I went to live in Italy in 1990 and as well as being eager to enjoy the wonderful climate and delightful food I was curious to discover what the local music scene was like. Listening to the radio, I was not inspired by the general diet of soggy melodic pop but there was one song that was often played which stood head and shoulders above the rest both for its bluesy rock sound and for the gravelly voice of the singer. I barely spoke a word of Italian at the time but managed to work out the title – Senza Una Donna (which a year later would become a hit in the UK in a duet version with Paul Young) – so I went down to the local music shop and blurted out the title at the startled owner who kindly understood enough to introduce me to Zucchero’s 1987 breakthrough album Blue’s. Not a remarkable story you might think but there is a remarkably similar story concerning Miles Davies – yes, that Miles Davies – who around the same time casually heard the song Dune Mosse from the same Blue’s album and immediately declared he wanted to record a version of the song with Zucchero, which he duly did! This ability to strike a chord with people outside of Italy is what makes Zucchero stand out from just about everyone else in the Italian music scene. He’s sold over 50 million albums worldwide and has performed with global stars ranging from Clapton to Bono, to Pavarotti, to Sting. No other Italian rock artist has come anywhere near this level of success. No wonder he’s called the Italain King of the blues.
I spoke to Zucchero the day after he’d played the Music For Marsden fund-raising event at the O2 Arena so begin by asking him how the gig went. ‘Very good, I enjoyed it’ responds Zucchero. ‘I was with good friends, in great company with Eric Clapton and Paul Young. The gig was good and they raised over a million pounds.’ Zucchero has played countless concerts for good causes over the years so I’m interested in his views on whether musicians in general do enough to use their influence to change the world in a positive way. ‘You know in the past there were more of these charity events’ reflects Zucchero. ‘In the last few years there are not so many. But yes, musicians really should do more to help research, or help people who need aid. When they call me I’ve always said yes.’
So how did Zucchero, a poor country lad from Emilia Romagna come to be a world superstar? The first step was thanks to the local church for giving him the opportunity to learn an instrument. Zucchero tells the exquisitely Italian story: ‘It was when I was at elementary school. You know the only way to learn to play the organ was to go to church before school – because it was free! Instead of playing church music I was learning to play popular songs. I had a deal with the priest: he would let me play the organ before school and in exchange I would help him out with the mass as an altar boy. That was the deal’. Maybe it was the sweet angelic looks of the altar boy, Adelmo Fornaciari, that made his teacher give him the nickname of “Zucchero” (sugar, in English) which subsequently stuck as his stage name.
The influences that Zucchero absorbed as he grew up were mostly black American: he was fascinated by the rhythm and blues, gospel and soul music. That was very unusual at the time for an Italian but Zucchero tells me how hearing Joe Cocker’s performance at Woodstock convinced him that he could succeed: ‘That Joe Cocker performance was a very strong influence on me because he wasn’t black; he was a white singer and he was singing rhythm and blues and afro-American gospel music. I said to myself “This is what I would like to do. Maybe there is a space for me”. That was a big boost to my self-belief.’
That self-belief was to take a bit of a battering in the following years as Zucchero struggled to make his mark. Since 1951, the Samremo festival has been the primary showcase for musical talent in Italy and Zucchero participated several times without getting anywhere near the winners podium. He actually finishing penultimate on two occasions. I am curious as to whether that affected Zucchero’s confidence and made him feel like giving up at all. ‘it was very frustrating and I almost decided to stop making records’ confirms Zucchero. ‘ The record company was saying that I should do more melodic music, be more clean with my voice, and that I didn’t have the face to be successful because I looked like a Bavarian host!’. Zucchero bursts into laughter at that last self-deprecating comment before continuing ‘But that is what they said, so what could I say! Then I said to them “Please, give me a last chance. Let me do the music that I feel. Let me do the music that I like”. They replied “Blues and R&B will never work in Italy. We need a melodic, typical Italian style”. So I went to San Francisco with a very small budget and in one week I did an album. When I came back I sent in the tapes of the album – but not in my name but the name of my friend. They called him up and said “Wow, you are a fantastic musician! Who are you and where are you? Can we meet tomorrow and make a deal because we are impressed with you music?” I showed up myself at the meeting and they were shocked! That was the beginning of the change.‘ That album was Blue’s and it launched Zucchero’s career and this unique mixture of blues and black American music with an Italian melodic twist has made Zucchero an international star.
