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Italian Music 3: the 1950's

Italian popular music of the 1950's
Italian popular music of the 1950's
Domenico Modugno Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu


At the end of the Second World War, Allied troupes occupied Italy and American and English soldiers stormed through the country bringing all those things Italian people hadn't been allowed to have for twenty solid years. Italy enjoyed its freedom, and even if money was tight and the war had left terrible scars, people, finally free from twenty long years of dictatorship, wanted to sing, dance, and have fun. And they wanted to do it to the rhythm of the musical trends from across the Atlantic Ocean.

From 1945 onward, Italian popular music's history became inextricably intertwined with the American and English one, though it did not completely diverge from its own heritage. Opera and classical regional music, namely the Neapolitan Song, which represented the tradition of melody and bel canto (beautiful singing), still had a very strong impact on Italian popular music of the 1950s and '60s.

Foreign influences and autoctonous styles blended together in a mix that sometimes resulted in some very peculiar and unique musical phenomena. One of these is the development of not only single musicians or bands but also a figure which became, and still is, a distinctive feature of Italian popular music: that of the of Cantautore (singer-songwriter).

One of the most important events in the history of Italian pop is indisputably the creation, in 1951, of the Festival della canzone italiana (generally referred to as Festival di Sanremo or outside Italy as Sanremo Music Festival). This song contest, held annually from the Ariston theater in the town of Sanremo (Imperia), became so famous in Europe that it even inspired the Eurovision Song Contest.  The Sanremo Music Festival is still running today and, although considered by most critics and young people to be too mainstream and traditional, is still regarded as a very important showcase for Italian musicians.

The first Sanremo festivals were broadcast on the Italian national radio channel, and since 1955 have been broadcast live on television.

The rules of the competition varied quite a bit over the last fifty years, but from 1953 to 1971, in order to stress the fact that the festival was a composer's competition and not a singer's, each song was played twice, with two different arrangements sung by two different singers or bands. Usually, one version of the song was performed by an Italian artist and the other by an international guest. This practice brought many great foreign musicians of the time to the attention of Italian audiences, helping a quicker development of national musical tastes.

In more recent years the number of contestants has increased and the festival has become a very popular TV show instead of essentially a song contest; still, it has launched the careers of many Italian singers famous the world over, such as Andrea Bocelli, Eros Ramazzotti, and Laura Pausini.




Mina : Tintarella di luna 1959


The 1950s for Italy were a decade of reconstruction, economic growth, and opening to the world. These trends naturally reverberated through popular music, which became more syncopated and rhythmic, openly influenced by swing and jazz. While all Italian musicians of the time were extremely open to foreign influences, one prominent and unique Italian tried not only to fuse American musical rhythms with Italian tradition, but also to bring a certain American imagery to Italian audiences, that of gangsters and the mob with "Guys and Dolls" style: that man was Fred Buscaglione.


Fred Buscaglione

Ferdinando Buscaglione, later known as Fred, was born in Turin in 1921. His passion for music was evident when he was very young and his parents enrolled him in the Conservatorio (music school) when he was only eleven. He became a violinist, and a very good one, but his real passion was jazz, so he started playing with swing orchestras. During the first post-war years, his name appeared at the top the European jazz charts right after other violinists like Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti.

But it was only in the middle of the 1950s, with the help of his old friend Leo Chiosso, who was to write all the very crisp and amusing lyrics of his songs, that he found his own voice, composing his own music and forming his own band. His repertoire was more than a mere set of songs, putting together a delicious hard-boiled set of theatrics and brought to life a musical universe which was an Italian-style parody of Peter Cheyney's novels and Eddie Constantine's films. Tracks such as "Che bambola!" (1956), "Whisky facile"(1957), "Eri piccola" (1958), all featured unlikely and humorous versions of Chicago or New York gangsters, aping hundreds of "tough guys" of the Hollywood flicks, ruthless with their enemies yet so sensitive to feminine charm.

The success of his music, and above all his character, was immediate and amazing, and he was soon overwhelmed with adverts and movie offers, but tragically he died at the height of his career. Ironically, Fred Buscaglione died just like one of his tough guys would, sending his pink Thunderbird crashing into a truck in a Roman street, drenched in his beloved alcohol and full of regret for his broken marriage.

His musical style was pretty unique, but provided a very strong influence for future generations, and many modern Italian musicians claim to owe a lot to his sense of humor, his daring mix of different musical styles, and his brilliant idea of inventing a totally new persona to play on stage, instead of stiffly standing behind the microphone.



Fred Buscaglione: Che notte



Domenico Modugno

A musician who perfectly represents the newly born Italian pop music of the 1950's and who is universally known all around the world for his great hit "Nel blu dipinto di blu" (aka "Volare"), is Domenico Modugno. Modugno's style was a mix between tradition and innovation, his songs were melodic, usually about love and passion, but also open to new rhythms and full of a contagious energy.

