Wow, 1958's Song of the Summer Doesn't Sound a Day Over 100


Everything is stupid, and so are we. Welcome to Jezebel’s Stupidest Summer Ever, a season-long celebration of our worst, most idiotic thoughts and opinions.

Picture it: 1958. Polio was down, unemployment was up. Russians flung the Sputnik 3 into the atmosphere, while down on earth, the U.S. established NASA. This was before Bobby Fischer got so lost that they made a movie about searching for him, when he was merely a grandmaster at his chosen game of chess. This was the year Bobby Darin would grace the world with a cheeky number about bathing “Splish Splash,” which would reverberate throughout pop culture for decades to come, gracing countless commercials and the trailers of canine cinema classics like Air-Bud and Because of Winn-Dixie.

It was the summer of 1958, when everybody called me “Baby” and it didn’t occur to me to mind. It was before Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles, when I wanted to join the Peace Corps and I didn’t think I’d ever find a guy as great as my dad…or Domenico Modugno.

Modugno came to be known as “Mister Volare,” as a result of the global success he had with “Nel blu dipinto di blu.” Also known as “Volare” because of its refrain, the song spent five non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling over 22 million copies worldwide. According to Billboard, it was 1958’s Song of the Summer, which just goes to show that no matter how popular something is, relevance is fleeting because honestly? What the fuck is this song?

The song makes about as much sense to me musically as the Italian that Modugno sang in. Wikipedia tells me it’s in “a dramatic chanson style.” Sure. Additionally:

The song opens with a surreal prelude which the cover versions often left out: “Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più. Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu; poi d’improvviso venivo dal vento rapito, e incominciavo a volare nel cielo infinito.” (“I think that a dream like that will never return; I painted my hands and my face blue, then was suddenly swept up by the wind and started to fly in the infinite sky.”)

Well, that’s fun. I do like surrealism.

The organ is temperamental and I would assume Modugno was otherwise backed by a big band if I hadn’t just read otherwise. This did not win Eurovision (it placed third). And it kind of reminds me of Christmas?

According to the obituary The Independent ran in 1994 when Modugno died at age 66:

Modugno explained that he wrote the song while thinking of a painting by Chagall, of a man, with half of his face painted blue, looking out of a window. With ‘Volare’ – which has become, along with O sole mio, the most famous of all Italian songs – Modugno won his first Grammy Award and sold 30 million records.

Well great, I also like art, be it surrealist or not.

Modugno would go on to become a member of the Italian Parliament. Meanwhile, his song is a portal to another dimension in which…a song like this in Italian could be the Song of the Summer in the United States. In its informative write-up of the song, PBS helps contextualize the trailblazing success of “Nel blu dipinto di blu”:

If Modugno’s triumph was in some ways unique, it is also a reminder of how varied the American pop world was on the cusp of the rock era. Thanks to “golden oldies” marketing, we tend to remember the late 1950s as an era of rebellious young rock ‘n’ rollers — but there were still a lot of other sounds in the air, some of which appealed to a broader audience than the rocking teen hits. The Top 40 format — in which radio stations played a mix of the week’s forty top-selling records, regardless of genre — meant that radio listeners heard older artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Sarah Vaughn alongside the latest teen idols, and sometimes sounds from further afield as well. For a while, mambo was running neck and neck with rock ‘n’ roll as a dance craze; Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was the number two hit of 1955, behind “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” by Pérez Prado, the King of the Mambo — and Haley himself had previously scored with “Mambo Rock.”
“Volare” was the most successful foreign-language hit in U.S. history, but its success inspired imitation, and for a few years international sounds were a regular part of the pop mix. Italians continued to lead the way; Connie Francis recorded an album of Italian favorites in 1959 that was so popular she recorded five more in the next four years, as well as collections of Spanish, German, and Yiddish songs. Emilio Pericoli’s “Al di là” reached the top ten in 1962 and the number one hits of 1963 included the Singing Nun’s French “Dominique,” and Kyu Sakamoto’s Japanese “Sukiyaki.”

And then, of course, there was “Despacito,” 2017’s Song of the Summer. Where would be without it? Where would we be without any of this?

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