My chat with a truly iconic rock star: Zucchero – The man with the hat, a leather voice and blues in his veins recalls the 80s & his famous friends

Being a rebel teenager in Italy in the 80s meant only one thing for me: listening and playing blues songs by Zucchero Fornaciari aka Zucchero (which is the Italian for Sugar – his real name is Adelmo Forniciari). At 62 he has sold more than 50 million records worldwide and has become one of the biggest rock stars in Italy and in the international rock & blues scene. 30 years down the line I am at the BBC studios in London talking heart-to-heart to my teenage idol about his latest album Wanted, which includes a collection of his biggest hits, collaborations with some of pop music’s biggest legends, duets, live gigs and behind-the-scenes documentaries.

With Zucchero I felt immediately at home. He is from my region, Emilia-Romagna, and one of the most genuine people with the biggest talent and passion for blues I have ever come across. 

He only has a few days before his international tour starts on 8thJuly 2018 with a concert in Hyde Park at British Summer Time Hyde Park 2018 along with his friends and colleagues Eric Clapton and Santana (already sold out). He cannot wait to be on stage again. He lives and breathes the blues. Enjoy this honest interview with Zucchero before heading to Hyde Park to hear his leathery soulful voice and guitar. If you cannot find tickets to BST you can see Zucchero at family festival Cornbury Festival on 13thJuly.

Q: Zucchero, in WantedThe Best Collectionthere are 30 years of wonderful music. Is this a homenage to your loyal fans or to the young people who are not familiar with your music?

ZF: This monumental ‘status’ boxset is a gift that my music producers Wrasse Records have created for me. It includes music from 1985 to 2017, including a docufilm, a live video from The Arena di Verona, duet rarities with various artists. Unfortunately, I had to leave out some music because it did not fit all in the boxset.

Q: What’s the secret to make music that many different generations over time would like?

ZF: I don’t like repeating myself. I don’t like navigating in calm waters. I love experimenting and not look back at the past. The most difficult thing in this process is to remain true to yourself by changing the music. Or, in other words, change by remaining true to yourself. But repeating the same sounds and themes and be complacent because something has worked out in the past, is not something I do. When I made my fifth album in 1989 Oro, Incenso e Birra, which was a success both with the critics and the fans, it was a rough rock blues.

Then two years later I came out with Miserere which was totally different and started a famous crossover between pop and lyrical music that created Bocelli, the Pavarotti and Friends which I did with Pavarotti for 12 years. My fans divided into two and were surprised by this change. I like to do unpredictable and not obvious things. I keep going in my work like this. After finishing the forthcoming international tour, I will have to write songs for a new album and it won’t be easy.

 

Q: You are a great innovator within the blues scene. I loved the story of black cat which you mention in the new docufilm. Tell me more about it. What do a black cat and the Partesan from Reggio have in common?

ZF: In the docufilmyou see that I went to look for new instruments in New Orleans. They are fantastic over there because they make everything play. You can even find things with one cord only that play, with a broom, a milk tin used as a sounding board. People there are incredible and manage to create unique sounds which are difficult to be re-produced if you don’t have the spirit of blues inside you. I have it inside and I often think about where it comes from. I wonder why I have this blues so strong in my heart and remember that when I was a boy and lived in Reggio Emilia, instead of loving mainstream music like everybody else – although I also listened to Nomadi, Equipe 84, Beatles, Rolling stones – I loved Afro-American music by   Otis Reading, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles which wasn’t that popular and instead more for the elite.

A black student from Memphis and studied at Bologna University but lived next door to me when I was 8-9 years old introduced me to the music of Otis Reading. He played Dock of the bay by Otis and I always wonder how I fell in love with the blues at such a young age. I feel that I have always brought the blues inside with me.

I am from Reggio Emilia and I love my Emilia.

When I was arranging the song Partigiano Reggiano, I loved the word play reminding the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. In this song I talked about freedom, principles, ideologies. When my song Senza una Donnacame out in Britain, people though that I was saying ‘without Madonna’. Here’s for some misunderstanding!

Black cat, for us Italians it brings misfortune, while for African Americans it is the opposite.

There are people in Louisiana who told me that before going out in the morning they put a black cat bone in the pocket for good luck. I am not superstitious but I loved the sound of the work ‘black cat’.

 

Q: You have collaborated with all the biggest and best music talents and bands in the world including lyrical singers like Pavarotti. Who else would you like to work with? A year ago I interviewed Paul Young, who is a big fan of yours. Will you ever get together again for a revival of Senza Una Donna sometime?

ZF: Paul and I are very good family friends. When his wife Stacey was still alive we used to go on holiday together every year. They used to come to Tuscany with their daughters at least for a month at the time. When we are together we talk a lot about music but we spend time as a family too. Once they asked me to be the Godfather of their daughter Layla who is now a wonderful young lady. When she was a little girl she used to run around in my estate’s park chasing little peacocks, chicks and ducks with my son Blue. There’s a family bond with Paul that goes beyond music.

All my musical collaborations have never been planned. Things happen spontaneously in the music world. Sometimes you meet an artist with whom there’s mutual respect and you decide to do something together but then it does not progress. But while you are writing a song, you remember that the specific voice or guitar of that artist would be perfect for your song, then I would call him/her. They would do the same with me. We would talk about it as and when needed.

There has to be a good reason for a duet. It’s not just to get the two voices together for the sake of it. The song has to improve a lot otherwise it would just be a vocal exercise.

On 8thJuly I will play at British Summertime festival in Hyde Park with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood e Santana, with whom I have collaborated many times. I still remember when I met Eric Clapton…

During the Oro, Incenso e Birra tour at the stadium in Agrigento, Eric used to have a flirt with Lory del Santo. They were in Sicily, Lory was my fan and brought Eric to my concert. At the end of the gig, they came to say hallo. Eric told me: ‘Fantastic show! Great voice, great performance, great band, the world has to see this concert!’ and then he asked me to become his support band for 12 dates at the Royal Albert Hall and for the whole area tour across Europe. It was in the 80s and the first time I was touring outside of Italy and found myself at the Royal Albert Hall for 12 nights. I received excellent reviews.  The English papers can be harsh if they want to. I remember a critic, in particular, who said: ‘Amazing Eric Clapton as always, but I recommend you to go and see this Italian musician with a leathery voice’. After this success, came Senza Una Donna with Paul Young. These relationships are born spontaneously and not with big planning by the music producers.

Q: In the docufilm in Wanted one of your band members describe the blues as music exchanged among humans. For you blues is everything.  You have brought it to Italy and you have transformed it into a very special Italian blues from Emilia… How does blues integrate in your lifestyle and cuisine?

ZF: Blues is also a lifestyle. The first time I travelled to New Orleans to produce the album Spirito Divinoor to Memphis for Oro, Incenso e Birra, I found many similarities between the Afro-American way of living their life and my own one. When from the plane I saw for the first time the Mississippi, the riverside, poplar trees and the wetlands I felt I was on the river Po where I grew up in Emilia (in Italy). Their main dish is fried catfish, an unusual dish which is also typical from Emilia only not everywhere in Italy.

Catfish and eel are delicatessen from Emilia and South Veneto (two Northern regions in Italy).

If you ask a person in Napoli (in Southern Italy) whether he eats catfish, he would be surprised.

In Louisiana I even found dark reddish river crabs. But it’s also about the lifestyle, the countryside, the agriculture, the big families …

And I said to myself ‘I am truly at home here in Louisiana’. Blues is also my lifestyle between the sacred and the profane like us people from Emilia where we have movie characters such as Don Camillo (a feisty priest) and Peppone (a Communist).

 

Q: You have never conformed to fashion trends. Quite the opposite, you have created your own style which is difficult to imitate and that transcends fashion trends.  Where do you get the inspiration for your image? Where does the look of your big hats and the big coats come from

ZF: The hatcomes from my childhood when I used to watch my grandfather Roberto Fornaciari also known as Camella who was thin, tall, and walked with an authoritative pace. He wore a countryside-style top hat in a dark brown colour which was typical from Emilia. He also had a beard and a long coat like a bandit from Romagna called Passator Cortese. In my boy’s eyes his big hat and beard made him very charismatic and he did not talk much either, which gave the impression to be a wise man.

When I started playing in bands, I wanted to create a distinctive look, so I wore the top hat and the rest is history. Fans started calling me ‘the man with the hat’ or ‘the singer with the hat’ and these days, if I don’t have my hat with me on stage, I would not feel myself.

Later I added on the long coat similar to the ones worn by the Far West gunmen like sheriffs. I feel comfortable and at ease in these clothes on stage. I never consulted a stylist or a look maker because I am a simple man. But I am very proud of one thing, in particular. When I presented Miserere in Bologna I wore colourful bell bottoms in the flower power Seventies style and the top hat, round glasses like in the film Interview with the Vampire, well before the movie was released.  The day after that presentation, I received two telegrams which I still treasure: one from Versace and one from Armani. Both said more or less the same thing: ‘Thank you for anticipating the fashion trend for next year’. This is for me a huge compliment!!

 

Q: The festival season is upon us in England. You will play at Hyde Park and Cornbury which are attended by lots of families with young kids. Why do you think they are so popular here and not in Italy which is a family country?

ZF: Several promoters have tried to introduce the festival culture in Italy but without much success. They are popular everywhere in Europe (not just in England but also Germany and Holland) with lots of people camping with kids. But not in Italy, maybe because Italians love being more comfortable and less adventurous.I would love for a week-long festival similar to Cornbury to be popular in Italy where people can be free. I loved the Woodstock festival and the spirit was incredible.

Pick up the latest London Mums magazine at one of the selected supermarkets to read the full interview with Zucchero or download the pdf from here.

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About Monica Costa

Monica Costa founded London Mums in September 2006 after her son Diego’s birth together with a group of mothers who felt the need of meeting up regularly to share the challenges and joys of motherhood in metropolitan and multicultural London. London Mums is the FREE and independent peer support group for mums and mumpreneurs based in London https://londonmumsmagazine.com and you can connect on Twitter @londonmums

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