As the title of one of his most famous songs states, Lucio Dalla was born on March 4, 1943, and became one of the most important, as well as most popular, figures in Italian pop music of the second half of the 20th century. Dalla's career was a fascinating musical rollercoaster through several distinct periods. More than once he managed to enrapture and then enrage fans and critics with his sudden changes of musical direction, which were, as is often the case in Italy, invariably perceived as sheer ideological betrayals. Still, at the same time that he was alienating one audience, he was attracting a new and often bigger one. Typically unfazed by controversy, Dalla never let criticism get behind his perennial sad buffoon façade, and kept doing things his way, even at the risk of self-parody. By the early 21st century, Dalla had long become an untouchable icon of Italian pop culture as everybody's favorite mischievous uncle.
Lucio Dalla was born in Bologna, and spent most of his childhood summers on Italy's Southern coast and islands. In his songs, he often looked for inspiration to both his hometown and the sea. A third key element in Dalla's artistic development was his early and lifelong infatuation with American big-band jazz music and vocalists. Ever since his thirteenth birthday, when his mother offered him a clarinet, young Dalla only had music on his mind. After playing around town with several amateur ensembles, he joined the Rheno Dixieland Band in 1960 and won an award at the first European Jazz Festival in Antibes, France. He subsequently moved to the bigger Second Roman New Orleans Jazz Band, with whom he first entered a studio to record an instrumental 45.
By 1962, Dalla was a member of the Flippers, and to his clarinet or saxophone duties he added singing in a humorous scat style that would soon become his vocal trademark. The Flippers were also the studio and tour backing band for Edoardo Vianello, a novelty singer who scored several monster hits in the 1960s, such as "I Watussi." At the 1963 Cantagiro Festival, Gino Paoli (the most important songwriter of the period and a highly influential voice in Italy's music scene) was impressed with Dalla's unique talents and convinced him to leave Flippers for a solo career. In 1964 at only 21 years old, Dalla released his first single, " "Lei," (written by Paoli), with a Curtis Mayfield cover on the B-side illuminating Dalla's admiration for African-American soul singers, notably James Brown.
Dalla's first solo steps were anything but encouraging. His single flopped, his performances often met with a hostile reception -- if not with tomatoes flying at his face -- due to his impromptu vocal stylings that sounded downright bizarre in the context of traditional Italian pop music. His ungainly physical appearance (short, thickset, deliberately unkempt) did not help him win over a mainstream audience, either. Dalla, however, was determined to succeed. He formed a backing band, Gli Idoli, and recorded his first album, which went largely unnoticed upon its release in 1966. It was followed by a string of singles and appearances at song festivals, such as Cantagiro and San Remo, where he performed his debut album's single "Paff...Bum!" with none other than the Yardbirds! At the same time, Dalla branched out into a movie career, landing several minor roles. In fact, while he did not release another album until 1970, he appeared in no less than ten films between 1965 and 1969. Most of these were bit parts or second-string musicals or comedies for the likes of Rita Pavone or Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. Still, Dalla's most important role came in the political allegory I Sovversivi by brothers Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, who were among the finest and most militant Italian filmmakers of the period. Dalla was even nominated for the best actor award at the 1967 Venice Film Festival. Interestingly, this dichotomy between light, goofy entertainment, and stringent political messages would become an integral, and paradoxical, part of Dalla's artistic persona until at least 1980.
Around 1970, Dalla went back to concentrate on music as his career was finally picking up. He released two more albums with Gli Idoli, Terra di Gaibola and Storie di Casa Mia, as well as a few non-LP singles. Thus Dalla's first period effectively covers the years 1966-1972, when the singer was trying to find his voice. He composed most of the music for his songs, but relied on several lyricists for the text, most famously Gianfranco Baldazzi, Sergio Bardotti, and Paola Pallotino. Dalla's songs of the period were split between attempts at fitting into the Italian pop canon (either with introspective ballads in the style of Gino Paoli and Luigi Tenco or with romping, silly ditties), and finding a way to channel his jazz influences and penchant for vocal experimentation into song format. These first albums were inevitably uneven, yet still contained a fair amount of outstanding tracks destined to become classics of '70s Italian music, such as "4 Marzo 1943" (truly a world-wide success, covered by Brazil's Chico Buarque and France's Dalida, among others), and the magnificent single-only "Piazza Grande." This tender ode to a proudly independent hobo's longing for companionship was written together with Ron, another upcoming songwriter who would become a star on his own, and an assiduous Dalla collaborator. Indeed, Ron participated on several Dalla records and tours, and it was also rumored they were partners at the time. Dalla's alleged homosexuality has never been confirmed (or denied) by the singer, but the question never affected his career since such matters tended to be tacitly accepted in Italy as long as they remain private.
