You might not know the name but you have probably heard his music and the unmistakable sound of his harmonica on countless Italian film scores. The plaintive wail of his instrument on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was used as a musical motif for Charles Bronson’s avenging angel, who was identified simply as “the man with the harmonica” in Sergio Leone’s landmark film. Yet that nickname really belongs to Franco De Gemini who has brought his distinctive sound from the background to the foreground in more than 800 movie scores in his lifetime. His talent for expressing conflicting emotions through his music in both minimalist and operatic arrangements is this composer’s secret weapon.
Very little of his harmonica solos on soundtrack scores by Ennio Morricone, Carlo Rustichelli, Riz Ortolani and other Italian composers have earned De Gemini the sort of posterity and fame enjoyed by, say Anton Karas, who will be forever associated with his zither theme for The Third Man or Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango compositions which have figured prominently in such movies as Fernando E. Solanas’ The South (1988) and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In fact, if you look up De Gemini on IMDB, you’ll find less than ten film credits listed since much of his work has been undocumented or uncredited over the years.
For an enticing introduction to his music, I recommend the CD compilation, Franco De Gemini – The Man with the Harmonica on Allscore Records. He also self-published his autobiography in 2008 – Cosi insegnai a Charles Bronson ad impugnare l’armonica, which you can still find from online book and CD sellers. It charts his entire musical career from his childhood to his final work as the controlling interest behind Beat Records and the music publishing company, Edizioni Musicali Beat. (De Gemini died in Rome in July 2013).
If you only know De Gemini from his work on Once Upon a Time in the West, the Allscore compilation provides a wildly diverse overview of his film work from 1967 to 1978. Even as the musical styles range from spaghetti western motifs to psychedelic pop to Euro disco to free form jazz and even opera and classical music, De Gemini puts his personal stamp on each one. The second cut on the Allscore CD is “I’m Not Your Pony,” a haunting, elegiac instrumental from Giuseppe Vari’s Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead (1970), which starred Klaus Kinski and featured a score by Mario Migliardi.
Of particular interest is the cut “Buckaroo seq. 2,” which features a vocal by Dean Reed, the star of Buckaroo: The Winchester Does Not Forgive (1967). Reed, a rock ‘n roll singer and native of Denver, Colorado, failed to make an impact with American audiences despite a record contract with Capitol Records in 1958. He relocated to South America and later Russia where his records were more popular than those of Elvis Presley or any other American pop star according to the popular myth. Modeling his rebel persona on James Dean, Reed’s Vietnam War protests and left-wing political interests became a major part of his appeal to young people though his death by suicide in East Germany in 1986 remains an unresolved mystery for many. What’s interesting about the “Buckroo seg. 2” number, however, is not Reed’s easy listening vocals but the harmonica background punctuation provided by De Gemini which transforms the rather schmaltzy ballad into an appealing riff on American western themes.
Most of the other cuts on Franco De Gemini – The Man With the Harmonica are not focused on the spaghetti western genre and demonstrate a wide range of moods such as “I Pendolari,” the melancholy theme, composed by Bruno Nicolai, for Allora il treno, a 1975 documentary about the Italian railway system, or the frenetic “Cheops and Nefertiti,” which is from Si Puo Fare Molto con 7 Donne (aka You Can Do a Lot With Seven Women, 1971), one of the few film scores attributed to De Gemini. The latter number, which was also showcased on the first disc of the popular Beat at Cinecitta CD series, suggests a collaboration of The Swingle Singers (a French acappella vocal group), and the playful male/female choral configuration from Burt Bacharach’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s score in 1969.
There are also non-film score selections culled from commercials and pop recordings such as the delirious “Romantico Tramonto” from 1967 with its raucous psychedelic vibe and “Ciao dal muretto di Alassia,” a 1977 lounge music gem driven by an irresistible call and response between organ and harmonica.
The first film score De Germini ever worked on was for composer Alessandro Cicognini for Bread, Love and Dreams (1953), Luigi Comencini’s rural sex farce starring Gina Lollobrigida and Vittorio De Sica. While De Germini kept busy during the fifties as a session musician at RAI Studio in Turin (where he grew up) and by performing in various concerts and live performances, he became more active in film score recording once he moved to Rome in 1955. A turning point was his involvement in the scoring of La Grande Guerra (aka The Great War, 1959) by the legendary Nino Rota. In this acclaimed anti-war satire starring Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman, director Mario Monicelli cast De Germini in a bit part as a soldier who plays the harmonica, a sequence which required the musician to perform take after take in the recording studio with a full orchestra due to Rota’s relentless perfectionism.
