Italian Women Singers in the Beat Era

For those accustomed to the lushness of 60s French pop, Italian can take some getting used to. Its screeching string accents, midrange vibratos and operatic boldness can feel more Wall of Shrill than Wall of Sound. Still, I’ve always felt that there is something unique in its assertiveness and power lacking in ye-ye or schlager, two other European pop movements where women played critical roles. In his capacity as a staff arranger at labels ARC, RCA Italiana, and Ricordi, Ennio Morricone worked on many of these sessions, with the voices of Edda Dell’Orso and her Cantori Moderni, along with Alessandroni’s guitar, audible throughout. For teens, 7″ singles were the order of the day. Italian LPs were expensive deluxe products aimed more at the adult market. This list is biased and attempts to highlight a few lesser known Italian women singers at the expense of some very famous ones, such as Patty Pravo, Rita Pavone, Caterina Caselli, Wilma Goich, Gigliola Cinquetti, Isabella Iannetti, Ornella Vanoni, and Nada. Some of their best songs can be found on Ace’s Ciao Bella! compilation for those interested, which also contains many artists below. I’ve linked out to YouTube clips when possible.


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Mina

Sarah Vaughn once said that if she did not have her voice, she would like to have that of “a young Italian girl named Mina.” Louis Armstrong referenced her in interviews as well. Today she remains obscure to US audiences but is well-known in Europe and Japan. As a teenager, she started her career on the Italdisc label, recording rhythmic rock hits like “Renato,” “Tintarella Di Luna,” and “Una Zebra Pois,” along with ballads like “Il Cielo In Una Stanza,” and jazzy mashups like “La Notte.” She moved to RiFi Records in 1964, where she shifted into the second stage of her career, working with Italy’s biggest orchestras and arrangers. She recorded and performed constantly during this period, making promotional films for her singles with pasta company Barilla. In these, her pale angularity, modernist fashion, and alien-like shaved eyebrow look would serve to inspire David Bowie among others (see her telephone-cable outfit in this Barilla film for “Se Telefonando”). Her vocal range was so incredible that songs like “Brava” were written specifically for her as tongue-in-cheek scale exercises, which she soared through effortlessly, sometimes while smoking. Mina was radical in other ways, mocking the Pope’s “banning” of her music after having a baby from an affair, which only increased her popularity and record sales among Rome’s godless youth. Her fame was such that, by the release of the 1965 single “L’Ultima Occasione,” her name was not even printed on the sleeve. After leaving RiFi, she started her own label, PDU, working with superstars like Lucio Battisti and songwriter Mogol. The Morricone-penned “Se Telefonando,” with its swirling choir, deep trombones, and siren-inspired 3-note structure, is a great starting point for delving into her massive catalogue. We are linking to her famous RAI premiere of the song from a Studio Uno broadcast in 1966. Its pounding B-side “No” is equally accomplished, with nice multi-tracking of vocals and echoey, high-in-the-mix acoustic guitars. LISTEN


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Milva

The Italian media loved to play up the great diva rivalry between Mina and Milva but it’s unclear how much of that was journalistic fantasy. Milva was dubbed “La Rossa” both because of her red hair and her outspoken socialist beliefs (a big fan of Brecht, she has performed his work regularly throughout her career.) Her first fame came covering Edith Piaf’s “Milord.” She then went on to release tons of albums and singles between 1960-65, mainly on the Fonit Cetra label, in a variety of musical styles and in multiple languages. Among her great Italian songs from this early period are “Tango Italiano,” “Flamenco Rock,” “Una Storia Cosi,” “Nessuno Di Voi,” and Morricone’s “Quattro Vestiti.” One of her Spanish 7″ 45 EPs also includes a gloomy take on Agnes Varda’s “Cleo Dalle 5 Alle 7.” In 1967, she would move towards a heavier orchestral beat sound for a few singles, the best being “Uno Come Noi,” a smoking A-side on Ricordi that is a favorite (a lamer version of this song, by guy band Los Bravos, beat her at San Remo.) That same year saw “Dipingi Un Mondo Per Me” b/w “Io Non So Cos’È,” the latter using Nora Orlandi and her 4+4 ensemble to great effect. Among her LPs, the only one I have heard is her Ricordi collaboration with Morricone from 1972, called Dedicato A Milva Da Ennio Morricone, with “Metti Una Sera A Cena” being one of many standouts found there. LISTEN


