23 August 2016

Rita Pavone - teenage singing star

Precocious talent who conquered America

Rita Pavone pictured in 1965
Rita Pavone pictured in 1965
Rita Pavone, who was one of Europe's biggest teenage singing stars in the 1960s and was still performing live concerts as recently as 2014, celebrates her 71st birthday today.

The Turin-born singer had her first hit single when she was just 17 years old and enjoyed success at home and in America during a career that spanned more than five decades, going on to become an accomplished actress on television and in the theatre.

She announced she was quitting show business in 2006 but came out of retirement in 2013 to record two studio albums as a tribute to the stars who had influenced her in throughout her career, then embarking on a series of live concerts in Italy in 2014 and performing in Toronto, Canada exactly 50 years after her first appearance there.

Earlier this year she appeared in Ballando Con le Stelle - the Italian equivalent of the US show Dancing With the Stars and Britain's Strictly Come Dancing - and finished third with partner Simone de Pasquale, reaching the final despite being the oldest competitor.

Pavone was born on August 23, 1945 and spent her early years living in a two-room apartment in Turin.  She was the third of four children yet it was not until 1959 that the family was able to move somewhere bigger, in the Mirafiori district, when a scheme run by the FIAT factory where her father worked enabled employees to obtain a family home at low rent.

Rita Pavone in 1973, after returning to Italy to embark on an acting career
Rita Pavone in 1973, after returning
to Italy to embark on an acting career
Her father, Giovanni, was a fan of American musicals, and it was when she began singing along to his record collection, largely featuring Al Jolson, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, that he realised she had talent.  Rita left school at just 11 years old to take a job as an ironer in a shirt factory but Giovanni encouraged her interest in singing, finding the money to pay for lessons and, on bank holidays, taking her to schools and village halls on the back of his scooter, so she could sing at children's parties and local festivities.

In 1959, Pavone made her public debut as a singer, impersonating Al Jolson in a children's talent contest.  Her big break came in 1962, when she won first prize in La Festa Degli Sconosciuti Festival of the Unknown - a nationwide talent search launched by a record producer and singer from Trieste, born Ferruccio Merk-Ricordi but who went under the professional name of Teddy Reno.

The prize was a management contract with Reno - the man she would later marry - and a record deal with RCA Italiana, Her first single - La Partita di Pallone  -The Football Match - sold more than a million copies, earning Pavone a regular slot on a popular Italian television variety series, Studio One. 

More hits followed yet Reno was not content with success merely in Italy.  After scoring chart hits in Spain and Germany, he set his sights on the United States. In May 1964, Pavone's American debut album, The International Teenage Sensation, was released, and the single Remember Me became a hit.

When Pavone made her first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular variety show on American television, in 1964, it could be acknowledged that she had cracked the US market, a rarity for an Italian performer.  Soon she was appearing alongside Diana Ross and The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jones, Duke Ellington and Paul Anka, meeting Elvis Presley and recording a duet with Barbra Streisand.

Pavone returned to Italy to develop her interest in acting, appearing in several films and television dramas.

Rita Pavone with dance partner Simone di Pasquale in a publicity shot for the TV show Ballando Con le Stelle
Rita Pavone with dance partner Simone di Pasquale in
a publicity shot for the TV show Ballando Con le Stelle
Her popularity was such that when she was admitted to hospital in 1964, suffering from appendicitis, she received get-well cards from 13 million fans.

Pavone risked her reputation when she and Reno decided to marry in Switzerland in 1968.  Italy at the time did not recognise divorce and Reno had been married previously in Mexico. He was thus regarded as a bigamist. However, Italy's marriage laws changed in 1971 and they renewed their vows.

Teddy Reno turned 90 last July. The couple remain together, living in Ticino, Switzerland. They have two sons, Alessandro and Giorgio, the former a political reporter on Swiss television, the latter a rock singer performing under the name of George Merk.

Travel tip:

Mirafiori, where Rita Pavone's family lived at the start of her musical career, is a district of Turin that owes its identity to the car manufacturer FIAT, where her father worked.  FIAT opened a massive factory there in 1936 when demand for the company's cars exceeded the production capacity of the nearby Lingotto plant. Large numbers of apartment buildings were built to house the workers. A strike there in 1943 that grew to include 100,000 workers, and spread to involve industrial areas all over northern Italy, is said to have marked the beginning of the end for the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Today it is the site of the Mirafiori Motor Village, the largest exhibition centre in Europe devoted to the cars.

The Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste
Travel tip:

Trieste, where Teddy Reno was born, is the main city of the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and lies close to the Slovenian border.  It was once the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which there are still echoes in the coffee houses and restaurants that blend in with the more recognisably Italian.  There is much Austrian influence in the architecture too, dating from the era of Hapsburg domination.

More reading:

The enduring talent of 60s pop star Patty Pravo

Pier Angeli - Hollywood star from Sardinia who dated James Dean

(Photo of Rita Pavone in 1965 by Joop van Bilsen CC BY-SA 3.0)


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