(Saigon, 1946 – )
The Life of Italy’s “Piano Man”. By Ernesto Virgulti (Brock University)
Riccardo (Richard Vincent) Cocciante was bornin 1946 to a French mother and Italian father (from Abruzzo) in Saigon (Vietnam), at the time part of French Indochina. A naturalized citizen of both Italy and France, he grew up speaking French (not Italian). At age 11, his family moved to Rome, where Richard (Riccardo) attended the French international school Lycée Français Chateaubriand. He quickly became fluent in Italian, English, and later Spanish and other languages (his plurilingualism would subsequently prove beneficial in his career). Like numerous musicians in the pop-rock world (Beatles, Stones etc.), Cocciante had no formal musical training, quite remarkable given his accomplishments, which include composing not just innumerable songs, but four musical operas.
Fueled by his intense passion for music, the self-taught ‘piano man’ began playing the 1960s club scene in Rome with his band the Nations, singing predominantly in English. He signed with RCA as ‘Richard Conte’ in 1968 for an English single, then joined Delta Records before going back to RCA. Cocciante’s partnership with producers and lyricists Amerigo Cassella and Marco Luberti jump-started his Italian singing career and proved to be a fruitful collaboration that produced Cocciante’s biggest hits. His first album, Mu (1972), a ‘5 act’ fantasy tale about a lost continent, is the singer’s first attempt at the psychedelic rock opera genre. This concept album was quite derivative of the Progressive rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, specifically the British group King Crimson (the iconic 1969 LP In the Court of The Crimson King) and, in Italy, The New Trolls (Concerto Grosso, 1971). Cocciante’s second album, Poesia (1973), marks the emergence of his distinctive sound and vocals. The title song garnered more attention after being covered by pop-singer Patty Pravo. But it is his third album, Anima (1974), that truly catapults him to fame.
In collaboration with Luberti and Cassella, and with arrangements by the legendary Ennio Morricone, every song on the Anima LP is meticulously written and produced. The landmark album also cements the inimitable Cocciante style: one continuous verse (replacing the traditional 2 verses + chorus structure) that slowly builds into a crescendo, culminating into a passionately explosive and raspy, high-pitched finale. These traits are abundantly evident in the two songs I have chosen to translate and comment from the album: “Bella senz’anima” and “Quando finisce un amore“, two of Riccardo’s greatest successes. Also impressive on the LP are: “Il mio modo di vivere”, “Qui”, “Lucia”, “L’odore del Pane”, and “Se io fossi”. The latter three songs should be of interest to students of Italian language and literature, since they make abundant use of the Subjunctive tense (specifically, Il Periodo Ipotetico). “Se io fossi” also holds literary significance as it is an adaptation of the medieval poem: “Se io fossi foco” by Cecco Angiolieri (1260-1312), also adapted by Fabrizio De André in 1968.
Cocciante’s popularity continued with his fourth album, L’alba (1975). Aside from a dedication to his father (“A mio padre”), the title track, “L’alba”, has the vocal and musical characteristics present in Anima: a soft, melodic beginning and a crescendo (with a more pronounced beat) that builds until it erupts into an intense, gravelly cry. Maintaining success in music is always tricky; yet, Cocciante shot up the charts again with his 1976 album Concerto per Margherita. The title song, “Margherita“, is assuredly his most celebrated and best-selling ballad and most requested still today. Given its international success in and outside of Italy (Spain, Latin America, France etc.), as well as its hypnotic melody, I would be remiss if I did not give “Margherita” its due merit with a translation and a worthy commentary. Cocciante ends the decade, after releasing almost one LP every year, with two more albums: Riccardo Cocciante (1978) and E io canto (1979). Once again, the title track of the latter album, “Io canto”, climbed the charts quickly and remained so enduring that Laura Pausini decided not just to cover the song, but also title her 2006 album Io canto. Re-surfacing as a duet with the famed Lara Fabian, “Io canto” was re-recorded in an Italian-French version for Pausini’s Greatest Hits album (2013). As the 1970s ̶ Cocciante’s most successful decade ̶ come to a close, so does his fruitful and memorable collaboration with lyricist Marco Luberti.
