Essential Listening #13: Peter Gunn

The “Peter Gunn Theme” is a piece of music composed by Henry Mancini for the TV show Peter Gunn, which aired from 1958 to 1961. This theme song has become one of the most recognizable pieces of television music and has had a significant impact on music and popular culture.

Origin and Composition

  • Composer: Henry Mancini, an American composer, conductor, and arranger known for his work in film and television music, composed the theme.
  • TV Show: Peter Gunn was a private detective television series created by Blake Edwards. The show was known for its stylish, noir atmosphere and innovative use of jazz music.
  • Composition: The theme is a classic example of cool jazz, characterized by its walking bass line, brassy horn section, and simple, yet memorable melody.

Music and Structure

  • Instrumentation: The original recording features a prominent electric guitar, brass section (trumpets, trombones), piano, bass, and drums. Notable musicians who played on the original recording include guitarist Bob Bain, drummer Jack Sperling, and pianist John Williams.
  • Structure: The “Peter Gunn Theme” follows a 12-bar blues form in the key of E minor, providing a strong, repetitive rhythmic pattern that supports the melody.
  • Style: The theme is often noted for its driving rhythm and edgy, jazz-infused sound, which perfectly complemented the show’s film noir aesthetic.

Reception and Impact

  • Awards: Henry Mancini won an Emmy Award for the Peter Gunn score and two Grammy Awards for the album The Music from Peter Gunn.
  • Chart Performance: The theme was released as a single and became a hit, reaching number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959.
  • Legacy: The “Peter Gunn Theme” is considered a classic of television music. It has been covered and reinterpreted by numerous artists and bands across various genres, including rock, jazz, and blues.

Cover Versions and Adaptations

  • Popular Covers:
    • Duane Eddy: His 1959 version emphasized twangy guitar and reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100.
    • The Art of Noise: Their 1986 electronic version featuring guitar legend Duane Eddy won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
    • Emerson, Lake & Palmer: The progressive rock band included a version on their 1971 album Pictures at an Exhibition.
  • Other Covers: The theme has also been covered by artists such as Ray Anthony, Quincy Jones, and The Blues Brothers, showcasing its versatility and broad appeal.

Cultural Impact

  • Film and TV Appearances: The theme has been used in various films, TV shows, and commercials, often to evoke a sense of cool, jazzy sophistication or to reference its detective origins.
  • Influence: The “Peter Gunn Theme” has influenced many other compositions in television and film, setting a standard for integrating jazz into visual media. Its driving bass line and brassy melodies have been emulated in many subsequent TV and movie scores.


  • Musical Elements: The theme’s appeal lies in its simplicity and effective use of jazz elements. The walking bass line provides a constant drive, while the brass and guitar parts add layers of texture and excitement.
  • Stylistic Innovation: Mancini’s use of jazz for a TV show score was innovative at the time and helped to establish the genre as a viable option for television and film scoring.

Technical Details

  • Key: The piece is primarily in E minor.
  • Tempo: The tempo is moderate, giving it a laid-back yet driving feel that matches the cool demeanor of the titular character, Peter Gunn.
  • Form: The piece follows a blues progression, which is typical in jazz and rock music, making it both familiar and accessible to a wide audience.

Awards and Recognition

  • Emmy Award: Mancini won an Emmy for the score of Peter Gunn.
  • Grammy Awards: Mancini received two Grammy Awards for the original album The Music from Peter Gunn.

The “Peter Gunn Theme” remains a seminal piece of music, highlighting Henry Mancini’s talent and the innovative integration of jazz into television scoring. Its continued popularity and frequent use in media underscore its lasting impact on both music and pop culture.

All About Music
Friday’s Freebies