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Gene Cipriano, Famed Session Musician and Woodwind Player in Hollywood, Dies at 94

The Hollywood Reporter 11/27/2022 Mike Barnes
© Provided by The Hollywood Reporter

Gene Cipriano, the always busy woodwind player who soloed on tenor sax for Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot and recorded with everyone from Miles Davis, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra to Glen Campbell, Paul McCartney and Olivia Newton-John, has died. He was 94.

Cipriano died Nov. 12 of natural causes at his home in Studio City, his son Paul told The Hollywood Reporter.

Perhaps the most recorded woodwind player in show business history, Cipriano played soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, all the clarinets and flutes, the oboe and bass oboe, the piccolo and the English horn.

Affectionally known as “Cip,” the session musician performed as a member of the Academy Awards Orchestra in the neighborhood of 60 times since 1958. (At the 1977 show, he exchanged “yo’s” with Barbra Streisand, who had just arrived at the podium after having won for “Evergreen.”) 

Cipriano on oboe is heard at the start of Sinatra’s melancholy “It Was a Very Good Year,” and he performed on several of Campbell’s early hits, including “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”  

Like Campbell, he was an occasional member of The Wrecking Crew, the fabled set of studio musicians who recorded with the likes of The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra and Sonny & Cher.

“It was a lot of fun because a lot of times the composer would say to the rhythm section, ‘Think of something wild that would fit this particular piece of music,'” Cipriano recalled in a 2019 interview for the website Making Life Swing. “They would think of something and then they’d ad lib and tell us what to play. Sometimes we’d make up music right on the spot.”

Shortly after moving from New York to California in the 1950s, Cipriano was hired by Henry Mancini to play flute on the new NBC crime series Peter Gunn. The pair then collaborated on CBS’ Mr. Lucky and in films including Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Hatari! (1962), Charade (1963) and The Hawaiians (1970).

Cipriano worked alongside Johnny Mandel on The Sandpiper (1965) and with Michel Legrand on The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and was heard on West Side Story (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Point Blank (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), The French Connection (1971), Marathon Man (1976), One From the Heart (1981), The Karate Kid (1984), Up (2009) and more.

Born on July 6, 1928, in New Haven, Connecticut, Cipriano started taking clarinet lessons from his father, Fred, who played on Broadway and with the New Haven Symphony.

“He put a clarinet in my hands when I was 8 years old,” he said. “I began to listen to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.'”

As a junior in high school, Cipriano landed a gig with Ted Fio Rito’s orchestra, where he met trumpeter Doc Severinsen. After he finished school, he worked with Clooney and her sister Betty in The Tony Pastor Band, with pianist Mancini in The Tex Beneke Band and with singer Frances Irvin, his soon-to-be wife, in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

After he relocated to California, Mancini gave him his big break on Peter Gunn. “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,'” he noted in another 2019 interview.

Cipriano also performed on Elvis Presley’s NBC comeback special in 1968. Over the years, he recorded with Shorty Rogers, Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Thelonious Monk, Elton John, Frank Zappa, Gerry Mulligan, Helen Reddy, Barry Manilow and Seth MacFarlane. He also played on many Emmy and Grammy telecasts.

In 2006, Cipriano recorded his own CD, First Time Out, a collection of jazz tunes.

In addition to his son Paul, survivors include his other children, Genie, Suzanne and Fred; grandchildren Grant and Alicia; great-grandchildren Natalie and Emily; and sister Marie.

His wife of 50 years, Frances, died in 2003. Four years later, Cipriano met singer Catherine “Cat” Conner, and they performed all over Los Angeles in a small band. She cared for him until his death.

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