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Rita Monico

Although far less popular than Mina or Milva at the time, Rita Monico was one of the best. She began performing as a child, cutting songs for labels Cricket and Red Record. In 1964, Fonola signed her for a couple of shared split 7″ sides, released to coincide with San Remo. Her greatest works came on the ARC label, starting that same year, with “Se Tu Non Mi Vuoi” b/w “Di Sera.” The A-side showed a new explosive range and experimentation with multi-tracked vocals while the B was a study in meticulous phrasing that would soon become her hallmark. She collaborated with Morricone, then staff arranger at ARC, three times in her career. Their first outing was the 1965 stunner “La Regola Del Gioco,” more commonly known by the title of the forgotten comedy it was recorded for, “Thrilling.” But its tired Bacharach B-side didn’t do it any favors. Her next ARC release, “Non È Mai Tardi” b/w “Gocce Di Mare, Gocce Di Sole,” is an absolute double-sider. In “Tardi,” reworking the Shangri-Las “Dressed In Black” melody, Morricone and Monico shift from near silence and whispers to piano-pounding, choir-fueled angst, with Monico running some of the best registers of her career. Although she had no Italian albums, RCA France issued an essential EP at this point, in September 1966, that compiled her best ARC sides onto a four-song 45-RPM 7″. She simultaneously branched out into the Spanish market with two singles, including the standout “Puede Ser” b/w “Lo Que Me Pasa A Mi.” In 1966 and 1968, she cut two more 45s for ARC, “Nata Per Amare Te” and “Tu Perdi Tempo,” the latter sporting a new hip look straight out of Petra Von Kant. She subsequently moved to European United Record for two final releases, only one of which I have heard, “La Pace Nel Cuore.” After a long hiatus, she appeared briefly in 1975 for one final 7″ outing with Morricone, the proto-disco wah-wah jammer “Sono Mia,” for television show Pianeta Donna. LISTEN


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Dominga

Dominga started on New Star in the mid 60s with a 3-songer 7″ 45, “Ho Dimenticato Per Te.” The switch to Decca in 1969 brought a new look and sound, with a Brooksian helmet bob, black boots, and better material. Dominga’s best record that I’ve heard is 1970’s “Dimmi Cosa Aspetti Ancora” b/w “Cieli Azzurri Sul Tuo Viso,” the A-side sporting a melody by Daniela Casa whose chorus, a chiming synthesis of voice, piano, acoustic guitar, and percussion, embodies all the best earwormy elements of orchestral Italo-pop; an uptempo Migliacci composition with staccato strings is on the B-side. She then put out “Sto Con Te” b/w “Una Ragazza Sola,” again backed by Piero Pintucci’s orchestra. Her subsequent Decca singles are a mixed bag and a bit on the schlagery side. LISTEN


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Mara Brunetta Pacini

Using just Brunetta for most of her career, she started as a teen singer for Ricordi in the early 60s, backed by I Cavalieri (whose lineup included a young Luigi Tenco.) She then moved to RiFi-subsidiary Primary and recorded in a similar style, using Mara Pacini. Her fame today rests on a recording session she did in 1966 with backing band The Balubas from which two RiFi singles were culled, the most popular being the A-side “Baluba Shake,” which, while a cool beat, does smack of Euro-colonialist African Orientalism in much the same way as Janko Nilovic’s “Mao Mao,” Sladana’s “Das Licht Von Kairo,” or Louiselle’s “Cammelli E Scorpioni.” The outstanding double-sider “Solo Per Poco Tempo” b/w “Dove Vai?” followed, the B-side featuring a superb use of the “Summer Wine” melody for solo voice. In March 1968, she recorded her last RiFi 45, pairing with The Sounds for “Felicità Felicità” b/w “Il Nuovo Tema Dell’Amore.” Her final two 7″ releases, “Ti Costa Così Poco” and “Senza Te,” were ballads which she also co-wrote. The B-side of the latter, a track called “Grazie Amore,” is probably the best song from this later period. (FYI: as of this writing, all versions of “Solo Per Poco Tempo” on YouTube and Spotify are really her song “Perdono”.) LISTEN


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Daniela Casa

Today, Casa is primarily remembered for her groundbreaking experimental LPs, including America Giovane N. 2, Società Malata, and Arte Moderna, recorded for a variety of Italian labels in the mid 70s. Some of these were compiled by Finders Keepers on the compilation Sovrapposizione Di Immagini, in 2014. She had a brief stint as a pop singer early on, releasing the single “L’Amore Estivo” b/w “Beati Voi” in 1964, on Fonit. Later on came “Uomo” b/w “Poesia” for Mimo. She then shifted strictly into prog and electronic music. Her pop songwriting credits for others include two classic 7″ melodies by women artists on this list: the A-side “Dimmi Cosa Aspetti Ancora” by Dominga, and the B-side “Ci Vuole Coraggio” by Peggy March. She continued working into the 80s, releasing one LP, Breeze, under the name Elageron in 1983. Her premature death from cancer in 1986 was a huge blow to Italian music. LISTEN


