Saturday 22 March 1975


The following article is an overview of the career of Italian clarinettist, composer, arranger, and conductor Natale Massara. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Massara, conducted by Bas Tukker in March 2020. The article is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Natale Massara's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2020

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Natale Massara
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: December 23rd, 1942, Oleggio (Italy)
Nationality: Italian


Natale Massara took part in the Eurovision Song Contest on one occasion, co-arranging and conducting the 1975 Italian entry ‘Era’, performed by the duo Wess & Dori Ghezzi. At that year’s festival final in Stockholm, Italy picked up 115 points, finishing third behind Teach In (Netherlands) and The Shadows (United Kingdom).


Pier Natale Massara was born and raised in Oleggio, a small town in Piedmont, Northern Italy, where his parents ran a hairdresser salon. Though not in a professional way, his family was truly passionate about music.

“Yes, especially on the paternal side,” Massara comments. “My father played the trombone, as did one of my uncles – and the other was a good tuba player. One of my nephews was first trombonist at the Scala Theatre Orchestra in Milan. My sister studied the violin. Almost everyone played an instrument, and those who did not, were excellent singers. It was only natural that, when I turned six years old, I was sent to study the clarinet with the conductor of the local philharmonic band, in which my father played. The piano would have been the instrument of my own choice, but as a band on the march requires wind instruments more than a piano, the clarinet was picked on my behalf. From that point on, music was the focal point in my life. I liked the boy scouts as well, I liked playing football, but when there was a choice between either of those and studying music, music always won out. After two years of study, at eight years, I was deemed good enough to be in the band.”

Young Natale, a proud member of Oleggio’s philharmonic band, with local politician – and future Italian president – Oscar Luigi Scalfaro (c. 1951)

In that same year, Natale also took up studying the piano while continuing his clarinet studies, still with the local band conductor. Some years later, he was sent to the music school in Novara, a town close by, where he passed the clarinet exam of the fifth year with flying colours (1957). One of the examiners involved turned out to be Alamiro Giampieri, composer and teacher at Milan’s Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi; Giampieri, convinced by the young student’s talent as a clarinettist, advised Natale’s father to send his son to conservatoire. The following years, the aspiring adolescent made the lengthy journey to Milan by train and bus every weekday. Meanwhile, during weekends, he played in a local combo in Oleggio. Rather unexpectedly, in 1959, opportunity knocked at his door, when he auditioned to join the accompanying band of Adriano Celentano, a fledgling rock-‘n’-roll singer.

“Another student told me that Celentano was looking for a saxophonist. Of course, I wasn’t a sax player, but borrowing a saxophone from a friend of mine, I taught myself to play in a week. At the audition, there were Celentano’s musical director Detto Mariano and two other guys who had already been picked – and apparently I did a good job at the audition, because I was chosen. In those days, entertainment music was frowned upon among conservatory teachers, but I decided to be frank with them, explaining how I had been living off my parents’ money for some years now, and about the long journeys from Oleggio to Milan and back; and they appreciated my honesty, allowing me to go ahead with the rock group.”

“With the money I earned by playing with Celentano, I was able to rent an apartment in Milan. In the meantime, Celentano was fully aware that, in cases where I had to choose between the music academy and playing with him, my studies would always have precedence. Once, when Adriano was invited to perform on Spanish television, I didn’t join him, as there was an important concert with the conservatoire orchestra in which I played the clarinet – a concert to celebrate the inauguration of the school’s renovated auditorium. On this occasion, the orchestra was conducted by… Riccardo Muti, who was a fellow-student and a good friend of mine! When I turned eighteen, I bought myself a small car, which allowed me to rush from gigs with Celentano to the conservatory and back. In fact, I was so well-liked among my professors, that they persuaded the headmaster to allow me to park my car in the academy’s courtyard when I was late for college!”

Natale (left) at the music academy with fellow-student Bruno Canino by his side (c. 1959)

Throughout the 1960s, Natale Massara led a double life, because, parallel to his career in popular music, he continued his classical music studies – even beyond his conservatoire diploma, which he obtained in 1962 after playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major at his final exam accompanied by a fellow-student, the later famous concert pianist Bruno Canino. In the following decade, he advanced his music knowledge by studying the piano as well as composition and conducting with conservatory professors – most notably Bruno Bettinelli (composition), Franco Ferrara, and Carlo Savina (conducting).

Meanwhile, in 1961, far away from the serenity of the Verdi Conservatoire, Adriano Celentano had become a star in Italy and even beyond with his breakthrough chart success ‘24.000 baci’, for which Natale took care of the all-important sax solos. I Ribelli, as Celentano’s accompanying group had been baptised, accompanied studio sessions with other artists signed by Celentano’s Clan music label as well, whilst the group also performed solo now and again.

