Gianfranco ReverberiBorn: December 12th, 1934, Genoa (Italy)
Right after the war, Gianfranco was allowed by his parents to take piano lessons with a private teacher, Mrs Mezzo-Ricci. “I was ten years old. At that time, it was something I did just for pleasure. I wasn’t thinking of going to conservatoire, like my younger brother did… I just wanted to have a good time. Progressively, however, more and more time and energy was put into music, mostly because I wasn’t a motivated pupil at regular school. I played the accordion, and found I was rather good at it! At the age of thirteen, I gave my first public performance at the Andrea Doria Cinema Theatre, just around the corner from where we were living. I was introduced to the audience as a bimbo prodigio, a boy genius, but in reality, my ability was still rather limited. One year later, I began playing the accordion in local amateur orchestras. Initially, the going was tough. Never having played ballroom music before, I wasn’t familiar with any of the pieces. Shamelessly, I suggested to have the orchestra play the melody line performed first by the trumpets, then by the strings, upon which I would fall in with my accordion in the third round, finishing the piece together with the full band. This allowed me to listen first, learn the melody at the second turn, and finally play it myself for the third go. Fortunately for me, my idea was accepted by the others.”
Not long after this, fascinated by American jazz music, young Gianfranco exchanged his accordion for a vibraphone. “I studied the piano for some six years, and I played the accordion, but, as a teenager, I became very interested in the jazz which had been imported into Genoa by the Americans after the war. When I say jazz, I really mean swing music. I loved nothing better than listening to jazz records… and my idols were Lionel Hampton and especially Milt Jackson, both vibraphonists. I decided the vibraphone was what I wanted. On stage, the vibraphone player is always up front, even in front of the drummer – so this was the best opportunity to be the showman. This isn’t a trivial matter for an exhibitionist like me, you know! The problem was that nobody had a clue where to buy a vibraphone. One day, my father and I were in Milan, passing by a shop window and there it was… a vibraphone, identical to the one Milton Jackson played. I fell in love with it on the spot! I begged my father to buy it, but he wouldn’t budge… and on the way back I was being an impossible adolescent, scolding him for not taking it home. What I didn’t know was that he had already decided to buy it for me, but I didn't find out until Christmas... To me, that Christmas gift truly was a life-changing event.”
In 1951, Gianfranco joined the band of pianist Renzo Barrighini, who wanted to play jazz music in the style of the celebrated George Shearing Quintet, which included vibraphonist Margie Hyams. “So Renzo was looking for a vibraphone player – and of course he found me, because I was the only person in Genoa with a vibraphone. In fact, I think there were only two vibraphonists in Italy at the time; Franco Chiari, who worked at the RAI, and I. With Renzo and the others, I set about rehearsing a set of pieces by George Shearing. Now, nobody in Italy had ever heard of George Shearing at the time. One day, at a concert at the Circolo della Stampa where Lucio Capobianco and his Dixieland Band were performing, we had been booked to play while Capobianco’s trumpeters were resting their lips – during their fifteen-minute break. This was our debut. We climbed onto the stage… and, perhaps because our quiet, subtle George Shearing tunes provided such a stark contrast to the vivacious Dixieland music, the audience were entranced. They got as close to the stage as they could to pick up each nuance of the music. You know what? Capobianco and his men never came back on stage that Sunday afternoon. The audience wanted us to continue. Shearing’s music was just so beautiful, so deeply felt, that success was somehow inevitable!”
Gianfranco Reverberi’s family home, an apartment at the Corso Torino, was also the focal point for a group of youngsters who would all go on to have a career in music, mostly as singer-songwriters; Bruno Lauzi, Luigi Tenco, Gino Paoli, Fabrizio De André, and others. “I quickly learnt who my real friends were… those who had no qualms about helping me bringing my vibraphone upstairs – we lived in an apartment on the seventh floor without an elevator! None of them had parents who owned a piano, apart from us. We all loved music and partying. Often, one of them telephoned me, saying: “Gianfranco, we’re having a party tonight. Will you be there?” “Yes, how many are we?” “Thirty-two.” “And where is the party taking place then?” “At your place.” My parents loved being at the heart of this jolly mess, but I rather doubt if our neighbours enjoyed it quite as much, especially that one night when Luigi Tenco bet he could play a higher note on the clarinet than Bruno Martinelli on the trumpet. Luigi’s clarinet was a ramshackle construction held together by elastic, Bruno had made himself a guitar from the seat of an old chair… as long as we could make music, we were the happiest creatures in the universe. At some point, we formed a band and started performing at student parties, enjoying some discrete success.”
While fooling around with his friends from Genoa’s Foce district, young Gianfranco slowly became much sought-after as a vibraphonist across Italy, playing at the inauguration of the Mostra d’Oltremare Exhibition Centre in Naples for the 1952 summer season – his first professional engagement – while joining the Nello Segurini Orchestra for a Eurovision broadcast in Genoa the following year and accompanying singer Mario Albanesi as a pianist in Capri in 1954. That same year, he was called up for the obligatory eighteen months of military service.