From that breakthrough album, the discussion turns to his latest and 13th studio album, D.O.C., which anyone with a taste for good food will know stands for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” and is the label that guarantees the geographic authenticity of high quality Italian food and drink products. I wonder whether this title a way of saying that Zucchero’s own music is authentic and genuine in a world where music often appears manufactured to meet purely commercial needs. ‘In a way, but it’s got more to do with my roots’ reflects Zucchero. ‘I grew up in the countryside on a farm. We made our own wine and our own olive oil. But these days it seems more about appearance than substance. Everybody has to be cool. But I need genuineness, and I need to go back to a time with more genuineness. I know it’s impossible but I try to lead my life as much as I can in this way.’
The album cover’s central shot is of sunset over a corn field was actually taken by Zucchero so I’m interested in hearing about the pilgrimage behind that shot. ‘Yes, that was a field of corn at Crossroads where the legend says that the blues artist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. We were there last year in April for a tour and I wanted to go to see Crossroads but I was upset because Crossroads is now very modern with normal roads and buildings. So, close to the real Crossroads where they say he made his pact with the devil, there was this corn field at sunset and we took this photo. For me it was a magical moment and it means something for me so I put it on the cover.’
I point out that the most striking thing about the opening tracks on the album, Spirito Nel Buio and Soul Mama, is the modern electronic which is a slightly new sound in his music. ‘You’re right’ confirms Zucchero. ‘ We tried to introduce some electronic elements – but carefully. Basically the music that I love is the rhythm and blues, and American gospel music and it’s not easy to do these types of things in a modern way. It’s not easy because the risk is that you create a confusion of sounds so we had to be very careful. I just want to make an album different from the others that I’ve made; I don’t like to repeat myself.’
I observe that songs such as Nella Tempesta seem to have a certain spirituality that is perhaps a new element to his music. ‘Yes, it’s true’ agrees Zucchero. ‘Throughout the lyrics of the album there’s a common theme of redemption. You know I grew up in a communist region and even though my family were not communists we never went to the church. We were atheists. But now, maybe because of my age, I start to think that there is something and I’m looking for something.’
British listeners who might not be comfortable trying to decipher Italian lyrics will be pleased to know that three of the songs have two versions, one with Italian lyrics and one with English lyrics. This, explains Zucchero, is what is expected in the business these days: ‘The record companies and the promoters tell me that to be successful outside of Italy you have to sing in English. I’ve done a lot of versions of my songs in English with lyrics from Bono, Elvis Costello, and others. But then when I try to adapt the Italian lyrics to English I discover that I can lose the meaning – the typical Italian way of saying something often doesn’t make sense in English. So I have decided to sing more in Italian. Also, I’d rather stick with the original because you don’t necessarily need to understand all the single words; I think that the music itself talks.’ I remind Zucchero that Miles Davies was probably the first to encourage him to keep singing in Italian. ‘Yes, that’s right, he was the first one. He told me “I love your voice, I love your singing, I love your music but why do you sing in English? You must sing in Italian because it’s the original and it’s different”’.
During his career, Zucchero has collaborated closely with a huge number of elite stars. I’m interested to hear which of these musicians he feels most close to personally and which he feels most close to musically? ‘Personally, with Paul Young for example, and his family’ begins Zucchero. ‘I’m the godfather of one of his daughters. I’m close to the Sting family, Pavarotti’s family and the Bocelli family too. Musically, I love Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, Bono, B.B. King and lots of others.’
The collaboration with Sting has been strong through the years and I’m curious as to how that came about. ‘With Sting, he had an album out called Soul Cages and he wanted to do a version of I’m Mad About You in Italian’ explains Zucchero. ‘So, he asked his record company to find someone that could do the Italian lyrics, and they thought I would be good. I was in a hotel in London when they asked me and I did the lyrics of the Italian version on the same day. Sting was so happy that he suggested we sing it together in Italian, so we recorded it in Capri and it became a big hit in Italy.’ I reflect that collaboration with Sting must be easy since they are almost neighbours in Tuscany. ‘Yes, he’s only forty minutes from my house’ adds Zucchero. I mention the rumours of culinary exchanges between the two of them, and Zucchero laughs before continuing: ‘You know Sting is in the area where all the Chianti grapes are; I’m more in the north. The land is definitely better where he has got his property but my balsamic vinegar is definitely better – he can’t compete!’
It’s fascinating to hear Zucchero talk so casually about the many relationships he has the elite of the rock world, not to mention the classical and jazz worlds. It’s a testament to his character – he’s clearly still the affable easy going guy from the Italian countryside that enjoys his music and food in company of like-minded individuals.
The upcoming world tour has been hit by the coronavirus crisis although at the time of writing the UK gigs in Glasgow on the 6th June, Manchester on the 7th and London’s Royal Albert Hall on the 10th and 11th are still scheduled to go ahead. Whether they happen in June or later in the year, get tickets if you can. Without a doubt they will be gigs worthy of a D.O.C. label.