In 1973 Dalla's career took a surprising left turn when he began a collaboration with Bolognese Marxist poet Roberto Roversi. Over the next four years, the duo completed a trilogy of albums, Il Giorno Aveva Cinque Teste, Anidride Solforosa, and Automobili, that is often regarded as a cornerstone of modern Italian pop music. Roversi's sprawling texts, largely about the environmental and societal decay at the hands of industry, painted a nightmarish, surrealist vision of Italy, unfolding a gallery of memorable characters that could be depicted with scathing irony (Gianni Agnelli's send-up of "Intervista con L'avvocato"), but also deep compassion (the destitute family of "L'auto Targata To"). Dalla's composition and singing had never sounded this ambitious or self-assured before: free-form structures, multi-part songs, elements or instruments borrowed from electronic or avant-garde music, all the stops were pulled in a creative whirlwind capped by his histrionic vocal experiments. These fascinating records were by no means inaccessible, and gained Dalla considerable clout among critics and colleagues. Tracks from this period, however, rarely find their way into greatest-hits compilations, since these veritable concept albums demand to be listened to in their entirety. Dalla and Roversi had a falling out over the selection of material for Automobili when Dalla complied with his record company's wishes to leave out a few of the more politicized songs. This sent Roversi into such a fury that he only consented to sign his name to the final version of the album under a pseudonym, effectively ending their collaboration in 1976.
At this point, Dalla was bursting with confidence, so much so that he finally decided to write his own lyrics and become the sole author of his music. The Roversi trilogy was to be superceded by the even better "Dalla Trilogy," the three successive masterpieces of 1977's Come E Prefondo il Mare, 1979's Lucio Dalla, and 1980s Dalla. These albums found Dalla at the absolute peak of his songwriting powers, reaching a perfect balance between his idiosyncratic vision and commercial appeal. From the somber foreboding of "Come Prefondo il Mare" to the hopeful joy of "Futura," most of Dalla's greatest songs sprang from the years 1977-1980: "Disperato Erotico Stomp," "Anna e Marco," "L'anno Che Verrà," and "Cara," among many others. This period also saw the culmination of Dalla's collaboration with legendary fellow cantautore Francesco De Gregori. Dalla had helped De Gregori craft his breakthrough album, Rimmel, in 1975, and in 1978 they released a single together, followed by a joint tour that became the biggest sensation of the year in Italy. Their live joint album, Banana Republic, was soon released and became another huge seller. In spite of their contrasting personalities, Dalla the exuberant clown and De Gregori the haughty intellectual, the work of each songwriters between 1975-1980 bears close resemblance to the other's, and it yielded many of the golden moments of 1970s Italian music.
Dalla entered the 1980s as a true superstar, having achieved critical and commercial consensus. As the decade unfolded, however, his songwriting took a noticeable dip. Flashes of his best work appeared on the Q Disc EP and 1983, but successive albums were hampered by misguided attempts to fit into the synth and dance oriented sounds of the time, as well as by uninspiring material. Still, Dalla always managed to deliver the right singles, and his records were selling more than ever. The 1986 live album, DallAmeriCaruso, culled from a tour of the United States, was not only a terrific summary of Dalla's work, but introduced the new studio song "Caruso," about the famous tenor's last days. Perhaps Dalla's finest song, it sold more than nine million copies worldwide and was covered by just about every singer on both sides of the pop/classical spectrum, most notably Luciano Pavarotti. Similarly, Dalla's 1990 LP Cambio became the biggest seller of his career on the strength of the Ron-penned "Attenti al Lupo," a childlike lullaby that had global audiences humming but Italian critics tearing their hair out and using adjectives such as "senile" to describe Dalla's latest productions. In truth, some critics and colleagues had already begun to accuse Dalla of selling out after he quit working with Roversi, but the obvious quality of Dalla's albums until 1980 made such commentaries sound hurried and irrelevant. This was no longer the case by 1990.
As if to reinforce his critics' opinions, Dalla's last major collaboration was with none other than eternal goody goody 1960s teen idol Gianni Morandi. Their 1988 studio album was, predictably, a huge success, only to be surpassed by their European tour and the obligatory live album of the following year, but the artistic results were little more than a comforting and calculated exercise in nostalgia, a far cry from his work with Roversi or De Gregori. Thus, in little more than a decade, Dalla seemed to make a 180-degree turn from quirky leftist to squarely middle of the road. The typically engaged Italian intelligentsia never quite forgave him for it. Dalla's popularity waned in the 1990s due to his inability to attract younger audiences, although his visibility remained high thanks to his numerous appearances in TV, both in variety shows and sitcoms. He had also been involved in composing film scores and launching the career of new artists, in pop as well as classical music projects, and his tours were guaranteed crowd pleasers. Unsurprisingly, his greatest-hits compilations and live albums became more frequent and were better received than his new studio albums. This was indeed a pity, since his late records evidenced a late creative renaissance. Comfortably adjusted to his role as a living legend, Dalla's inimitable verve positively sparkled through collections such as 1996's Canzoni, 2001's Luna Matana, and 2007's Il Contrario di Me. Just before his 69th birthday, in March of 2012, he died of a heart attack, just the morning after a performance in Montreux. ~ Mariano Prunes