Italian singer Rita Pavone’s youthful charm helped make her a star in Italy and throughout Europe, as well as in the US and Latin America. Over the course of the 1960s, she is estimated to have sold some ten million records.
She was born on 23 August 1945 in Turin, northern Italy. She enjoyed performing from an early age and made her first public appearance in 1959 singing an Al Johnson song at the Alfieri Theatre in her hometown. As a teenager she took a job ironing in a clothes factory and supplemented her income by singing at various local clubs.
Things didn’t go smoothly for the young singer when she first chose to pursue a career in music in earnest. In 1961, she was turned down by the RCA label after bosses there failed to spot the potential in the small, freckled redhead. However, within a year, she had won the Festa degli sonosciuti talent contest – the first prize for which, ironically, was a contract with RCA.
The contest had been organised by Teddy Reno, a singer in the 1940s and 50s. He became her manager, producer and later, in 1968, her husband.
The catchy La partita di pallone was issued as Rita’s first 45. It topped the charts in February 1963, ultimately selling a million copies globally.
Rita was invited to replace Mina for a 12-week run on the Saturday night television show Studio uno. She used her regular slot on the programme to launch her follow up single, Come te non c’è nessuno. The song toppled her debut disc from the top of the charts in March 1963 and became the biggest-selling song of the year. (The B-side, Clementine chérie, was from the film of the same name, in which she had appeared.)
A third single, Alla mia età, was issued within weeks and was held off the top of the charts only by its predecessor.
Cuore, a cover of the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill-penned Heart, originally recorded by Wayne Newton, became her follow up 45. It topped the charts, and the B-side, Il ballo del mattone, repeated the feat in its own right.
Rita had originally recorded the song as Coeur for release in France, where it proved a hit. The song in its various versions – including an English one, which spent three months in the UK charts in the winter of 1966-67 – went on to sell over a million copies worldwide. In Spain, in particular, she became a huge star.
The title track of her second album, Non è facile avere 18 anni, gave the singer another hit at the end of 1963. The decision was also taken to have the tiny teen record specifically for the German market, and her Wenn ich ein Junge wär’ proved a big seller in December that year.
Back at home, the easy listening Che m’importa del mondo, from the film La noia, topped the charts in January 1964, and Datemi un martello, a cover of If I had a hammer, Scrivi and L’amore mio all provided further hits.
In May that year, Rita was launched in the US with an album modestly entitled The international teenage sensation and appearances on The Ed Sullivan show, Shindig and Hullabaloo. Her heavily accented delivery charmed record buyers and a single, Remember me, taken from the album, reached number 26 in the Billboard charts that summer. A second US album, Small wonder, hit the shops a few months later and a third LP followed in 1965.
In Italy, Rita starred in the TV series Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca, which aired from December 1964, and scored another top ten hit with the theme tune, the, frankly, dreadful Viva la pappa col pomodoro, performed to the accompaniment of a zither.
The follow up, Lui, represented something of a return to form, winning the Cantagiro song contest and landing the singer back in the top ten in the spring and summer of 1965.
Stasera con te, from the TV special Stasera Rita, provided a further top ten hit later that year – while You only you, a translation of its B-side, Solo tu, gave the singer a second UK hit in January 1967.
The childish Plip, issued at the end of 1965, is best overlooked – but worse was yet to come. A host of songs aimed at the children’s market, such as Rita’s recording of Supercalifragilistichespirali-doso from Mary Poppins and Mamma dammi la panna, were released over the coming years.
For the teenage and adult market, she issued Il geghegè, the theme tune to the Studio uno TV show, in 1966. The song was performed with a great deal of energy and some rather clever choreography, and is regarded by many as one of Italy’s finest beat records. Even its B-side, Qui ritornerà, a version of the Fortunes’ Here it comes again, became a hit in its own right. The gentle Fortissimo, also taken from the show, provided another hit.
By this time she had begun starring in a string of lightweight films, including Rita, la figlia americana, Rita la zanzara and Little Rita nel west, and enjoyed success with various songs taken from their soundtracks, notably La zanzara.
When the Four Tops failed to score in Italy with their international hit Reach out I’ll be there, Rita stepped in to release an Italian version, Gira gira (see our Motown males tribute special). The song became a top ten hit in January 1967 and included Dove non so – a translation of Lara’s theme, from the film Doctor Zhivago – on the flip.
Her 1967 Cantagiro song contest entry, Questo nostro amore, gave the singer another hit but her sales then went into decline and subsequent singles Non dimenticar le mie parole, Sul cucuzzolo and Tu sei come all flopped.
A switch to the Ricordi label a year later did little to reverse this trend, with singles such as Il mondo nelle mani (a version of US group the Box Tops’ Neon rainbow) and Nella mia stanza, both issued in 1968, failing to shift in similar quantities as her earlier efforts. The launch of her own Ritaland offshoot of the label was used to release a string of material aimed at the children’s market.
In 1969, in a bid to boost interest in her new material, she entered the San Remo song festival. However, her Zucchero finished way behind entries by Iva Zanicchi, Gigliola Cinquetti and Caterina Caselli, amongst others, though it did return the singer to the charts – becoming her first top ten hit in two years.
Her return to the RCA label in 1970 marked a move towards a more mature sound. Ahi, ahi ragazzo, which she sang at the San Remo contest (the song was also performed by Valeria Mongardini) became her first single under her new contract, but it failed to make it through to the contest’s final and missed the top 30 in the charts. Nevertheless, translated as Ay muchacho, it proved an Iberian hit and prompted a tour in Spain and throughout Latin America.
Stai con me, a version of Ben E King’s Stand by me, became her final single of the year and made number 25 in the Italian charts.
She continued to release some high-quality records in the 1970s, albeit less frequently and less successfully than before. Further appearances in the San Remo contest and the occasional TV special also kept her in the public eye.
In 1979 she tried to represent Switzerland at the Eurovision song contest with Dieci cuori but finished fourth in the Swiss national final.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she took up more acting roles, appearing in various films and theatrical productions, including a role as Maria in Shakespeare’s Twelfth night.
She retired from the music business officially in 2006. In March that year she stood for the conservative Per l’Italia nel mondo party in the Italian elections, but failed to win a seat.