• Kyriakos Tsinivits

The story and legacy of ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’



As part of our Throwback Thursday (TBT) History series, we take a look back at the story and legacy of a Eurovision song which became the most covered in the Contest’s history: ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’.


Many know the infectious lines (‘Volare, oh, oh; Cantare, oh, oh, oh, oh.’), but back in 1958 at the third Eurovision Song Contest in Hilversum, Netherlands, no one would have thought that the performance by Domenico Modugno of ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ would take the world by storm and make him one of the first Italian pop music stars to go truly international.



The birth of ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’


The Italian song ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’, which literally means ‘In the Blue-Painted Blue’ and became better known as ‘Volare’ (‘To Fly’), was written by Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno. The inspiration for the song came from Migliacci and his combined memories of two Marc Chagall paintings and himself painted blue with the ability to fly.



As the story goes, Migliacci and Modugno had planned a trip to the beach together. While Migliacci was waiting for Modugno, Migliacci was drinking wine and then fell asleep. When he woke up he found himself staring at two reproductions of Marc Chagall paintings, one of which was ‘Le coq rouge’, pictured above. Suddenly the lyrics about a man who dreams of being blue while flying in the sky just came to him. [1]


The two writers worked this event into a song originally called ‘Song in blu’ (‘Dream in blue’). The chorus was later modified to include the infamous word ‘volare’ and renamed ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’.


The song would go on to be submitted as an entry in the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy.



Sanremo Music Festival 1958



The Sanremo Music Festival is the contest which inspired Eurovision itself. In its eighth edition in 1958, Modugno entered the contest for the second time, the first time being in 1956 with the song ‘Musetto’.


‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ first passed through the pre-selection process before being selected to compete in the Sanremo Music Festival. The song was then chosen by a jury of 200 (with 100 drawn from the public of the Sanremo Casino) as one of the ten nightly selected finalist songs.


Modugno had performed ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ together with Johnny Dorelli. Their performances did exceptionally well, ultimately winning the contest. However, “it was the lively gestures of Modugno, with his trademark elongation of the arms as he sang the catchy chorus, which captured the attention of both the public and the critics.” [2]


Modugno would go on to compete at twelve editions of Sanremo, winning the trophy on four occasions and coming in second place three further times.

Eurovision Song Contest 1958


Domenico Modugno flew the flag for Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1958, Italy’s third year in the contest after making its debut in the inaugural event.



Modugno was the first to sing on the night, with Englishman Alberto Semprini as the conductor. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, his performance was missed by the audience in certain viewing countries. After everyone had finished performing, Domenico Modugno was given the opportunity to perform his song again.


His energetic and passionate performance earned him third place with 13 points, behind Switzerland’s Lys Assia, the first Eurovision winner, who received 24 points for ‘Giorgio’ and France’s winning entrant, André Claveau, who achieved with 27 points with his performance of ‘Dors, mon amour’ (‘Sleep, my love’).


Luckily for Modugno, his performance was brought to the attention of American singer Dean Martin. The song would become a huge hit and the most well-known song that never won Eurovision. [3] More on that below!


Modugno returned to the Eurovision stage representing Italy another two times, thanks to his Sanremo victories. He came back the following year, 1959, with ‘Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina)’ (‘It’s raining (Bye bye, baby). The song was ranked sixth on the night and went on to be a commercial success.


Modugno would return to the Contest for the last time in 1966 with ‘Dio, come ti amo’ (‘God, How I Love You’). Sadly, on this occasion, he would fail to score any points, becoming one of the Contest’s “nul pointers”, alongside Téréza from Monaco. It is the only occasion on which Italy has not scored any points and placed last in the country’s Eurovision history.


Song of the year for 1958


1958 was a big year for ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’. It was named Billboard’s song of the year for 1958. [4]


The song was also immensely popular around the world, with the single selling exceptionally well in Italy. Due to its domestic success, the single was released across Europe, in the United States and Australia.


In the USA, the song debuted at No. 54 on the first ever Billboard Hot 100 chart on August 4 1958. Two weeks later it topped the chart, becoming the second-ever song to take out the No. 1 spot in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It would go on to stay there for five non-consecutive weeks.