“By the time I went into the army, I had made the decision that I was going to be a musician, whatever it would take. It took some time before I really started thinking about my future. My younger brother Giampiero was much more purposeful. When he was thirteen years of age, he solemnly told us at the dinner table that he was going to quit regular school to go to the music academy. His tone was so resolute that my parents never even dared to object. When I had finally made up my mind that I wanted to be a musician too, I was in a way too old to go to the conservatoire. I became a better musician simply by playing… but with six years of piano and music theory with my teacher in Genoa I wouldn’t call myself an autodidact. Later on, I did acquaint myself further with theory by studying on my own account. All the same, my father and mother were less than enthusiastic when I told them I wanted to become a music professional. They doubted if I could make it. My ambition was to be a composer. My first piece, ‘Shuffle’, which I wrote with another friend from Genoa, Giorgio Calabrese, was released by a publishing company in Turin when I was little older than fifteen – and although it wasn’t a success in any way, I felt it proved that I deserved my parents’ trust.”
While serving the second half of his military service in Milan, Reverberi had the opportunity to play the vibraphone in some of the city’s ‘jazz caves’ – and, with Giorgio Gaber, Luigi Tenco and three others, he was the accompanying band of an emerging local rock ‘n’ roll singer; none other than Adriano Celentano. As Reverberi recalls, Celentano was a natural performer from the outset.
“One time, I remember we were performing in a local dance hall. Before us, another group had been on stage – and when we came on, the audience were still chatting, laughing, and drinking distractedly. We were supposed to start playing, but sensing the indifference of the crowd, Adriano told us: “Ragazzi, let’s play a song in B-flat, which then continues in fa. We protested, “But Adriano, we rehearsed our set of songs all week… why should we improvise something new on the spot?”, but he brushed our arguments aside; “No, I’m fed up with those other tunes.” Meanwhile, the audience was getting noisy, booing us, slowly becoming infuriated, until finally all eyes were on us and all parties sufficiently annoyed. Adriano said “Now!”, and we burst into the first song of our set, a wild version of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. At that moment, the nervousness felt by everybody in the hall made way for enthusiasm. Adriano had achieved his goal – in fact, not only had he succeeded in catching the audience’s attention, but he had also turned the tension to his advantage.”
Right after his discharge from the army in 1956, Gianfranco Reverberi received an invitation to join an orchestra playing on the cross-continental cruise ship Olympia. The ship took him from Genoa to New York, followed by two months in the Caribbean, then on to South America, and back into the Mediterranean, where he visited Egypt and Greece. “When I left Genoa, I didn’t even have a permit to leave the country. While I was waiting by the gangway to go aboard, my father came rushing into the harbour with a passport he had obtained for me. On the way out to the United States, I made friends with a young guy from America who showed me around New York. Sitting in the Birdland jazz club was thoroughly fascinating. I was thirty centimetres away from Oscar Peterson playing the piano while he smoked his cigar simultaneously. We also visited the Bar Metropole, where I was invited to join in a jam session with the orchestra. Back on the cruise liner, I visited Cuba and many other islands in the Caribbean. Aboard, there were three bands; one from Greece, as the boat was part of Onassis’ fleet, an American orchestra, and lastly us from Italy. Once given the opportunity, I took my vibraphone and went over to the Americans. The Italian band leader never saw me back! I just loved stealing the show using not two or four, but six, percussion mallets. It was a way of showing off – a force stronger than myself!”
Back in Genoa, at the insistence of his father, Gianfranco worked as a representative for a manufacturer of dry-cleaners, an episode which lasted no longer than three unhappy months. Making his way back to Milan, he formed one of Italy’s first rock groups, I Cavalieri, which also included Enzo Jannacci and Luigi Tenco. Almost immediately, the band was discovered by a record producer – and before long they were immersed in session work for the Dischi Ricordi record company, mainly as a backing band for other artists. In 1959, I Cavalieri performed in nightclubs in Rome, while also being involved in recording the soundtrack to Mauro Bolognini’s film ‘La notte brava’ – released internationally as ‘Bad Girls Don’t Cry’. One year prior, Reverberi had also realised his dream of becoming a successful songwriter, creating ‘Ciao ti dirò’ in collaboration with friend and lyricist Giorgio Calabrese.
“‘Ciao ti dirò’ was the first rock ‘n’ roll song written in the Italian language. The piece was literally ‘constructed’, as we were looking for words which would give it a ‘mock-American’ feel. The music we composed around it came about by screaming improvised sounds. We were looking to create something really wild. All of this was recorded with a Gelosino, one of the first tape recorders. Literally everybody, all of my friends – Gino Paoli, Bruno Lauzi, Luigi Tenco, Giorgio Gaber – sooner or later contributed to the song in some way. Luigi improvising an absurd rock ‘n’ roller, Gino singing ‘Cipolle cha cha cha’, etcetera. Giorgio Gaber was the first to record it. With ‘Ciao ti dirò’, he stopped being a jazz man and made the jump to rock ‘n’ roll music. The song was his first hit. His version sold about 300,000 copies, and the cover by Adriano Celentano did even better with over one million singles.”
