Zucchero

Roncocesi (Reggio Emilia) 1955-

Adelmo Fornaciari, aka Zucchero, is the artist who more harmoniously and spontaneously married the Italian songwriter song to blues, gospel and soul music the Southern US. His first highly successful album, Blue’s, was released in 1987 and contains songs with a strong self-ironic character: “Pippo,” whose text was written by Vasco Rossi, expresses the bewilderment of a man whose woman is courted by a friend; “Solo una sana e consapevole libidine salva il giovane dallo stress e dall’azione cattolica”(“Only a healthy and conscious libido saves the young man from stress and Catholic action”) sounds like a big band-style hymn to sexual liberation against bigotry; “Con le mani” (“With your hands”), in which the slap bass slap evokes the hands of the title. Other songs voice author’s inner feelings “Hey Man,” a soul ballad about the solidarity that comes from two solitudes that meet; “Bambino io, bambino tu” (“Baby me, baby you,” reggae fable about innocence recovered thanks to a mysterious and magical baby, were written in collaboration with Gino Paoli, titanic among the founding fathers of the songwriter’s song. “Dune Mosse,” evocative and enigmatic mystical ballad that winks at the English grammelot (“Dai dillusi smammai” sounds a bit like “I’m losing my mind”).

In his long career Zucchero boasts collaborations with the great Italian songwriters (Gino Paoli, Ivano Fossati), international rock stars, from Sting to Eric Clapton, Paul. Young and Joe Cocker, and bluesmen such as Miles Davis and B.B. King. He was among the earliest pop music artists to perform on stage with opera tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli.


Zucchero, a singer-songwriter to rediscover among the blues, languages and lost sounds

(by Luca Bertoloni, University of Pavia)

Adelmo Fornaciari’s Beginnings

During the mid-1980s Italian music scene an artist was born who, within a very short time, would succeed in making a name for himself with a very personal and recognizable style, which would also bring him unprecedented (at least for an Italian artist) international success that lasts to this day: Adelmo Fornaciari, from Emilia Romagna, known by the pseudonym of Zucchero.

Native to a particularly fertile region in terms of songwriting (from Guccini to Vasco Rossi, from Pierangelo Bertoli to Ligabue), Zucchero was born in Reggio Emilia in 1955. However, unlike many fellow artists born in the early ‘50s (such as Roman-born De Gregori and Baglioni, who belonged to the so-called second generation of songwriters), Adelmo Fornaciari’s career does not begin in the ’70s, but rather in the following decade. In fact, his debut in the music world dates back to the late sixties: Fornaciari, after having learned the rudiments of the guitar, founded some music groups with which he performed as musician and songwriter, playing and composing the musical scores of several unpublished songs. His first significant success, however, dates back only to the beginning of the next decade, the eighties: in 1981 he won the Castrocaro Festival, an event for new artists with a large audience. The real turning point for the Emilian singer-songwriter was just around the corner and took place, as for many other Italian artists, by way of the Sanremo Festival, but included something new for an Italian artist: the road to the United States.

Move Toward the Blues

In 1984, during a stay in San Francisco, California, Zucchero met Corrado Rustici, an Italian musician and producer who had recently moved to the US and who in those years was working with international stars such as Whitney Houston, Elton John and Aretha Franklin, as well as with the Italians Alan Sorrenti, Renato Zero and Loredana Berté, and many others, including Baglioni and Ligabue. Zucchero’s artistic partnership with Rustici would revive his inspiration thanks to the musical power of American soul and blues. Meanwhile in 1983, Zucchero released his first album, whose single “Una notte che vola via” finished with a low ranking at the Sanremo Festival. A similar fate was in store for the song “Donne” from his second album, Zucchero & The Randy Jackson Band (1985). This album was influenced by the artist’s move toward blues, but also the by his collaboration with Mogol and Alberto Salerno on the lyrics. Despite its low ranking in the charts at the Festival, the song enjoyed a great success and finally brought Adelmo to the attention of the general public.

Even that success, however, was not enough. Record sales remained low, perhaps because the Italian public was not yet completely accustomed to the blues sound.[1] Zucchero was disappointed, especially because that record was the result of an immense effort in musical composition, strengthened by the choice of lyricists (he invested a great deal in lyric writing for Zucchero & the Randy Jackson Band), with the aim of bringing the American sounds into the Italian context. The next album, Rispetto (1986), confirmed his interest in the blues. This time Zucchero also experimented with lyric writing, even more determined to usher in a North American wave as yet unknown in the Italian songwriting scene (which was influenced primarily by the French chansonniers and American folksingers). The album is a sort of hybrid: if the title contains a direct quotation from Aretha Franklin, the track list features a song written with Gino Paoli (“Come il sole all’improvviso”), who immediately realized Zucchero’s ability not only to interpret the blues sounds, but to recreate and find in the musical fabric a series of lost sounds belonging to an ancient and timeless world. These two new elements reach their apex in Blue’s (1987), which achieved international success with songs such as “Senza una donna” or “Pippo,” and definitively consecrated Zucchero as an Italian (in the same year he won Festivalbar), European and international star, leading to his next two “turns”.

