The talent and gallant enthusiasm of Domenico Modugno

The talent and gallant enthusiasm of Domenico Modugno

But what a monument of Italian song. Domenico Modugno was the acrobat, the pioneer of the air, the elusive rocket, rooted in the earth and projected upwards, until it became asteroid 6598. It was both memory and vision, theatrical body and sound: onomatopoeic, of a alarm clock, of a harpoon, or melodic, dramatic, ironic. He was talented and gallant, a trailblazer who broke away from the bonds of provincialism to show other mental spaces. It is no coincidence that the collection that aims to make the new generations discover it is entitled “Come in a midsummer dream” (if the tributes from Negramaro and Ermal Meta were not enough), in every format: digital, double LP, double CD ( with Spanish versions of the most famous songs ever published in Italy). Mimmo had dreams with his eyes open, when he worked as a grape weigher, waiter, porter, tire dealer, when he asked for a bed and a ration at the convent of the Camaldolese friars, and knocked on the doors of Cinecittà, waiting to become what he was : an actor, singer, author, musician, with an extraordinary communicative power. So much hunger and so much fame. Abroad they still believe that “Volare” is the Italian national anthem. This 2024 is full of bad anniversaries concerning him (forty years since his stroke, thirty since his death). We relive the beautiful anniversaries with his son Massimo.

Seventy years ago, Modugno's recording debut. Songs such as “Lu piscespada” and “Lu minaturi” date back to 1954. Did he approve what we now call folk?

«They were songs in strict Brindisi that some mistook for Sicilian. He was looking for a new, different, more vital language than what he heard around, and, yes, at the time it wasn't so obvious to bring the dialect on a national scale. He recognized this nobility in the dialects and his name began to circulate first among intellectuals.”

He was inspired by the voices of the people, by that Arab way of calling from under the windows.

«As a child he had fallen in love with that type of singing, listening to the salt sellers, the fishermen, and above all the carters at dawn. He was obsessed with carts, he collected them. He left Puglia to seek his fortune in Turin, in Rome, but he took his roots with him in his luggage.”

Do you agree with those who define him as the first Italian singer-songwriter?

“Certain. First of all, in 1958 it was strange for an author to interpret his own piece. He was almost forced to do it, because “Nel blu dipinto di blu” was proposed to all the singers and rejected by all. Then he wasn't a traditional singer, he didn't aim for warbles and high notes. It was disruptive. Furthermore, at the time the lyrics spoke of mothers and flowers, but instead he and Franco Migliacci ventured the image of a flight, complete with wide open arms, not the usual plastered posture. It was a long-prepared performance.”

Did you know it was an important gesture?

«He was aware of everything, from composition to exposition. In that case, he embodied the trust in Italy that he was rediscovering after the Second World War.”

Finally we could look at the blue sky again, without fear of the bombs.

«And in fact the record was blue, the first colored vinyl in history. Among other things, Italy had not qualified for the World Cup, he redeemed it by taking it to the top of the world.”

Sixty-five years ago, the victory of two Grammys, for best recording of the year and song of the year. Frank Sinatra was the favorite. Was it true that they were rivals?

«No, for two reasons. The first is that for true artists the competition is with themselves, not with others. The second is that Sinatra had already heard Modugno singing a Sicilian lullaby years earlier and was struck by it. When he found it again at the Grammys, he was happy that it was him, an Italian, who won.”

An Italian who also sang in Italian, not in English.

«Exactly, even more precious. Dad absolutely wanted to succeed in his language, which was so varied and musical. He reached everywhere even though he was unknown to many. When I read Bob Dylan's “Philosophy of Modern Song”, I was moved. He dedicated many pages to Modugno, just talking about the feeling it caused him despite not understanding a word, and how well Italian sounded (“with its vowels like toffee and the melodious polysyllabic vocabulary” ed.). Dylan, in those years, fully experienced the American delirium of “Volare”.