“Suddenly, I found myself in a world which was the exact opposite of the academy and classical music, but I had already taken an interest in rock ‘n’ roll before Celentano came along. I had always had an open ear to all music styles. In fact, while still living in Oleggio, I was the leader of a band which played at local events – and we tried to imitate the American sound we heard on the radio. Rock may have been simple music, but many of the recordings were done by excellent instrumentalists. Thanks to Celentano, my career took a completely different direction; otherwise, I would probably have been a clarinettist in classical orchestras, something I would have been happy doing just as much.”

With American star-singer Connie Francis (c. 1962)

“Instead, I became part of a movement of modernisation of Italian popular music, which occurred somewhat later than in the countries around us. The style was old-fashioned – a popular band leader such as Cinico Angelini was a great musician, but his approach was completely secluded from developments in America and in the UK. Modugno and Celentano were the first to rattle the gates, but it took quite some more years to break the mould. After ‘24.000 baci’, the same kind of rock-‘n’-roll hysteria broke out as with Bill Haley in America – or later the Beatles in Europe. Across Italy, during our concerts, youngsters celebrated the discovery of a new world of music and popular culture… in a way, we heralded the true beginning of the 1960s in Italy.”

In 1966, for the first time, pop groups were allowed to take part in Italy’s most popular music competition, the San Remo Festival. While Adriano Celentano took part with his self-penned ‘Il ragazzo della Via Gluck’ in San Remo 1966, I Ribelli were allowed into the competition with ‘A la buena de Dios’. Awkwardly, Celentano was eliminated in the semi-finals, whilst I Ribelli went through to the final evening. 

“Unfortunately, we had not been allowed to pick our own song of choice. ‘A la buena de Dios’ was given to us by the organisation of the festival. It wasn’t a song which was suitable to be played in a rock style – and so we didn’t try, but nonetheless we were the only group to reach the final! Celentano couldn’t believe what happened. He was always a firm believer in a solo artist being backed up by a group – even when the Beatles burst onto the world stage, he couldn’t believe they would last without a guy up front. When we went through to the final evening and he didn’t, he claimed it was because the organisation wanted at least one group in the final. As a way of protesting against his elimination, he gave us wigs to wear during our performance, which we had to throw away half way through."

Natale Massara (centre stage) with I Ribelli performing ‘A la buena de Dios’ in the 1966 San Remo Festival final

"In a way, this was a signal to us that we had to continue our path independently as I Ribelli. Leaving Celentano and his music label, we signed a record deal with another company, Dischi Ricordi. There, we finally made up for the problem that we didn’t really have a good vocalist in our midst by inviting Demetrio Stratos, a Greek singer with a marvellous voice, to join us. With him, our style became much more rhythm-and-blues.”

In 1967, with Stratos in their ranks, I Ribelli managed their biggest hit with ‘Pugni chiusi’, which they performed across Italy in the Cantagiro summer festival. At the same time, Natale Massara was steadily moving away from being an instrumentalist and performer to becoming a studio arranger. With his classical background and skills at sight-reading, he had become a popular choice as a session player for different arrangers and record companies – and at some point, it was inevitable that Massara would venture writing arrangements himself. In 1968, he wrote the score to I Ribelli’s follow-up single to ‘Pugni chiusi’, a song called ‘Nel sole, nel vento, nel sorriso e nel pianto’, whilst, around the same time, also orchestrating ‘Felicità, felicità’, with which Gian Pieretti enjoyed considerable success at Cantagiro.

“Writing arrangements was a logical next step. By the end of the 1960s, I was still studying music theory with several professors in Milan. At some point, knowing of my classical studies, one of the directors of Dischi Ricordi suggested to me writing scores for them. Writing arrangements, or rather orchestrations, was an ambition I had had for some years. Being an orchestrator means dressing up a song with classical instruments and, thereby, becoming part of the composition."

"For a year or two, I remained a band member of I Ribelli parallel to my writing activities, but my schedule became more and more gruelling as more arranging commissions were coming my way. After getting home from a concert, I sat down in the early hours of the night to write a music score, rushed into the studio early in the morning to record it, and then jumped into the car again to get to Padua or wherever for another concert. Sometimes, I didn’t manage to get any sleep for two or three days. Therefore, I decided to quit I Ribelli in 1970, though with a heavy heart. There was simply no way of combining the two activities.”

