Greetings from the 2023 Mark Steyn Cruise currently sailing the Adriatic with so many old friends. We embarked from Italy, so I thought we'd have an Italian song - and this is the biggest Italian song of the last seventy years:
We begin one hot summer Sunday in 1957, in an apartment on the Via Vittoria in Rome. A proverbial struggling actor called Franco Migliacci is waiting for a friend - the one with a motor car - to swing by and drive them to Fregene for a day at the beach. He's got out the towel, the swimming trunks, and a bottle of wine: He's ready to go. But the pal never shows, and after waiting an hour or two an irked Franco grabs the Chianti, pours a glass and then another, drains the bottle, and dozes off. He dreams vividly, and when he awakes it's late afternoon and he finds himself staring dead ahead at two prints hanging on the wall - because, as well as a taste for experimental theatre, he also enjoys the visual arts, especially Marc Chagall. So he's hung a couple of Chagall prints in his flat: Le coq rouge and Le peintre et la modèle.
And in his alcoholic haze he blinks at Le coq rouge - the red rooster - where above the eponymous poultry is a topless woman and a man painted yellow and apparently suspended in air (a recurring Chagall motif). And then he blinks at Le peintre et la modèle - the painter and the model - where the latter is again topless and the former is represented by a looming head with half his face smeared blue. And, whereas after a bottle of Chianti it would be the topless birds most of us lads would focus on, for young Franco Migliacci it's the chap in the air above the rooster, and the blue face above the model. And, while still half asleep, a fragment of verse pops into his head:
Di blu mi sono dipinto
Di blu mi sono vestito
Per intonarmi al cielo
Lassù nel firmamento
Volare verso il sole
E volare, volare felice più in alto del sole
E ancora più su nel blu dipinto di blu...
Which means more or less:
In blue I painted myself
In blue I dressed myself
To sing to heaven
Up there in the firmament
To fly to the sun
And fly and fly happy and higher than the sun
And even higher in the blue painted blue...
Franco had never in his life written a poem or a verse, or had any particular desire to: He was an actor and illustrator, not a words man. But his friend - the one with the car, the one who was supposed to take him to the beach - had been saying to him for months, "Why don't you try writing a song lyric?" So he came out of his stupor and he stood up and wandered about and and pottered hither and yon, and he still liked the idea, so he worked on it and polished it:
Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più
Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu
Poi d'improvviso venivo dal vento rapito
Eincominciavo a volare nel cielo infinito...
And, if you've never spoken and don't know a word of Italian but you've heard a zillion singers from Dean Martin to David Bowie, then you'll know those lines. Here's Dino putting a little spin on them before launching into another of his Italiano blockbusters:
"Volare" is the most successful Italian song of the last hundred years and indeed (excepting only "O Sole Mio") of all time. Which is impressive because those lines of Franco Migliacci would have been run-of-the-mill psychedelic pop if written a decade later but for 1957 were pretty (as we used to say) far out. They translate as:
I think a dream like that will never return
I painted my hands and my face blue
Then suddenly I was kidnapped by the wind
And began to fly in the infinite sky...
Er, okay. Franco titled his song "Sogno in blu" - or "Dream in blue", which is what it was, literally. The chum who'd encouraged him to take a shot at writing lyrics was Domenico "Mimmo" Modugno, another struggling actor but one who also sang and played a little guitar and had recorded a few songs without success. He'd skipped out on Franco to spend the day with his girlfriend (and later wife), a somewhat less struggling thespian called Franca Gandolfi. But eventually Mimmo made it back to town and they met up that night in a café in the Piazza del Popolo, which was rivaled only by the haunts of the Via Veneto (as immortalized in Fellini's La dolce vita) as the coolest hangout for would-be artists. And Mimmo liked what his friend had written. So, as summer turned to autumn, they worked on it, and, as is the way, the song started to evolve. After the intro - the bit about painting your face blue - the main strain proceeded:
Nel blu dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu'
E volavo volavo felice piu' in alto del sole ed ancora piu' su
Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiu'
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me...
"Nel blu dipinto di blu" - in the blue painted blue - gave Mimmo and Franco the title. The rest means:
I was happy to be up there
And I flew happy flying higher than the sun and even higher
As the world slowly vanished away below me
A sweet music just sounded for me...
