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April 29, 2019

The Music Man

After a 70 year career, Gene Cipriano has no plans to slow down

Melissa Byers
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano
  • Courtesy Gene Cipriano

The phone keeps ringing. And Gene Cipriano, "Cip" to his friends, keeps answering the call and going to work.

The saxophonist, who also plays all the woodwinds except the bassoon, has been answering that call for nearly 70 years, working with everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Andre Previn to Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

Along the way, he also managed to play in 58 Oscar telecasts and a number of Emmy broadcasts, as well. He will be 90 in July, and has no plans to slow down. He says, "I never thought of that. I didn't think I'd still be playing. You know, the phone is still ringing and I still have my fingers and my ears, so I don't embarrass myself when I go to work."

On his web site, the earliest recording credit is 1949. for Blue Skies: The Irving Berlin Songbook, but Cipriano really doesn't think much about the dates. He says, "I have no idea. When I joined the Tex Beneke Glenn Miller Orchestra back in ... That wasn't 1949. I became friends with the piano player who was on the band and his name was Henry Mancini.

"For a musician to make a living in music, [he needs to be] in New York, or maybe Chicago, or LA. I picked LA because I like the weather and when I came to town one year I get a call from Mancini to do the Peter Gunn show. And that got me started because it became such a hot item and then all the other leaders said, 'well, get me those guys who played with Henry Mancini.' And that got me rolling."

Cipriano played a lot of TV and movie themes and soundtracks, both before and after Peter Gunn. One of his credits includes playing the saxophone parts for Tony Curtis in the classic film Some Like It Hot.

His list of television credits runs the gamut from Peter Gunn to The Flintstones, The Judy Garland Show, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra Specials, and all but three Oscar telecasts, The Emmys, The Grammy, and The People's Choice Awards. His film credits include The Godfather, the original Thomas Crown Affair, and The Sandpiper.

He says, "Back then it was called the Golden Era. Back in the 60s and 70s because there were so many record dates, everybody was recording.

"During the 60s and 70s there were so many TV shows and they all used live music. I Love Lucy. Mary Tyler Moore. Mission: Impossible. Danny Thomas. They all used live music. That was fun to do. Kojak. The list goes on. And working with Mancini, you know the Peter Gunn and the Mr. Lucky. Those were great shows.

"And all the movies. All the movies Henry did. I worked with Henry Mancini, and Dave Grusin, and Johnny Mandel. God, I loved Johnny Mandel. And Michel Legrand, you know I did The Thomas Crown Affair, but the original one with Steve McQueen. That music was so good. What a talent he was. He used to call me 'Ceep.' And I loved working with Tom Scott. What a great talent he is."

Along the way, Cipriano played with all the greats in all genres of music. He has memories of musical stars right at the beginning of their careers. For example, he remembers, "I worked on Glenn Campbell's hit record "By The Time I Get to Phoenix." But when I came to Glenn he was just a session player. He would do record dates, you know? No one knew he sang. And it became a big hit for him. Put him on the map.

"The same thing with Neil Diamond. I did a record date with him and I say, 'hey, this guy sounds pretty good,' and then the record took off and he became a national star.

"And Frank Zappa. The same thing. A wonderful person to work for. Oh, it was a great mind. Yeah. And he was so easy to work for."

He has a few favorites, "Well, I loved them all but a few stick out of my mind. Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and I love the few times I worked with Bobby Darrin, that was great. And I did Paul McCartney's solo CD a couple of years ago.

"And that was great. I walked into the studio and this guy came up and he said, 'Hi, I'm Paul McCartney.' I said, 'Hi, I'm Cip.' And the whole band broke up and I didn't think it was anything to laugh at. But he was a gentleman. Wow, what a nice man he is.

"Another gentleman I enjoyed working with was Nat Cole. Oh, what a wonderful guy he was to work for. His hit record was with the trio. 'Route 66.' Put them on the map. Then he sang 'Mona Lisa. 'That was a great hit record for him.

"And I loved working with Sammy Davis. His sessions were always good. And Ray Charles was something else.

"Yeah, I'm a lucky guy."

Cipriano also has good memories of a newcomer he worked with who he was sure would be big. "Olivia Newton-John. First time I worked with her I said, 'Wow, this girl sings good. She's going to make it.' And she did. And what a nice person."

In fact, Cipriano doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone he's worked with in his long career. He says, "You know what? This may surprise you, but I enjoyed everybody. I always look for the good side of people."

And he doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon. Asked about future plans, he says, "Oh, let's see. I'm doing some recording next week. It's a record date, but I don't know who the artist is. And I still do some TV shows. Most of them use synthesizers now. Except [Seth] McFarland. He likes live music. So thank God for him. He gets a lot of guys some work."



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