April 24th, thanks to Harry in Sunny Central Florida this post has been updated to correct my oversight about the original soundtrack release which did in fact include Suicide is Painless, the vocal track, as the theme tune. The update contains information from Billboard Magazine and Gale Sherwood Magee's book Robert Alman's Sountracks.

It also includes additional information from Doug Payne about the musicians that played with Ahmad Jamal.

I was going through a large set of near-mint vinyl records that a friend gave me when he downsized last year to sheltered accomodation. Some real British curiosities among them, including the The Sounds of Yorkshire, Pam Ayers Will Anybody Marry Me? as well as more popular titles. They were all originals and most are listed on my Discogs inventory if your taste buds have been stimulated!

Among the better albums was the original M*A*S*H movie soundtrack recording. I saw the movie sometime in the mid-70’s, and I suspect, like many, it’s memory faded to be replaced by the long running TV Series with, among others, Alan Alda. The theme tune was the same for both movie and tv series initially, but took a very different path. My memory of the film was the opening with Ahmad Jamal’s jazz version, with no lyrics, which matches the soundtrack album I got from Paul.

If you watch the film now, it has the same vocal version of the theme tune, better known as the Suicide Is Painless song. Interestingly, the movie started out with that track but was re-cut in 1973 to use the Ahmad Jamal jazz version. While the movie was originally a success, the sountrack hadn’t sold well and the title track didn’t garner much airplay, after all it was a song about suicide.

In 1973, it was decided to re-launch the movie, to capitalize on the success of the TV series, which had started in 1972. In order to boost the sales of “ancillary” products, for example, the soundtrack album, and a single/45, Jamal’s jazz version was added to the soundtrack album as well. It worked. The Jamal track was in the Jazz charts as a 45 between July and November 1973.

It’s actually a really solid jazz number. Somber, sublime keyboards by Jamal, accompanied by his regulars at the time, Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums. In his writing about Jamal, Doug Payne says of the song

This wickedly electric treatment became something of a hit for the pianist, who often played it in concert throughout the next decade or so and recorded another interesting electric variation for his 1980 Motown album,Night Song. Jamal also recorded the song in a more acoustic environment for his great 1985 album Digital Works.


However, following on from the film’s success in the 1970’s the theme tune has reverted to the song version, the parody and pathos has become accepted, and Jamal’s version has slipped to the last track on the soundtrack as released on CD.

Soundtrack album without Jamal [Original 1970 track listing via discogs]
Soundtrack re-launched with Jamal [1973 Re-launch track listing via discogs]
Soundtrack re-master, CD [1995 re-master track listing via discogs]

As Doug Payne also, notes, Jamal had been signed as the only jazz artist on 20th Century around the same time. It’s unknown how the Theme From Mash would have played into that. He was given a great deal of freedom to record, but interestingly, none of that periods recordings have ever been remastered or released digitally. Here is how Billboard covered it the M*A*S*H update.

Billboard Magazine, P4, October 13th, 1973

Suicide Is Painless

For background information, originally Director Robert Altman only planned for the song to be used during the “last supper scene”. In the final version of the movie, it is heard three times. To match the scene, Altmann wanted “silly” lyrics. Johnny Mandel couldn’t come up with them, so Altmann asked his then 14-year old son to write the lyrics, which were then set to music by Mandell. In an ironic twist of fate, given Robert Altman was hired on a fixed contract to make the film, his son. Michael Altman actually made more money from the lyrics. All from:
Magge’s book Robert Altman’s Soundtracks [via Library online services ISBN-13: 9780199915965]

And also…

Like Creed Taylor setting out in 1970 as an independent, M*A*S*H also hit the theaters in 1970. Having listened to the whole album, I put this small mash-up/mix together. Not it’s not the Bickersons.

Please Wash Your Hands
The Original M*A*S*H theme tune as featured on the soundtrack
The opening sequence, with original vocal version.

By today’s standards, the film is totally non-PC, for a start, don’t call him “Spearchucker”.

Arlene Chu’s Hollywood Grill is off limits due to a possible infection.


The Full movie soundtrack [via music.youtube]
Ahmad Jamal Trips Out: The 20th Century Recordings [via Doug Paynes Sound Insights]

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