Bono, an Irishman not afraid of a florid quote but also an enthusiast for music anywhere, described this man’s voice as being like a one-man brass section, but one aged like whiskey in oak.
Pavarotti, Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello have recorded with him. Miles Davis whispered advice in his ear. Almost anyone with a guitar or a rock pedigree passing through his town has shared a stage with him. And he rocks a velvet top hat with at least as much panache as Slash, so much so that he has his own hat category on the online craft emporium, Etsy. Top that Billie Eilish!
Zucchero, man, he’s a living legend.
If you’re asking “who?”, don’t worry, you wouldn’t be alone, even if you’re heading to Byron Bay for this year’s Blues Fest, where he’s back playing. However, given he’s about to make his fourth trip to Australia – the last time filling the Sydney Opera House - and has worldwide sales of more than 60 million albums, if you know anyone from the Italian diaspora, now might be the time to sidle up and say “so, tell me about Zucchero”.
They might tell you that his mother called him Adelmo Fornaciari, but since a primary school teacher thought the quiet boy in her class so sweet she called him zucchero, or sugar, the name has stuck. They might add that after giving up his veterinary science studies, seduced by “the drama, the sensuality, the rhythm” of black American music he almost single-handedly created the idea that Italians could not just like soul, blues and rhythm & blues, but make it themselves. And sing it in their own language.
It didn’t happen immediately. It almost didn’t happen at all. Zucchero, who had had success writing for others after a brief career in a band in the early ‘70s, recalls how when he went to America – his spiritual home as it were - in the mid-1980s to make his third solo album, Rispetto, it was the last throw of the dice after two moderate-selling records.
“In Italy at that time, blues and soul wasn’t so popular. It was just for a few people. The record company they preferred to have a melodic singer, very romantic singer with a very clean voice. They say, it’s very hard for you to break Italy with your voice and your style. At the end I said, this is what I like.”
The solution, the Zucchero way if you will, was to blend his two cultures, “black music like soul with Italian melodies and Mediterranean flavour”, southern American rhythms and the operatic and folk favourites of his home region of Reggio, on Rispetto.
Here, top tier sessions musicians such as bassplayer Randy (not the brother of Michael) Jackson, drummer Narada Michael Walden and keyboardist David Sancious (who had been a member of the E Street Band just before Bruce Springsteen faced a similar make-it-or-bust third album scenario) joined his more familiar Italian contributors.
The album went top 10 in Italy, paving the way for his fourth record, Blues – made with most of the same musicians - to get to number one (the first of nine consecutive releases to reach the summit), go nine times platinum and become the bestselling Italian album of all time. A position it only held for two years, topped by Zucchero’s subsequent album, Oro Incenso E Birra.
So he made the right call 40 years ago giving up being a goalkeeper to take up music?
“I think so,” he chuckles. “They say I was a decent goalkeeper but I always want to be a musician. But when I started to play [music] there was not much money around so I had to think should I study [veterinary science] because I love animals? But I chose to be musician even though in the beginning it was not so easy.”
After Oro Incenso E Birra the record company stopped giving advice or ultimatums, and Zucchero started palling around with, writing with and recording with seemingly everyone – including, apart from those mentioned earlier, Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, Sting and producer Don Was, who produced his last few albums, including 2019’s D.0.C.. Though let’s not forget Miles Davis.
The jazz giant made his own significant contribution to the Zucchero career when he told the still relatively young singer and songwriter to keep singing in Italian. Not so much as a purist’s move but one of sustaining an authenticity the trumpeter and composer could feel.
“He said you are original if you sing in Italian. If you sing in English, okay, but you are not totally yourself,” says Zucchero, who also laments the loss of a certain poetry and subtle meanings sometimes when his lyrics are translated into English. “Even Don Was, even Eric Clapton, all the people I work with, say when you sing in Italian, it’s you and you sound unique.”
The Zucchero love affair with America continues, his 2016 album, Black Cat – produced by the heavyweight trio of Was, Brendan O’Brien and T-Bone Burnett – came out of long bus rides around the country as he toured.
“Seeing a big sky, the oceans, the desert, the big cities, everything you see comes inside you and then when you are in your studio, and start to write, it’s like seeing a movie. And then the music is inspired by the emotion I feel when I was there,” Zucchero says.
“It was the same with Australia. I didn’t have the time to see [a lot] but what I saw was so strong that if I sit on the piano or the guitar and I close my eyes and I remember the trip, when we were driving by car through the desert and long roads with no end, that is something that inspired me writing new songs, melody and lyrics.”
Incidentally, Bono also said of Zucchero that he has the hair of a lion and the spirit of a poet – did I mention he loves a florid quote? Doesn’t make him wrong though.
Zucchero plays The Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 4; The Palais Theatre, Melbourne, April 7; and Bluesfest from, April 9.