Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)

Oh, those Italian lovers! For years it seemed the most romantic lyrics and lush melodies in pop music came from "boot peninsula" composers. Domenico Modugno conceived "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu" as something other than a soft-hearted ode; its meaning is somewhat abstract, translated as "In the blue, painted of blue" and inspired by a Marc Chagall painting of a man whose face is covered in azure tones. Noted lyricist Franco Migliacci came up with the "Volare" subtitle (and hook by which the song is known to much of the world's population) that means, simply, "To fly." No one really cared about the confusing message; shortly after its initial exposure in 1958 it became the most widely-known Italian song since "O Sole Mio" (at the time a 60-year-old tune that had been recorded by practically everyone from Enrico Caruso onward).

Modugno hailed from Polignano a Mare, a small southern Italian town on the Adriatic Sea. He played guitar and accordion and began writing songs at age 15, then moved to Turin in the country's northern region of Piedmont a few years later. He landed a small part in the film Filumena Marturano in 1951 when he was 23, eventually racking up than four dozen movie and TV roles over a span of more than 30 years while appearing in a steady series of dramatic and musical stage productions. His concurrent singing career got under way in 1954 on RCA Italiana and, later, Fonit Records, a label based in Milan.

The Sanremo Music Festival was first held in January 1951 in the Liguria region's city of Sanremo, on the Mediterranean Sea near Italy's western border about 40 miles from another famous coastal city, Monaco. "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu" was an entry in the festival's eighth year; the rules stated that two singers had to perform each song (not as a duet), so Modugno and Johnny Dorelli (whose participation sparked a successful solo singing career in Italy) shared the spotlight and the glory, as the song took first place. Two months later Domenico headed to Hilversum, Netherlands, host city for the Eurovision Contest (which had begun in 1956 partly in reaction to Sanremo's successful example). He came in third, after which the song's popularity on the worldwide music scene snowballed. The recorded version with Englishman Alberto Semprini's orchestra was the top-selling Italo hit of 1958 and quickly made its way around the globe. In America the single was released on Decca and debuted on the Billboard chart in September, reaching number one just two weeks later.

He pummeled the cover version competition (there were several, but only "M" artists appeared to achieve any notable sales). Dean Martin and The McGuire Sisters charted with English language recordings featuring lyrics by Mitchell Parish (not the first or last time he was called upon for that duty); Dino's top 20 seller has been closely associated with the "Rat Pack" singer ever since. In the summer of 1960, Bobby Rydell scored a top ten hit with the song and Al Martino made the top 40 in 1975 with his disco remake. Late-'50s press mongers coined an obvious nickname for Domenico, "Mr. Volare," which must have made him cringe after the second time he heard it. But the success of the song raised his stock as an actor; suddenly a leading man, he starred in the comedy Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (not surprisingly retitled Volare for release in many other countries), co-starring with glamorous actress Giovanna Ralli and Vittorio De Sica, a director familiar to U.S. audiences for several imports including his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Bicycle Thief in 1949 and, as an actor, his Oscar-nominated supporting role in A Farewell to Arms in 1957.

Domenico Modugno

The excitement ramped up as 1959 got under way. "Io," another collaboration with songwriter Migliacci, topped the Italian charts in January (it's best known to U.S. audiences as "Ask Me," a 1964 hit for Elvis Presley). Later that month, Modugno and Dorelli pulled off their second straight Sanremo victory with "Piove (Ciao, Ciao Bambina)" (translation: "It's raining (bye, bye baby)") which went number one within weeks, though it barely registered in the U.S., upstaged by Frenchman Jacky Noguez's version; "Come Prima" ("Like before") was similarly overshadowed by Polly Bergen's dual-language rendition. Next up: "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu" was a major contender at the very first Grammy Awards, winning two big ones: Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

In July Modugno reached number one in his homeland again with "Notte, Lunga Notte" ("Night, long night"). Stage and screen work remained consistent while records continued selling well. A favorite with the Sanremo crowd, he won two more first place honors at the festival: "Addio, Addio" ("Goodbye, goodbye"), performed in tandem with established hitmaker and friendly competitor Claudio Villa, ruled the contest in 1962, and "Dio, Come Ti Amo" ("God, how I love you") came out on top in 1966 for Domenico and Gigliola Cinquetti, a teenaged sensation who'd taken first prize at both Sanremo and Eurovision with "Non Ho L'età" ("I'm not old enough") two years earlier.

Later in his life, Domenico Modugno suffered from thrombosis, a circulatory condition that left him partially paralyzed. He became involved in a number of political causes and, though confined to a wheelchair, occasionally performed in concert both at home and in other countries including the U.S. He spent his final years in Lampedusa (a small island in the Mediterranean south of Sicily), where he passed away in 1994.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)