Archive for the ‘Rock n Roll 1958 Part 3’ Category

by Robert Seoane
 
JULIA LENNON AND MARY McCARTNEY – BOBBY FREEMAN – JOHNNY OTIS – THE ELEGANTS – DOMENICO MODUGNO – FOLK MUSIC – LEAD BELLY – WOODY GUTHRIE – THE ALMANAC SINGERS – THE WEAVERS – THE KINGSTON TRIO

JULIA LENNON

The life of The Beatles has been blessed with incredible highs but also beset with life-altering tragedies. Like great stories in the lives of people known to millions, it seems that these tragedies were ultimately a destiny leading to a greater event. In the case of John Lennon, each soul shaking moment he endured hardened his personality and influenced his art. In the eyes of the public and ardent fans, it reads like a Shakespearean tragedy embedded with incredible beauty.

“Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia” Julia – The Beatles from The White Album (1968)

Julia was leaving her sister Mimi’s home on the evening of July 15, 1958. She was to cross the street to the bus stop and wait for the bus home, where her boyfriend and son John waited for her.

A friend of Julia’s son, Nigel Whatley, happened by as Julia exited her sister’s house.

“I went to call for John that evening but his Aunt Mimi told me he was out. Mimi was at the gate with John’s mum, who was about to leave. We stood chatting and John’s mum said ‘Well, you have the privilege of escorting me to the bus stop!’ I said ‘That will do me fine.” –Nigel Watley

******

Julia Stanley Lennon had John on October 9, 1940. John’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a very witty and charming man who knew how to play banjo, as did Julia. Alfred Lennon married Julia Stanley in 1938 but soon enlisted and left for adventure in World War II. While he was away, Julia found a lover, Taffy Williams, and became pregnant with his baby Ingrid in 1945. The baby was soon sent up for adoption to a Norwegian family who cared for her ever since. John had one other baby sister born in 1947, Julia Dykins, from Julia’s second husband, John “Bobby” Albert Dykins, although they weren’t legally married.

Julia and her sister Mary Elizabeth “Mimi” Smith were polar opposites. Where Julia was a candle in the wind, Mimi was a woman who had a distinct opinion on social etiquette.

“She had a very strong sense of what was right or wrong.” –Pete Shotton of The Quarrymen on John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi

Mimi married in 1938 to George Smith but they never had a child. When Julia became pregnant in 1940 to John, Mimi knew that her sister’s lifestyle wasn’t fit for raising a baby. In 1946, she contacted Liverpool’s Social Services to complain about the fact that she was living with yet another man and sharing her bed with him and her son John nightly. After some convincing, Julia agreed to hand over her only son to her sister Mimi so that he would grow up in a more stable home.

Living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George was indeed a good influence on young John. He was very close to his uncle up until his death in June 1953 at age 50 of a liver hemorrhage. It was 12 year old John’s first brush with loss, but far from his last.

John had been living with Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith on Menlove Avenue since he was six years old. The Smiths used to call their home “Mendips”, after a range of limestone hills located in Southwestern England. Yoko Ono purchased, restored and preserved John’s childhood home, then donated it to The National Trust, who has opened it to the public since 2003, restored it to its original look when John Lennon grew up there. Mendips would prove to be John’s refuge and Aunt Mimi was his stalwart, looking after him as he grew up and as he faced many difficult moments during his young life.

Alfred Lennon picked his five year old son up one day in 1945 from Aunt Mimi’s house to spend some time with him. His true intention was to take him away to New Zealand and raise him alone. Mother Julia got wind of this and tracked them down, confronting John’s father just hours after he’d taken him. She found them in a nearby pier, strolling. Little Johnny was holding his dad’s hand, happy as he can be. Julia confronted Alfred in front of the boy, and after much arguing and discussion, it was agreed to leave the decision of who Johnny should live with to the child, as if an innocent five year old can make a decision as important as that.

John’s father asked him if he’d rather go away and live with him or stay with his mother. Alfred Lennon must have conjured up images of fun and adventure, or maybe he just wanted to be with his daddy, because little John eagerly chose him. Leaving Julia crushed and feeling as though she had lost her son twice, first to her sister now to his father, she watched as John walked away holding hands with his dad.

But something made John turn his head to see his dear mother one last time. He must have felt the detachment or perhaps the image of her mother being left alone was too much, because in a moment, he let go of his father’s hand and went running to his mother, panicked at the sudden realization of loss. Reunited with her, Julia had no choice but to leave him back with his Aunt Mimi. It was an agonizing decision for the young woman but she also knew she was incapable of raising a child. Still, she visited him regularly.