In 1958, aged just twenty-three, Gianfranco joined the publishing branch of Dischi Ricordi – but his interest was chiefly in recording rather than in publishing. “In reality, I was more often to be found in the recording studio than at my desk. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to be the deputy artistic director at the same record company. I did just about everything; I was a sound engineer, musical assistant, a session player, I brought together studio orchestras, wrote arrangements, and was on the lookout for new talent. As such, I invited many of my friends from Genoa to come over and record their work for Dischi Ricordi… Paoli, Tenco, Lauzi. They all tried their hand at rock ‘n’ roll before turning to their own singer-songwriter repertoire in later years. For that reason, I have sometimes been ‘accused’ of the arrival of this first generation of Italian singer-songwriters. The truth is much simpler, though; I’ve always loved being surrounded by friends, and, given the fact that I was alone in Milan, I let them come over one by one to chase away loneliness. Of course, I knew what I was doing… I didn’t invite one of Lambretta’s mechanics or the local baker’s son. I knew there was considerable talent to be found among my friends.”
“My years with Dischi Ricordi were the best experience in my life. In terms of recording technique and repertoire, we were pioneering, helped enthusiastically by the managing director, Nanni Ricordi himself, and his assistant Franco Crepax. Whenever I had an idea, I put it to Crepax, with whom I enjoyed a perfect working relationship. He always accepted whatever I came up with, and so did Nanni, who was willing to take financial risks for us to try out intelligent and interesting innovations. We put lots of love into our recording projects. I’ve always maintained that a record is so much more than just a cold, black disc – if it’s produced with the right amount of enthusiasm, professionalism, and passion, you can bring across warmth as well as emotion. Moreover, in Italy, we were emerging from a period of fatigue, boredom, closed doors, and we felt the need to change. Up to that point, music had followed well-trodden, predictable paths… and the young generation felt the urge to break the mould, realising they were living in a time in which the world as a whole was undergoing profound changes. Thanks to film music from America, we had become acquainted with swing, boogie-woogie, but here in Italy we were still stuck with ‘Vola colomba’ and ‘Binario triste e solitario’, songs which the younger generation couldn’t identify with.”
A new generation of musicians also required innovative arrangements, for which Reverberi often turned to his younger brother Giampiero, who was studying piano and composition at the music academy in Genoa. “He was devoting all his time and energy to classical music, and there I was, distracting him with these arranging commissions,” laughs Gianfranco. “Being the good younger brother that he was, he always followed me, however reluctantly. For a recording with Gino Paoli, we had to do four songs, preferably in one take, and the budget didn’t allow for more than three instruments to be used. Usually, one would have picked bass, drums, and guitar, but Giampiero left out the guitar as he preferred using a flute. My brother ended up playing all instruments himself simultaneously – it was as if he had four hands instead of two! For all his pains, he was rewarded with no more than 5,000 lire per song, including his travel expenses, food and hotel.”
“In the following years, I slowly started writing arrangements myself. As so often was the case – later on in my career with conducting, for example – Giampiero showed me the way, but it was also a case of learning by doing. Don’t forget that my role at Dischi Ricordi was that of an artistic director – and the company had a staff of arrangers as well. Their job was to write arrangements, so I didn’t interfere with them all that often. Occasionally, I wrote little things here and there, but, more often than not, I lacked the time and preferred leaving it to others, most notably of course to Giampiero. He became heavily immersed in writing songs and scores for the Genovese school of singer-songwriters in the 1960s.”
Meanwhile, alongside his work at Dischi Ricordi, Gianfranco Reverberi enjoyed enduring success as a songwriter. In the early 1960s, his output was recorded by the likes of Gino Paoli, Luigi Tenco, I Due Corsari, and Sergio Endrigo. In 1960, the legendary singer Mina recorded his song ‘La notte’. In the course of the 1960s, working with lyricist Giorgio Calabrese, Reverberi also wrote a string of popular songs in the Genoese dialect, which were interpreted by Bruno Lauzi, Natalino Otto, and others.
In 1962, when Nanni Ricordi and Franco Crepax both left Dischi Ricordi, Reverberi followed his close friend Crepax to CGD, where he was artistic director for one year. He recorded an album for Duke Ellington, while also producing Piero Ciampi’s debut album ‘Piero Litaliano’ as well as Michele’s breakthrough hit ‘Se mi vuoi lasciare’ (1963). In spite of his considerable work rate, Reverberi was not happy at CGD. “Serving the company as artistic director, I felt it would have been lacking in good taste if I had continually brought my own songs to the attention of the artists I was working with, no matter if they were called Betty Curtis or Johnny Dorelli. Still, I thought of myself as a composer first and foremost. Meanwhile, Gino Paoli had moved to Rome where he was an independent producer at another company, RCA. He invited me to join him and become his working partner. Being an independent producer would allow me more freedom to engage in projects of my own choice, so as soon as Paoli offered me the opportunity, I decided to go for it and moved to Rome. In 1963, I signed a contract with RCA as an independent producer and composer.”
