Monday, November 2, 2009

Mod alla Italiana

The following was printed in the November 2009 issue of Fra Noi. I encourage all of you to pick up a copy of the monthly Italian American news-magazine at your local deli, specialty shop, newsstand.

by James Scalzitti

When you think of the “Swinging 60s,” the music that probably comes to mind has origins in England or Motown, and the women behind the songs are chanteuses such as Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Lulu, even Nancy Sinatra.

While it is Italy that gave us “La Dolce Vita,” setting the stage for the stylish swinging 60s less well-known are the many Italian songstresses who made some great pop music through a period that spanned the decade. Italy also provided a welcoming, fertile ground for some American, British and French women singers during this time.

These women may today not be household names in the U.S., but in their day they regularly topped the charts in Italy and through Europe. Their music may actually be familiar to people who may not know these women by name, because often they turned out Italian versions of American and British pop songs, or they recorded songs that did not do so well commercially, only to be covered later by an American or British singer, sometimes to greater success. Many of these women are still involved in the music and entertainment business, working as talent agents, producers and executives, while every so often one of them will record (or in a few cases re-record) new music.

Since some non-Italians found success singing English versions of Italian songs, then why shouldn’t Italians have recorded their own versions of hit American and British tunes? That’s how I first stumbled onto these women, by finding a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black,” done by one of the more renown of these Italian singers, Caterina Caselli. Her “Tutto Nero,” is, I’d argue, superior to the Stones’ version, because her voice is richer, reaches deeper than Mick Jagger’s, and consequently the song is darker than the more well-known version. Caselli didn’t contain her covers of Anglo tunes to the dark stuff, though. Her version of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” (“Sono Bugiarda”) has an upfront, swinging intensity that beats The Monkees’ version, I think. But then, I’m a mod, not a rocker.

Caselli, like many of these singers, found fame in the San Remo song contest. Her entry in the 1966 contest, “Nessuno mi può Giudicare” was a hit, outselling a version by Gene Pitney. The song established Caselli as a star and a rapid succession of hits followed.

In addition to her recording career, Caterina Caselli starred in several movie musicals. Her recording career carried on into the early 1970s, but by the 80s and 90s she only released a few singles and appeared in various song contests, devoting the bulk of her time behind the production controls and becoming a manager for other artists.

How’s this for irony? The first single released by another of these Italian songstresses, Patty Pravo, was a cover of Italian-American Sonny Bono’s “But You’re Mine.” Pravo’s song, “Ragazzo Triste,” made it to No. 13 on the Italian charts in early 1967, when Pravo was just 19 years old.

Pravo (real name Nicoletta Strambelli ) was a nightclub singer who after studying music, dance and orchestra conducting, left home in Venice for London, at age 15. She soon returned to Italy, settled in Rome, and in 1968 she recorded what remains one of the biggest-selling hits of all-time, “La Bambola.”

In 1969 she won Festivalbar song contest with “Il Paradiso,” which became a Top 10 hit that the British group Amen Corner covered in English (“If Paradise is Half as Nice”) which went to the top of the UK charts. She continued recording through the 1970s, left Italy’s music scene for the U.S. in the 1980s, but in 1995 she returned to Italy. Less than a year and a half later Patty Pravo made her return to San Remo, released a successful album and she continues recording and performing to this day.

As a teenager in the early 1960s, Rita Pavone worked in a clothes factory, ironing clothes, and supplemented her income by singing in local clubs around Turin. After winning the Festa degli Sonosciuti talent contest, her first single, “La Partita di Pallone” was released, topping the charts in February 1963 and ultimately selling a million copies globally.

Her subsequent hits included “Cuore,” which sold millions of copies throughout Europe. Rita was launched in the U.S. with an album modestly titled, “The International Teenage Sensation,” and appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig and Hullabaloo. Americans were charmed by the heavily-accented Pavone and a single from that album, “Remember Me,” reached No. 26 in the Billboard charts. She released two more albums in the U.S. by 1965.

Rita Pavone starred in a number of TV shows and movies, scored many more Top 10 hits through the 1960s and into the 70s (including “Stai Con Me,” a version of “Stand By Me” and “Gira Gira,” her version of The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”) Her singing career wound down by the 1980s and she has since turned to more acting roles.

While Mina (born Mina Mazzini in Busto Arsizio, in northern Italy) has had a career that spanned from the 1950s through today, her mid-1960s material, some say, is her best.

She first topped the charts in 1959, with “Tintarella di Luna,” followed that with a string of Top 10 hits, before hitting No. 1 again in October 1960 with “Il Cielo in Una Stanza,” the biggest seller of that year in Italy. Her career suffered in 1963 when her relationship with actor Carrado Pani who was married, though separated from his wife, became known. She was banend from RAI but nonetheless scored more chart-topping hits, including in early 1964 the heart-wrenching “Citta Vuota,” a cover of “It’s a Lonely Town.”

Eventually the RAI ban was lifted, she got her own TV show, but by 1970 she had gone three years without a hit song and she was no longer the presence as she once was. But she kept scoring occasional hits throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, before making a big chart comeback in 2002.

These artists are just the surface of the singers who really made the Italian music scene swing in the 1960s. For people who like the music of the more well-known Petula Clarks and Lulus and Dusty Springfields, mining the record shops and mp3 dealers could unearth some great music that’ll reinvigorate your love of the music of this period.

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