Long before the term ‘marketing’ was coined, Italian singer Milena Cantù became the object of a rather clever marketing ploy: her identity was kept a closely guarded secret. Part of singer Adriano Celentano’s respected Clan, she was known simply as La Ragazza del Clan for two years, before her identity was eventually revealed.
She was born Anna Milena Cantù in Milan, in northern Italy, in 1943.
In 1958 she met young singer Adriano Celentano. Within a year he scored his first Italian chart topper and he later set up his own record label cum creative commune, Clan.
Milena and Celentano became engaged in the early 1960s.
In 1963, the couple decided to launch Milena’s pop career. To generate interest in the singer, they opted to keep the new singer’s identity secret. As a result, she became known as La Ragazza del Clan.
Eh! Già… (Lasciami entrar), a version of US singer Little Eva’s He is the boy, was picked to be her first release. However, it was consigned to the flip of a 45 that featured Natale Befanino’s Danny boy on the A-side.
Realising that the song’s hit potential had been squandered in this way, it was re-released as an A-side in the spring of 1964. The mystery surrounding the singer’s identity was retained when she made her TV debut, performing the song on the show Adriano Clan along with the rest of his stable of artists – she was obscured behind frosted glass to prevent her from being identified.
The song became a big hit, spending three weeks at number four in the Italian charts in May that year. Echoing real life, it told the story of a girl whose guy has fallen out of love with her... by this time Celentano had met actress Claudia Mori on the set of the film Uno strano tipo, and the pair went on to marry in secret.
Inevitably, the move spelt trouble for his professional relationship with Milena.
In 1965, she released a second 45, which contained three songs. Strana was the A-side, while Un mondo del bene – a version of Lennon and McCartney’s A world without love, a UK chart topper for Peter and Gordon – and the superb Van McCoy-penned Il treno, which had been translated by respected lyricist Mogol, were included on the flip. The cover artwork was of a big question mark, reinforcing the mystery around the singer.
Labelmates I Ribelli (who had started out as Celentano’s backing group) maintained the hype with their single Chi sarà la Ragazza del Clan, which reached number two in the autumn of 1965.
It was decided to reveal the singer’s identity on her final 45 of the year, Ma tu chi sei. The gatefold sleeve opened up to reveal her name and face, and on television, she re-enacted her first appearance, except this time she stepped out from behind frosted glass. Perhaps surprisingly, given the quality of the release and the promotion she had enjoyed, the disc stalled outside the Italian top 50.
In another promotional masterstroke, Celentano pitted his own version of Il ragazzo della Via Gluck against one by a threesome billed as the Trio del Clan at the 1966 San Remo song festival. Though neither version made it to the final, Celentano scored a big hit with his, and the song has gone on to become one of his best-known compositions. (French singer Françoise Hardy, who was also competing in the contest that year, liked it so much that she recorded it too, enjoying a big hit in France with La maison où j’ai grandi.)
The Trio del Clan released their version of the song, with the cheesy duet Due treccioline con l’elastico – performed by La Ragazza del Clan and Don Backy – on the flip.
Her next solo single, Bang bang, was the first to be issued under the name Milena Cantù. However, it lost out in a sales war to no less than three rival versions of the Cher song, by I Corvi, Dalida and Equipe 84. Ironically, although the Italian lyrics of the song had been written by the Clan’s Miki Del Prete, the Clan-related release fared worst. All four versions made the top 40 in late 1966, but only Dalida and Equipe 84 scored top ten hits.
The following year, Milena took part in the Cantagiro contest. Performing her entry, the moody L’ombra, she found herself competing alongside Patty Pravo, Rita Pavone and Wilma Goich, amongst others.
The contest was to prove a turning point in her career. During it, she fell out spectacularly with Celentano, who was also taking part, and she decided to quit the Clan record label.
She landed on Ri-Fi in 1968, where she released a version of British singer David Garrick’s Dear Mrs Applebee, Conoscevo un re. However, the king of the title was widely interpreted to refer to Celentano, and although the song was catchy enough to have been a hit, the perceived bitterness behind it put off record buyers, and the disc sold poorly.
It proved the end of her recording career.
However, that year she married singer Fausto Leali and went on to compose songs for her new husband. Using the pseudonym Mamared, she scored her first notable success with his 1972 San Remo contest entry, L’uomo e il cane.
She continued to write for Leali throughout the 1970s.