Luigi Tenco

(Cassine, 1938 – Sanremo 1967)

(By Marco Santoro, Università di Bologna)[1]

Luigi Tenco was born into a family of the Monferrato rural petite bourgeoisie, which dealt in wine trade. Orphaned by a father he never met, Luigi spent his early childhood with his mother, uncles and grandparents between Monferrato and Varazze, in Liguria, where his older brother Valentino attended boarding school. In 1948, the Tencos moved to Genoa, where uncle Giovanni started a small business of Piedmontese wines. In the shop and the square outside its doors, the adolescent Luigi spent his afternoons and had his first formative friendships. His mother had ambitions for Luigi and was determined to afford him the education that neither she nor her eldest son could receive. It was in the loft of the winery that Luigi began to play the clarinet with his friend Bruno Lauzi, a fellow student and young musician destined for a significant career in Italian song.

Their first band dates back to 1953, the Jelly Roll Morton Boys Jazz Band, which the fifteen-year-old Luigi founded with Bruno Lauzi and two other friends. Like many peers in those years, Tenco learned to love and appreciate the repertoire of American jazz and popular music by listening to the records of musicians such as  Jelly Roll Morton, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond. In 1957, Tenco was asked to play saxophone in a trio led by Marcello Minerbi on the piano, participating the following year in the foundation of the group I Diavoli del Rock with his friend Gino Paoli on guitar.

In 1956, to satisfy the wishes of his mother and brother, Tenco started a university program in Electrical Engineering, but in 1959 changed to Political Science. His university studies did not hold him back from his musical career, which continued—despite some family resistance—in the Genoese environs and beyond. Popular music in Italy was growing, with new sounds arriving from the United States but also from France, while the record market was booming, offering new opportunities. If television made the French chanson popular in Italy, cinema and juke-boxes were the vehicles of rock’n’roll, which soon gave rise to the phenomenon of the “screamers,” or “howlers,” in Italy. The main singers of this genre were, at the beginning, Adriano Celentano and Mina. While his mother and brother moved to the hillside town of Recco, about 20 km from Genoa on the Riviera di Levante, Tenco relocated to Milan, the undisputed Italian capital of the record industry in those years, taking advantage, like many other Genoese—Paoli, Lauzi, Umberto Bindi and later Fabrizio De Andrè himself—, of the interest which the newborn Dischi Ricordi label, directed by Nanni Ricordi, was showing for the Italian song market.

Tenco began his recording career in 1959 with the Ricordi label, for which the Genoese brothers Gian Franco and Gian Piero Reverberi worked as technicians and arrangers. Tenco was hired as a songwriter and performer, first singing and playing the sax in a band led by Gian Franco Reverberi (I Cavalieri, with Enzo Jannacci on the piano). Later he performed as a soloist, using various pseudonyms to record some rock and American-style songs, modeled on his favorite Nat King Cole.

The song which Ricordi had marketed in ’58 as “the first Italian rock song”, “Ciao ti dirò“, sung by the Milanese Giorgio Gaber, was also written by Luigi Tenco, although not signed by him as he was not yet a licensed SIAE writer. However, Tenco soon abandoned the new genre coming from the United States, or at least the poor imitation of white American rock’n’roll that was being performed in Italy without much skill. He instead dedicated himself to the construction of a genre much more integrated into the Italian musical tradition, while striving to innovate its form and content, in terms of both the lyrics and music.

In October 1960 Tenco released (under the pseudonym Dick Ventuno) what would become his first hit: “Quando.” At the time, Tenco did not yet consider himself a professional musician: his profession, as he wrote in July 1960 to the director of a well-known magazine, was that of a university student. His use of pseudonyms—he adopted three of them in the course of a few months—is telling of how little engagement Tenco had in the world of song during those early days. An author as well as performer, Luigi Tenco was one of the first to receive the moniker cantante-autore, or, with a lasting formula, cantautore. At the beginning, this word was used in newspapers primarily by lifestyle reporters, and was sometimes linked in a patronizing way to an expanding music and television industry. Only in the following years would the term slowly begin to establish itself as a professional and independent critique in specialized newspapers.