Modugno subsequently performed on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show. He also performed in Los Angeles and New York, where thousands gathered to hear him sing ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ live. Over the course of 1958, two million copies would be sold in the United States alone.


In Australia, Dean Martin’s version of the song charted together with Modugno’s version, released on October 4 1958 and reached the No. 1 spot. The single made it to No. 3 in the best-selling singles chart for 1958. It is still the only Eurovision song to reach the No.1 spot in Australia.


‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’ sold over 22 million copies worldwide! [5]

The 1st Annual Grammy Awards


The global impact of Modugno’s performance of ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ continued when it was recognised at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards.


The inaugural Grammy Awards, then known as the Gramophone Awards, was held in two locations on 4 May 1959. A black-tie dinner and awards presentation was held at Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, where the likes of Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin were present. At the same time, the Recording Academy members convened for a simultaneous function at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City.


Modugno was nominated for three awards for ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’: Grammy Award for Song of the Year as the songwriter, Grammy Award for Record of the Year as the performing artist and Best Vocal Performance, Male. He was successful in the first two categories, beating Perry Como with ‘Catch A Falling Star’, Vic Damone with ‘Gigi’, Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘Witchcraft’ in the first and Perry Como with ‘Catch A Falling Star’, Peggy Lee with ‘Fever’, David Seville and The Chipmunks’ ‘The Chipmunk Song’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘Witchcraft’. [5]


Modugno’s wins had further significance: he will forever be the first winner of Song of the Year and Record of the Year. In addition, ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ is also the first and only foreign language release to win those awards and the only Eurovision song to receive a Grammy Award to date.

‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’- a legacy


‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’ has left a lasting legacy for musicians over the last seven decades and – as the official Eurovision website makes clear – the song is “the most covered Eurovision song ever” and has been translated into multiple languages.



Dean Martin was one of the first artists to cover the song, which was renamed ‘Volare’ and had parts of the song translated into English by New York lyricist Mitchell Parish. It was this release that would be responsible for the song achieving its mass appeal worldwide. Both the Modugno and Martin versions of the song charted simultaneously.


‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’ has been covered by so many artists that there are too many to name here, but they include – most notably – Ella Fitzgerald, Dalida, Luciano Pavarotti, Louis Armstrong, David Bowie, Oscar Peterson, Gipsy Kings, Frank Zappa, Il Volo, André Rieu & His Johann Strauss Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Cliff Richard and Barry White.






The song became so popular it even has been used as a football chant.


For the millennials out there, the song was also featured in the 2003 ‘The Lizzie McGuire Movie’ in a scene in which Lizzie, played by Hilary Duff , is escorted on a Vespa through Rome by Paolo, played by Yani Gellman. Their sightseeing ride is accompanied by a cover of the song by Vitamin C. Yes, that’s right, the artist behind the popular 2000 song ‘Graduation (Friends Forever)’.



The song also makes its return to Eurovision from time to time, most notably at the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul when host Meltem Cumbul encouraged the audience to sing the song with her as a warm-up to start the Eurovision Semi-Final and Grand Final shows.



More recently, Italy’s Eurovision 2020 artist Diodato performed an emotive version of ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)’ for the special show ‘Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light’. The song also appeared on Australian TV in 2010 on the SBS show ‘A-Z of Eurovision’, hosted by former Australian Eurovision stalwarts Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang. This clip from the show features the classic track in both its original version by Domenico Modugno and a tribute from SBS football personality the late Les Murray.



Significantly, the song has also appeared in every ESC250 ranking produced by songfestival.be since 2011. It has remained in the top 200 over the last nine years, debuting at No. 165 in 2011. It peaked at No. 80 in 2013 and last year made it to No. 143; it is also the only 1950s song to make the list last year.


References:

1 Capurso, A, 2019 November 22, 'A How the Italian song “Volare” was inspired by wine (and Chagall)', Wine and other stories blog

2 Shirru, R & Egan, L, 2016 August 24, 'Mr. Volare” takes centre stage in 1958 with his worldwide hit “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu', Il Globo

3 Mangan, D 2004, This is Sweden Calling, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, pg 24

4, 6 Tibballs, G 2016, THE GOOD, THE BAD and the WURST, Robinson London UK, pg 5

5 '1st Annual Grammy Awards (1958)', Recording Academy Grammy Awards

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