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Donatella Moretti

Published women songwriters in the 60s Italian pop market were rare. Casa was one, Loredana Ognibene was another. Her only release was a renowned collaboration with Donatella Moretti called Diario Di Una Sedicenne (Diary of a 16-Year Old Girl), on RCA Italiana in 1964. It was an early concept album, with actress Valeria Ciangottini, from La Dolce Vita, journaling on the front cover and elaborate gatefold photo montage, “cast” as the physical container for Donatella Moretti’s voice. Moretti penned a lengthy dedication of sorts inside, purposefully forging bonds with teen girls, whom she listed among the project’s active participants (“This record therefore is ours: yours, mine, Loredana’s, and Valeria’s.”) The exterior packaging highlights this, with Loredana Ognibene adorning the entire back cover, in a moody “writing music” pose lit low-key; there are no track listings or any words at all, apart from her name, which is highly unusual for LP paratext from this era. Arrangements are by Morricone, with one track flagged by R.A.I. for controversial content, called “Matrimonio D’Interesse” (“Marriage of Interest”). A second great song, the album’s opener, “Mille Gocce Piccoline,” apparently also generated some controversy. Throughout the 60s, Moretti continued to work with RCA and Morricone on singles. Her best two were B-sides: 1966’s “Era Più Di Un Anno” and 1965’s “Non M’Importa Più.” She later moved to Parade. She had a resurgence in the disco years as the powerhouse voice behind D.M. System Orchestra.  LISTEN


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Nancy Cuomo

Cuomo’s first two 7″s came out under her real name, Maria Cuomo, on a small label called KappaO. In 1966, she had her big break, signing to Parade to record a song for a Bruno Nicolai score, released as the A-side “Love Love Bang Bang.” In 1968, “Chiedi E Ti Darò” b/w “Ieri Solo Ieri” was released on Cetra, the latter being one of her best tracks. The only other single of hers I have is an unreleased promo on a label called Hello Records, where she records in English under the name Mary Featt, “It Takes Too Long To Learn To Live Alone” b/w “Yes, I Will.” The A was written by African-American songwriter Leon Carr, and the B has a periodic reverb-drenched male vocal sound during the chorus that is odd and fascinatingly weird. LISTEN


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Maria Luigia Bis / Brenda Bis / Maria Luigia

Another confusing artist who recorded using three names. Her first release was on CBS circa 1964, under Maria Luigia Bis, “Siamo Al Mare” b/w “A Chi Dai Il Bacio Della Buonanotte?” and was possibly part of a promotional swimsuit tie-in. Three years brought a dramatic Dusty-sized drop in vocal register for 1967, when Brenda Bis came out with a brilliant 7″ on the CBD label, “Per Vivere Insieme” b/w “Hold On! I’m Coming,” the A-side using the melody of “Happy Together.” Starting in 1968, Maria Luigia appears at the new indie Clan Celenatno label, releasing two singles. Of these, “Ai Quattro Venti” b/w “Sento Una Canzone” is maybe the better of them. LISTEN


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Rosy (Rosanna Negri)

Rosy’s first recording session for RCA was in 1963 with Morricone arranging. The resulting self-titled LP, issued in 1964, contains many great tracks, several of which were released as singles, including “La Prima Festa Che Darò” and “Tutto L’amore Del Mondo.” “Ti Voglio Come Sei” uses the melody of “I Can’t Stay Mad At You” by Skeeter Davis. Also of note is a Jenny Luna cover, “Chiodo Scaccia Chiodo.” My favorite record of hers came out in 1965, the A-side “L’Amore Gira,” which has this great descending choir signature throughout and is a precursor to where Morricone and Mina would go the following year with “Se Telefonando.” LISTEN


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Ambra Borelli

Borelli recorded under her own name and also La Ragazza 77. Her first two singles were on King Universal, from 1964-65; “In Questo Momento” features some splattery guitar accents, but otherwise, they are somewhat flat. Her best work came after she moved to Ricordi in 1967, starting with the A-sides “Il Beat Cos’è” and “Il Paradiso Della Vita,” credited to La Ragazza 77. The classic A-side groover “Mela Acerba” (Bad Apple), released on Ricordi in 1969, is probably her finest song. (Super rare promotional video, but with damaged audio, can be seen here.)  LISTEN


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Lisa Gastoni

Mainly an actor, Gastoni released two singles that I know of, both of which were tied to films. The best is her gloomy minor-key A-side “Una Stanza Vuota” from the crime drama Svegliati E Uccidi, which features a signature piano riff from Morricone, over Allesandroni’s guitar, that would pop up elsewhere in his soundtracks. A few years later she appeared in another film called Maddalena, releasing “Chi Mai…” in support. LISTEN