At the piano with Rita Pavone (c. 1969)

Belonging to a new generation of Italian record arrangers, who were no autodidacts, but musicians with a conservatory background, Natale Massara enjoyed success practically from the start of his ‘new’ career. At the request of Dischi Ricordi, for whom he was a staff arranger for twelve years (1968-80), he initially mainly worked with the label’s groups, such as Dik Dik and Equipe 84, but progressively with solo singers as well, including the likes of Wilma Goich, Roberto Soffici, Mina, and even his old comrade Adriano Celentano. After having arranged Rita Pavone’s hit single ‘Per tutta la vita’ (1969), Massara was her musical director on a world tour which took them to as far away as Israel, Brazil, and the United States. In 1969, Massara also made his debut as a conductor at the San Remo Festival, leading the orchestra for three participating acts: Wilma Goich (‘Baci, baci, baci’), Tony Del Monaco (‘Un’ora fa’) and Dik Dik (‘Zucchero’).

“Of course, I was nervous to conduct on stage in San Remo,” Massara admits, smiling. “First, there was the emotion of being allowed to conduct on such a podium, which was reinforced by the nontecnologia – this was an era without metronomes or other technical devices to help out. Everything was played live, and any little miscommunication between the orchestra and the performing artist could prove fatal, and it was my responsibility!"

"Moreover, there was much less time to rehearse the songs than nowadays. In San Remo, today, the orchestra starts preparing a month in advance, but back then we were given one hour in a studio in Milan in the week preceding the festival and then one more hour in San Remo on the day before the contest began. That was it. Basta! In a technical sense, conducting an orchestra for a pop song isn't very complicated, as most of them are played in one tempo. Still, it was important to create a rich orchestral sound which wouldn’t fall flat in the hall or on television. When the orchestra sounded well, it was because there had been an arranger at work who knew how to write for a live orchestra, which isn't necessarily the same as in a studio, where sound engineers were on hand to help.”

Conducting the orchestra in the 1970 San Remo Festival

In total, between 1969 and 1977, Natale Massara conducted the orchestra in seven editions of the San Remo Festival, accompanying – apart from the artists mentioned in the above – Antoine, Donatello, Milva, Wess & Dori Ghezzi, and Rettore. His best result came in 1973, when Milva placed third with ‘Da troppo tempo’, which enjoyed subsequent success in the charts as well. Apart from San Remo, Massara took part in many more Italian music festivals, winning the Golden Gondola with Mia Martini (‘Donna sola’) in 1973 and Canzonissima with Wess & Dori Ghezzi in 1974 (‘Un corpo e un’anima’). 

Mia Martini was one of the artists with whom Massara worked most extensively in the 1970s, arranging five of her albums and creating the orchestrations behind some of her most popular songs, including ‘Minuetto’, ‘Inno’, and ‘Vola’. In 1975, he conducted her performance of ‘Nevicate’ at the 1975 Majorca Song Festival in Spain.

“That was a proud moment, because ‘Nevicate’ was a song composed by myself – and it was awarded with the first prize by a professional jury which contained some of the biggest beasts of international music… Henry Mancini, Waldo de los Rios, Astor Piazzolla; if I’m not mistaken, Franck Pourcel was there as well. To be picked by a such a high-profile jury was a major accolade."

Conducting the orchestra for Mia Martini’s winning performance at the 1973 Golden Gondola Festival in Venice

"For some years in the mid-1970s, I wrote practically all arrangements for Mia, who was signed by Dischi Ricordi in 1972. It was a pleasure and honour working with such a huge talent and stage personality. She was easy to work with, always affable and open to my advice and suggestions. Like Mina, who I also worked with a lot around that same time, her success was largely restricted to the Italian market – for some reason, she didn’t manage to build a career abroad. Perhaps, her style was too Italian to appeal to an international audience. Her voice was unique. Had she lived today, she would probably have been considered amongst the very greatest of Italian artists every to have lived, along with Mina – who is by far the country’s most popular female singer. Unfortunately, that was not to be.”

In 1972, Massara made his debut as a film composer, writing the score to Treasure Island, an international co-production starring Orson Welles in the role of Long John Silver. 

“I was only 29 years old at the time, but Federico Monti Arduini, the general manager of Dischi Ricordi, believed in me – and when he was commissioned to find a composer to write the music to this film, he turned to me. Earlier that same year, I had helped out Maurizio Vandelli, one of the guys of Equipe 84, when he had accepted to write the score to an Italian film and had no idea how even to begin. In the closing credits, my name was mentioned as the film’s conductor only, but in fact I had written about half of the music and arranged everything. During the recording of that film in Rome, I had the opportunity to work with experienced people in the film business who showed me how things were done.”

Milva being introduced to the audience at St Mark's square by the evening's hostess, with Natale Massara taking his place in front of the orchestra - Golden Gondola Festival, Venice (c. 1974)

“Only months later, Treasure Island came my way – and I had the chance to prove that I could manage independently. The music was recorded with the Scala Theatre Orchestra. In those days, everything was played live to a video of the movie being played in the studio. This work required far more conducting technique from me than entertainment music did, because these eighty-odd musicians had to follow my lead and the tempo had to be exactly right. If I messed up, we had to start all over again; and of course, we had to finish the recording within a fixed time frame. This led to tiny imperfections finding their way to the recording, but on the other hand, it brought with it the possibility to convey emotions while performing the music score.”