RCA were the licence holders for many international artists who released their material in Italy, allowing Reverberi to record his compositions with the likes of Alain Barrière, Sandie Shaw, and Neil Sedaka. On the other hand, he also started enjoying success with Italian singers abroad. In those years, he was the driving force behind Luigi Tenco, whose ‘Ho capito che ti amo’ sold over one million in Argentina (1965), and Michele, who enjoyed worldwide chart success with ‘Dite Laura che l’amo’ (1966), a cover version of an old American hit.
Following Michele on a worldwide tour, Reverberi conducted orchestras for him as far away as Mexico and Brazil. “That first tour with Michele in Brazil was memorable for more than one reason. While conducting a local orchestra for a live TV broadcast, the guitarist was playing something completely different to what he was supposed to. While I continued conducting, I walked to him and found out soon enough what was wrong. He had the score of a different song in front of him! With a rather inelegant gesture, I took the score from his music stand. He looked at me for a moment, and without checking if the music sheet underneath was the right one, he began rambling away on his guitar without further ado. The bar in which he started? Well, only he knew. At the end of the piece, I let out a hideous curse, making all bystanders go pale. Fortunately, as it turned out, the broadcast had already been interrupted for a commercial break. Later on, other musicians in the orchestra told me that many were using stimulants – and occasionally one of them inadvertently took a dose which was too high for his own good.”
In 1966, Reverberi took part in the San Remo Festival as a songwriter for the first time, penning ‘Paff… bum’ for Lucio Dalla. “It was an alluring prospect to go to San Remo. Lucio Dalla was produced by Gino Paoli and myself, and we really believed in him, but somehow he had still failed to make his breakthrough. We felt something special was needed to draw attention to him. Working with Sergio Bardotti, who was musical assistant at RCA, I created ‘Paff… bum’, a song which didn’t follow the usual pattern of a gentle beginning and a crescendo towards the end, but in which the fuse was lit right at the start. I wrote the music in one hour – and I greatly enjoyed the process… and what was even better; success followed! The day following Lucio’s performance on TV (the orchestra being conducted by Giampiero Reverberi – BT), his record was sought after across Italy. Unfortunately, RCA never believed in his potential and had only distributed several thousand copies, while Dischi Ricordi on the other hand, had engulfed record stores in every corner of the country with the Yardbirds’ version of the same song. As a songwriter, I was hugely satisfied, but as Lucio’s producer, I couldn’t help lamenting this missed opportunity.”
From 1967 onwards, Gianfranco Reverberi also became involved in the film music business, writing the soundtracks to several so-called Spaghetti Westerns, including ‘Soldati e capelloni’ (1967), ‘Preparati la bara’ (marketed abroad as ‘Django, Prepare a Coffin’, 1968), as well as movies in other genres, working with directors like Ettore Maria Fizzarotti, Mario Dallamano, and Domenico Paolella.
“When I moved from Milan to Rome, the opportunities to write film music were amply available. Rome is the focal point of the Italian movie world. I loved working on films… for a soundtrack, there is no need to look for the key to a chart success. As a result, more freedom and less pressure are involved. When writing for a film, you’re constantly looking to create atmospheres fitting the images. For many of those films, I worked with my brother. We always found it inspirational to team up with each other. Our partnership was all-encompassing, creating the atmospheres, melodies, and arrangements together. He wrote all orchestrations. Often, I had the initial ideas, upon which we sat down to create a polished end product. While working for RCA, it was nice to have film composing on the side as an additional activity. Certainly, these were busy years, but working on a soundtrack was always a joy.”
Towards the end of the 1960s, Reverberi’s film commissions were all the more welcome, as the artists he worked with as a producer – notably Lucio Dalla and a new protégé, Nicola Di Bari – somehow failed to catch the imagination of the record buying public. The sense of doom became all the more profound when one of Reverberi’s best friends, Luigi Tenco, committed suicide after his song ‘Ciao amore ciao’ was eliminated in the semi-final of the 1967 edition of the San Remo Festival.
