” Thompson says, both of whom McCoy had worked with in the past. Keister contributed piano and organ to “Hatari!,” while Leim played drums on “Moon River.”
         “Everybody was having fun,” Thompson says. “It was meant to be a fun hang, not just a session.”
         The rest of the horns were overdubbed a week later with Leago on alto saxophone, Barry Green on trombone, and Vinnie Ciesielski on trumpet, playing as a section. Thompson likes to record the baritone sax when the basic tracks are being laid down. “I really feel like bari sax is part of the rhythm section,” he says. “If you don’t cut with it live, it definitely changes the flavor.”
         In addition, Tania Hancheroff, Laura Mayo, Joe Chemay, and Tommy Keenum added lush backing vocals to “Moon River,” while violinist Aaron Till and cellist Gary Tussing overdubbed strings on the same song.
         After the record was mixed and mastered, it still lacked a title. Riffing off “A Shot in the Dark,” Lynds suggested calling it A Shot in the Harp and casting McCoy as Inspector Clouseau on the cover. “That’s a genius idea,” Thompson told him.
         McCoy also liked the concept: “I must say it was pretty doggone clever.”
         Thompson ran with the idea, staging a photo shoot behind the hangars at Cornelia Fort Airpark with McCoy dressed in a trench coat and hat like Clouseau and model Mavis Turner attired as a ’60s femme fatale at the scene of a crime — the murder of the woman’s harmonica.
         “I like for people to know we’re having fun making this music,” Thompson explains. “I want the covers to convey, ‘Hey, this is fun to listen to.’ ”
         There is no denying A Shot in the Harp: The Music of Henry Mancini is a fun listen — but it’s more than that. The EP captures the essence of Mancini’s magic with a collection of lively, sophisticated performances featuring the harmonica wizardry of a living musical legend, and in doing so, expresses the essence of what Inglehood Records is all about.
         “We just want to make good music that we really care about,” Thompson says. “And that’s what we did.”