Zucchero, ‘father of Italian blues,’ on the city that jump-started his career

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Zucchero, Black Cat, Zucchero Fornaciari

When Zucchero Fornaciari first visited the United States in 1984, the Italian musician was on the cusp of greatness in his native Italy. The singer-songwriter, now Italy’s most famous bluesman, was just beginning to blend the American genre into his own Mediterranean style.

Zucchero
7:30 p.m., Sunday, March 19
The Palace of Fine Arts
Tickets: $35-$55.

Zucchero (or, Sugar) came to San Francisco to write and record with an Italian-born producer. All these years later, after working with the likes of Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, Bono—to name just a few—he still remembers his first night in the New World.

“We arrive at the hotel at the Pier 39 … it was four in the morning,” Zucchero said with slight, clear accented English. “I never saw something big like this, with all these big roads. I was shocked. But there was nothing to eat at four in the morning, so we called [for] pizza. It was the best pizza I ever eat. They were old Neapolitan; they kept using the same old way to make pizza on the wood, with the fire. In Italy, they are not the same anymore, because they have machines to make pizza. I was impressed by how big the pizza was and how good the pizza was. And I remember the beautiful city and the ports and the gate.”

The 61-year-old will visit again March 19, when he and his band play the Palace of Fine Arts, in support of his latest album, 2016’s Black Cat. By 1984, Zucchero had released several albums that failed to gain traction in Italy. The Tuscany native had been mixing American soul and blues music with music from the Mediterranean since his teens.

At that time, American blues and R&B was largely a genre of the elite in Italy, he said. The majority of Italians did listen to it, but Zucchero fell in love with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.

“When I start to make records, I said I would like to keep this kind of groove or … sound,” he said. “But, I’m Mediterranean; I’m Italian. Melody aside, I have to be myself. It’s not part of my roots. So at the end, I mixed [these] two kinds of music; rhythm blues, soul, gospel.”

When his music failed to impress Italians, his record label asked Zucchero to change up his style and be a more traditional, melodic Italian pop singer.

“They [said] it will never work in Italy,” he said.

Instead, he told label executives to send him to America to hone his craft. They acquiesced but told him it was his last chance.

“‘Do what you want, but if you doesn’t work, ‘Ciao bambino,’” he recalled. “It means ‘bye-bye.’” And that’s how he ended up at a Pier 39 hotel at 4 a.m. eating American pizza he is sure tasted better than any from Italy.

He had travelled here to work with Corrado Rustici, who had played with and produced Aretha Franklin and Narada Michael Walden. Walden would join the recording sessions, as would bassist Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame). These sessions turned into 1985 album Zucchero & The Randy Jackson Band.

The record label executives could not believe the change in the singer-songwriter’s direction. Everyone said it had potential, but it was still a risk for the label because it was so different. The album changed his life. Zucchero is now known as the “father of Italian blues.” He has sold more than 50 million records worldwide and was awarded an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, an equivalent to English knighthood.

His 1987 album Blue’s became the highest selling album in Italian history, until his next album, 1989’s Oro Incenso & Birra, overtook it. Blue’s included instrumentation by Clarence Clemons and David Sancious (The E-Street Band), and The Memphis Horns. Oro Incenso & Birra had a collaboration with Clapton, as well as Miles Davis. In the early ‘90s, he continued his string of successful duets, with Sting, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Elton John and Brian May of Queen. The upward trajectory continued throughout the next several albums, and Zucchero was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2007.

Zucchero has built a career out of dueting with some of the most celebrated musicians in the English-speaking world. But most of the collaborations, at least at first, began naturally. Miles Davis was touring through Italy when, while eating at a restaurant, he heard Zucchero’s “Dune Mosse” play over the speaker. He was so impressed with the track, he had his manager hunt down the artist, who had been vacationing in the Maldives at the time.

“He said, ‘I would love to play on this track,’” Zucchero said. “We did it in New York one week later at the Factory. This was the start. And then we did a tour together.”

Clapton, meanwhile, was taken to a Zucchero concert by his then-girlfriend, Italian model Lory Del Santo.

“I was in my dressing room after the show, and my bodyguard said, “Mr. Clapton is at the door,’” he recalled. Clapton invited Zucchero to be his support on a European arena tour.

On his collaboration with Bono on “Streets of Surrender (S.O.S.):”
We know each other for long times, since ‘92, when we did the first song together. That was a song that I did with Maestro Pavarotti and it’s called “Miserere.” He did an English version of the song. … [For] this song, I did the music and then I went to see him in concert. After the show I asked if he likes the song and if was available to try to do the lyrics. … I didn’t hear [from] him for 20 days. He called me up two days after the attack in Paris at the Bataclan. He said, “I’m here in Paris and I’m shocked about what happened … I think I have the idea of the lyrics.” I asked him [to] take the word “surrender,” because I like the meaning of the word, and the sound. It was inspired by the attack of Paris, but it is universal meaning.

“That was the first time I would play outside of Italy, and we started 12 nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London,” he said. “We became friends and we started playing together. … There’s no record company involved, no managers involved.”

Through his own music and through his many collaborations, Zucchero increased the popularity of blues, R&B and American soul in his home country. It didn’t hurt that those genres were also picked up by British artists throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, which “makes everything more popular.”

But while his star was growing brighter, Zucchero began taking fewer and fewer risks, with his eye toward bigger hits and larger shows. He began to care more about how his songs would be received. He shifted from blues-oriented rock to radio-friendly pop, which was growing in popularity.

With his newest album, Black Cat, he wanted to break free from that pattern and return to the mindset of his early days, when he could wake up in the middle of the night and have a song written within 10 minutes.

Black Cat, released last April overseas and last month in the U.S. to coincide with Zucchero’s tour, was his attempt to return to his blues roots. The name is a reference to a representation of Afro-American music and the carefree and wild life of a cat.

First single, “Turn The World Down,” was written by Elvis Costello and produced by T Bone Burnett—there are as many collaborations here as ever—and is a bluesy, chugging jam in 4/4 time. “Hey Lord,” with its tribal choruses, is a black spiritual filtered through an international pop filter. Mark Knopfler guests on Bono-written “Streets of Surrender (S.O.S.).” Album opener “Partigiano Reggiano” reverberates with Little Richard-esque keys and molasses-thick vocals.

“The first two albums that I did, I was so full of emotion,” he said. “I [had] nothing to lose at that time. Then you start to sell a bunch of albums, you start to be successful, [and] you feel bad if you don’t have the single played on the radio [or] a No. 1. This is very dangerous.”

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