Domenico Modugno
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Domenico Modugno

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Thu 23 Apr 2009 12:00 AM

To watch an original clip of modugno singing nel blu, dipinto di blu,
go to Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-dvi0ugelc.

 

At
the beginning of January 1951, the first annual Festival della Canzone Italiana
(Festival of the Italian Song) was held in Sanremo, a city along the western
Ligurian coast, famous for its flowers. Known also as the Sanremo Festival, it
lasted three nights. During the first two days, 10 songs were presented, a jury
voted on them and the five songs with the most votes were then presented on the
last night. The festival continues today, first televised live in Italy in 1955
and, in 1958, via Eurovisione, throughout Europe.

 

Although the Sanremo
Festival still enjoys popularity, it is nothing compared to the delirium it
caused in the 50s and 60s, when television was in its infancy and Italy, after
the devastation of World War II, was gradually moving towards its economic boom
years. Each year’s festival was much like the rest, but for pop music around
the world, the 1958 festival was exceptional.

 

That year, it was
widely predicted that L’edera, one of the two songs to be sung by Nilla
Pizzi, a homegrown, dark-haired Celine Dion of the day, would win. Then
Domenico Modugno, also known as Mimmo, took the stage to sing Nel blu,
dipinto di blu (‘In the Blue, Painted Blue’), or as it is best known, Volare (‘Flying’), the song he had written with Franco Migliacci. It won.

 

Over
the years, the two men gave different accounts of how the song was born.
Migliacci, the lyricist, first said he was inspired by the blue colour in
paintings by Chagall that both he and Modugno admired, but later he recounted
that the words came to him in a dream. Modugno claimed that the music came to
him after seeing his wife Franca framed by the blue sky from a window in their
house in Rome. In any case, the melody was so enchantingly catchy, so unlike
anything before it, that its success was immediate-and enduring.

 

After
the melodramatic ballad O Sole Mio, published in 1898, this was the
first Italian song to become internationally famous, hitting no. 1 on the US
charts for 13 weeks in 1958. Capitalising on its huge popularity, other
singers, among them Dean Martin, Bobby Rydell and Al Martino, recorded
English-language versions. The Gipsy Kings made a Spanish version. In time,
Pavarotti and Boccelli also included it in their repertoires. In all, over 22
million copies of Volare were sold around the world. In America, where
Modugno soon frequently performed, people simply called him ‘Mr. Volare’.

 

In
1959, Modugno again won the Sanremo Festival with another unforgettable melody,
entitled Piove (‘It’s Raining’), but often called Ciao ciao, bambina (‘Bye
bye, Baby’). In all, Modugno won the festival a record four times and wrote the
music and words of about 250 songs throughout his career, many of them hits
written for other recording stars like Mina.

 

Born
in Polignano a Mare in Puglia on January 9, 1928, this extraordinary composer
learned to play the guitar and the piano accordion from his father and wrote
his first song at age 15. Although he studied bookkeeping, he really wanted to
be an actor. After a great deal of effort, Mougno managed to fulfil this dream
and appeared in a total of 44 films, usually in supporting roles, especially in
his early pictures. After his triumph with Volare, he also performed
regularly on radio and television.

While
rehearsing for a television quiz programme he hosted, La Luna del Pozzo,
broadcast on Mediaset’s Canale 5 in March 1984, Modugno suddenly felt ill. Not
realising how serious it was, the studio doctor told him to take an aspirin and
go home. That night, his condition worsened and he was rushed to hospital,
having suffered a stroke which left him paralysed on one side of his body. More
disastrous for a singer, his speech was impaired. In a wheel-chair and unable
to work, Modugno sued Mediaset but accepted, in the end, an out-of-court
settlement.

 

Supporting
the rights of the handicapped and people in his condition and searching for
high-profile candidates, the leftist Radical Party asked Modugno to stand in
the 1987 elections. He was not new to politics: he had donated the royalties of
the song L’anniversario to help finance the Socialist Party’s campaign
to stop the repeal of the Fortuna-Baslini law on divorce in a referendum in
1974.

 

He
won, and once elected to Parliament, he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to
fighting for the rights of the disabled and for performers’ rights. He also
became, for a period, joint president of the party, together with Marco
Pannella. His greatest achievement was the closure, in 1988, of the mental
hospital in Agrigento, where the patients lived in degradation. To celebrate
this victory, he gave his first concert since his stroke for the benefit of the
inmates.

 

Although
in increasingly failing health, he continued to perform until 1993. He died on
August 6, 1994 of a heart attack, ‘away from the maddening crowds’ on the
beautiful ‘blue’ island of Lampedusa.

 

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