Franco Califano

(Tripoli, 1938 – Rome, 2013)

By Berenice Cocciolillo (John Cabot University, Rome)

The Beginnings

Singer-songwriter Franco Califano was known for his sense of adventure ever since he came into the world in 1938 on an airplane, in the skies above Libya, which was then Italian territory. His birth forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in Tripoli. When World War II broke out, his family left Libya and returned to Italy, first near Naples and later to Rome. It was in Rome, the place he considered home, that he was given the nickname “Caliph,” both to poke fun at his last name and because of his reputation as a Latin lover who was always surrounded by women. He was also known as the “Maestro” and the “Prévert of Trastevere.”

Considered one of Italy’s most original singer-songwriters, during his career Califano published 32 albums, sold over 20 million records, and wrote over 1,000 songs and poems, in addition to numerous lyrics that became hits for other artists. He collaborated with such artists as Mia Martini, Patty PravoMinaIva ZanicchiOrnella VanoniEdoardo VianelloPeppino di CapriRicchi e PoveriRenato ZeroLoretta Goggi, and Toto Cutugno.

His first lyrics were for the song “E la chiamano estate” (“And They Call it Summer”), which he wrote in 1965 with Laura Zanin for Bruno Martino, who had composed the music. The theme of the song would eventually become a trademark for the singer songwriter: a man cannot resign himself to the loss of a woman’s love. 

E la chiamano estate
Questa estate senza te
Ma non sanno che vivo
Ricordando sempre te
Il profumo del mare
Non lo sento, non c’è più
Perché non torni qui
Vicina a me

[And they call it summer
this summer without you
but they don’t know that I live
always remembering you
I no longer smell
the scent of the sea, it’s gone
why don’t you come back here
close to me]

First Album – ‘N bastardo venuto dar sud

In 1972, Califano published his first album ‘N bastardo venuto dar sud (A Bastard from the South), which features “Semo gente de Borgata,” (We’re People from the Outskirts) a song in Roman dialect that tells a story of extreme poverty while conveying a message of hope).

Core mio, core mio, la speranza nun costa niente
quanta gente c’ha tanti soldi e l’amore no
e stamo mejo noi che nun magnamo mai

[Sweetheart, sweetheart, hope costs nothing
so many people have lots of money but no love
and we are better off even if we don’t ever eat]

From “Une belle histoire” to “Un’estate fa

Also in 1972, Califano translated the song “Une belle histoire” by Michel Fugain and Pierre Delanoë into Italian. The song “Un’estate fa” (A Summer Ago), which recalls a fleeting summer love story, became even more popular than the original and was interpreted by the band Homo Sapiens in 1972 in addition to Fugain himself who sang it in Italian with his group Le Big Bazar. Famed Italian singer Mina recorded the song in 1990 and finally Califano recorded it in 1992. The song’s latest iteration is by Francesca Michielin, who sings it in the soundtrack of the 2023 Sky miniseries of the same name.

Un’estate fa                                                                               
la storia di noi due                                                                
era un po’ come una favola…                                       

Ma l’estate va                                                                           
e porta via con sé                                                                  
anche il meglio delle favole

[A summer ago
the story of you and I
was a bit like a fairy tale…

But the summer ends
and takes with it
even the best of fairy tales]

“Minuetto” and “Un grande amore e niente più”

In 1973 Califano wrote two of his most successful songs “Minuetto” (Minuet) with Dario Baldan Bembo for singer Mia Martini and “Un grande amore e niente più” (A Great Love and Nothing Else) with Ernest John Wright and Giuseppe Faielli for Peppino di Capri, who sang the song during that year’s Sanremo Festival and won first place.

Thanks to Mia Martini’s iconic interpretation, “Minuetto” became a milestone in the history of Italian song.  A woman feels trapped in a relationship with a narcissistic man who is not capable of love, while time passes unrelentingly.

E la vita sta passando su noi,
di orizzonti non ne vedo mai!
Ne approfitta il tempo e ruba come hai fatto tu,
il resto di una gioventù che ormai non ho più…

E continuo sulla stessa via,
sempre ubriaca di malinconia,
ora ammetto che la colpa forse è solo mia,
avrei dovuto perderti e invece ti ho cercato.

