Franco de Gemini: Harmonica player who performed on hundreds of film scores

 

Three men wait at a remote railway station for another. A haunting, surreal, echoing trio of notes on a harmonica announces the arrival of the man they have been waiting for: a gunfighter played by Charles Bronson, known only as "Harmonica". This is a parody of the Gary Cooper film High Noon and believed by many critics and film enthusiasts to be the opening to the greatest Western ever made. So begins Sergio Leone's classic film Once Upon a Time in the West, featuring the music of Ennio Morricone.

The musician who actually played the harmonica in this film was Franco de Gemini. He was one of a number of musicians who regularly worked for Roman orchestras recording film music, and contributing to a very particular style. As the harmonica was an iconic musical instrument in the Western genre, De Gemini can be heard on a great many Spaghetti Western soundtracks of the 1960s and early 70s.

The son of a policeman, De Gemini was born in Ferrara in northern Italy in 1928. He grew up in Turin and initially had no formal musical training, becoming interested in the harmonica while at school. He subsequently enjoyed playing simply to amuse himself and his friends.

But a professional career beckoned in the 1950s when De Gemini found himself recording for film scores such as that by composer Alessandro Cicognini's for Pane, amore e fantasia (1953). Cicognini had worked for Vittorio De Sica and composed the score for The Bicycle Thieves. In the same year De Gemini also played in the San Remo Festival, at which time he joined the orchestra of film composer Berto Pisano, and started to make recordings for film and television.

One of De Gemini's proudest recollections was being invited to play on the recording of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in 1961. However, it was during the 1960s that the resurrection of the Italian film industry, especially dominated by the Spaghetti Western genre, ensured that De Gemini's harmonica would receive generous exposure. Almost always, when a harmonica was required, Morricone would call on De Gemini, but he also worked for many of the other great masters of Italian film music, including Bruno Nicolai, Francesco De Masi, Franco Micalizzi, Nico Fidenco, Riz Ortolani and his friend – and the leader of Italy's most respected choral group, I Cantori Moderni – Alessandro Alessandroni.

De Gemini can be heard on the first Sergio Leone Western, A Fistful of Dollars. However, it was in 1968 that the harmonica became the subject and central image of a Western movie about Western movies – Once Upon a Time in the West. De Gemini and Morricone wanted to create a haunting three-note motif which would be almost impossible to recreate with another instrument. To this end, De Gemini physically adapted his favourite harmonica – a Hohner Chromatic – in order to create an individual sound which is heard repeatedly throughout the film. He took the harmonica apart and rebuilt it. Famously, some of the music for the film was recorded before filming and played during shooting. De Gemini was also on the set to tutor Charles Bronson in how to use the harmonica. Leone was so pleased with the resulting effect that he promised to give De Gemini a gold harmonica, although this never materialised.

During his lifetime De Gemini performed on more than 800 film scores, as well as composing for films. His favourite contribution was for the 1965 film Italiani Brava Gente which featured a film score by Armando Trovajoli. In this De Gemini duets with the esteemed flautist Severino Gazzelloni.

One of the best film scores he ever featured on was that of a 1975 film about the Italian railways entitled Allora il Treno, directed by Emilio Marsili. The score was composed by Morricone's frequent conductor Bruno Nicolai. Here, De Gemini's harmonica evokes the stress and mechanical effort of the train brilliantly and recalls certain aspects of the surreal inventiveness of Once Upon a Time in the West.

In 1968 De Gemini founded a record company, Beat Records, that published many best-selling film soundtracks, including an award-winning release of the soundtrack to Death in Venice. In 1985 he formed the music-publishing company Pentaflowers which acquired control of a thousand original film soundtracks.

In 2006 De Gemini published his memoirs of a particularly successful life in music, From Beat to Beat which also included a CD of tracks from his film scores, The Man with the Harmonica.

I first met De Gemini in the 1970s while researching Italian film music. He was an immensely generous and larger-than-life personality, who enjoyed a role as a raconteur and was fond of cooking. He was very helpful and would not think twice about picking up the phone and calling composers to clarify a question or point of detail to answer an enquiry. He was a close friend of the late film music composer Francesco De Masi, with whom he regularly worked. Following the announcement of De Gemini's death, De Masi's son Fillipo De Masi described De Gemini as "an artist out of the ordinary".

He seldom spoke of other harmonica players, but a peer he especially admired was the American Larry Adler, who had also worked in films. De Gemini has been regarded as one of the greatest harmonica players to have worked in the film industry. He is one of the last of the many great musicians who contributed to and created a particularly definitive style of music for the Italian cinema in the latter part of the 20th century.

Franco de Gemini, harmonica player: born Ferrara 10 September 1928; married Luciana Morello (two sons); died Rome 20 July 2013.

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

Life and Style
fashion

British supermodel and hitmaker join forces to launch a 'huge song'

News
news

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announce they are set to welcome second child in spring

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually a challenging and nuanced title

Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
News
i100
Travel
travel

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 & KS2 Teacher

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Day to Day job opportunities f...

Primary Teachers needed in Cheshire West

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Day to Day job opportunities f...

NQT Job Opportunties in Winsford

£85 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teac...

Year 3 Teachers needed for supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past