America went crazy. Decca certified that the song ended the recession in record sales.

«It sold so much that the label didn't have time to reissue it. Sixty thousand copies a day: they printed it even without a cover. He was first on “Billboard” for many weeks, a guest on the “Carson Tonight Show,” which was like the modern “David Letterman Show” or “Saturday Night Live.” Dad told me that he understood the extent of his success when he saw a Native American repeatedly putting tokens into the jukebox to hear “Volare”.

In the United States he also met Elvis.

«At that moment Modugno was a God, and Elvis treated him as an equal. A few years later Presley called him to ask if he could change the words to the song “Io”, which in 1964 became “Ask me”.

Also in 1959 he won the Sanremo Festival again, with “Piove (Ciao ciao babe)”, which went to Eurovision. It is one of the songs translated into Spanish.

«”It's raining” had not yet arrived in Venezuela and yet the radios were already playing it and at the airport he found a crowd of admirers. South America loved it. “Dios, como te amo” (“God, how I love you”, which won Sanremo '66 ed.) remained in the charts for sixteen years».

Another anniversary: ​​50 years ago Modugno won the first edition of the Tenco Prize. Luigi Tenco loved his father's songs. Did they know each other?

“I do not think. I know that dad and Riccardo Pazzaglia wrote “Meraviglioso” and presented it in Sanremo the year after Tenco's suicide. She was discarded. It was a hymn to life but mentioned a man who intended to take his own life, so the commission deemed it inappropriate. She would have easily won.”

There were many complaints. I think of “Un calcio alla città”, read as an invitation to absenteeism, “Lazzarella” and “Vecchio frack”, which annoyed the moralists.

«And more scandals for “Libero”, “Stata cu 'mme”. He was always transgressive. I don't think he suffered much from censorship. He simply changed a few verses and shortly after sang them the way he wanted.”

“Vecchio frack” is the author's song par excellence. It is said that he composed it at night, on the Capitoline Hill, under the statue of Marcus Aurelius, sitting on the seats torn from his old car.
«And Anna Magnani passed by, who listened to him and said to my mother: «Hold on to him, this will be successful!».

In 1964 – another anniversary – he won the Naples Festival with “Tu si' 'na cosa grande”, one of the most beautiful Neapolitan songs. Written by an Apulian.

«Maybe my favorite. A wonderful song, without a chorus, and still widely played by jazz musicians. He also made the Neapolitan dialect his own, but once again pursuing the sound. Instead of “big”, she preferred to say “big”. With Pazzaglia he then wrote “'O ccafè”, which inspired Fabrizio De André's “Don Raffaè”.

In 1970 he went from Arbore to “Speciale per voi”, an arena of young people who contested almost everyone, including Lucio Battisti. Modugno, no longer very young, was applauded. Someone shouted “You're like Jimi Hendrix!”. Does he explain it?

«I think they perceived its authenticity. They recognized that he had opened a path, and then it was understood that he was going against the grain. He was one of the first to wear long hair, he said he was the son of a gypsy prince, he always broke the mold, did it his way, without being influenced. It's difficult to attack such a monster of skill and genius. An indomitable personality.”

Duettaste in “Delfini”, was his last recording. What did he teach her?

«The first thing he said to me was: «Massimo, when you sing, always think about the words». He was born as an actor, he gave weight and therefore meaning to every word.”

Maybe this is also why the literati respected him? John Cheever inspired the story “Husbands in the City”; Pasolini, and Quasimodo, fresh from the Nobel, wanted to collaborate with him.

«Pasolini frequented our house, became a family friend, and together they made a pearl entitled “What are clouds?”. Quasimodo agreed to have his lyrics set to music only by Domenico Modugno. These attentions from the “educated” flattered him but he wanted to remain humble. He was deeply attached to his very modest origins. Humility, for him, is the virtue of the great and art is the maximum expression of man. Art is the opposite of war.”