In 1976, Natale Massara wrote the arrangements to ‘Certe volte…’, a solo album by Pino Donaggio, his former fellow-student at the Verdi Conservatoire in Milan. By that time, songwriting was only a side-product for Donaggio, who had taken up film composing in the early 1970s as well. In fact, in that same year 1976, Donaggio called on Massara to arrange and conduct his score to Brian De Palma’s movie Carrie.

“At some point, Pino contacted me, explaining that Brian De Palma had called him to write the music to Carrie, a Hollywood horror film. Originally, the score was due to be provided by the great Bernard Herrmann, but he had died unexpectedly. Thereupon, De Palma turned to this fledgling young composer from Italy. Pino wondered if I could help him again – we had just completed our first film together, Un sussurro nel buio. Pino was an excellent violinist, but he had no background in orchestration and needed someone at his side. Brian De Palma was lucky to find such a talented replacement as Pino; and perhaps Pino was also lucky to find me! These are opportunities that don’t come along more often than once or twice in anybody’s lifetime."

"At any rate, Carrie was a huge box-office hit. It cemented Pino’s reputation as an excellent composer for horrors and thrillers for years to come. Not only Brian De Palma, but other US film directors called on him to score their films. Pino literally wrote dozens of scores for the American market – and I was happy to follow him. From that moment on, I conducted practically all of his films.”

Conducting the orchestra for Adriano Celentano (c. 1977)

Other Donaggio movie scores arranged and conducted by Natale Massara in the early stages of their partnership, include Dressed To Kill (1980), The Howling (1981) and Blow Out (1981). In the second half of the 1970s, Natale Massara continued to work as an arranger and producer for some of Italy’s most high-profile entertainment singers, including Gianna Nannini and Milva. In 1980, preferring to work as a freelance arranger, he left the Dischi Ricordi company.

“From the beginning of my contract with Ricordi, I had had the best of working relationships with artistic director Lucio Salvini, who allowed me to team up with artists from other record labels once and again, although I had an exclusivity contract with him. Wess & Dori Ghezzi, for example, were under contract with Durium – and I wrote their arrangements for quite some years. I even recorded a single with Julio Iglesias on the Ariston label. However, I had to turn down many commissions from some of the best producers and artists. Towards the end of the 1970s, when Milva had left Ricordi in favour of the German branch of Metronome, there was not much point in my staying much longer either. She was by far the artist I worked with most extensively in those years. She wanted to continue working with me, but there was no possibility to keep the ties as close as we both wanted them to remain unless I quit Ricordi – and so that’s what I did.”

Milva and Natale Massara worked together for nearly thirty years. In the shadow of Milva, who became more and more popular across Europe, Massara managed to spread his wings beyond the borders of Italy as well.

Accompanying Milva off stage in Vienna (1981)

“Our collaboration really took off in the early 1970s, when we participated in the San Remo Festival twice. Slowly, she managed to conquer the European market, recording LPs in French and German. Thanks to her work for Metronome, my name became known outside of Italy – and as her albums sold so well, German producers showed interest in teaming up with me as well. I wrote arrangements for Freddy Quinn and Herbert Grönemeyer. In France, I even got to work with Charles Aznavour! As for Milva, of course her ability to sing in other languages than Italian helped her to build an international career. Furthermore, she was incredibly versatile. Pop, classical music, jazz... In Germany, she impressed audiences by singing Bertolt Brecht. In Austria, I conducted her for a month in the Theater an der Wien, where she did a show with Robert Stolz’s repertoire. She could do anything – and she did it with an amazing professionality.”

Adorned with gold records in Germany, France, and Greece, Milva managed one step further, impressing audiences in faraway Japan. “Milva had gold records in Germany, but also in France and Greece. Even the Japanese wanted her to come over to do concerts. I conducted the orchestra in several of her world tours in the 1980s. Each time, I had to bring my studio work to a standstill for several months, which made it easier to slowly move away from arranging pop records. We are speaking of the 1980s now, an era in which most of the music for a recording was done in preproduction, with the arranger’s role diminished to adding little flavours here and there; and frankly, I have always preferred working completely live – which is why I began to prefer concerts to the recording studio. As is only natural when embarking on tours which last for months on end, the reciprocal respect Milva and I had for each other developed into a wonderful friendship. At one point, she was the only recording artist I continued working with. The last record I did with her was in 1997.”

By the mid-1980s, orchestrating and conducting movie pictures had become Natale Massara’s main professional activity. Apart from continuing his fruitful partnership with Pino Donaggio – who alone in the 1980s wrote the music to some fifty films – he also occasionally found the time to compose his own film music for Italian productions, which include Da grande (1987), La cintura (1989), and Graffiante desiderio (1993). In 1988, a very special project came along, when Massara was commissioned to re-arrange the music to the 1960s film classic La ciociara (Running Away); the original movie was reworked into a television miniseries, in which Sophia Loren once again played the main part. The invitation to work on the remake came from the legendary composer of the original, Armando Trovajoli.

Milva's back-up band backstage in Berlin during a tour across Germany in 1988, from left to right - Gigi Cappellotto (bass), Danilo Riccardi (keys), Flaviano Cuffari (drums), Alberto Mompellio (keys), Claudio Bazzari (guitar), and Natale Massara (piano, musical director)

“When I received the telephone call from Trovajoli, one of the biggest composers in international cinema, I was astonished. He was a musician I admired. Years previously, I had been introduced to him at a festival in Venice, and we had exchanged some niceties, but that was it. Now, it turned out he was impressed by my orchestrations for Donaggio – and wondered if I could help him out. He had been asked to rearrange the music to ‘La ciociara’, but he lacked the ideas to do it; he couldn’t manage to empathise with the main characters’ emotions the way he did when he wrote the original."

"For a week, I was a guest in Trovajoli’s house in Rome, and we started out by subdividing the arranging work; but in the end, I did some 40 titles and he did two or three. For that reason, he agreed to include my name in the credits as the only orchestrator of the series. When we were in the studio recording the score, director Dino Risi was there too. Risi complimented Armando on his work, but he pointed straight at me, saying that I had written virtually everything. He was gracious and grateful. In all, working with Armando Trovajoli was one of the most emotional experiences in my life.”

For television, Natale Massara composed the music to several miniseries including Il coraggio di Anna (1992), Delitti privati (1993), and La memoria e il perdono (2001), working with directors Giorgio Capitani and Sergio Martino. He also wrote the scores to 65 sequels of Secrets, a soap opera aired on RAI2 in 1993; as well as countless jingles and melodies for TV commercials. He was the musical director for two RAI2 entertainment shows, Il cappello sulle ventitrè (1983-86) and Dudù dudù (1990), the last of which was hosted by Pino Caruso and Claudia Mori.

“When taking on the job of conductor of a television show, one never knows where the work will end. There are always many songs to write arrangements to, sketches, musical intervals, but it was rewarding to work among friends like Claudia Mori – who is married to Adriano Celentano. Weekly shows like these usually ran for several months – and it was impossible to take on any other work in the meantime. For instance, at the time when I did ‘Dudù dudù’, I had to turn down doing a new San Remo Festival with Milva, who was ‘my’ artist, so to speak. Instead, Vince Tempera arranged and conducted the entry for her, a song called ‘Sono felice’ (in 1990 - BT). It was a good song, and I was quite unhappy not be there on that stage with her.”

At the piano with Claudia Mori in the RAI2 television show ‘Dudù dudù’ (1990)

Apart from his work for cinema and television, Massara also composed and arranged the music to two animated films for children as well as music for various theatre shows. In 1996, he conducted a memorable concert series in Belgium with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège with a programme of film music. The concert was recorded and broadcast by television stations across Europe.

“Three years before, Milva had been invited by the Philharmonic Orchestra in Liège to do a honorary concert for Thanos Microutsicos. Microutsicos is a Greek composer. It was the first-time ever this orchestra played a non-classical genre. During the rehearsal of the Milva concert, I was approached by the orchestra’s artistic director, who explained that they were planning a concert to mark a century of film. Having taken a look at my curriculum, he thought I was the perfect candidate to conduct it. In those days, doing film music wasn’t something classical orchestras engaged in regularly. I orchestrated five medleys of the best film music, ranging from John Williams to Vangelis, Max Steiner to Nino Rota. Because the original scores were not available, I transcribed and orchestrated all music myself. It took me some three years of preparation, but the result was something I am still very happy with, also because it set a trend – nowadays, classical orchestras do film music concerts all the time.”

Continuing to work in close partnership with Pino Donaggio until today, Natale Massara has meanwhile orchestrated and conducted the scores to some two-hundred films. Some of the more recent titles include Trauma (1993), Do You Like Hitchcock (2005), both by director Dario Argento, and Passion, which was directed by Brian De Palma (2012).

Pino Donaggio and Natale Massara together in the studio, recording the score to ‘Der Mann nebenan’, a 1991 German horror movie starring Anthony Perkins

Asked about the reasons for Pino Donaggio’s enduring success as a film composer, Massara reflects, “Well, his main quality is melody! There are few who are better at writing signature tunes. Once you have three or four main themes, these can be put to use at various moments in a movie in different arrangements. It has been a privilege working with such a talent. My approach has not changed that much. I still write everything by hand without using a computer. Of course, some things have changed. In the early years, Pino would come down to my house in Milan regularly and we put together a film score little by little, whilst the sheer workload of several films a year which we faced from the early 1980s onwards unfortunately meant that such a craftsmanlike, somewhat unrushed approach was no longer possible.”

“As is only logical after four decades of working together, the mutual trust we feel is immense... and you know what the most special thing is? In the American film industry, all these famous composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer have at least five or six orchestrators – for some films even more than a dozen – who turn their compositions in full orchestral scores. They are like workers in an old-fashioned car factory, each standing at fixed stations at an assembly line to add one little element to the car. In my case, however, I have always been Pino’s sole arranger, whom he entrusted with adding all orchestral colours to his compositions. We have become a binomio, an inseparable duo; and excellent friends to this day.”

Apart from his work with Donaggio, Natale Massara has continued working as a film composer independently, writing the score to Il generale dalla chiesa (2007) and other TV films. Today, he is the president of the Cassa Nazionale di Assistenza Compositori-Autori-Librettisti di Musica Popolare, an organisation dedicated to providing social security to music writers of entertainment music. In 2019, at the Canto Italiano gala in Milan, he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Italian Union of Composers, Librettists, and Lyricists (UNCLA); the honour of handing out the prize was bestowed on none other than Pino Donaggio.

Receiving the UNCLA lifetime achievement award from the hands of Pino Donaggio (2019)


When Natale Massara conducted the Eurovision orchestra in 1975 for Wess Johnson & Dori Ghezzi, it was not by any means the first time he worked with these artists. In fact, already in 1970, he had written the arrangements to ‘Io t’amerò fino all’ultimo mondo’, Wess’ cover version of a Gilbert Bécaud song. Before his forming a duo with Dori Ghezzi, USA-born Wess Johnson specialised in rhythm & blues and soul repertoire with his backing group, The Airedales. After some of his songs were picked up by two Italian disk jockeys in 1966, Wess and his band decided to try their luck in Italy, roaming the country’s live venues. Later on, having settled down with his family in Rome, Wess also tried his hand at more traditional Italian pop repertoire under the guidance of producer Felice Piccarreda.

“Wess was under contract at the Durium label,” Natale Massara adds, “and while I was an arranger and conductor for another company, Dischi Ricordi, his producer asked me if I was interested to write arrangements for him. In fact, in those years, other companies were often interested to hire me for their productions. Whenever I received such an offer, I turned to Lucio Salvini, Ricordi’s director – and, fortunately, he allowed me quite some freedom in spite of my exclusive contract with him, also in this case. That was the start of my collaboration with Wess."

"When the duo with Dori Ghezzi was formed, which must have been in 1972, I continued writing most of their arrangements. Bringing together Wess and Dori was Felice Piccarreda’s idea. It wasn’t that they weren’t doing well in their solo careers, but it seemed an interesting experiment to form a duo of this giant black guy with a fragile blond girl. With the exception of Al Bano and Romina Power, there weren’t any mixed duos in Italian popular music. While Wess and Dori both were excellent singers in their own right, their voices blended well too. In 1973, they took part in the San Remo Festival with ‘Tu nella mia vita’, a song arranged and conducted by me, which was the real starting point of their fame as a duo.”

With the first success, inevitably, Italian media started digging into Wess and Dori’s private lives, curious to find information about theirs perhaps also being a couple off stage. 

“But I can assure there was nothing there,” Massara assures. “Wess had his own family and Dori later formed a couple with Fabrizio De André (a Genovese singer-songwriter – BT). No, they were just two wonderful music professional who got along well with each other. There was never any rivalry, any nagging about the one being allowed more soli than the other. Given that writing the vocal arrangements also came down to me, this is perhaps also something I deserve some credit for. More importantly, though, the majority of their repertoire was written especially for them – with lyrics suitable for a male-female duo.”

Wess & Dori Ghezzi around the time of their first San Remo participation in 1973

In 1974, participating in another music festival, Canzonissima, Wess & Dori Ghezzi walked away as winners in the light entertainment category with a song co-composed by Umberto Tozzi, ‘Un corpo e un’anima’, which was the duo’s biggest chart success in Italy. The song also paved their way to qualification for the Eurovision Song Contest. 

“Back then, Canzonissima was even more important than San Remo,” Massara explains. “In fact, San Remo was suffering from a lack of popularity for some time in the mid-1970s. Canzonissima was a televised contest which lasted for months, usually between October and January. Following their good showing in San Remo the previous year, it was a given thing that Wess and Dori would try their luck in Canzonissima as well. Doing well at Canzonissima was almost a guarantee for good selling figures – and ‘Un corpo e un’anima’ sold incredibly well. In those years, whoever won Canzonissima was entitled to representing Italy in the Eurofestival, but with another song. Doing Eurovision was an honour; a rare opportunity to take part in a huge international event.”

Once Wess & Dori Ghezzi had received the official invitation to represent Italy’s broadcaster RAI at that year’s Eurovision Song Contest final in Stockholm, the duo recorded a set of songs in Durium’s recording studio in Milan, from which those at RAI responsible for Italy’s Eurovision participation picked ‘Era’, composed by Shel Shapiro with lyrics by Andrea Lo Vecchio, two important names in Italy’s music industry. Prior to writing the arrangement to the song, Natale Massara had a meeting with the two authors to listen to their ideas.

“I met them at Durium. Shel and Andrea had written the song specifically with Wess and Dori in mind – and together we discussed the vocal arrangement. Shel, who was a music producer in his own right, had specific ideas for the orchestration as well, which he had included on the demo recording. This explains why he was mentioned as co-arranger on the single release – a credit he fully deserved. I don’t remember if the organ intro was his idea or mine. I don’t know if ‘Era’ is the best song in Wess and Dori’s repertoire, but it certainly ranks among their most notable recordings. Why? Look, ‘Era’ wasn’t really a canzone. The style wasn’t particularly Italian, quite contrary to their other previous chart successes. Those were melodies, while ‘Era’, in its approach, was much more rhythmical. These were the days of ABBA; and the world of music was changing. ‘Era’ is a song which reflects this development. The sound was international rather than Italian. In this light, one can understand why RAI picked it to be their entry from amongst all song material which was submitted on behalf of Wess and Dori.”

In keeping with his approach to San Remo entries, for which he made sure to adapt the orchestration in such a way as to create a richer sound, Natale Massara did not simply use his studio arrangement for the international festival final. 

“In this case, I needn’t really have bothered, because the sound engineers in Sweden and their equipment were so much more advanced than what we were used to in Italy. I am not an esterofilo, a xenophile, in any way, but they were really miles ahead of us. In San Remo, an orchestration which was a little subtle wouldn’t come across well on television – but in any case, for ‘Era’, I basically enlarged the arrangement by adding additional instrument in each section. The orchestra at our disposal in Sweden consisted of more elements than the one with which we had recorded the song in Milan.”

“Another thing which we weren’t used to in Italy… the orchestration had to be submitted to the organisation in Stockholm several weeks before the contest was due. In San Remo, the orchestra didn’t start rehearsing until a week in advance, but in Stockholm, the pre-production was superb. When I arrived, the orchestra had already rehearsed the song to the smallest detail, including additional comments I had added to the score as to how exactly I wanted the guitar and drums to sound. I was given two or three rehearsals in Sweden, but the hard work had already been done for me. The orchestra was very good, and because Wess and Dori were professional singers, our rehearsals were flawless.”

Strikingly, Natale Massara was not the only Italian conductor to take part in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest. Malta’s entry ‘Singing This Song’ by Renato Micallef, which had been recorded in Italy, was conducted by Vince Tempera. In a funny coincidence, Tempera and Massara had co-arranged Wess and Dori’s latest album release, which bore the name of their Canzonissima track: ‘Un corpo e un’anima’. Though Tempera was a close colleague, Massara did not see much of him in Stockholm.

“Malta’s delegation was in another hotel in a different part of the town. In those days, there were no mobile phones. We were in different delegations living in different worlds, so to speak. The rehearsing schedule didn’t allow us to cross each other either. We cannot have met more than just two or three times that week – in fact it might have been just for the general rehearsal and the concert on Saturday evening!”

In between Eurovision rehearsals: Natale Massara enjoying some leisure time in downtown Stockholm (1975)

Though Eurovision 1975 took place in the fourth week of March – springtime, at least on paper –, winter was still very much present in the city of Stockholm. What were Natale Massara’s impressions? 

“I had never been to Scandinavia before, and though I was travelling for what essentially was work, I was keen to discover as much of Stockholm as I could during our free hours. All waterways around the city centre were frozen, an unusual sight for us Italians. We were all dressed up warmly in fur coats, which were fashionable for men as well as for women back then! The Italian delegation was quite large, as it consisted of officials of RAI and the Durium record company. We were a happy bunch and went into town several times as a group. I remember Silvio Noto was there as the commentator for Italian television – a famous name, but someone who I hadn’t met previously. It was nice to fraternise with him and others."

"One evening, our entire group ended up in a nightclub, attending a peepshow. Thinking back of it, the performance we saw there was rather innocent, something which would make a three-year-old child laugh nowadays; but it was a show the like of which in Italy would have caused a scandal in the 1970s. It was very obvious that in more than one way, Sweden was a much more liberal country than Italy.”