John wrote “Mother” in 1970, a song about his abandonment by both his parents, and released it as a single. It was also the opening track off his first solo album “Plastic Ono Band” released months after the Beatles broke up. “Mother” is an achingly poignant composition, sung with real feeling and emotion. The song ends with the John repeatedly calling out for his parents, using Arthur Janov’s “primal scream” technique, where the person is encouraged to release his emotions through gut wrenching screams.


“Mother, you had me but I never had you, I wanted you but you didn’t want me. So I got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Father you left me but I never left you, I needed you but you didn’t need me, So I just got to tell you goodbye, goodbye… Mama don’t go… Daddy come home…” Mother – John Lennon

One of the distinct songwriting differences between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was Lennon’s openness with writing lyrics reflecting his life. Many of the songs he wrote, “In My Life”, “Help”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Ballad Of John & Yoko” just to name a few, had to do with what was currently going on in his life or recollections from his past. Paul on the other hand, although still relating his lyrics to his own personal life, was more successful in disguising his feelings. McCartney penned songs like “Let It Be”, “I’m Looking Through You”, “Penny Lane”, “For No One” and so many others. They spoke of his past also but subtly, thereby making it less personal but more relatable to everybody else. Paul was not as confessional as his songwriting partner because he has the blood of a showman as well as an artist.

“The guitar’s alright, John. But you’ll never make a living out of it. -Aunt Mimi

Unlike Aunt Mimi, Julia was an ardent supporter of John’s burgeoning musical career. She was the one who had bought him his first guitar, a cheap Gallotone Champion acoustic “guaranteed not to split”. She was the one who dragged Aunt Mimi to St. John’s fete where her son was performing for the first time with his Quarrymen. Julia was thrilled but of course Mimi disapproved.

I was horrified to behold John in front of a microphone (and) as pleased as punch to see him up there.” -Aunt Mimi

Mimi didn’t like Paul McCartney upon meeting him because he came from a lower social class structure than they belonged to, and hated George Harrison because he dressed like a tough teddy boy.

“I was a nice clean-cut suburban boy, and in the class system I was about a half an inch in a higher class than Paul, George and Ringo who lived in subsidized government houses. We owned our own house, had our own garden… They didn’t have anything like that.” –John Lennon

During his early teenage years, Julia encouraged John to play music, teaching him the banjo and teaching him old Liverpudlian folk songs. He soaked it up like a sponge, thrilled to be growing closer to his mother now that he was no longer a child and being able to relate to her musically. One of the songs she taught him was later recorded on The Beatles final release “Let It Be” as a throw away ditty, yet still a sweet nod to his early years.

“Oh, dirty Maggie May, they have taken her away, and she doesn’t walk down Lime Street anymore, oh the judge he guilty found her, robbing the homes around her, that dirty no good, robbin’ Maggie May…” Maggie May – The Beatles, from Let It Be

******

John’s friend Nigel Watley often thought about how things would have been different if only he had walked Julia across the street to the bus stop. Maybe he would have noticed the oncoming car, grabbed her elbow and got her to slow down.

“We walked down Menlove Avenue and I turned off to go up Vale Road where I lived. I must have been fifteen yards up the road when I heard a car skidding. I turned around to see John’s mum going thru the air.” – Nigel Watley

She was killed instantly. The driver of the car that hit her was 24 year old Eric Clague, a police officer who was off duty and on his way home. He was not charged with excessive speeding, going within the thirty mile an hour speed limit, and he was not inebriated at the time. The conclusion was that 44 year old Julia Lennon, tragically, just didn’t see him.

“Mrs. Lennon just ran straight out in front of me. I just couldn’t avoid her. I was not speeding. I swear it. It was just one of those terrible things that happen.”- Eric Clague

Having been suddenly informed of a commotion by a neighbor, Mimi ran out of her home fearing and confirming the worst. She became hysterical.

“At about 9:45PM, the deceased left my home (in Menlove Avenue) and went in the direction of a bus stop on the opposite side by the Vineries. Shortly afterwards I was informed that she had been injured. I went to the scene. She was unconscious. I went with her to Sefton General Hospital. She was dead upon arrival.” – John Lennon’s aunt and Julia’s sister, Mimi Smith

The death certificate confirmed the cause of death was due to multiple head fractures.

A policeman knocked on Julia Lennon’s front door where her boyfriend and her son, John waited for her return from Mendips.

