BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON CROONED “THE BLUES CAME FROM TEXAS, LOPING LIKE A MULE” as the uniquely African-American music genre eventually made its way to Italy, where a budding musician named Adelmo Fornaciari (nicknamed “Zucchero,” which is Italian for “sugar”) fell in love with the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding.
Born in the small northern Italian town of Roncocesi in 1955, Zucchero is currently one of Italy’s biggest stars. He skillfully blends American blues, gospel and soul with his own distinctly Mediterranean flavoring. Over the course of three decades, Zucchero has sold more than 60 million records, sung duets with Andrea Bocelli, Elton John and Eric Clapton, and collaborated with songwriting luminaries, like Bono and Mark Knopfler.
Zucchero performs his raucous brand of Italian blues to The Heights Theater on April 15 to promote his new album Black Cat. The record pays homage to the music of New Orleans, Mississippi and Texas and was co-produced by T-Bone Burnett, Don Was and Brendan O’Brien. Black Cat’s cover art features the burly, bearded Zucchero, eyes glowering beneath the brim of his trademark top hat decorated with cowry shells, feathers and a skull and crossbones.
Inspiration for the gritty sound of Black Cat, which Zucchero happily describes as “very dirty and very organic,” goes back to northern Italy’s Po River near his childhood home and his first trip to America, including Louisiana.
“When I arrived for the first time in New Orleans, I found many things in common with where I grew up,” says Zucchero, speaking in a heavily-accented English. “The rivers, the plantations...I grew up in the countryside, and my parents worked as farmers under a landlord. They were very poor. They weren’t treated like slaves, but they did suffer. There are still people suffering, trying to escape war and poverty. In the Mediterranean Sea, you have refugees from Libya, Syria and North Africa. I thought I should do an album that reflected this.”
Black Cat was also inspired by the historical and visual slave narratives from the films Django Unchained (2012), set in Texas, and 12 Years a Slave (2013), set in Louisiana.
“I started to listen to prison songs,” says Zucchero, “with the handclaps, the sound of chains and very rudimental acoustic guitar.” Two tracks on Black Cat, “Hey Lord” and the Elvis Costello-penned “Turn the World Down,” begin with archival recordings of chain gang chants, which set the reverent tone of each song.
That said, Black Cat’s opening track “Partigiano Reggiano” is anything but somber. Over its swinging four-on-the-floor beat and rollicking barrelhouse piano, Zucchero hollers out a lyric that could have been sung by John Lee Hooker while knocking back a mason jar filled with limoncello—“Black cat/my bone/a bit of pushing/boom boom!” The up-tempo soul of “13 Buone Ragioni” belies the song’s acerbic lyrics, which describe a real wild child who doesn’t care how many hearts she breaks on her way to oblivion. (Zucchero’s Italian lyrics are filled with puns, slang and double entendres, which can make translating them into English a bit of a challenge.)
Further elevating the emotional content of Black Cat is Zucchero’s sometimes hushed, sometimes holy scream of a voice. It’s a powerful instrument, worthy of the great soul, rhythm and blues singers who inspired him in his youth, and is especially suited for the operatic quality of his ballads.
So what’s the secret to maintaining that voice? “I don’t do anything special,” laughs Zucchero. “I drink and I smoke.”
Perhaps the strength, integrity and joy one hears in Zucchero’s voice and music comes from the first time he heard the voice of the great Otis Redding, and his soulful meditation on a body of water similar to the Po River near Zucchero’s childhood home.
“When I first heard ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,’ I was fascinated,” says Zucchero with a hush in his voice. “The way he was singing, the sound of the rhythm...I said to myself, ’Wow. This is the music I want to do.”
Saturday, April 15 at 7 p.m. $22. The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. theheightstheater.com