Domenico Modugno left his family home when he was 19, moving first to Turin, where he worked for a factory, then to Rome with a scholarship to attend the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (a prestigious Italian cinema school). At the debut of his career, he wrote and performed songs based on the Southern Italian music tradition, such as "Lu pisci spada" (the swordfish) and "La donna riccia" ( the curly-haired woman).

In the 1950s he composed and sang many beautiful songs in various southern Italian dialects, mainly Sicilian and Neapolitan, such as "Lazzarella", "Strada 'nfosa" and "Resta cu'mme".

In 1958 though, after an incredible success at Sanremo Music Festival with "Volare", he suddenly went from being a regional singer to a major international star. The following year he again won the prestigious Italian music contest with "Piove". The song, written by Modugno after having seen two sad young lovers saying goodbye on a rainy Autumn morning in a Pittsburgh train station, is one of his most beautiful and intense, and its refrain, "ciao, ciao, bambina, un bacio ancora, e poi per sempre ti perderò..." - "bye bye, my baby,one more kiss then forever I'll loose you..." has lived on in the memory of generations of Italian people. Modugno, an extremely prolific artist, continued his triumphs through the 1960ss: winning Sanremo once again in '62 with "Addio, addio", in '66 with "Dio, come ti amo", and also the Naples music contest in '64 with "Tu si' 'na cosa grande".

In the meantime, tireless as ever, he also went into acting, and among his many successes there are the musical "Rinaldo in Campo" in '61, the TV series "Scaramouche" in '68 and, last but not least, the play "Threepenny Opera" by Bertold Brecht from '73 to '75. He reached the peak of his singer- songwriter career (the first, in all probability, in the modern sense of the term) in '68 with "Meraviglioso", a less internationally known, but probably unmatchable hit. It was a song of timeless charm, so much so, that it has been recently covered by the Italian band Negroamaro with amazing success.

Tragically seized by a stroke in 1984, Modugno had to stop his performing career and decided to go into politics: he joined the Radical Party in 1986 and was elected to parliament. He died of heart failure in his home in 1994.



Domenico Modugno: Nel Blu dipinto di blu



Quartetto Cetra 

Another peculiar musical phenomenon of the 1950s is the incredible success of a vocal quartet,  the Quartetto Cetra, part of a tradition, that of vocal ensembles, which unfortunately disappeared almost completely from the Italian music scene in the following years.

The vocal group destined to become popular as Quartetto Cetra, formed by members Tata Giacobetti, Felice Chiusano, Virgilio Savona and Lucia Mannucci, was based on an idea by the Roman musician Giovanni Giacobetti, known as Tata, author of lyrics as well as a passionate jazz lover. Their name Quartetto Cetra, is a matter of debate: some people say it referred to the cither (in Italian cetra) the ancient four stringed musical instrument, others that it was a tribute to the record label the group was recording under at the time of its debut, which took

place in Rome at the Teatro delle Arti, in October 1947.

Quartetto Cetra was not just a recording band, they'd also started a theatrical career which saw them in several musical variety shows. Their first great success in the world of musicals was "Gran Baldoria" (1951), a show by Garinei and Giovannini - the two fairy god-fathers of Italian musical and mentors of Quartetto Cetra, together with the conductor Gorni Kramer - which features "Vecchia America" (Old America), one of the vocal group's greatest hits. This show was followed by "Gran Baraonda" (1952), co-starring two legends of Italian show-business, the famous show-girl Wanda Osiris and one of the greatest Italian actors of all time, Alberto Sordi. Quartetto Cetra's smash hits from this musical are "I​n un palco della Scala" (In a box at the Scala theatre), and the best, "Un bacio a mezzanotte" (A midnight kiss). Then came an Italian edition of "Guys and dolls" with Riccardo Billi, where they sang one of their biggest successes, "Un disco dei Platters" (A Platters' record). This is probably the quartet's best moment, underlined by a participation at the Festival of Sanremo in 1954, their only appearance in the competition.



Quartetto Cetra: Baciami piccina (1953)



The arrival of television gave them the opportunity to reach larger audiences and they immediately jumped to the occasion, successfully taking part in many important TV shows of the time. Their happiest and probably most innovative contribution to the history of Italian TV is indubitably their role in the seminal TV show, "Studio Uno", where, with the help of some of the best Italian actors, they made charming and sometimes really brilliant musical parodies of popular films and novels, from "Gone with the Wind" to "The Three Musketeers".

Quartetto Cetra, with Giacobetti providing the lyrics, Savona the music, and often helped by the above-mentioned Kramer or by Lelio Luttazzi, produced records in series, with impressive selling figures. The light and innocuous humor of their lyrics, as well as their melodic and lively music, were a perfect soundtrack for the Italian economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. But when tough times arrived in the 1970s, their appeal seemed to fade away and the four singers, already in their fifties, virtually retired.

 1950s' Italy was a decade of reconstruction, of rediscovery of the outside world, dawn of an economic boom, and an age of innocence, when Italian people were still very provincial and naïve in their musical and artistic tastes. The fabulous 1960s were approaching and soon teenagers were to seize control of pop music.


History of Italian Music I, History of Italian Music II, History of Italian Music IV, History of Italian Music V

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