The International Push and Songwriting

Success pushed Zucchero towards new experimentations and new collaborations that would make his style more refined, original, and identifiable.

The triptych Oro, incenso e birra (1989), Miserere (1992) and Spirito DiVino (1995) are in fact not only albums of immense success (Oro, in particular, ranks second among the best-selling Italian albums of all time in Italy, after Claudio Baglioni‘s La vita è adesso [1985]), spanning a personally complicated period for the artist (Zucchero himself has spoken of a deep depression experienced in those years after the separation from his wife) which is reflected in the stylistic and musical variety of songs, but they also mark a phase in which international collaborations became frequent and important. Collaborations emerged with world-famous Italian artists such as Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti (their duet in “Miserere” was unique in Italian media as a collaboration between an opera icon and a pop singer). Zucchero also sang duets with international stars of the caliber of Queen (in a tribute to Freddie Mercury), Miles Davis, Eric Clapton and Paul Young. Zucchero’s entrance into the Italian and international music scene is even more interesting if contextualized within the development of the song form and the songwriting genre. In those same years the Emilian artist continued to refine his songwriting style: the push was due to a meeting with Francesco De Gregori, which would lead to the creation of “Diamante” (1989), whose text was written by the Roman singer-songwriter and would mark a significant influence on Zucchero’s compositional style.

Zucchero’s Songs between Sexual Charge and Lyricism

Zucchero (Fornaciari) from now on would specialize in two different types of lyrics. The first are essentially a strongly ironic and self-deprecating divertissement, with multiple targets: Italian organized religion (“Solo una sana e consapevole libidine salva il giovane dallo stress e dall’Azione Cattolica” [“Only a healthy and conscious libido can save the young from stress and Catholic Action”), a friend’s lame attempt at seducing the girlfriend of the song’s protagonist (“Pippo”), and many others. This group of songs is characterized by an undercurrent of lust, with strong physical and sexual connotations of an animalistic sort, which would color the texts with carnal onomatopoeia, paronomasia and double meanings. One can cite at the verses “Lascia che il mio Voodoo lavori eh / funziona con tutte ma non con te” [“Voodoo voodoo” (1995); “Let my Voodoo work eh / it works with all but not with you”], or the verses “Il mare impetuoso al tramonto salì sulla luna e dietro una tendina di stelle” [“The raging sea at sunset rose on the moon and behind a curtain of stars”] (1989).

Voglio vederti ballare
senza tabù
un ballo da strappamutande
fallo di più

Come on, sister
è un volo proibito
amore e sesso, sesso, sesso
sono un assetato
perché tu sei l’acqua, l’acqua del peccato.

(I want to see you dance
without taboos
a dance that will tear up your underpants
do it more

Come on sister
it’s a forbidden flight
love and sex, sex, sex
I’m thirsty
because you are the water, the water of sin.)

In these verses we can see how the phonic component of the signifier is linked both to the meaning of the song and to the musical fabric, with the aim of conveying a strong physical-sexual (rather than erotic) charge. The link between blues, song-form and the sexual charge of his lyrics, which would continue in the years to come (as can be seen from the verses of the most recent “Vedo nero”, 2011: “Vedo nero / con i miei occhi / vedo nero e non c’è pace per me / perdo il pelo […] / C’è un odore di femmina quaggiù”), is confirmed by Zucchero himself in the beginning of his autobiography, in which he writes

“I loved the blues, I wanted to listen to it; even as a child I was enraptured by those sounds […]. I created a music that is black in color and opens with a Mediterranean melody. More sex. The beating and demonic rhythm of the blues, the sweet and paradisiacal expansion of the ballad, the harmonic figure of the orgasm”.

In this context, Zucchero wrote several successful songs (including summer hits, thanks to his participation in Festivalbar) whose lyrics bordered on gibberish, a phonic fabric with an instinctive and ironic sexual appeal:

Arriva la bomba, oh yeah
il grande baboomba per te
la rumba e la tromba, oh yeah
il grande baboomba per te

(The bomb is coming, oh yeah
the great baboomba for you
roomba and trumpet, oh yeah
the great baboomba for you)

                             (“Il grande baoboomba” 2004)

Baby don’t cry
make it funky
pane e vino porterò per te
miele e Venere per tutti quanti
che c’ho l’anima nel fondo del Po

(Baby don’t cry
make it funky
bread and wine I’ll bring for you
honey and Venus for everyone
I have my soul on the Po’s riverbed

                     (“Bacco perbacco”, 2006[2])

In the early 1990s Zucchero adds to his repertoire several lyrical, almost operatic songs, created thanks to the chiseling and blending of the textual and the musical components; the latter in particular loses the physical and subversive charge noted in the group of previous songs, maintaining instead an esoteric and evocative atmosphere. One of the first – and most successful – songs of this type is “Così celeste” (1995), whose language is influenced by Zucchero’s collaborations with Gino Paoli and Francesco De Gregori, with a pervasive lyricism, especially in the irregular uses of the verbs, and in the natural images of an almost mystical and mythological flavor:

Gli occhi si allagano, la ninfea
galleggia in fiore, che maggio sia
per amarti meglio,     
amore mio
figliamo rose, lo voglio anch’io.