Tenco’s songs stood out in a rapidly evolving musical field, at least among the most astute critics, for the originality of their language: simple, direct, dry, and sometimes even harsh, it was a language that borrowed from the Ligurian and Piedmontese writers whom Tenco had read avidly (Eugenio Montale and Cesare Pavese above all). After the short-lived foray into rock, his musical models ranged from the French chanson to the American ballad but also, more and more often over time, to Italian folk songs, to which his listeners were invited to compare his own songs within the liner notes of his records. A practice certainly uncommon at the time (and therefore indicative of a certain “authorial” claim), Tenco himself wrote or at least signed the liner notes for his first album, published by Ricordi in 1962 and containing some of his more successful and original hits, such as “Mi sono innamorato di te” and “Angela” (released, according to the custom of the time, as singles at 45 rpm, and the only ones to pass the censorship of RAI).

“My songs,” we read in the liner notes, “should be seen not so much in the context of pop or dance music, as in that of folk music. Listening to one after the other, in a long-playing record, will hopefully help to clarify this point, about which I obviously care a great deal. Indeed, I think that beyond an excessive conformism in poetic texts, beyond more or less fashionable musical aspects, folk music still remains the most valid means to express reactions and feelings in a frank, sincere and immediate way. “

Meanwhile, Tenco’s career continued and extended to cinema in 1962: his debut as a leading actor happened in the film La cuccagna by Luciano Salce, where he played the (clearly autobiographical) character of a young nonconformist, gruff but charming, who delights in songwriting among other things. Following some disagreements in the leadership of the Ricordi group which led to the resignation of Nanni and his collaborators, in 1964 Tenco signed a contract with SAAR, the music publishing house of the Swiss-born but Milanese by adoption Walter Gürtler. In 1965, Tenco recorded his second album for SAAR’s label, Jolly. This album was titled Luigi Tenco, just like the first album published with Ricordi, and included two of Tenco’s most successful songs: “Ho capito che ti amo” (“I Realized that I Love You”), and “Vedrai, vedrai.” Tenco’s effort to wed popular song (albeit commercial) with Italian folk music—where “folk” was to be understood also as an alternative to mass production—had now become the very core of his mature cultural project, as he vigorously stressed during a multi-voiced debate on the future of the so-called beat song in January 1967 (in which Tenco was presented curiously, but also significantly, as a “folk singer”): “In my opinion the solution is not to look abroad in order to imitate the style of others. The only thing to do is to exploit our national musical heritage […] the folk heritage is so rich that every singer and composer could draw on it while maintaining their own personality. If one wants to protest, he can protest; if another wants to make people dance, he can make them dance; there is something for everyone.”

The reference to protest had an autobiographical significance. Even before the fame of Bob Dylan reached Italy (in 1965 Tenco recorded, but did not publish, the first Italian translation of “Blowin’ in the wind” with lyrics by Mogol), Tenco cultivated the so-called “protest song”, with lyrics raging against power, inequalities, marginalization, conformism. These protests would soon become fashionable in Italy, on the wave of counterculture taking hold there too, although Tenco firmly distanced himself from its extreme manifestations. However, his most successful songs are essentially love songs, even if different from those transmitted by a now industrialized national tradition: melancholy songs, often very slow, whose lyrics and voice sing of boredom, of disappointment, of everyday life, far from the sentimental rhetoric of the traditional Italian melodic song, at the time theatrically represented by Claudio Villa. Even musically, Tenco’s compositions are often not easy, breaking with the standard models of the Italian song (for example, doing away with the chorus) and demanding of the average listener not only higher-than-usual attention, but also the willingness to accept a new, uncommon language and vocal interpretation.