“Luigi and I were incredibly close. Musically as well as personally speaking, we were always in perfect harmony. When what happened happened, I was devastated. This was a time when I ran into serious trouble… financial trouble. As a producer, I had spent enormous amounts of money on Dalla and Di Bari. My contract with RCA obliged me to pay all expenses for the artists I worked with from my own pocket. All the money I earned as a composer was poured into the bottomless pit. I had even borrowed serious money from RCA. How could I ever pay them back? Mr Celli, their Head of Sales, kept saying to me, “Why are you losing time on those two? They’re both so ugly. No girl would ever buy their records.” One night, I had a dream in which Luigi Tenco appeared to me. I told him I was in dire straits, but Luigi spoke soothing words to me. “Keep the faith, my friend,” he said. “You’ll see that everything will work out just fine.” In the following weeks, I was hoping for more encouraging messages from him, but there was nothing but silence. A month later, the San Remo Festival was due, where Nicola Di Bari sang ‘La prima cosa bella’ and I was going to conduct the orchestra for him…”
“Nicola was a guy with an excellent, very modern voice. The last time he had gone to San Remo, he was still produced by Ezio Leoni – and not a single copy of his song was sold. When he came to me, Nicola’s career as a singer was considered over and done with. I decided to start from scratch, changing just about everything; his clothes, his hairdo, his repertoire… a completely new image. When we took part in San Remo in 1970 with ‘La prima cosa bella’, the stakes were high; it was his last chance as a singer, and I badly needed to pay off the staggeringly high debts I had incurred with RCA. Backstage, the tension was palpable; in the three minutes before going on stage, Nicola and I each withdrew into the restroom three times! When I descended into the orchestra pit, I nearly stumbled. After having survived those first tense moments, the adrenalin took over and everything turned out well… better than we could have imagined. ‘La prima cosa bella’ finished second, and the record sold 1,750,000 copies. After the prize-winning ceremony, I gave the orchestra a tempo that was much too fast, but it didn’t really matter – the song was the best-selling record of the year in Italy. I managed to pay off all my debts before the year was out. Luigi had been right after all. He had lent a helping hand.”
From that moment on, Di Bari’s career took off in a huge way. In 1971, he won the San Remo Festival with ‘Il cuore è uno zingaro’ as well as the Canzonissima Festival with ‘Chitarra suona più piano’, while picking up first prize in San Remo for the second year running with ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’ in 1972 – and as the singer’s producer and conductor, Reverberi played a large part in the success. With Nicola Di Bari, who recorded all his (mostly self-written) songs in Spanish as well as in Italian, he travelled around the globe, touring Argentina and other parts of Latin America – and even Japan and Australia.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, Nicola Di Bari is one of the most important artists in my career. His bravura as a singer was unparalleled. Though he also recorded songs written by myself and other composers, he penned most of the tunes himself, while relying on others to write the lyrics. When we were in the studio to record a new song, he said “Show me the film!” This was his way of asking me to tell him a story which he could think of while singing the words. He wanted to get into the right mood. It may sound naïve, but it always worked well for him – and I found he was extremely good at evoking emotions. For some three years, everything he touched turned to gold. In the second half of the 1970s, when his success was on the wane, he was ditched by RCA. He signed a deal with another company, Carosello, but the magic was gone. He continued to be much in demand in South America for some time following. After his contract with RCA Italy ran out, I produced three more LPs in Spanish with him for the Latin American market.”
In the 1970s, Gianfranco Reverberi was the producer of Italian progressive rock group La Nuova Idea, while also teaming up with Romolo Forlai, Massimo Catalano, and scoring a considerable chart success with Alexander’s single release ‘Stardust’ (1974). As a songwriter, he wrote pieces for Ricchi & Poveri and, again, Mina. As a film composer, he wrote nine more soundtracks between 1970 and 1980, commissioned by Renato Polselli, Michele Massimo Tarantini, and others. In general, though, the late 1970s were not a good time for Reverberi.
“Towards the end of the decade, disco music arrived on the scene. I thought it was a highly interesting new genre, beautiful and very musical. I’m always keen to study new developments – change is a concept which I’ve always embraced whole-heartedly. Unfortunately, with disco, what I expected or hoped would happen, never came about… music itself turned out to be the ultimate loser, gradually being repressed, as it was, by repetitive, hypnotizing monotony which only pleases those who frequent discotheques. To me, the year 1980 marked the beginning of an inevitable decline. I had to run for cover. For decades, there had been three new big hits entering the charts every week, but in the 1980s there were some ten per year… if you were lucky. In the beginning, we expected to weather the storm by simply sitting on our hands and waiting for better times, but that storm has never blown over. The quality of music output decreased dramatically. Discotheques continued to attract youngsters, but for different reasons – music was no longer the protagonist – and record companies were in turmoil, at a loss how to respond to developments. Record sales plummeted, and the music publishers who loved music as well as being good businessmen simply weren’t there any longer.”
Finally, in 1982, after nearly twenty years, Gianfranco Reverberi decided to quit RCA. “If I had stayed much longer, a debacle would have been unavoidable. As a good mouse (or rat, in the English expression – BT), I managed to abandon the sinking ship in time. From that time on, I have dedicated myself to other experiences… still musical experiences, of course. As a 47-year-old, I certainly didn’t retire, but I wanted to get away from the recording business. I just no longer recognised myself in that world. It was an inevitable choice for someone who, for decades, had been used to thinking in terms of record sales in millions; I had to change course, and radically so.”
