Emigrant Song

Amid all the manufactured mainstream media malarkey about 1) the 25th anniversary of Woodstock and 1A) its merchandising-gone-ballistic deadly spawn, Woodstock '94 and 2) the Rolling Stones's toothless and soulless new album, Voodoo Lounge, and 2A) the band's "Till Death Do Us Part" kabillion-dollar U.S. tour in support of that feeble recording, and 3) the breathless promise of a concert, live from Graceland, of Elvis songs performed by blissful newlyweds Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley (wouldn't you go the pay-per-view route to see the duo sing "You're the Boss," as originally rendered by the King and Ann-Margret?), no one -- well, no one except Reuters and the Associated Press -- appears to have acknowledged the passing of Italian pop curiosity Domenico Modugno, who succumbed to a heart attack on August 6 at age 66 near his villa on Lampedusa, an isolated Mediterranean island southwest of Malta and east of the Tunisian coast.

A pity, really. Modugno owns a genuine sliver of U.S. pop history, his "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (better known in this country as "Volare") ascending to number one on the Billboard Top 40 charts A and staying there for five weeks A 36 years ago this month, thereby conferring on him the distinction of being one of the few artists to go top of the pops so convincingly while singing in a foreign language, in his case Italian. A rare feat, that. In addition to Modugno, there's Kye Sakamoto. His melancholy "Sukiyaki," sung in his native Japanese, spent three weeks at number one in the spring of 1963. And there's Jeanine Deckers, a.k.a. Sister Luc-Gabrielle, a.k.a. Soeur Sourire, a.k.a. the Singing Nun. Her ultraperky French-language "Dominique" followed Sakamoto's song up the charts, topping out at number one for four weeks in late '63.

Deckers, a Belgian nun whose life was immortalized in the 1966 biopic The Singing Nun (Debbie "Tammy" Reynolds in the title role!), had checked out of her Dominican order almost twenty years earlier when she checked out of this world via a suicidal OD of sedatives in March 1985 at age 52. Sakamoto, who'd continued to enjoy pop-star status in Japan, perished almost five months later, one of 520 people who died when a Japan Airlines flight crashed near Tokyo. He was 43.

Now Modugno. Born in Polignano a Mare in southern Italy in 1928, he studied at Rome's Experimental Cinema Center, then pursued an acting career before switching over to pop tunesmithing in the early Fifties. And while he pumped up the volume on the Italian charts from 1953 to 1976, he owned the pop charts everywhere in 1958. That year his "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (Modugno wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Francesco Migliacci; the title translates as "In the blue [sky] painted blue") won top prize at Italy's huge annual San Remo Festival, copped a Grammy for best song in the awards' debut year, and sold 30 million copies worldwide. As a New York Times correspondent covering the San Remo fest wrote, "'Nel blu dipinto di blu' exploded with the violence of a bomb."

Despite the fact that it was sung in Italian, with few people outside the Italian-American communities of New York City and Philadelphia understanding what Modugno was on about, U.S. pop fans ate it up. That chorus, that amazingly hooky chorus A "Volare, oh, oh! Cantare, oh, oh, oh, oh!"(Flying, oh, oh! Singing, oh, oh, oh, oh!) A sucked up everything in its path and whirled it through the ecstasy cyclotron. In his book The Rockin' 50s, Arnold Shaw writes, "The catchy melody expressed a feeling of joy and freedom so complete and infectious that people burst out singing whenever and wherever they heard it." For a blink in the summer of 1958, it seems Modugno tapped into the music of the spheres.

"Volare" mania seized the U.S. pop industry, with a gaggle of cover versions, both vocal and instrumental, tumbling out of recording studios. Capitol rush-released one by Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti, so he could get away with it) that peaked at number twelve on the Billboard charts the same week Modugno occupied number one. Record-biz foot soldiers tramped desperately through Italy in search of other songs that could be exported to the U.S. But no other Italian songs caught on.

And although Modugno remained a star in Italy, winning two additional awards at subsequent San Remo fests and cranking out hit records, his U.S. chart days fizzled after "Volare." In a somewhat bizarre footnote, seven years ago he was elected to a seat in Italy's national Chamber of Deputies (their Congress) as a member of the Radical Party.

Then Modugno suffered a fatal heart attack on August 6. "He passed away at sunset," his widow, Franca Gandolfo, told the Italian news agency ANSA, "on the edge of the land he loved more than anything else."

Meanwhile, "Nel blu dipinto di blu" has kept on chooglin' from day one. In addition to its ineffable, transcendent melody, its original Italian lyrics evince a surreal splendor, full of the dreamlike imagery of cosmic flight: "I think a dream like this will never come back again/I was painting my hands and my face blue/Then suddenly a swift wind took me away/And I started to fly into the endless sky/...I was flying, happily, always higher, higher than the sun, even higher/While the world was slowly, slowly disappearing way down below/A kind of music so sweet was playing only for me."

Modugno once explained that his song was inspired by the fantastical work of painter Marc Chagall. That didn't stop American lyricist and opportunist Mitchell ("Stardust") Parish from writing English lyrics with a completely different meaning for "Volare," although he had the good sense to keep his mitts off the razor-sharp Italian chorus. Parish's Tin-Pan-Alley-Lite words ("Just like birds of a feather a rainbow together we'll find") got handed off to teen-idol-pop-star-occasional-actor Bobby "Wild One" Rydell (born Robert Ridarelli, so he could get away with it, too), who took the new English-language "Volare" to number four in the summer of 1960.

Fifteen years after that, yet another authentic Italian-American, Al Martino (born Alfred Cini, so, you know...) rode his renewed visibility (remember his stint as singer Johnny Fontane in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 The Godfather?) back onto the charts, briefly denting the Top 40 with a "Volare" remake. And twelve years after that, in 1987, rock demigod Alex Chilton (born Alexo Chiltoni A okay, just kidding this time) included a rangy Italian-language cover of "Volare" on his brilliant, everywhere-at-once High Priest, validating the song for a generation of hipsters who likely never heard Modugno's original.

And still the song persists. Modugno's Reuters obit mentioned that just recently an Italian ad agency had floated a trial balloon to replace the country's current national anthem with "Nel blu dipinto di blu." Imagine thousands of Italians standing to sing the song in unison at the outset of soccer matches. "Volare, oh, oh! Cantare, oh, oh, oh, oh!"

Too cool.


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