“It was just like it’s supposed to be, the way it is in the films. Asking if I was her son, and that. Then he told us, and we both went white.” – John Lennon to Beatles biographer Hunter Davies

The death of his mother in such a sudden, cruel manner despite having been an accident, affected John to his core. He became bitter, more rebellious. He concealed a seething anger and released it in spurts through dry, sharp, cutting wit.

“The day the Pope died, he did lots of drawings of him looking really awful. He did one of the Pope standing outside some big pillars outside Heaven, shaking the gates and trying to get in. Underneath it said, ‘But I’m the Pope, I tell you!’.” -Thelma Pickles, John Lennon’s college girlfriend.

Pope Pius XII died the same day as John Lennon’s 18th birthday, October 9th, just under three months after his mother had been killed. That cartoon is an interesting window into how his mind coped with the reminder of death, in this case, of the Christian world’s religious leader. The fact that the Pope died on John’s 18th birthday and on his first birthday without his mother, displays how he used humor to deal with pain. He submerged his feelings and used his developing cynicism to mock what is supposed to be holy in a flippant, comic fashion. It was the conduit for his pain and the essence of what made John a great artist, his ability to deal with reality in a truthful, yet wry manner.

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. We’d caught up so much, me and Julia, in just a few years. We could communicate. We got on. She was great. I thought… I’ve no responsibilities to anyone now.” – John Lennon

Like so many of us on this planet, John Lennon did not have a traditional upbringing and endured great heartache. Whether this informed his musical genius is a matter of speculation, but it’s a well-known and accepted truth that art is born from inner pain. The more an artist suffers they say, the greater his art.

His mother’s loss would be somewhat healed with a new, stabilizing female presence that would arrive into his life a few months later. Cynthia Powell, a pretty nineteen year old blonde and a year John’s senior, was to become Mrs. John Lennon four years later and bear John’s first son, Julian, named of course, after John’s dear mother.

“I lost her twice. Once as a five year old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again, when she actually, physically died. And that was a really hard time for me. It just absolutely made me very, very bitter. The underlying chip on my shoulder that I had as a youth got really big then. Being a teenager and a rock ‘n’ roller and an art student and my mother being killed, just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her… it was very traumatic for me.” –John Lennon, just a few days before his murder.

Julia Lennon’s accidental killer took on a job as a postal employee to supplement his police officer income and delivered mail for years throughout the same neighborhood where he had inadvertently hit Julia Lennon. In 1964, he remembered hearing about Beatlemania like the rest of the Western World, but coming to a sudden shock when he realized his tragic connection to the legend of the Beatles.

“Like everyone else I started reading in the papers about them and they were never off the TV. I read that John Lennon’s mother was dead and that he used to live on Menlove Avenue. I put two and two together and realized that it was his mum that I had killed. Everything came back to me and I felt absolutely terrible. It had the most awful effect on me. The Beatles were everywhere, especially in Liverpool, and I couldn’t get away from it.” -Eric Clague

His route as a postman delivered him daily to his painful penance.

“My postman’s round took in Forthlin Road, where Paul McCartney used to live. At the height of The Beatles’ fame, I used to deliver hundreds of cards and letters to the house. I remember struggling up the path with them . But of course they just reminded me of John Lennon and his mother.” – Eric Clague

John wrote three songs to his mother, “Julia” “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”. They are slow, introspective compositions filled with pain and sadness, made even that much sharper by the deep restraint in which he sang them, except for when he unleashes his emotion at the end of “Mother”.

“My Mummy’s Dead” is John, barely singing a desperately sad, morbidly painful memory of his mother in just a little under a minute, as the final cut of his first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band”. Sounding as if he were singing and playing a toy guitar from the womb, John uses the melody from the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” to repeat words he never could completely accept.

“My mummy’s dead. I can’t get it through my head. Though it’s been so many years, my mummy’s dead. I can’t explain, so much pain. I could never show it. My mummy’s dead.” My Mummy’s Dead – John Lennon

It’s ironic when you think that the loss of Julia to John Lennon has eerie similarities to the loss of John to the world. We also lost him twice. The first time, when he went into retirement to bring up his newborn son Sean in 1975 for five years, not writing or releasing any music or appearing for any interviews. We lost him then for good when he physically died five years later as he was coming out of his self-imposed retirement.

His son Julian underwent a similar childhood as his father’s. Julian also didn’t get to see much of him due to the fact that he was born at the beginning of The Beatles’ fame, so he also lost him twice; the first time to the popularity of The Beatles and then when he died. Julian was also enjoying a new relationship with him, much like his father had been developing with Julia before her untimely death. Most ironically. John was 17 when he lost his mother. Julian was 17 when John was murdered.