In the 1980s and early 1990s, often working in partnership with fellow composer and arranger Italo ‘Lilli’ Greco, Gianfranco Reverberi continued writing and producing soundtracks for films and background music for television. “Meanwhile, I had built myself a studio from which I have worked ever since,” Reverberi comments. “With Greco, I was commissioned to produce music for important film directors like Lina Wertmüller and Gigi Magni. Greco was a very sensitive musician and I was glad to have him by my side. All too often, I allowed myself to be taken over by my own enthusiasm, following the music and thereby disregarding the tastes of the directors. Besides, although I sometimes force myself to think of sad events, the character of my music is usually ‘sunny’. It once happened to me that I had invited a director to listen to the music I had written to accompany a grim scene in his film – and while we were both listening intensely, he exclaimed, “Yes, wonderful, but when I close my eyes, I’m not seeing the film – I see the sea!” For that reason, it was good to work with Greco, because his experience was always fundamental and his criticism of my work essential.”
After leaving RCA, Gianfranco Reverberi more or less withdrew from working in popular music, although he produced a handful of albums for old friends in the industry, such as Joe Sentieri (‘Sentieri’, 1983) and Carmen Villani (‘Anima’, 1984). In 1987, Reverberi released his first and only solo album, ‘Mare (Sea for Meditation)’, which contains a series of compositions of ambient music, mostly written by Reverberi himself. “I was commissioned to produce an album of atmospheric music by a small record company in Germany. Being from Genoa, I imagined a night of love on the beach… hence the subtitle of the album, ‘From Dusk to Dawn’. It was released internationally in several other European countries, including Great Britain.”
In the course of the 1980s, Reverberi’s attention was increasingly drawn to a genre he had not worked on up to that point; musical theatre. “In those days, the revenues obtained from films in Italy were decreasing ever further. There was little point in continuing much longer when the financial rewards were next to nothing. I decided I wanted to stop waiting for commissions from others – I finally wanted to do something I really liked myself. When working on something which has been commissioned, you try to accomplish it in the best possible way – but I was looking for the emotion of producing a work which was entirely my own. I no longer wanted to please record bosses or film directors… I didn’t want to think of anybody else. At that point, I decided to dedicate myself to my first love, musical theatre. When I was an adolescent, in the years following the war, I used to take my friends Bruno Lauzi and Luigi Tenco along to the Cinema Aurora, where we watched musical films from America. Lauzi, who spoke good English, learnt the lyrics by heart – and when we got home, we would play the songs ourselves. Now, forty years later, I wanted to spend time and energy in creating musicals myself.”
Between 1984 and 2020, Gianfranco Reverberi created a staggering repertoire of five musicals, eight mini musicals, two operas, and one rock opera. Of these, only the ‘quasi opera’ ‘Nick’, dealing with the life and works of Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini, was ever performed. “The work premiered in the Sala Maestrale in the Port of Genoa in November 2020 in the form of a concert, conducted by Michele Trenti. The audience was enthusiastic; at the end, they applauded the performance for over ten minutes! Unfortunately, this one concert was the end of the story for me and my old friend Giorgio Calabrese, who had written the words, because we never found a producer willing to invest in a staged version of the work.”
In 2006, Gianfranco Reverberi suddenly found himself at the top of music charts all over the world, when ‘Nel cimetero di Tucson’, a melody he had written for the 1968 Spaghetti Western ‘Preparati la bara (Django, Prepare a Coffin)’, was discovered by American soul duo Gnarls Barkley and turned into ‘Crazy’. The single won a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance in 2007.
“That was a wonderful surprise,” Reverberi smiles, “and an incredible stroke of luck, but you need a dose of good luck to get by in life! My brother Giampiero and I had written this soundtrack together at the end of the 1960s… and then, nearly forty years after, someone in Los Angeles called Brian Joseph Burton, half of the Gnarls Barkley duo, was browsing through soundtracks of old western movies. He was a fan of the genre. He stumbled upon our score to ‘Preparati la bara’, fell in love with this one piece – and then the two of them wrote lyrics to it and added a modern beat, while keeping Giampiero’s original arrangement almost intact. The initial idea for this particular melody had been mine, but my brother and I shared the composing rights. ‘Crazy’ was a number one record virtually all over the world – it sold platinum in the United States and was the best-selling record over a period of five years in Britain. Suddenly, I was invited to come to Los Angeles and London for award ceremonies where I was received as a king because of that one melody written all those years ago. It was incredible!”
In 2017, Gianfranco Reverberi published his memoirs under the title ‘La testa nel secchio’, in which he looks back on a prolific career – with nearly 1,500 original compositions to his credit. Meanwhile, he continues working on his musical theatre projects. “I don’t care that I’ve never found a producer to bring them to the stage – to me, it’s enough composing them and listening to the demo recordings with my friends. Our main goal is to have a good time together during the creative process. If I don’t live to see them performed, my grandchildren will have the honour I suppose! After all those years, I’m still enthusiastic about music, classical, jazz, pop, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t imagine what a sad place the world would be without it. To me, music is a way of life. If I had the opportunity to lead my life again, I wouldn’t change a thing… even the bad things, because if you took them out, you risk losing the positive which resulted in the end.”