De Germini would go on to work with nearly every major – and minor – Italian film composer for the next three decades but probably the most exciting period for “the man with the harmonica” was the early sixties when he forged important relationships with such soon-to-be-frequent collaborators as Ennio Morricone. One of their first working encounters was on the 1960 pop hit “Il barattolo,” performed by singer Gianni Meccia. Take a listen to this unusual instrumental intro to the song on YouTube. The unique metallic sound was achieved by Morricone rolling a single tin can over an iron plate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_UuuBHNKeM
Of course, the first important collaboration between Morricone and De Germini would be on Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). “For this,” De Germini wrote in his autobiography, “Ennio added to his unique instrumentation one harmonica (mine) and one anvil – that’s right, a anvil! The production didn’t want to pay a percussionist just for a single track of “anvil,” so I suggested to Morricone that I play the thing myself, perhaps by hammering on it with my harmonica. As sometimes happens the best results are reached unwillingly, and on this instance I played the anvil just a tad ahead of the timing because I was nervously anticipating, in a jazzy way each hammer hit. The result of that pre-emptive “anticipated sound” pleased Ennio so much he congratulated me, adding that my way was better than the original plan. Fortunately for both of us he didn’t ask for a second take because I do not know if I could have recreated my “nice mistake” a second time!”
De Gemini’s autobiography is full of such amusing and insightful anecdotes from his film scoring days and the bilingual paperback edition is profusely illustrated with lots of candid shots of the musician’s friends and colleagues in the Italian film industry. It’s a very modest affair that could have used a more lavish coffee book table approach and the English text translation is riddled with grammatical errors. Sometimes the anecdotes seem to lead nowhere, as if the point of the retelling or the punchline was lost in the translation. But most of the time De Gemini’s memories are generous, funny, and full of warmth and love for his profession and friends, including some amusing tidbits about working with the unpredictable Lucio Fulci (The House by the Cemetery, 1981).
The autobiography will also make you hungry for good Italian food because many of the stories revolve around memorable meetings in restaurants such as La Celestina in Rome. In the end, Cosi insegnai a Charles Bronson ad impugnare l’armonica is invaluable for filling in some of the gaps in De Germini’s filmography and the list is staggering: the 1964 war epic Italiani Brava Gente (aka Attack and Retreat) with Arthur Kennedy and Peter Falk, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Man from Nowhere (aka Arizona Colt, 1966), the heist thriller Master Stroke (1967) with Richard Harrison, the spaghetti oater Long Days of Vengeance (1967), The Five Man Army (1969), In the Name of the Italian People (1971) starring Ugo Tognazzi, Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1972), the 1973 poliziotteschi Counselor at Crime (1973) with Martin Balsam and Tomas Milian, Dino Risi’s How Funny Can Sex Be? (aka Sessomatto, 1973), Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), Berlinguer: I Love You (1977) starring Roberto Benigni, Le Ruffian (1983) with Lino Ventura and Claudia Cardinale, the Chuck Norris vehicle Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) and countless more.
The De Germini self-published mini-tome comes with a CD sampler entitled From Beat to Beat that culls together 19 of De Germini’s favorite recordings from his own record company. Typical of the musician’s open-hearted, non-egocentric nature, most of the Beat selections favor other composers and musicians but De Germini is showcased in cut 4, the “Tomas Theme” by his pal Riz Ortolani from Counselor at Crime, and cut 12, “Il mare di Alassio,” a sensual lounge music delight. Some of the other recommended tunes include the Guido De Angelis – Maurizio De Angelis composition “The Life of a Policeman” complete with cop sirens and an orchestral choir and the madcap “Diabolic” (by David and Lionel Maulus) which sounds like Jerry Murad and his Harmonicats on speed…and that’s saying a lot! It also includes “Fay,” Francesco De Masi’s lush, romantic theme song from an unlikely source – Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982). You’d never guess that a sleazeball misogynist giallo was hiding behind this strings-heavy arrangement which has more in common with Francis Lai’s Love Story score than anything else.
For some reason, the harmonica, like the accordion, has seldom been prominently featured in American film scores as if it is some bastard child of a lowly musical family but the instrument and De Germini’s mastery of it has been well utilized in European cinema. There have, of course, been some exceptional harmonica solos in such U.S. productions as John Barry’s evocative score for Midnight Cowboy (1969) with featured musician Toots Thielemans and Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack for Cool Hand Luke (1967).
But harmonica players in the U.S. are more likely to be blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, etc.), rock (Jack Bruce of Cream), soul (Stevie Wonder) or country musicians (Charlie McCoy) than soundtrack and film session artists. De Germini, however, demonstrates just how versatile and expressive the harmonica can be when used by a cinema composer like Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone; it can capture the emotional essence of a crucial scene in ways that words never could.
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