The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
If there is one thing that unites everyone on social media, it’s complaining about who is nominated for and will likely win at the Grammy Awards, the 62nd installment of which will air on Sunday, January 26, 2020 on CBS, in a televised ceremony live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.
Whether it’s a past-his-prime Jethro Tull winning over an in-their-prime Metallica or Beck winning over Beyonce, the Recording Academy rarely escapes criticism for its pick of nominees and winners. And then there’s the charge this year, especially in a scathing 46 page discrimination complaint filed in court by current (though suspended) Academy president Deborah Dugan, that the Academy is “a good old boys’ club” with “secret committees” that steer nominations and cover-up bad behavior and sexual assault allegations.
Being out of touch and not having their fingers on the pulse of popular American music is not new for the Grammy Awards – it was also a criticism leveled at the very first Grammy Awards held on May 4, 1959. But despite the criticisms (which we’ll touch on later), one winner in particular stands out. Though he only came in 3rd at Eurovision 1958 with his ballad “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” Italian singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno went on to dominate the Summer of 1958 in the United States with his Eurovision entry, and triumph in two major categories at the very first Grammy Awards.
Born on January 9, 1928 in the Adriatic seaside town of Polignano a Mare in Apulia, Southern Italy, Modugno first came to prominence while in school having a small role in Italian filmmaker Eduardo de Filippo’s “Filumena Marturano.” While pursuing his acting career, Modugno also honed his skills as a singer and songwriter. At the time, especially in Italy, being a singer-songwriter was considered unusual, so Modugno’s first prominent credit as a musician came co-writing “Lazzarella” for Neopolitan actor and singer Aurelio Fierro.
“Lazzarella” was a hit, and inspired the 1957 film of the same name directed by Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia and starring Alessandra Panaro, with a supporting role by Modugno and an early Terence Hill appearance.
On top of his own film roles, Modugno also discovered two “trashy” street performers from Palermo named Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia and managed them as they became a famous Italian comedy team, churning out 38 “low brow” comedy films, including Mario Bava’s “Dr. Goldfoot and the Sex bombs.”
But it was Modugno’s next move that would thrust him into the limelight. Working on his piano at home on a dark and stormy night, Modugno got to thinking about a song about blue skies he’d discussed with lyricist Franco Migliacci. Migliacci had come to Modugno with the idea of a song based on two paintings by Russian-French painter Marc Chagall.
In June 1957, Migliacci told Modugno of a dream he had where he was in flight, but his face was painted blue. The vivid dream was based on Chagall’s “Le coq rouge” and “Le peintre et la modelle,” and the song was originally going to be called “Dream in Blue.”
According to Franca Gandolfi, Modugno’s wife, the song underwent several versions with Modugno becoming more frustrated with each tweak. But on that dark and stormy night, inspiration struck.
As Gandolfi told la Repubblica in 2010, “We were in our first house, there was the piano by the window. Mimmo (Domenico) was struggling, the song was there but still incomplete, he was not satisfied, the refrain was “I painted myself blue, to match the sky,” he said he was opening an opening. That night a crazy storm had broken out, so much electricity in the air, there was so much wind that at one point the window opened wide. Mimmo started acting, he looked like a shaman. Then came the musical phrase: first it was “I was flying oh oh,” then moved it to infinity, eventually it became “flying oh oh.” He was happy, he was screaming at the top of his voice. He immediately called Migliacci, said come and listen, the song is over.”
And thus “Volare” (Flying), one of the world’s most recognizable refrains, was born. To this day, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” is more commonly referred to in the United States as “Volare.” Modugno himself decided he was going to perform the song, and he debuted his whimsical ballad with the odd name of “In the blue painted blue” at the Sanremo Music Festival on January 30, 1958.
The initial reviews were mixed. Most found his wordplay unusual and refreshing, and some thought his “rough” singing style endearing compared to the more polished crooners and divas in competition. In a prophetic criticism, some such as Italian songwriter, musician and band leader Gorni Kramer criticized the unusual verbs left hanging in verses and the refrain as a deliberate attempt to appeal to foreigners. Kramer also said the song lacked style.
Sanremo disagreed. Modugno beat Nilla Pizzi, Gino Latilla, Claudio Villa, Carla Boni, Natalino Otto, Trio Joyce and Tonina Torrielli on the night of February 2, 1958 to win the 8th installment of the festival.
Next stop: AVRO Studios in Hilversum, The Netherlands, to compete at Eurovision 1958 as the official representative of Italy. Sweden made their debut, the United Kingdom withdrew for one year after their 1957 debut, and Dutch legend Corry Brokken, who brought the crown home to The Netherlands, was back with “Heel de wereld.” Eurovision’s very first winner Lys Assia also returned for Switzerland with “Giorgio.”
In 1958, for the first time, the juries remained in their own countries to listen in to the show. There were technical difficulties, and Modugno, who performed first, had to perform “Nel blu dipinto di blu” again.
But it was a bigger disaster for Brokken as host entry that night on March 12, 1958. She was in joint-last place with Luxembourg’s Solange Berry, and it would only be until 2015 that a host would be in last place again (Austria’s The Makemakes’s “I’m Yours“).
Modugno came in third place with 13 points, Assia narrowly came in behind the winner in 2nd place with 24 points to victor André Claveau, representing France, and his “”Dors, mon amour.”
At 46 years of age, Claveau was the oldest winner of the contest until 1990 (Toto Cutugno was 47 when he won for Italy with “Insieme: 1992). But for the 3rd placed Modugno, his song’s journey would continue into the summer and rack up accolades in a place infamously allergic to Eurovision: The United States of America.