Gianfranco Reverberi in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1971, Canzonissima was won by singer-songwriter Nicola Di Bari with ‘Chitarra suona più piano’, automatically making him his country’s choice for Eurovision. Mere months later, however, Di Bari also won the San Remo Festival with ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’. As there was only a lapse of four weeks between ‘San Remo’ and Eurovision in 1972, there were no issues with the song’s release date – and therefore, ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’ became Di Bari’s Eurovision entry. This song is the only San Remo winner representing Italy in Eurovision between 1966 and 1997.
The music to ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’, a gentle ballad about an adolescent girl losing her virginity (lyrics by poet Dalmazio Masini), was written by Nicola Di Bari with guitarist Piero Pintucci, who also wrote the studio arrangement to the song. At San Remo, however, Pintucci, in spite of conducting the entries of several other artists in the festival (including Domenico Modugno and Gianni Morandi), ceded his place on the conductor’s platform to Di Bari’s producer, Gianfranco Reverberi.
“Pintucci was on stage playing the guitar for our song,” Reverberi explains, “and he obviously couldn’t conduct and play simultaneously. He was one of two guitarists backing up Nicola, the other one being Silvano Chimenti, an excellent musician who did a lot of television work (he was also the guitarist in Bruno Canfora’s orchestra for the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest in Rome – BT). Still, even if he hadn’t been on stage, I would have conducted the song in San Remo. As Nicola’s producer, I had been his musical director in concerts around the world for some years now. We were inseparable. There was a bond of mutual trust, which had grown over the years. I had conducted Nicola’s two previous participations in San Remo as well. Moreover, I had slightly adapted Piero’s arrangement for the live version.”
The victory at San Remo took Di Bari’s record company RCA by complete surprise, as Reverberi recalls. “Nicola had won so many laurels in the preceding years that it seemed unimaginable he would win again. We were second in San Remo in 1970 with ‘La prima cosa bella’, which became the best-selling record of that year, then won the festival in 1971 with ‘Il cuore è uno zingaro’, followed by Canzonissima… and then came this back-to-back victory in San Remo to top it off. It was incredible, four successes in a timeframe of just two years. Nobody – and least of all those at RCA – had been expecting all those triumphs. For the 1972 San Remo Festival, they spent next to nothing on us in terms of promotion, instead putting all their cards on a victory of Gianni Morandi. When the results were announced, with a huge public vote in favour of Nicola, all of RCA’s staff took part in a large dinner, not to honour us, but to cheer up Gianni. After the show, Nicola, his wife, my wife and I went down to a little pizzeria to quietly toast to our win. It was just the four of us.”
In the days and weeks leading up to the 1972 San Remo Festival, there had been quite some discussion about the rather daring lyrics of the song – and eventually for the festival, the most specific allusions to an under-age child engaging in sexual activity were edited out. Combined with the understated arrangement, it really was a stand-out entry. “Perhaps, it wasn’t a typical San Remo song,” reflects Reverberi, “but, as Nicola’s producer, I thought it would be perfectly suited to his style of singing and his image as a singer-songwriter. Nicola mostly sang his own compositions, but I always had the last word on which songs were to be included on his albums. When I felt his own creations weren’t good enough, I asked other authors – and, over the years, I also wrote a song or two for him myself. In those years, it seemed to matter little what Nicola put on his repertoire… everything he touched turned to gold. The guy had an incredible voice – very modern for those days. Before he had his first success in Italy with ‘La prima cosa bella’, he had already been hugely popular with audiences in South America, especially in Argentina. Nicola spoke perfect Spanish and recorded all of his songs in that language, which helped him winning the hearts of people there.”
Once it was clear that ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’ was going to be the Italian entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Reverberi had to abridge the arrangement he had used in San Remo, which exceeded the time limit allowed in Eurovision – three minutes – by some thirty seconds. In Edinburgh, the short instrumental break in the San Remo version towards the end of the song, as well as the last two lines in the lyrics, had been cut off. “Oh, really?” Reverberi reacts. “Honestly, I don’t have any recollection of that. All of this took place nearly fifty years ago, you know! Nicola and I travelled to Edinburgh with some officials of RAI Television, but there was nobody from RCA to accompany us. The Eurofestival wasn’t an event which drew much attention from Italian media or public. Our participation was a low key affair, but we knew the contest was extremely popular in just about all of the rest of Europe. It was interesting to have Nicola perform for such a large audience. There had been little discussion about the song. As far as I remember, no other title was ever considered. After we had won San Remo, we would perform ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’ in Eurovision too.”
“Nicola and I never felt any pressure about doing Eurovision. We had won so many trophies in Italy. As far as we were concerned, we already were the winners. We saw the Eurovision Song Contest as an opportunity to have fun and to see how far we would get. Really, we had nothing to lose. Personally, I was convinced we wouldn’t win it. Our song wasn’t written with Northern European musical taste in mind. I don’t say that it was too good for Eurovision – far from it, because I remember there were many good entries in Edinburgh – but the sound wasn’t international enough. Nicola had found his audience in Italy and Southern America. He had the vocal qualities required of an international artist, but I don’t think ‘I giorni dell’arcobaleno’ could have blown away an English-speaking audience the way it had done in San Remo. In the Eurovision Song Contest, different types of music were successful than those in San Remo. I don’t think Nicola could have come close to winning the Eurofestival with any of his other Italian hits of those years either.”