Franco Migliacci, Mimmo Modugno,and Franca Gandolfi were in "a sort of a musical" in Bologna with a rather distinguished cast, including Roldano Lupi and Elsa Vazzoler. And backstage Migliacci and Modugno would entertain their colleagues with the little song they'd written, and their friends liked it ...but they didn't love it. And Modugno understood that. One night, he was back home with Franca, the wind was howling and suddenly it tore open the shutters, as if about to enact Migliacci's verse and sweep them up to the sky - and the missing piece of the puzzle fell into place. Modugno went to the piano. He was the song's composer, but he didn't need his lyricist for this bit - just two words and a vowel sound:
He immediately called over Franco Migliacci, and declared: "The song is finished":
Signor Modugno was right. Without those two words, the number wouldn't have made it. It would have stayed something people quite liked, just another canzone of a provincial pop scene lost in the enormous shadow of American rock'n'roll. Modugno had set the existing part of the number very expertly, with lots of nice diminished chords. But the Italian musical habit of word-contraction can make a lot of their songs sound a little word-heavy to anglo ears: You want a moment where the thing just opens up and soars with clean vowels and nothing to get in the way. So the section above is what English popsters would call the "hook" - or what Rodgers & Hammerstein, in another context, expressed more lyrically: "On a bright cloud of music, shall we fly?" Signor Migliacci had written a surreal, poetic text about a man painted blue who flies up in the blue. But in a song you don't want merely to describe it, you want to show it, to feel it, to fly on a bright cloud of music. That's what happened on that dark and stormy night when Domenico Modugno's shutters flew open: The song leapt through the window and up into the sky to take flight and thereby illustrate the exhilaration the rest of the words explain. Do you really need to know that "volare" and "cantare" mean to fly and sing? I don't think so, and nor did my old pal Mitchell Parish when he came eventually to write the English lyric. He left those words untranslated, as all the Italian you'll need:
"If every time a song is born we can speak of a small miracle of human ingenuity," wrote the Italian columnist Gino Castaldo, "then the case of 'Volare' is an authentic prodigy, born from a concatenation of events that is unbelievable. The gestation was long and not very easy, in spite of what it shows - that is, its irresistible naturalness, the grace that seems to have arrived like an epiphany." Which is a lot of fancy talk, but not at all wrong.
Not everyone got it. Modugno and Migliacci's publisher decided to enter "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (as it was still called) in Italy's most prestigious song competition, the Sanremo Music Festival (if you're wondering, it was "San Remo" under the Kingdom of Italy, but, since they put the kibosh on Victor Emmanuel, it's been officially "Sanremo"). The panel drawing up the shortlist weren't impressed and initially rejected it before reconsidering and letting it scrape into the twenty final songs.On January 31st 1958, the first night of the competition, it fell to Johnny Dorelli to introduce "In the Blue Painted Blue" to the world. He was twenty years old and had already had his first hit, but he was extremely nervous and didn't want to go on stage, and Modugno had to slap him around a bit just to get him to walk out there. Whether it was the nerves or because he resented being slugged in the kisser, he gave a somewhat subdued performance, and the song didn't make much of an impression. Here's a fragment of that reading. In fairness to Signor Dorelli, the video has his mouth and his voice out of sync - which they were not, in fact, on the actual night:
It was, of all things, a lawyer, Signor Caiafa, one of the festival organizers, who told Modugno, "Only you can sing this song." So the following night, the grand finale, the composer sang it himself. Domenico Modugno was at the dawn of a spectacular showbiz career culminating, in the way of Italians, with a couple of years as a senator. In my memory, he's one of the cool Italians rather than the excitable ones: He had a pencil moustache and could look enigmatic just drawing thoughtfully on a cigarette. But on February 1st 1958 he pulled all the stops out. For its entire history, the Sanremo performers had delivered their songs somewhat undemonstratively with their arms hanging at their sides. Modugno instead began the number by performing with his hands as much as his voice and, upon reaching that key hook, thew his arms open as if reaching to the very heavens to volare e cantare among the stars:
The second-night response was so enthusiastic that the crew had to instruct the audience to dial it back because the microphones were picking up so much foot-tapping it was drowning out the song.
Modugno and Migliacci's publisher, Gramitto Ricci, had made a bet with his writers: "If you win," he told them, "I'll walk naked through the hotel." So he did, and not in that hurried, perfunctory way most chaps would do after losing such a wager - a brisk trot across the lobby - but leisurely and with a spring in his gait, sauntering unhurriedly to every nook and cranny of the establishment. He reprised his naked tour of the premises for each of their winning songs for the best part of the next decade, notwithstanding that he could certainly afford Italian suits: by the morning of February 2nd, the international publishers were already calling him for the French, German, UK and US rights.