However, in 1966 Luigi Tenco left Jolly (whose contract had coincided in part with the period of Luigi’s mandatory military service), for RCA, an American multinational that had opened a branch in Rome a few years before and focused on the emerging phenomenon of the cantautori. Tenco’s choice was motivated by the aspiration, now fully formed, to break through and reach a wider audience with his songs and cultural project. After having released a new album (laconically titled Tenco and containing what would become perhaps his most representative ‘cult’ song, “Lontano lontano“), he then participated in the Sanremo Festival in January 1967, paired with the Franco-Italian singer Dalida (with whom there were rumors of a sentimental relationship), presenting a song composed especially by him, “Ciao amore ciao“, whose lyrics, rewritten several times, told in its final version of the emotional difficulties of migrating from the countryside to the city and whose musical structure contained a certain unsettling originality. The song, however, did not gain success as hoped for, but was eliminated in the competition’s early stages, after a nervous and unconvincing performance by its author.

On the night of January 27, with the Festival still in progress, Luigi Tenco was found dead, killed by a gunshot to the head, in his hotel room in Sanremo. The note found next to his body left little doubt as to the reasons for his death (which was confirmed years later by a retrial): suicide as a sign of protest against a festival audience and jury that did not understand his work. The reactions of the press, public opinion, as well as the music and entertainment world were extremely disparate. There were those who remembered his problematic and gloomy personality, those who traced his apparently senseless gesture to the loss of authentic values ​​within the younger generations, and those who blamed the perverse mechanism of musical competition in a world governed by the cold logic of profit. However, there were also authoritative voices that attempted to understand a gesture that was only apparently foolish (“Luigi Tenco wanted break through the mental slumber of the average Italian. His rebellion, that of a man who had reached the peak of his career, crashed unfortunately against a wall of obtuseness. Those who are unable to expect at least a minimum of intelligence from a song certainly cannot comprehend death.” These were the words of the Nobel Laureate for Literature, Salvatore Quasimodo, in the Roman newspaper Il Tempo).

Luigi Tenco’s tragic and violent death contributed not only to his sudden popularity and the commercial success of the eliminated song, and to the production of what many label a “myth”; above all, that death deeply marked the history of song and more generally of Italian culture, creating the conditions for what was in effect a cultural and symbolic revolution: the recognition of the seriousness, the aesthetic and moral value of the song, or rather of that genre of song which Tenco cultivated and imagined and which, immediately after the “scandal” of his death, would be baptized by the journalist and music critic Enrico De Angelis with a formula destined for success: canzone d’autore. In honor of Luigi Tenco and in order to preserve his memory, Club Tenco was founded in 1972 by Amilcare Rambaldi, who would be its president until his death, and with the contribution of numerous artists and critics who, beginning in 1974, have organized the annual Rassegna della canzone d’autore, a non-competitive song festival in which the top records released during that year, selected and awarded by music critics, are accompanied by the performance of selected representatives for each song.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Gino Castaldo (ed.). Dizionario della canzone italiana, II, Milan: Armando Curcio, 1990, pp. 1638-42.

Serena Facci, Paolo Soddu and Matteo Piloni. Il Festival di Sanremo. Parole e suoni raccontano la nazione, Rome: Carocci, 2011.

Enrico De Angelis (ed.), Io sono uno. Canzoni e racconti, Milan: Baldini & Castoldi 2002.

Enrico De Angelis, Enrico De Regibus e Sergio e Secondiano Sacchi (ed.). Il mio posto nel mondo. Luigi Tenco, cantautore. Ricordi, appunti, frammenti, Milan: BUR, 2007.

Aldo Fegatelli, Tenco, Padua: Franco Muzzio, 1987

Aldo Fegatelli Colonna, Luigi Tenco. Vita breve e morte di un genio musicale, Milan: Mondadori, 2002.

Felice Liperi, Storia della canzone italiana, Rome, RAI–ERI, 2011.

Mario Luzzatto Fegiz, Morte di un cantautore. Biografia di Luigi Tenco, Milan: Gammalibri, 1976.

Renzo Parodi. Luigi Tenco. Canterò finché avrò qualcosa da dire, Milan: Sperling & Kupfer, 2007.

Marco Santoro. Effetto Tenco. Genealogia della canzone d’autore, Bologna: Il Mulino, 2010

Jacopo Tomatis, Storia culturale della canzone italiana, Milan: Il Saggiatore. 2019.


[1] A longer version of this article was published in Italian in the Dizionario Biografico Treccani.

Translated songs: