“Volare” is surely one of the strangest tracks to top the U.S. pop charts – not the song itself, which is typical ’50s easy listening, but the unlikely circumstances behind its success. Not only did the song debut at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest, which Americans neither participated in nor watched, but Domenico Modugno’s performance only placed third. Yet somehow, the United States embraced “Volare,” awarding it not only the top space on the charts but also Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the first-ever Grammy Awards.
But why “Volare”? The single version of the record differs significantly from the Eurovision performance in the video above. In both, the ascending tinkle of the piano that opens the track promises mystery, as does Modugno’s nearly a capella delivery of the first verse. In the single version, when the snare drum kicks in during the chorus, the song loses its magic. In the Eurovision version, however, Modugno’s cries of “Volare! Oh-oh! Cantare! Oh-oh-oh-oh!” make the song soar. The arrangement of the Eurovision version also fits better than the single’s, although both abuse cliches of mid-century soft jazz recordings to the point where the song sounds no different from something your average ’50s salesman might half-hear at Sunday brunch. What sells “Volare” is Modugno’s singing – hushed in the verses, bursting free in the chorus, and always delivered with utmost sincerity. As the song’s composer, he knew how to best show off the power of his vocals. What’s missing is a melodic reason why we should listen. 5
- “Nel blu dipinto di blu” translates as “in the blue painted blue.” While I don’t know Italian well enough to comment on the lyrics, that line isn’t too promising.
- One of only a handful of non-English language songs to hit the top of the charts. The next #1 in this category won’t happen for another five years. (No spoilers)
Hit #1 on August 18, 1958 for 1 week; re-peaked on September 1, 1958 for 4 more weeks; total of 5 weeks at #1
2 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.21% through the Hot 100