John Lennon was murdered at age 40 on December 8th, 1980 in New York City by a deranged killer, less than three months after he released “Double Fantasy”, his new comeback album. Millions of fans welcomed him back. As usual, his confessional lyrics explain his five year absence with a sweetness that parallels the loss of his life in one of his final masterpieces, “Watching The Wheels”.

“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go ‘round and ‘round, I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry go round… I just had to let it go…” Watching The Wheels – John Lennon

MARY McCARTNEY

Paul shared a similar pain with his friend and songwriting partner, having lost his own mother, Mary Patricia Mohin McCartney, on October 31, 1956, two years before the death of John’s mother. Mary McCartney was undergoing surgery for a fast spreading breast cancer when she succumbed. His catharsis from that tragic event and what helped him through his profound loss also helped his muse bloom. Paul McCartney wrote his very first song soon after his deep loss, and it was about the death of his mother. As was always McCartney’s style however, and unlike Lennon’s, he disguised the personal aspect of his composition by turning it into what was just a simple break-up love ditty.

“Well, gather ‘round people, let me tell you the story, the very first song I wrote, well, I woke up late this morning, my head was in the whirl, only when I realize, I lost my little girl, oh oh oh oh…” I Lost My Little Girl – Paul McCartney

That wasn’t the only time Paul wrote about his mother. But he would never be as obvious about it as John was so confessional. In one of Paul’s most personal and beautiful songs, he recalls his mother’s wisdom.

“When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” Let It Be – The Beatles

Paul’s lyrics again disguise his personal connection with the song by allowing the public to perceive the composition as spiritual, invoking the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, when singing “mother Mary”, instead of his own mother, which is what he really meant, thereby opening the song up to more acceptance and understanding to any listener by appealing to them spiritually. As McCartney explained it, the genesis of the song came from a dream he had about his mother.

“I had a dream where my mother, who had been dead at that point about 10 years, came to me in the dream and it was as if she could see I was troubled. And she sort of said to me, she said ‘Let it be’. And I remember quite clearly her saying ‘Let it be’ and ‘it’s going to be OK. Don’t worry.” You know… ‘Let it be’”… “It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing ‘Let It Be’”. – Paul McCartney

Paul and his brother Mike were brought up by their father James McCartney, until his own death in 1976 at age 73 of bronchial pneumonia. Jim McCartney was an educated, mild mannered fellow who worked in the cotton trade as well as played in ragtime and jazz bands in Liverpool. He raised the two brothers with kindness, love and dedication. Cynthia Powell Lennon recalls Paul’s father often answering the door with his sleeves rolled up, wearing an apron and holding a tea towel whenever she and John came to visit. Many times, Paul’s father would leave him food to eat at the Cavern Club where The Beatles played in the early days. A loving musical tribute to his dad was composed by Paul McCartney in 1982 with “Put It There”, a saying his father used to tell his sons when extending his hand in friendship.

“Put it there if it weighs a ton, that’s what a father says to his young son. I don’t care if it weighs a ton, as long as you and I are here, put it there.” –Put It There – Paul McCartney

BOBBY FREEMAN

Bobby Freeman is a two-hit wonder. He released singles from 1958 at only seventeen years old up until 1964, but only of them would make it to the Top Ten. His debut single “Do You Want To Dance” was his biggest hit and was showcased in George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti. It was a catchy, danceable song that made it to Number One in the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two in the R&B chart but it was a fluke, because Freeman struggled to enter the Top Forty, let alone barely making it into the Hot 100 until 1964.

“Do You Want To Dance” got a new lease on life when Bette Midler recorded it in 1973. Many other artists re-recorded the song, including Del Shannon, The Beach Boys. Johnny Rivers, the Mamas and the Papas, the Ramones and John Lennon, but it was Midler who slowed it down and turned into a smoky, bluesy, soul-stirring song as you’re dancing closely with an amorous friend at the end of a long night.

Freeman’s only other hit single was “C’mon and Swim” in 1964, a song based on the newest dance craze, The Swim, where the dancer moves their arms as if they were swimming and hold their nose, lowering themselves towards the floor while wiggling their hips.

