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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)