Although the 1980s are less burgeoning than the previous decade, they nonetheless witness a musical shift and some interesting collaborations. The decade opens with Cocciante’s first collaboration with Mogol (lyricist and long-time collaborator with Lucio Battisti). In 1980, the LP Cervo a primavera is released, whose title track is subtitled “Io rinascerò”, alluding no doubt to a new collaboration and musical phase. Riccardo’s next collaborative release, Q Concert (1981), a live recording with Rino Gaetano and the group New Perigeo, leaves a lot to be desired (especially their rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”). His next LP, Cocciante (1982), marks a musical shift for Riccardo, who ̶ influenced by Mogol ̶ leaves his trademark crescendo behind and adopts a more Battisti-like style, quite evident in the song “Celeste Nostalgia”. Another marked departure emerged from Cocciante’s collaboration with American rock group Toto (of “Africa” fame), which produced the CD Sincerità (1983). Quite distinctive are the percussive keyboards of James Newton Howard (co-producer and arranger), particularly in the title-track, “Sincerità“. 1983 also marks the year of Riccardo’s marriage to Catherine Boutet, who becomes his manager. Riccardo’s 1985 album Il mare dei papaveri (another joint venture with Mogol) is melodic and well arranged, but lacks innovation. The exception is the song “Questione di feeling”, a duet with the great Mina, which was also released as a single that topped the charts for over 17 months. Quando si vuole bene (1986) is a live double-album, and thus contains songs already recorded. The decade closes with two CDs: Viva! (1988), another concert album, and La grande avventura (1988), produced by Mogol and Lucio Dalla, whose fascinating title track offers a preview of the type of musical composition that Cocciante will develop towards the end of the 1990s. Overall, however, the 1980s paled by comparison to the success achieved in the 1970s. Moreover, Cocciante’s various collaborations and shifting genres suggest to me, if not a slight creative slump, at least the search for a more innovative style or direction.
The 1990s get off to a felicitous start with the birth of Catherine and Riccardo’s first and only son, David, and with the singer’s long-awaited victory at the prestigious Festival of Sanremo with the beautifully melodic (and still popular) “Se stiamo insieme”, a track on the CD Cocciante (1991), which also includes a duet with Paola Turci, “E mi arriva il mare”. The success is followed by several CDs, most of which are collections of romantic ballads: Eventi e mutamenti (1993); Il mio nome è Riccardo (1994), which has only three unrecorded songs; Un Uomo Felice (1994), a compilation of duets with female vocalists (Mietta, Mina, Scarlett Von Wollenmann and Francesca Belenis); and another CD of ballads, Innamorato (1997). The decade closes on a ‘high note’ with three live concert DVDs released in 1998: Istantanea (a concert tour), Notre-Dame de Paris (a musical opera in the Arena of Verona, discussed in the next section), and Christmas In Vienna V (a concert organized by Plácido Domingo, with Sarah Brightman, Helmut Lotti and Riccardo Cocciante). Riccardo’s songwriting, performances and recordings with other artists, in and outside Italy, are too numerous to list, and range from concerts with Andrea Bocelli (who also covered Cocciante’s songs), and collaborations with female singers to recording the Italian soundtrack of Disney’s Toy Story. Finally, it is most important to note that for almost 30 years, Cocciante has managed to record an impressive 35 albums in other languages: 4 in English (from 1976-2008), 15 in French (from 1974 to 2005) and 16 Spanish (from 1974 to 2005), a sign of a truly renowned international singer-songwriter.
In addition to performing and recording, during the past two decades Cocciante has realized one of his lifelong dreams: composing musical operas. Collaborating with French-Canadian lyricist Luc Plamondon, Riccardo composed the music for the French musical Notre-Dame de Paris (adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame), which debuted triumphantly in Paris in 1998. Critically acclaimed performances followed in 18 countries throughout the world propelling Notre Dame into the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful musical in its first year. Quite impressive indeed for someone who never studied musical composition! But along with fame and fortune came serious financial complications, as Riccardo and his wife Catherine were later convicted by the French government for tax evasion, even though they were not residents of France at the time. The success of Notre-Dame de Paris (including DVDs, CDs) led to two other operas: Le Petit Prince (2002) and Giulietta e Romeo [Romeo and Juliet]. The latter debuted in 2005 to a few hundred special invitees in Rome’s most identifiable monument, the Coliseum, followed by performances in 2007 to sold-out audiences in another ancient Roman amphitheatre, the Arena of Verona (the city in which the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet was originally set), before embarking on worldwide tours.
Riccardo’s latest project was announced in 2019 in Beijing China’s Forbidden City: a musical based on Giacomo Puccini’s famed opera Turandot (set in China). Humbled by the unsurpassable talent of classical composers like Puccini, Cocciante’s intent is to bring his literary and operatic adaptations to a much broader audience, defining these works not as musicals, but as ‘opera for the people’. An East-West collaboration, the undertaking of Cocciante’s musical composition of Turandot involves lyricist Chen Su and director/filmmaker Zhang Yimou, as well as French and Italian designers for sets, lighting and costumes. Cocciante’s grand production of Turandot was scheduled to tour China in May 2020, but Covid-19 put a halt to that. It is rather symbolic that in some ways this project is a return not just to the continent of Riccardo’s birth, but also to his first LP, Mu (1972), a rock-opera concept album that tells the story of a lost continent in the Asian Pacific. Since then, it’s been a long and fascinating musical journey for Italy’s Piano Man. Indeed, very few Italian singer-songwriters can claim an outstanding global career that spans 50 impressive years. Riccardo Cocciante’s successful foray into ‘operas for the people’ during the last two decades is undoubtedly a testament not just to his ever-evolving creative explorations, but also to his undying dedication and passion for music.