Gene Cipriano, Wrecking Crew Saxophonist, Dead at 94

Gene Cipriano, a prolific session musician who performed on a long list of popular albums and major motion pictures, has died at the age of 94.

The musician’s death was confirmed by his son, who told the Hollywood Reporter that Cipriano passed away on Nov. 12 of natural causes.

Cipriano was born into a musical family, his father having played on Broadway and with the New Haven Symphony. He’d take up the clarinet as a child, eventually becoming proficient in all woodwinds, including saxophone, oboe and flute. As a young adult, he’d relocate to California, where composer Henry Mancini enlisted Cipriano’s services for the TV series Peter Gunn.

“That got me started,” Cipriano recalled to the Television Academy in 2019, “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’s cinematic career would span generations. With Mancini, he contributed to the scores for The Days of Wine and Roses (1962), Charade (1963) and The Hawaiians (1970). Cipriano’s clarinet work can also be heard on the famous tune “Baby Elephant Walk” from 1962’s Hatari!.

Other films to feature Cipriano’s playing included The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), West Side Story (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Wild Bunch (1969), The French Connection (1971), The Karate Kid (1984), Up (2009) and many more.

The musician’s skills weren’t isolated to movie scores, as Cipriano – through his own work, as well as his tenure in the fabled Wrecking Crew collection of session musicians – contributed to a long list of famous rock and pop songs. The musician’s resume included material by the Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Glen Cambell, Frank ZappaNeil Diamond, Johnny Cash and the Beach Boys. Cipriano performed oboe on Frank Sinatra’s pensive “It Was a Very Good Year” and played woodwinds on Prince’s 1986 album Parade. He was also part of the band who played with Elvis Presley during the King’s 1968 comeback special, aired on NBC.

Cipriano’s further career highlights included work alongside two former Beatles. He played on John Lennon’s 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll and jazz singer Peggy Lee’s 1974 LP Let’s Love (which Paul McCartney produced).

Thanks to his many contributions to film, TV, commercials and recorded music, Cipriano has unofficially been called the most recorded woodwind player in show business history.

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