“The orchestra put at our disposal by the BBC was fantastic, in one word. I had always held English musicians in high esteem, and the rehearsals in Scotland confirmed my belief in that. These guys could play anything to perfection. I don’t speak English, but there was no need to make any adjustment. Of course, I wasn’t a natural-born conductor. At the San Remo Festival, I only conducted the entries performed by Nicola Di Bari. On all other occasions when I was involved as a producer or songwriter, someone else wrote the arrangement and conducted the orchestra… my younger brother Giampiero, in most cases. He had studied conducting at the music academy. Later on in his career, he conducted symphony orchestras, something I never aspired to.”
“In a way, Giampiero taught me the basics of conducting – the things you needed to know to get by in the recording studio, leading a group of session musicians. He never gave me any formal lessons, but I often watched him at work conducting an orchestra – as well as other studio arrangers. By the second half of the 1960s, when I toured the world with Michele, Nicola Di Bari, and Lucio Dalla, I had become quite experienced at conducting orchestras. Conducting light-entertainment music isn’t really that complicated, to be honest. It’s about knowing how to read and write music scores, about knowing the range and sound of each instrument… in other words, in musical terms, it’s mostly about having acquired a certain level of cultura.”
In the voting, the Italian song did reasonably well, finishing in sixth position in a field of eighteen participating entries. “It was a good result,” Reverberi comments. “To me, the experience had been a very interesting one. I had never before conducted an orchestra of English musicians. For Nicola, Eurovision could have been more than just interesting, if only he had been willing to learn English. The festival could have been the springboard to a worldwide breakthrough. The guy had everything needed to succeed at that, except for one element; he didn’t speak English and he was too lazy to learn the language. In the countries of Northern Europe, the Italian language is usually a barrier for artists trying to achieve success, with the possible exception of Germany. In England, songs in Italian simply don’t work. When you want to succeed in Europe or worldwide, being able to sing in the English language is a requirement.”
Although Di Bari and Reverberi had planned to fly back to Italy right after the Eurovision Song Contest, they eventually stayed in Great Britain for one more week. “While we were at the festival in Edinburgh, Nicola and I were approached by a very nice gentleman, an italo-inglese, a British citizen with Italian roots who was a big fan of Nicola’s music. As it turned out, he was the owner of a chain of hotels in Britain. With extreme kindness, he invited to take the two of us on a tour across Scotland and the northern half of England as his guests. On a trip which lasted some five or six days, he showed us around the country. One of the destinations was the forest of Robin Hood. In the evenings, we stayed in one of his hotels – each night in a different one – and, each night, Nicola gave a little concert for the other guests, performing several of his songs accompanied by me at the piano. Of course, the majority of the audiences for whom he sang were English and spoke no word of Italian, but with his voice and stage presence, Nicola had them eating out of his hand. Seeing that, I was all the more convinced that this guy had everything needed to make il giro del mondo… but then, I repeat myself, Nicola lacked the motivation to learn English, so it stopped there and then.”
After his participations in the San Remo Festival with Nicola Di Bari, the last one being in 1974, Gianfranco Reverberi never returned to the contest. “I could no longer be bothered to take part really. Roughly from the time the festival moved from San Remo’s Casino to the Ariston Theatre (in 1977 – BT), it stopped being a music festival. In my time, everyone participating in San Remo was virtually assured of having a hit, even the one who came last. From the second half of the 1970s on, record sales in Italy dropped dramatically – and music festivals, not only San Remo but others as well, existed on the grace of record companies submitting their artists and their songs to a competition. There’s no longer money to be made from the record industry in this country. As a result, most song festivals have disappeared. The San Remo Festival is still there, but nobody in Italy remembers any of the songs – even the winning songs – of the last twenty years. The music really only exists on the sideline. More importance seems to be attached to the way the girls hosting the show are dressed! The programme doesn’t stand out as it used to. If you ask me, it has become a run-of-the-mill Saturday night entertainment show. I for one have stopped watching. The only reason it still exists is because it fills up the cash till of the organisers.”
When asked if he feels the same about the Eurovision Song Contest, Reverberi, surprisingly perhaps, refutes. “Well, the Eurofestival is something different. You see, at San Remo, originality is lacking almost completely. Italian music seems to have been watered down to a point where the landscape consists of little more than rip-offs of songs from Britain or the United States – frankly the only two countries nowadays which occasionally produce worldwide chart successes. The Eurovision Song Contest has a more international outlook than San Remo. It’s interesting to follow what songwriters from others parts of the world come up with. Occasionally, the Eurovision stage produces an international hit. On the downside, it’s regrettable that the orchestra no longer has a place in Eurovision. An orchestra is very important in creating an atmosphere in which music can bring about emotions. Without an orchestra, the living element, or the human factor if you like, is missing. Still, I would prefer watching the Eurovision Song Contest any day over San Remo!”
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