In the summer of 1958, the United States was three years into the rock ‘n roll craze that had upended the entire post-war American music landscape. The adults who were into big bands and country found themselves in a landscape where their kids, enjoying the disposable income of the post-war economic boom, were buying records by pioneering acts such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, not to mention a resurgence of jazz with the likes of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald making the charts.
If this seems an unlikely landscape in which a song like “Nel blu dipinto di blu” could thrive, it was. However, the 1950s also saw an Italian-American renaissance, as second and third generation Italian-Americans began to flex their own economic muscle, yet also sought artistic inspiration from their Italian heritage. Singers such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin performed songs that melded the old soft jazz and big band sound of the 1930s with what they were hearing being brought over from Italy.
Resort towns such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas featured these new Italian-American lounge acts, and while the kids were shaking their hips in time to the King’s “Jailhouse Rock” and other such rock ‘n roll hits, the adults got into the Italian-American sound and these songs went toe to toe with the rock ‘n rollers and jazz divas on the newly formed Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
“Nel blu dipinto di blu” was already a smash hit in Modugno’s native Italy by the time Eurovision 1958 had rolled around, so it was only a matter of time before the Italian-Americans would pick up on it. On August 4, 1958, Modugno released “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” and after debuting at Number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100, it surged to Number 2 the following week. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (a show which also famously introduced The Beatles to the United States) put the song over the edge, and for six weeks, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” was Number 1.
In the tail end of the summer of 1958, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” sold 2 million copies (to date over 22 million copies of the single have been sold). Due to its chart dominance, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” would be Billboard’s Song of the Year for 1958. It would be the only song by someone outside of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to hold that honor until Swedish dance group Ace of Base’s “The Sign” in 1994.
And it’s not like it was a weak year. Elvis Presley was still churning out hits. He himself got on the Italian-American train in 1960 with “It’s now or never,” an English language cover of the Italian “O Sole Mio.”
Some of the songs directly competing with Modugno in the last weeks of the summer of 1958, most of which are well-remembered classics to this day:
- Peggy Lee – “Fever“
- Ricky Nelson – “Poor Little Fool“
- Bobby Darin – “Splish Splash“
- Elvis Presley – “Hardheaded woman“
- The Coasters – “Yakety Yak“
- Dean Martin – “Volare” (yes, Dean Martin’s cover directly competed and lost to the original, and a phenomenon we’ve seen again with Italians at Eurovision)
- Little Anthony and the Imperials – “Tears on my Pillow“
Earlier, in the summer of 1957, record executives from the established labels began fretting over the dominance of rock ‘n roll, and wanted to create an artistic institution as a gatekeeper of quality in the music world. With smaller labels beginning to cut into their profit margins, executives consulted establishment acts such as Doris Day and big band act composers such as Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl and created the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, the precursor to the Recording Academy.
On May 4, 1959, the very first Grammy Awards were held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. And right out of the gate, the Awards were the butt of jokes from most audience members.
As Los Angeles Times writer Randy Lewis wrote, “Looking back at the recipients of the initial awards handed out during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’d never know the big bang called rock ’n’ roll had just exploded.Swing era icons Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Duke Ellington also took home Grammys that year. Had Twitter existed then, the Recording Academy would have been battling a #GrammysSoDad campaign.”
There were some oddities, but you can’t argue with the success of Modugno’s song. By objective sales metrics alone, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” was a worthy recipient of the very first Grammy for Record of the Year. Whether the much-ridiculed “The Chipmunk Song” deserved a nomination in the same category is the type of question you still hear in 2020.
Frank Sinatra was a pre-show favorite with six nominations, but only won one (for, laughably, Best Album Cover, as he had an art direction credit). Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” was up against Modugno for Song of the Year, but “Nel blu dipinto di blu” was the first ever Grammy winner for that category, too. But the major performers of the day who were popular with the youth were conspicuous by their absence. Elvis Presley would only win a Grammy in 1967, long after his rock ‘n roll revolution and during a mid-career slump, and for a gospel recording no less.
No other song that was a Eurovision entry has won a Grammy since. ABBA, whose career also took off in the United States, never received a nomination for any of their songs, let alone for their Eurovision 1974 winning “Waterloo.” Gina G was nominated for Best Dance Record in 1998 for her 8th place at EUrovision 1996 entry “Ooh aah… Just a Little Bit,” but the wait for a Eurovision victor at the Grammys continues. Modugno left America with the two biggest of the Grammy awards an artist can get.
Modugno returned to Eurovision in 1959 with “Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina),” which came in 6th. The Netherlands won again, this time with Teddy Scholten and “Een beetje.” “Piove (Ciao, ciao bambina)” was a minor hit in the United States for Modugno, coming in at Number 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. And Modugno mined the fame from “Nel blu dipinto di blu” by starring in a film adaptation of the song in 1959.
Modugno tried again in 1966, with “Dio, come ti amo” coming in last. Originally performed and winning Sanremo as a duet with Eurovision 1964 winner Gigliola Cinquetti, Modugno ended up in a feud with the European Broadcasting Union as Modugno needed the song to be rearranged for a solo performance as Cinquetti was not available to perform with him. A lot of compromises were made as the EBU initially refused to allow the rearrangement. “Dio, come ti amo” came in 17th and last, with nul points.
Modugno continued his dual career path of actor and singer, though for the latter went in a more classical direction. In 1984, a stroke forced him to retire entirely from his artistic endeavors. However, by 1986 Modugno had become a prominent voice for disabled Italians and in 1987, was elected to Italian Parliament as a member of The Radical Party.
On August 6, 1994, Modugno passed away at the age of 66 in his seaside home in Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily. Born by the sea and taking flight in the blue sky to return to the sea.
What do #YOU think of “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” and its legacy? Do #YOU think Eurovision can ever send a song that conquers the United States? Let us know in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media.