After winning Sanremo, "Nel blu dipinto di blu" was immediately selected as Italy's entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. And so, not quite six weeks later, Modugno and Migliacci found themselves in Hilversum, in the Netherlands, introducing their Chagallian reverie to the rest of the Continent. This time their soaring musical flight nose-dived into a North Sea dyke. "Nel blu..." blew it, coming a distant third, just ahead of fourth-placed Sweden with "Lilla stjärna", or "Little star" - whose star has only got littler in the years since. "Volare"'s cause was not helped by a GB News Master Control Room-esque technical fiasco:
In second place were the Swiss with "Giorgio" and in the top spot was France with "Dors, mon amour", or "Sleep, my love" - which it has, lo, these near seven decades:
But, after the big night, something unique happened. "Nel bu dipinto di blu" tickled American ears as no Eurovision song before or since has ever done - not Lulu, not Abba, not Olivia Newton-John, Cliff Richard, Céline Dion... The publishers hired Mitchell Parish for an English lyric, and Mitch got to work. His career went back three decades to "Stardust" and "Stars Fell on Alabama", "Deep Purple" and "Sophisticated Lady". I have forgotten, if I ever knew, his taste in visual art - he put Currier & Ives into his lyric for Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" - but if he was the kind of hep cat who digs Marc Chagall he was certainly keeping quiet about it:
We can sing in the glow of
A star that I know of
Where lovers enjoy peace of mind
Let us leave the confusion
And all disillusion
Just like bird of a feather
A rainbow together
In other words, he took a rather wacky song with a daffy conceit and gave it an entirely conventional pop lyric. Yet Mitchell Parish was not without his cultured side. I once arrived at his apartment on a sweltering day in New York and, seeing my clammy discomfort, he offered to get me a glass of ice-cold water. And off he went to run the faucet, for what felt like ages and ages and ages, because whatever was sitting in the pipes had evidently warmed up. (This was in the long-ago era before bottled water when even wealthy and successful persons drunk from taps, believe it or not.) And so I grew restless and prowled the bookcases. Mitch had a lot of novels, which he filed alphabetically in two separate sections: the first were just novels he'd read and enjoyed, the second were novels that quoted his songs, which was a remarkably extensive and impressive collection. In the former section, however, I chanced to see Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, which gave me a giggle. Because, although Thomas Hardy wrote it a quarter-century before Mitchell Parish was born and so was unable to quote "Sophisticated Lady" or "Moonlight Serenade", Mitchell Parish kinda sorta quoted Thomas Hardy in his lyric for "Volare":
Let's fly way up to the clouds
Away from the maddening crowds...
Actually Thomas Hardy's novel was itself quoting Gray's Elegy from 1751:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife...
Thomas Gray meant "madding" in the sense of frenzied; Mitchell Parish means "maddening" as in irritating, as in the familiar lyric plaint of desiring to get away from it all. Dean Martin made a fine bilingual record - half Parish, half Franco Migliacci - and it got to Number Two in Britain. The McGuire Sisters made a splendid drum-rolling version with the semi-rock'n'roll semi-quavers somewhat oomphed up from the original: it's one of my favorite English-language recordings, although it only got to Number Eighty on the Billboard Hot One Hundred:
And thus "Nel blu dipinto di blu" was on its way to worldwide success as "Volare". I believe it's the only foreign song to be translated into English and given another foreign title. Because, really, what English word would you put in place of "Volare"?
That's not entirely a rhetorical question. The first English lyric to the song was by the beloved British entertainer, Rochdale's own Gracie Fields. By the Fifties, Gracie was not in Rochdale but in a beautiful home on the isle of Capri, called La canzone del Mare (the song of the sea). When she heard "Volare" (I've been told she was watching the Sanremo broadcast that night), she immediately translated it as:
I love you!
I love you!
Honest and true...
Which is about as pedestrian a lyric as one could conceive. Nevertheless, she sang it to her audiences for the rest of her life, concluding with a personal touch:
A beautiful home by the sea
You've all helped to build it for me
For without you where would I be?
Most certainly not in Capri.
Very true. Are there any other songs sung by both Dame Gracie and David Bowie?
With all respect to Gracie Fields, I think Mitchell Parish was wise to leave the irresistible hook of "Volare... Cantare..." in the original Italian. Yet, notwithstanding his perfectly professional job on the English lyric, what always cheers me is that the record that hit Number One in America exactly six decades ago - for almost the entirety of September 1958 - was the exact same version Italy fell in love with six months earlier - by its composer, Mimmi Modugno, sung entirely in Italian, and under its original title, "Nel blu dipinto di blu", which the record label helpfully parenthesised phonetically as "Nell-blue dee-peento de blue".