[And life is passing over us,
I see no horizons ahead!
Time takes advantage and steals, as you have,
what remains of a youth that I no longer have …

And I continue on the same path,
always drunk with melancholy,
now I admit that perhaps the fault is only mine,
I should have lost you and instead sought you out.]

First Big Hit – “Tutto il resto è noia

Written for the 1977 album of the same name to music by Frank Del Giudice, the song “Tutto il resto è noia” (All the Rest is Boredom) was Califano’s first major hit. The single also drove sales of the album, which far exceeded one million copies. In the song, Califano delves into the emotions that accompany a love story, from the overwhelming joy at the beginning of a relationship, to the boredom and apathy that eventually extinguish the initial excitement.

Sì d’accordo il primo anno,
ma l’entusiasmo che ti resta ancora
è brutta copia di quello che era,
cominciano i silenzi della sera.
Inventi feste e inviti gente in casa
così non pensi, almeno fai qualcosa,
sì, d’accordo ma poi…

Tutto il resto è noia
no, non ho detto gioia, ma noia, noia, noia,
maledetta noia!

[Yes, sure the first year,
but the enthusiasm that stays with you
is a poor imitation of what once was,
the evening silences begin.
You make up parties and invite people over
so as not to think, at least you do something,
yes, sure but then…

All the rest is boredom
no, I did not say joy, but boredom, boredom, boredom,
damn boredom!]

Trouble with the law

In 1970 Califano was arrested and later acquitted for possession of narcotics and began to make headlines for his problems with the law. 

In 1984 he was arrested again, charged with dealing cocaine on behalf of organized crime. Confined to his home under house arrest, he devoted himself exclusively to his music and published the album Impronte digitali (Fingerprints) based on his experience. Once again, he was acquitted of all charges.

Un tempo piccolo

“Un tempo piccolo” (In a Short Time,) written with Alberto Laurenti e Antonio Gaudino in 2005 is a nostalgic reflection on the artist’s past, highlighting the desire for freedom, experimentation, and self-expression, even if it means moving away from social norms and expectations.

Diventai grande in un tempo piccolo
mi buttai dal letto per sentirmi libero
mi truccai il viso come un pagliaccio
e bevvi vodka con tanto ghiaccio
scesi nella strada, mi mischiai nel traffico.

Rotolai in salita come fossi magico
e toccai la terra rimanendo in bilico
mi feci albero per oscillare
trasformai lo sguardo per mirare altrove
e provai a sbagliare per sentirmi errore.

[I grew up in a short time
I jumped out of bed to feel free
I made up my face like a clown
and I drank vodka on the rocks
I went down in the street, I blended in the traffic.

I rolled uphill as if I were magical
and I touched the ground remaining in the balance
I became a tree so I could swing
I transformed my gaze to look elsewhere
and I tried to make mistakes to feel like an error.]

The Italian Johnny Cash

In 2006 Califano returned to prison, but this time as the protagonist of a very successful concert in Rome’s Rebibbia jail, with inmates singing along with the artist at the top of their lungs. The story of this concert can be found in La musica è leggera. Racconto su mezzo secolo di canzoni by Luigi Manconi and Valentina Brinis (Il Saggiatore, 2012). Manconi underlines the similarities between Califano and Johnny Cash, who had also been arrested for drug possession, and who performed at Folsom State Prison in California in 1966 and 1968.

An Eclectic Style

Franco Califano’s artistic journey was characterized by an extraordinary variety of themes, ranging from romantic ballads to raw and provocative lyrics featuring Roman dialect. Many of his songs tell stories that explore the nuances of human relationships and the complexities of love. But Califano also addressed social and political issues, highlighting the more problematic aspects of society such as poverty and war. Califano’s musical style is equally eclectic, and the singer-songwriter experimented with a wide range of musical genres, including rock, blues, and jazz. With his hoarse voice and authenticity, he touched the emotional chords of a wide audience.

Translated songs: