For my money the Italian soundtrack composers of the ’60s and ’70s cranked out some of the greatest, funkiest and just plain weirdest music in any genre. We’ve previously covered Franco Micalizzi and most people have at least heard Ennio Morricone’s iconic spaghetti western soundtracks. But there’s one Italian composer you’ve heard more than any other, and yet you probably don’t even know his name.
In 1968 Piero Umiliani was just another film composer working at Cinecitta, the major Italian film studio, when he composed a throwaway tune for a Mondo documentary, Swededn Heaven and Hell. The tune somehow caught on, gaining radio airplay and even being used frequently on The Benny Hill Show. It didn’t even have a proper title, it wasn’t until later that it came to be know as The Mah Na Mah Na Song.
Mah Nah Mah Nah, original version
Sesame Street debuted the following year and it was in the 14th episode that the Muppets first covered the song, followed by an appearance on Ed Sullivan a few weeks later. But it wasn’t until 1976 and the debut of The Muppet Show that the song really hit the big time. It was featured in a skit on the very first episode and included in the soundtrack album, which hit #1 on the UK charts. Suddenly it was everywhere and it’s been used in countless TV commercials, shows and movies. Not to mention pretty much every nerd convention or sing along ever since.
Mah Na Mah Na, Ed Sullivan version
But Piero Umiliani was more than Mah Na Mah Na, he scored over 150 films, usually in his light jazzy style, perfectly suited for the era. One of my favorites is Mario Bava’s 1970 thriller Five Dolls for an August Moon. I just love this swinging cocktail party featuring the astounding Edwige Fenech getting down to Piero’s groovy lounge music:
In 1971 Piero scored another mondo movie, Questo Sporco Mondo Merviglioso (which I believe translates as This Dirty Wonderful World), once again cutting loose with some terrific laid back lounge tunes and throwing in some Mah Na Mah Na-inspired wordless vocals.
Piero was a jazz pianist by trade and really excelled at the funky-sleazy synth driven numbers that worked so well in the soft-core erotic pictures of the early ’70s. Here’s one from 1971’s Senza Trengua:
Sadly, maestro Umiliani passed away in 2001 but he left us some amazing music to remember him by.