Released in the midst of Beatlemania, it held its own because it’s a wild, crazy tune filled with trumpets, a wailing electric guitar and a nice, fast beat. It’s no wonder it was so energetic because the writer and producer of “C’mon & Swim” is none other than twenty year old Sylvester Stewart. Stewart would develop and further funk music during the late Sixties and influence the genre for decades after he changed his name to Sly Stone and formed his own group “Sly & The Family Stone”.

“C’mon & Swim” also made it to the Number Five position in the Billboard Pop chart, but his subsequent single release, “S-W-I-M”, only made it to number 56, then sank like a rock.”S-W-I-M” couldn’t float. Freeman didn’t release another album for ten years, but that one failed to chart. At the time of the writing of this blog in 2014, Bobby Freeman is 74 years old and living in his hometown of San Francisco, California.

JOHNNY OTIS

To call Johnny Otis a one hit wonder would be a gross injustice. The fact that “Willie & The Hand Jive” was his only Top Ten Billboard hit doesn’t account for his lack of talent, but more for his talent of being able to encompass so many achievements. Born Ioannis Alexandres Vellotes to Greek immigrants and growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley, California, Otis was a singer, musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, talent scout, disc jockey, record producer, TV show host with his own program, artist, author, journalist and minister. He could essentially marry you, provide entertainment, then write about the affair and broadcast highlights on his show for you.

His first big impact in music legend happened in 1945 when he formed his own band with himself as bandleader and, although not written by him, had one of the most enduring hits of the Big Band era, Harlem Nocturne.

Two years later he opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California and hired, among others, the Robins, who would later go on to become one of the Fifties’ biggest groups, the Coasters.

Before the 1940s came to an end, Johnny Otis also discovered singer Little Esther Phillips, Mel Walker and tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely. He began recording them together, releasing a stream of great blues songs. Each of them made it to Billboard’s Number One spot in the R&B chart in 1949, “Double Crossin’ Blues”, “Mistrustin’ Blues” and “Cupid Boogie”.



Two years later, he released “Mambo Boogie”, the very first R&B mambo ever recorded.

His amazing ability to spot talent continued when he discovered 13 year old Etta James at one of his talent shows and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Otis produced, played drums and co-wrote “Hound Dog” with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller for Thornton’s 1953 recording. Lieber & Stoller pulled a fast one on Otis when they changed their written and signed contractual agreement with him just before the duo gave “Hound Dog” for Elvis to sing. It became a monster hit and Otis sued but lost on the technicality that Lieber and Stoller were minors when they signed the original contract.

During that time, Johnny Otis was also artist and repertory man for King Records and continued to discover new, young talent that would one day all become members of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hall of Fame, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John.

During the Fifties, he played vibraphone, produced and wrote songs. Always a multi-tasker, he didn’t just have a radio show for KFOX out of Long Beach, but he also hosted is own weekly program “The Johnny Otis Show”. That not being enough, he started his own label and changed the name of his band to The Johnny Otis Show to remind everyone of his program.

“Willie & The Hand Jive” is a classic rock ‘n roll tune that borrows the Bo Diddley beat to sing about a new dance move, but many people thought it was an ode to jacking off. Otis insists the song is not about masturbation, although it doesn’t help the argument that the name of the “hand-jiver” happens to be “Willie”, and a few times even sounds like he’s singing “handjob” on the recording. Nevertheless, the hand jive is an actual dance move involving a complicated pattern of hand movements that include fist pounding together, thigh slapping, hand clapping, cross-wrist slapping and hitch-hiking… but no off jacking.

It’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song that gets you jumping, but its beat is due to Bo Diddley. Otis was just smart enough to steal the beat and change the lyrics. Eric Clapton re-recorded his own laid-back version of “Willie & The Hand Jive” in 1974 on his album “461 Ocean Blvd”. Lacking the original recording’s urgency, it’s more of a laid back rendition that Clapton renders, and it’s also a fascinating study of how the Bo Diddley beat can sound slowed down.

George Thorogood recorded it as well in 1985. Thorogood’s version is closer to the original than Clapton’s, which may sound somewhat lackluster in comparison. The production quality of Thorogood’s version is better than the original simply due to it having been re-recorded thirty years later with advanced recording technology. So in this writer’s opinion, Thorogood’s take on “Willie & The Hand Jive” is the definitive version of the song. It’s rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Johnny Otis continued to work through the following decades touring, recording other artists and producing, even finding time for running for California State Assembly member, but losing, probably because he did’t run under his professional, well-known name. During the 1980s, he had a weekly three hour radio show on Los Angeles radio station KPFK where he played records and invited musical guests. He continued recording with his sons Shuggie and Nicky releasing new Johnny Otis albums. In 1987, he hosted his annual Red Beans & Rice R&B Music Festival in Los Angeles and would continue to do so until 2006, touring and playing over the US and Europe during that twenty year period.