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Marita

Marita only released three 45s, all on a small subsidiary of Durium, called Sun. The best is from 1968, the double-sider “Pata Pata” b/w “I Primi Minuti.” The Miriam Makeba cover is explosive, with an Augusto Martelli orchestral arrangement that puts voice, choir, piano, and horns over a drum beat that never deviates. The latter incorporates the melody of “I Say A Little Prayer.” Her other two releases are from around the same year but not quite as catchy, “Non Ti Credo” and “Torna Questa Estate.” LISTEN


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Christy

Christy’s subacquatic masterpiece “Deep Down” is apparently the sole song remaining from the Danger: Diabolik soundtrack, which I’ve heard was destroyed by fire; I think the film featured English dubbing for the lyrics used in its cues, which might have also used a different backing track. Regardless, the Italian-language version is the stellar B-side of a 1968 Parade single that pairs Piccioni and Morricone film songs, both sung by Christy, the A-side being “Amore Amore Amore Amore.” Another single side of hers, “Run Man Run,” is also great and, like Rita Monico’s “Non È Mai Tardi,” runs the scales of silence and scream. It was recorded for La Resa Dei Conti in 1966 and released on the Eureka imprint of Parade the following year, as an A-side. Later on, in 1968-9, she would release another great Morricone melody, the ballad “Al Messico Che Vorrei.” She continued to release 45s on Parade, RCA, and Carosello throughout the late 1960s. LISTEN


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Dora Musumeci

Primarily a jazz pianist and vocalist, Dora Musumeci recorded one excellent pop single for RCA Italiana, with Morricone arranging: 1961’s “Qualcuno Ha Chiesto Di Me” b/w “Caffe E Camomilla.” Although its ballad A-side is more accomplished, featuring Musumeci on voice and piano track, it is probably most known for its fun rhythmic B-side, with its string plucks, gravelly vocal shouts, and catchy harpsichord, which Musumeci might have played as well. It seems to have been a one-off for her, perhaps even a novelty side at the time. Nevertheless, its sound has endured, being included on several Morricone pop music compilations over the past twenty plus years. LISTEN


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Louiselle

Most of Louiselle’s best 7″ singles can be found on ARC, taken from sessions she did with Morricone throughout 1964-65. The best of these is probably “La Mia Vita” b/w “Sorridono,” although “Quello Che C’È Fra Me E Te” b/w “Anche Se Mi Fai Paura” is a close runner-up. A move to the Parade label saw her paired with different backing bands with mixed results. The most interesting of these is her collaboration on the psychy A-side “Cammelli E Scorpioni” from a 1966 single, which is credited to Louiselle E I Suoi Arcieri (or “Her Archers”). LISTEN


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Anna Indentici

Indentici has a few great singles and a lot that I have never heard. Among her early sides on Ariston is a rare cover version of Ginny Arnell’s classic “I Wish I Knew What Dress To Wear, ” called “Lo Stile Adatto A Me.” 1967’s “Tanto Tanto Caro” b/w “Una Stretta Di Mano” and 1968’s “Non Calpestate I Fiori” (Don’t Trample the Flowers) b/w “Non Mi Cambierai” are her finest releases, with strong A/B sides on each. LISTEN


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Peggy March

Although technically Italian-American, Margaret “Peggy March” Battavio recorded several sessions for RCA in Italy that deserve mention. Her first release was in 1963, “Te Ne Vai” b/w “Così.” The A-side is an Italian rewrite of her hit “Hello Heartache, Goodbye Love” and uses the same Sammy Lowe Orchestra backing track as that song, with new vocal overdubs. The B-side was the first song released from new sessions she’d just recorded in Rome with Morricone, material that would comprise her next two singles: “Passo Su Passo” b/w “Carillon” and “Gli Occhi Tuoi Sono Blu” b/w “Eh, Bravo.” In 1964, the full LP was released, blandly titled Little Peggy March, with roughly half being new tracks with Morricone and half being Italian-language overdubs onto the Lowe masters. Apart from the singles, her best song from the record is called “Ora Che Sai,” which features March tearing into some high registers over a cool syncopated arrangement, with Alessandroni and I Cantori Moderni backing. Later on in the decade, she had two more 7″s on RCA Italiana: 1966’s “Che Cosa Fa Una Ragazza” and 1969’s “Che Figura Ci Farei,” whose B-side contains a great Daniela Casa melody. LISTEN

By Jim Bunnelle/Center For Cassette Studies