Remember Me

Italy's "Small Wonder" of the '60s was hyped as such for being a five-foot-tall teen singer with a rambunctious personality and vocal style. Rita Pavone's pixieish, freckled appearance was far from that of your typical singing siren or youthful songbird; she stood out quite singularly in any given crowd of aspiring pop stars. Hailing from the northern city of Turin, the daughter of a Fiat factory worker who regularly followed American pop stars and musical films, she gained a well-rounded appreciation for diverse styles, though her childhood favorites were the stars of the era: Italian singer and movie star Claudio Villa and many of America's male idols (Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Elvis Presley, et al). Soon she began chasing her own musical dreams. Just a few years later, in 1963, she became the year's top-selling Italian music artist.

Doing celebrity impressions came naturally; at the age of nine she gained notoriety in Turin imitating Al Jolson during an event at a local theater. In the early '60s at age 15 or 16 she performed part time wherever she could, for soldiers at military bases or in any local clubs that would have her. In September 1962 she entered the Festa Degli Sconosciuti ("Festival of Strangers"), a nationwide talent competition (three thousand entrants!) organized by singer Teddy Reno; the finals were televised and Rita took first place, which included a contract with RCA Italiana. She delivered a strong, confident performance on her first single, "La Partita di Pallone" (a sort of "Sunday sports widow" lament), which rose to Italy's number one position in February. Its follow-up, the midtempo love song "Come Te Non C'è Nessuno" ("There is No One Like You"), reached the chart's apex in March and spent ten weeks on top, selling over a million copies by the end of May, a rarely-achieved feat.

Demand for her to appear as a variety show guest (on the government-controlled RAI channel one, Italy's only TV station) led to a 12-week residency on the top-rated Studio Uno. Her third hit, "Alla Mia Età" ("At My Age"), was a hit in Spain, signaling the beginning of her rise as a star throughout Europe. Bouncy dance number "Il Ballo del Mattone" also topped the charts in her homeland, but its flip side was much bigger. "Cuore" ("Heart"), a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song that had been a minor English language hit for both Kenny Chandler and Wayne Newton in the U.S. that spring, took Europe by storm; Rita's recording spent most of the summer at number one on the Italian charts (it was also her first U.S. release on RCA Victor, but failed to connect). In just half a year she'd become the darling of Italy's entertainment industry and her 18th birthday party was televised by RAI in August.

Two ballads reached the number one spot in early '64: "Non è Facile Avere 18 Anni" ("Not Easy Being 18 Years Old") and "Che M'importa Del Mondo" ("What Do I Care About the World?"). The flip of the latter, "Datemi Un Martello," a cover of "If I Had a Hammer," was arranged similar to Trini Lopez's hit U.S. version. She'd become popular in the German market a few months earlier with a hit specific to that country, "Wenn Ich Ein Junge Wär" ("If I Were a Boy"), the first of many. Then she visited America to make English recordings in the hopes of breaking through as so many European (mostly British) acts were doing at the time. An interpreter traveled with her and she phonetically mimicked English on her album The International Teen-Age Sensation, recorded at RCA Studio A in New York with producer Joe Rene.

A May 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (which also featured Paul Anka, one of Rita's girlhood boy-crushes) introduced the American TV audience to her first English language single, "Remember Me," penned by Shelly Coburn (who would compose and produce material for Lesley Gore about a year later). The song was added to many radio playlists and reached the top 30 of Billboard's pop chart in July; back home it had different lyrics and was titled "L'amore Mio" ("My Love"). The lively, cooing U.S. flip, "Just Once More," received a smattering of radio exposure, as did her next 45, "Wait For Me."

Rita Pavone

Reaturning to Italy, she starred near the end of the year in a limited-run TV series, Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca, that aired from December '64 through February '65; based on a 1912 book by Luigi Bertelli (writing under his pseudonym, Vamba), Rita played a young male character attending a strict school. She scored a hit from the project, "Viva La Pappa Col Pomodoro," which oddly translates as "Long Live the Soup with Tomatoes." Anton Karas, nearly 15 years past his worldwide one-hit "Third Man" success, flew to Rome from his native Vienna, trusty zither in tow, and stayed just long enough to accompany her on the song and additional soundtrack music for the series.

Other Sullivan stints followed, the highlight for Rita a March '65 show where she met two of her childhood favorites, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, performing on the same episode. Then it was off to Nashville to make a follow-up album, Small Wonder, with Chet Atkins producing. While in Music City she made contact with Elvis and Brenda Lee, experiencing heart palpitations each time. She guested on two Hullabaloo installments, one of them hosted by Anka (they performed a hit duet recorded for the German and French markets called "Kiddy, Kiddy Kiss Me"), and made a stop on Shindig before heading back to Europe to make the rounds of many other music programs. An emergency appendectomy in September went routinely, while illustrating the magnitude of her celebrity: cards poured in from 13 million well-wishers.

Rita's movie debut came with the musical Rita, La Figlia Americana, which featured the early-'66 Italian number one "Plip!," a gimmicky instructional dance tune. Her film career rolled onward in '65 and '66 with music-and-comedy outings Rita the Mosquito and Don't Sting the Mosquito, both directed by Lina Wertmüller, who'd also directed and written music (with Nino Rota) for Gian Burrasca (a decade before Lina's international filmmaking success and history-making Oscar nomination for Best Director, the first woman ever to do so, for 1976's Seven Beauties). Rita topped the charts again in June with "Qui Ritornerà," a cover of "Here it Comes Again," a smash in Britain for The Fortunes. The British Invasion, it seems, hadn't been so phenomenal in Italy as other places; the Beatles and Pavone had scored breakthrough hits at about the same time in their respective lands, but at this point in time just over the three-year mark she had more Italia chart-toppers (eight total) than the world's phenomenal foursome (three number one hits in Italy as of June '66). The "boot" nation held a fondness for crooners like Domenico Modugno, Pino Donaggio, Adriano Celentano and Gianni Morandi, and of course there's the great diva Mina. Rita Pavone gave them all serious competition in the mid-'60s.

Winding roads took Rita down new paths in the latter part of the decade. She finally scored a couple of hit singles in the U.K. in late '66 and early '67 with "Heart" and "You Only You." There were two more films (her character was named Rita in all five), La Feldmarescialla (a bizarre Rita-versus-Nazis comedy) in 1967 and Crazy Westerners in '68. Singles included covers of American hits, the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" ("Gira Gira") and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" ("Stai Con Me"). She entered Italy's Cantagiro Song Contest in 1967 with "Questo Nostro Amore" and the Sanremo Contest in '69 with "Zucchero" ("Sugar"). Her own label, Ritaland, was established in 1968 for a series of children's records. Though her star was fading a bit, fans kept snapping up collectible merchandise, including many dolls (bambolinas) made in her likeness at various phases of her career.

Her marriage in 1968 to manager Teddy Reno created a scandal; seems he was already married to someone in another country. It took a couple of years for them to work out the details, but the effort was worth it as the marriage has been a long-lasting one. She continued recording off and on (despite a notable slump in sales after 1969), dabbled in theater productions of William Shakespeare, made a couple more movies and entered the 21st century much more politically active. Meanwhile, Rita Pavone's many 1960s hits are still a delight to listen to. And many of today's fans are still wildly passionate about "Little Rita," one of Italy's 1960s superstars.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Remember Me