His radio show moved to another L.A. radio station in the 1990s and would broadcast until his retirement in 2004, when his grandson Lucky took it over for two more years.

Johnny Otis died of natural causes on January 17, 2012, just three days before one of his first discoveries’ death, Etta James’. He lived a full, busy life until he was 90 years old.

THE ELEGANTS

Vito Picone, Arthur Venosa, Frank Tardogno, Carmen Romano and James Mochella were pals who grew up in Staten Island, New York together and sang doo wop under the boardwalk by their homes. They called their group the Elegants, and they became a classic example of one-hit wonders with “Little Star”, a doo wop tune inspired by the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. It hit Number One in 1958 in both the Pop ad R&B chart, and dominated the radio most of that year. The Elegants toured with Buddy Holly, Dion & The Belmonts, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Afterwards, none of their subsequent single and album releases ever came close to the success of “Little Star”. Some say it was because the group refused to pay payola to a prominent New York disc jockey, who then inhibited airplay of their subsequent releases.

“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are, high above the clouds somewhere, send me down a love to share…” Little Star – The Elegants

A revised version of The Elegants still perform and tour as of 2012 with Vito Picone and James Mochella as original members.

“Little Star” is a classic example of doo wop music and lauded by many well-regarded people in the record business including Phil Spector who once called it an “awful good record”.

NEL BLU DI PINTO DI BLU (VOLARE) – DOMENICO MODUGNO

“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” is not a rock ‘n’ roll song by any stretch of the imagination, but honorable mention is deserving of this tune because, besides it being a great song, it also became a big hit in 1958 during the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and is now considered a classic after it was re-done more than thirty years later by the Gipsy Kings.

Sung entirely in Italian, Domenico Modugno co-wrote “Volare” with Franco Migliacci. It seems that Magliacci started to work on the lyrics while contemplating two Marc Chagall paintings. One was a rendering of an artist painting on a canvas, and done in predominantly blue shades (“Le Peintre et son Modele”). The other was a painting of a man in yellow suspended in mid-air (“Le Coq Rouge”-1952). After drinking a little too much wine, Migliacci fell asleep, only to wake up again after having had a surreal, wine-induced dream. Upon waking up, Migliacci wrote lyrics about a man who dreams of painting himself blue and being able to fly. The only thing missing was the title of the song. Legend has it that the word “Volare” (“I will fly”) entered the lyrics when Modugno, while working on the song with Migliacci, opened a window and a huge draft of wind entered the room.

Modugno and Migliacci titled the song “Nel Blu DiPinto Di Blu”, then added “Volare” in parentheses. Having only used translation websites, I’ve translated the title to mean “Blue Painted in Blue” If there’s anyone who knows Italian well enough to confirm this, I would appreciate hearing from you.

The song is sung entirely in Italian and Modugno, who sings it, begins his version with a surreal prelude explaining the dream Migliacci had.

TRANSLATION: “I think that a dream like that will never return, I painted my hands and my face blue, then was suddenly swept up by the wind and started to fly in the infinite sky” Nel Blue Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) – Domenico Modugno

Mondugno presented the song with Johnny Dorrelli in the 1958 Sanremo Music Festival. The song won the contest and became a worldwide success. It sold a staggering 22 million copies and received two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the only foreign song to have ever received this honor. It went on to place in third place at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest representing Italy. It was Number One non-consecutively in Billboard’s Pop chart for five weeks and was also Billboard’s Number One single of 1958, over any rock ‘n’ roll song released that year. In fact, it was to be the only non-American, Canadian or British song ever to make Billboard’s Top Single of the year until 1994 when Swedish group Ace of Base broke the record with “The Sign”. Today, it’s considered to be the most played Italian song in Italy as well as the whole world.

“Volare” has been translated into many languages and recorded by many different artists including Dean Martin, David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Barry White and the Gipsy Kings. The Kings made it a late Eighties dance hit and they sang it with a mix of the original Italian lyrics as well as their distinctive Andalusian-tinged Spanish.

In 2005, the 50th Anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest was celebrated and a ranking of the most favorite songs from the contest was revealed. “Volare” was Number Two, behind ABBA’s “Waterloo”.

“I myself voted for “Volare” but I am pleased that so many people voted for us.” – Benny Anderson of ABBA when accepting the Eurovision award.

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