(The eyes flood, the water lily
floats in bloom, let May be
for loving you better,
my love
let’s breed roses, I want that too.)

He penned many hits in this vein, including “Menta e rosmarino” (1997):

Cadono giù stalle, stelle
lacrima il tramonto
gocce di luce dagli occhi
nella notte cieca 
è qui che a casa mia
ormai ritorno

(Stables, stars fall down
the sunset weeps
drops of light from the eyes
in the blind night
this is where
I now return home),

But also the more recent “Ci si arrende”, 2016:


Ma sì, bevi, bevi,
bevimi sono la pioggia
pioggia che passa e rimane
dentro l’anima
che si arrende

(“But yes, drink, drink
drink me: I am the rain
rain that passes and remains
inside the soul
that surrenders)

The concept album Chocabeck remains perhaps the peak of his production as a singer-songwriter, dedicated expressly and explicitly to the search for the lost sounds of his childhood, seen as a kind of mythical refuge, as well as the key to a society, a world and a humanity now lost. In this work, strengthened by linguistic research towards an Emilian linguistic patina that recreates the language of the past, there seem to emerge some references to the work of the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli, who also experimented on a phonic and linguistic level.

Zucchero’s Work: a Necessary Critical Rediscovery

Between the end of the 90’s and the 2000’s, Zucchero’s steady climb continued without interruptions: very successful albums, from Shake (2001), to Fly (2006), to D.O.C. (2018), and Discover, released in mid-November 2021. In D.O.C, the songwriter’s blues soul emerges strongly, as does his desire to blend more and more genres and sounds; his collaborations also continue, both in Italy (among the many songs penned with Jovanotti and Francesco Guccini) and internationally (significant is his association with Bono, a friendship that would result in a duet even during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a song-tribute to Italy singing from the balconies:

Non puoi toccarmi
ma puoi cantare, sì
sopra i tetti e le case
dal telefono

                         (“Canta la vita”, 2020)

(You can’t touch me
but you can sing, yes
over the roofs and the houses
on the telephone”)

The omission of Zucchero in many academic works dedicated to songwriting is surprising[3]: an explanation likely can be found in the long tendency of Italian critics to exclude from the canon artists who achieved broad popular success (and Zucchero has had – and still has – success as a pop and international artist). However, a real critical rediscovery of the Emilian singer-songwriter is necessary, considering not only his role as a blues singer or international pop star, by now well established (for Zucchero “the international dimension has always been an obsession, a reason for living, not only to become a citizen of the world of music, but also for the sounds”), but also his character of innovator, due to his ability to combine musical with linguistic and textual research. In fact, it is precisely this mixture that makes him an extremely interesting character in the field of Italian songwriting, a character therefore to be known, understood and studied.

Bibliography

Giuseppe Antonelli, Ma cosa vuoi che sia una canzone. Mezzo secolo di italiano cantato, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2010.

Luca Bertoloni, I testi di Zucchero tra suoni perduti, linguaggio pre-testuale e canzone d’autore, “Inchiostro online”, https://inchiostro.unipv.it/i-testi-di-zucchero-tra-suoni-perduti-linguaggio-pre-testuale-e-canzone-dautore/

Luca Bertoloni, Iconodemia della musica pop italiana: pratiche di visibilità audiovisiva e performativa nell’immaginario pandemico, “Mediascapes Journal”, 17, 2021.

Gino Castaldo, Il romanzo della canzone italiana, Einaudi, Torino, 2018.

Paolo Talanca, Il canone dei cantautori italiani: la letteratura della canzone d’autore e le scuole dell’età, Carabba, Lanciano, 2017.

Zucchero Fornaciari, Il suono della domenica: il romanzo della mia vita, Mondadori, Milano, 2013.


[1] Along with Zucchero, Pino Daniele would also blend the blues with a more common Italian songwriter sound (Neapolitan in particular) – it’s not be chance that Daniele was also collaborating with Corrado Rustici from his early years onward.

[2] The presence of entire syntagms in English (sometimes correct, other times gibberish, often brief asides that function as metrical wedges), a true sign of the fabric of Zucchero’s texts, confirms his intent to link the signifier with the signified, constructing an atmosphere that recalls the American blues sound  (L. Bertoloni, I testi di Zucchero tra suoni perduti, linguaggio pre-testuale e canzone d’autore, “Inchiostro online”, https://inchiostro.unipv.it/i-testi-di-zucchero-tra-suoni-perduti-linguaggio-pre-testuale-e-canzone-dautore/).

[3] P. Talanca, Il canone dei cantautori italiani: la letteratura della canzone d’autore e le scuole dell’età, Carabba, Lanciano, 2017.

Translated songs: