An Interview with Franco De Gemini by John Mansell © 2008
October 4th 2006; a hot day in Rome. I was lucky enough to be invited to the offices of the well known record label BEAT. The temperatures were in the mid 80s and I decided to take a taxi from Vatican City to my destination which was just a little way from the impressive architecture of the Pope’s residence. I was greeted warmly by Daniele De Gemini who very soon introduced me to the esteemed and respected musician Franco De Gemini. We went to Mr. De Gemini’s office and sat for a while just chatting. After a while he began to relay to me stories about recording sessions and also about concerts and specific film scores which he had worked on.
I was amazed to find out that he had played harmonica on no less than 800 film scores. I remember thinking to myself, God I don’t think I have or will ever see 800 movies in my lifetime. One particular story that stuck in my mind was about Ennio Morricone. De Gemini had been asked to play harmonica on a score by the maestro, but the score began with a very low bass note. De Gemini explained it was virtually impossible for him to play this note first thing in the morning at this session, so he told Morricone that the note could not be played on the harmonica. The Maestro accepted his word and made the necessary alterations to the score.
Some weeks later De Gemini found himself in the studio again with Morricone and again the Maestro had begun his score with a very low bass note. De Gemini reminded the maestro that this note could not be played on the harmonica. Morricone looked at him and then produced a harmonica of his own, played the note and told Franco “once you can get away with it but twice NO…”.
There was also a story that involved Leonard Bernstein, De Gemini played harmonica on WEST SIDE STORY, he began to play at the recording session, and Bernstein called a halt to the recording, calling the harmonica player over to him mis-pronouncing his name as De Geminy, he asked him why he was playing in the way he did. De Gemini shrugged his shoulders more or less saying this is how I play. Bernstein produced a record of a harmonica player performing a piece of music. He played it for De Gemini, saying this is what I want. De Gemini said this person is a dog, I am the best, but the recording was of De Gemini that Bernstein had had for some time; Franco De Gemini did say I knew this but was not admitting it… Mr. De Gemini also told me he was the only artist to be known for three notes; he looked at me and then hummed the opening three notes from THE MAN WITH THE HARMONICA.
Franco De Gemini was born in Ferrara in the North of Italy, on the 10th September 1928.
Did you come from a family background that was musical in any way?
No. Not at all, my Father was a policeman; my Mother was my Father’s wife.
What musical education did you receive?
My education was mainly self obtained; I taught myself and also developed my own skills on the harmonica.
When did you begin to specialise in playing the harmonica?
I was very young and used to play the harmonica everywhere, there was not much to do in my free time after World War 2, OK lets say that there was not much time to waste in that period also. Nevertheless my specialisation began in the 1950s it was at this time I played on my first soundtrack.
Do you play any other instrument at all?
No not at all, although I do play lots of different harmonicas.
Can you recall how many soundtracks that you have performed on?
Yes, it is around 800 in all, maybe more, and that is just the soundtracks.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the BEAT record label, what was the first release on your label?
The first release was not a soundtrack as such, but a compilation of film music, IL SOGNI DELLA MUSICA LPF 001. I do think that maybe there were some 45rpm records released before this.
At one time you had a Manchester address on your record releases. Was this your UK base?
No, it was just a distributor in Manchester.
Are there any items in the BEAT catalogue that were issued on LP that have not yet received a compact disc release?
Yes, most certainly, dozens maybe even hundreds, it’s very difficult to say just how many.
When you were working on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, did you have any idea just how successful the music and the movie were going to be. And did you imagine that it would still be popular some 30 years plus on?
Difficult to say really, I surely did my best in my performance to obtain a sound that was perfect for the movie.
Are there any movies that you have worked on that you have particularly fond memories of?
ITALIANI BREVA GENTE which had a score by Armando Trovajoli, brings back many fond memories for me; that and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST of course.
Your style of playing the harmonica is quite unique. Were you influenced by the performances of others at all?
No I created that kind of sound alone; I consider myself my personal censor.
What would you say is BEAT’s best selling soundtrack?
All of the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone sell very well, but also DEATH IN VENICE was a best seller, and music by other composers such as De Masi, Trovajoli, Ortolani, Piccioni and Piovani also do well.
Because of the company’s 40th anniversary, will you be issuing any more special soundtracks this year?
We will release two compilations, this will be at the end of the year, one dedicated to Joe D’Amato, and one to BEAT and of course we are preparing the BEAT original book.
Have you ever performed in concert at all?
Yes many times and still today I perform.
What was Bruno Nicolai like to work with?
He was a great Maestro, I worked with him on many scores including ALLORA IL TRENO.
You also worked on many of Francesco De Masi’s score.
I played on around 80% of Francesco’s scores, I worked with him many times.
Is there a specific harmonica that you use?
Yes, a Honer Chromatic.
What would you say is the most difficult score that you have had to work on?
It was an American Maestro’s work, there were 25 pages of dodecaphonic music, and I finished it in two and a half hours.
Many thanks to Franco De Gemini and his son Daniele and for their kind hospitality in Rome…