I've written before that, for all the incessant blather about multiculturalism, ours is pop-wise a boringly unicultural age: There have been times when it was possible for French and German and even African tunes to make the American hit parade while retaining all kinds of foreign phrases. Yet even so there's never been anything like "Volare". Signor Modugno was only the fourth non-American vocalist to get to Number One in the history of the American charts - after England's forces' sweetheart Vera Lynn ("Auf Wiederseh'n") and two Canuck acts (the Crew-Cuts with "Sh' Boom" and Paul Anka with "Diana") - and he was the first non-English-singing act, a feat not repeated until the Swedish group, Ace of Base, hit Number One in 1994. 1958 was the year the Billboard Top 50 expanded to the full Hot One Hundred, and Modugno was there on the very first week at hit sound #54. Seven days later he was at Number Two, which six decades on remains the biggest ever leap into the Top Two. A week later he toppled Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool", the first ever Number One on the new chart, to become the second Number One of the Hot One Hundred era:
Even more impressive, at the end of December 1958 "Nel blu dipinto di blu" was the bestselling record of the year, which no foreign-language singer has done before or since. The following spring the very first Grammy Awards were held at the Beverly Hilton, and "Nel blu..." won both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, which again no foreign-language song or record has done in the sixty years since.
Lightning never struck twice for Signor Modugno or Signor Migliacci, but, when you've written the most successful Italian song since "O Sole Mio", it doesn't need to. Domenico Modugno had a terrific career and died too young. Franco Migliacci was the less stellar half of the partnership, but "Volare" gave him the freedom to live the life he wanted, including an acting role in which he got to make love to Sophia Loren and many songs and several musicals and radio plays and children's illustrations and a little of this and a little of that, and a full life as a jack of all trades and master of a fair few of them that continues to this day.
Back in the Nineties, I chanced to catch the Eurovision Song Contest on TV and, to add some behind-the-scenes tension, the gimmick that year was that they were teaching the contestants to sing in their rivals' languages, which is a bit pointless given that most of the boffo Eurovision winners are written in authentic Eurogibberish: "La-La-La", "Boom-Bang-A-Bang", "Ding-A-Dong", "A-Ba-Ni-Bi", "Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley"... Ja ja, boogie, bébé, mit der rock e roll, etc. But at any rate the Eurobigwigs filmed scenes of the Finns learning to sing in Portuguese and the Portuguese learning to sing in Romanian and the Romanians learning to sing in Estonian, etc. And so somebody or other - whether Belgian, Turk or Latvian, I forget - was taught how to sing in Italian:
"Repeat after me: Volare."
"Oh ...I'm sorry, what was the next word?"
And I happened to be on air the following day with the colossus of Brit telly this past half-century, the legendary Michael Parkinson, a peerless interviewer and a man who did more than anyone for great conversation and live music through all his years at the Beeb. And I said to Parky how ridiculous this exercise was, because if there's two words in Italian everyone on the planet knows how to sing it's "volare" and "cantare". And we reenacted the grueling training session with me as the Italiano Professor Higgins and Michael as the Slovene or Slovak Eliza. Which slightly spoiled the song for me for a few months, because, whenever I thought of "Volare", I heard it in Parky's distinctive Yorkshire vowels.
If you don't care for it in Yorkshire, well, you don't want for alternatives. Is it really necessary to list who's done "Volare" since that night in Sanremo? Oscar Peterson and Frank Zappa, the Gypsy Kings and the King's Singers, Luciano Pavarotti and Barry White:
And it all began one summer Sunday with a bottle of Chianti and a couple of Chagalls. We have touched often in this department on the blues, whose musical etymology derives from alcohol-fueled depression. But no one has produced a more literal blues, about a man painted blue soaring way up into the blue.
It remains the only Eurovision entrant that's ever mattered a jot or tittle in America, even though it was a big Euroloser. In 2005, to mark the competition's demi-centennial, two-and-a-half million Continentals voted in a poll to pick the all-time greatest Eurovision song. "Nel blu dipinto di blu", the third-place flopperoo from nearly five decades earlier, beat 49 Eurovision winners to become the all-time Eurochamp ...almost: it was just pipped to the top by the song that introduced Abba to Britain and Europe, "Waterloo". Picking up the award, one half of the Abba blokes (and of a truly great songwriting team) Benny said: "I voted for 'Volare'."
I would have done the same.
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