“Please allow me to share with you one other memory of Stockholm!,” Massara adds with a broad smile. “Probably my best memory of that festival! Like many other musicians of my generation, I was a huge fan of The Shadows. In fact, I even went to a concert by Cliff Richard and The Shadows in L’Olympia in Paris, which must have been back in 1961 or 1962. They were a huge inspiration to me and my fellow-bandmembers in I Ribelli; and all those years later, there I found myself, at one of the rehearsals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm, sharing a dressing room with them! They were there to represent the United Kingdom. As the venue wasn’t big enough to allow everyone a separate dressing room, the organisation had put some participants from different countries together. In this room, there were just The Shadows and me. Incredible! Of course, I told them how I had idolised them fifteen years before. They took the time to have a chat with me, which was really nice.”

Picture taken from the press folder provided by the Italian delegation in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest

In the end, ‘Era’ was awarded with 115 votes, finishing in a respectable third place behind Teach-In from the Netherlands and the runners up… The Shadows. Were the Italians happy with the result?

“Oh yes, very much so! After having listened to all songs in general rehearsal, we agreed that there were some really good entries, but at the same time we started believing in our own chances. We were expecting to do well, perhaps even to win; and thinking of that possibility made us quite nervous, myself included – even more so because we were drawn last and had to wait for nearly two hours before we could finally perform. How would the audience respond after having already heard some good songs? After coming off stage, everyone in our little corner backstage was happy with the performance; the Durium officials, the four backing singers. When the votes started rolling in, the atmosphere got even better. In fact, we were getting into the spirit, cheering with every high mark which came our way, “Vai, vai, ce la faremo! Vinciamo!”, as if we were at a sports event. In the end, we didn’t win, but we had done ourselves proud. After the voting was over, champagne bottles were uncorked and we had a ball!”

In terms of record sales, ‘Era’ did quite well in Italy, but in several other European countries too – even climbing to sixth place in the charts in Switzerland and third in Norway. In spite of that, Wess & Dori Ghezzi continued to have a career which was first and foremost built on success in Italy. One year after the Eurovision Song Contest, they tried their luck again in the San Remo Festival, finishing second with ‘Come stai, con chi sei’, a song again arranged by Natale Massara – but not conducted, because all entries in the 1976 San Remo Festival were performed without live orchestral accompaniment.

“Their success continued for one or two years after Eurovision, but at some point, public interest began to dwindle. Their style of duets had gone out of fashion; and after a while, they broke up. Dori gave up singing altogether, but Wess continued as a solo artist for many years. In fact, when his longtime producer Felice Piccarreda left Durium, I was asked to take over – and I worked with him as an arranger and producer until the early 1980s. I distinctly remember recording a vocal version of the main theme of Pino Donaggio’s film Carrie with him. Wess and I were good friends. When he came down from where he was living in Rome to do studio work in Milan, we also hung out with each other privately. At one point, I practically gave up working as a record arranger and our ways parted. He continued performing with his band in the oldies circuit in Italy. In his native America, he performed for the Italian communities there. In fact, he died while he was touring in the United States (in 2009 – BT).”

"I did Eurovision just once, but it's one of the proudest moments in my career. And I am glad that I was involved in Eurovision and San Remo back in the day when everything was done completely live. In San Remo, for some years, there was no orchestral accompaniment at all (in 1976 and again from 1980 to 1989 – BT), and it was a tristezza assoluta – a very sad sight to behold. Later, when the orchestra returned to the competition, it got better, but the situation today is different from the 1970s."

"Nowadays, in San Remo, not only the conductor, but all musicians in the orchestra are wearing headphones which allow them to hear the click track, indicating the tempi by means of a metronome. They are simply playing what is already in their headphones. In such a situation, a conductor is superfluous – he is just there as a show element. A click robs an orchestral performance of any element of emotion or spontaneity; while intended to root out tiny imperfections in a performance, it has ruined music itself. I am dismayed to hear from you that there has been no orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest for over twenty years now – that is very poor. A song festival without an orchestra, musically speaking, is the Third World. Punto. Basta!


So far, we have not gathered comments of other artists about Natale Massara.


Country – Italy
Song title – "Era"
Rendition – Wess Johnson & Dori Ghezzi
Lyrics – Andrea Lo Vecchio
Composition – Shel Shapiro
Studio arrangement – Shel Shapiro / Natale Massara
Live orchestration – Natale Massara
Conductor – Natale Massara
Score – 3rd place (115 votes)

  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Natale Massara, March 2020
  • Photos courtesy of Natale Massara & Ferry van der Zant
  • An extensive interview with Natale Massara in Italian, which mainly focuses on his activities as a film orchestrator and conductor, can be found by following this link

No comments:

Post a Comment