Luigi Tenco, the great Italian singer-songwriter was born 85 years ago: his story

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When we talk about Luigi Tenco we often start from the end, from that January 27, 1967 in which he died – officially by suicide – in his hotel room in Sanremo. But Tenco is much more than that bullet. He is one of the best Italian songwriters ever. And today, March 21, 2023, he would have turned 85. For this, for once, to tell it we want to start from the beginning. From his fatherless childhood, from the origins of his passion for music. Retracing a career born in Genoa and continued in Milan and Rome, between censures and successes. To get to the three studio albums released before the last performance, the one in Sanremo. And to the deep mark that he has left in Italian music.


Luigi Tenco was born in Cassine, in the province of Alessandria, on March 21, 1938. His mother, Teresa Zoccola, had recently separated from her husband and was working as a waitress for the Miccas, a wealthy family in Turin, when she became pregnant. According to some, Tenco’s biological father was a member of the Micca household: the head of the family Carlo or his sixteen-year-old son Ferdinando. But the man’s identity has never been revealed. Discovering the pregnancy, Teresa Zoccola returned to the town where she lived before separating from her, Cassine: here she gave birth to her second child. The child took the surname of the mother’s husband, Giuseppe Tenco, who died in an accident at work a few months before he was born. Luigi Tenco thus spent his childhood between Cassine, Maranzana and Ricaldone, the towns of origin of his mother and grandparents. Then, a few years later, the boy and his paternal grandparents discovered that Giuseppe Tenco was not the real father. News that shocked the young man. At the age of ten, together with his mother and brother Valentino, he moved to Genoa. After middle school he enrolled in the Classical High School, but in the end he graduated as a private student from the Scientific one.

The passion for music

Just before the end of high school, during the period of private tutoring, Tenco approached the piano, discovering a passion for music and an innate talent. Self-taught, he began playing guitar, clarinet, saxophone. He has also started frequenting the Bar Igea, a meeting place for many Genoese artists. He discovered jazz, loving artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond over the years. But his relatives didn’t like the idea of ​​him becoming a musician, they preferred that he continue his studies. So, to accommodate them, he enrolled in university: first in the faculty of electrical engineering, then in political science. He never graduated: after a few years he abandoned his studies to devote himself entirely to music.

The beginnings

He founded his first group in 1953: the Jelly Roll Boys Jazz band featured covers by Nat King Cole and Kid Ory, with Tenco on clarinet and Bruno Lauzi on banjo. As a saxophonist he was part of the Modern Jazz Group (with a young Fabrizio De André, who later became his friend, on electric guitar). In 1957 he joined the Trio Garibaldi, with Ruggero Coppola on drums and Marcello Minerbi on piano. The following year the Diavoli del Rock arrived, with Roy Grassi on drums and Gino Paoli on guitar. At the end of the 1950s, Tenco moved to Milan and began frequenting the “Santa Tecla Club” and the artists who gravitated around him. He obtained a recording contact as a singer with Dischi Ricordi and made his debut in 1959 with the group I Cavalieri (of which Enzo Jannacci was also a member), recording the first Ep with four songs (Never/You swear to me/You only ask me for love/Without words). In the following years he preferred not to use his name but pseudonyms, such as “Gigi Mai”, “Dick Ventuno” and “Gordon Cliff”.

The three albums

Luigi Tenco started using his real name again in 1961 with his first 45, entitled My lost days. His self-titled debut album dates back to 1962: it contains ten tracks, including hits such as I have fallen in love with you, Angela, Whenbut also the debated one Dear teacher. In addition to the album, from 1959 to 1963 he recorded about twenty singles for Ricordi. From 1964 to ’65, however, he worked with Saar (Jolly label), with which he released another album titled once again with his name and surname: it contains eight unreleased songs and four songs already released on singles. In this period he alternated love songs (such as I understood that I love you And Ah.. love, love) to texts with social content (such as Social life, Hobby, Women’s newspapers, And if they will tell us), some of which were published after his death. It’s also on the disc You’ll see you’ll seededicated to the mother. In 1966 – after moving to Rome – he then landed at Rca, with which he released his third (and last) studio album, entitled Tenco. She has also released singles such as One day after anotherwhich became the theme song of the television drama Commissioner MaigretAnd Far far. Other successes of those years are One of these days I will marry you And Everyone is free.

The censorship

But the artistic life of Tenco, an ante-litteram protester, was not easy. He several times he had to deal with censorship. An example is the song Dear teacherin which he denounced the hypocrisies and respectability of the society of the time and sang: “One day you taught me that in this world we are all the same / But when the director entered the classroom you made us all stand up / and when the janitor entered the classroom you allowed us to remain seated”. The song was not admitted to radio reproduction by the Censorship Commission and caused it to be removed from Rai broadcasts for two years. Also other songs from his first album, from I do to A good girl, have been blocked by censorship. Another song that was discussed at the time was Family Lifean ironic piece against anti-divorce.

The love

Luigi Tenco, a poet suspended between escapism and commitment, was also a great seducer. His penchant for feminine beauty has gotten him into trouble. The friendship with Gino Paoli, for example, cracked due to a former municipality, Stefania Sandrelli. Tensions due to a woman also with another artist friend, Piero Ciampi. In the last period of his life, then, Tenco had a relationship with Dalida, met at RCA. According to some, the two should have been married after the Sanremo of 1967. According to others, he was in love with another woman, the mysterious Valeria. For years, after Tenco’s death, nothing was known about Valeria. Then, in 1992, a series of letters were published that the artist addressed to the girl. In the last one, written about ten days before his death, Tenco promised: “As soon as you have discussed your thesis… we will go to Africa, Kenya… we will have the days and nights to ourselves… We will be able to rediscover the meaning of life”. Luigi’s brother, Valentino Tenco, said in an interview: “My brother met Valeria in Milan in ’64. Since then they wrote to each other continuously. There is a dense correspondence made up of poems, notes left on the pillow, stories and many letters, which she hid between the pages of her books. Over one hundred documents, which remained hidden for 25 years, deliberately ignored by Valeria”. A story kept away from the spotlight. “Luigi was a handsome boy, women ran after him, but when he had a real relationship he was jealous to the point of not talking about it with anyone,” explained the brother, admitting that he didn’t even know of the woman’s existence.

The Sanremo festival of ’67

Dalida, however, was close to Luigi Tenco until the last day. The two had presented themselves as a couple at the 1967 Sanremo Festival, edition number 17, bringing the song Hello love, hello (singing it separately, as was the custom at the time). According to some, Tenco was not enthusiastic about participating but that must have been his consecration. The song, with the text changed to avoid censorship, talks about a farmer from the South who leaves his job and affections to move to the North in search of a better future. On 26 January, at 10.15 pm (penultimate in the lineup), Tenco took the stage for the last time: according to some, his performance – the tapes of which have been lost in the Rai archives and of which photos and audio recordings remain – was conditioned by the intake of alcohol together with a tranquilizer; for others, the artist proposed a slower version, which seemed almost out of time, in contrast with the version proposed by Dalida. The result, however, is that the piece was not appreciated by the juries, was ranked twelfth and was not admitted to the final evening. Nothing to do even with the repechage, where he had the upper hand The revolution by Gianni Pettenati. Several witnesses told of a Tenco taken by despair after the elimination, who first fell asleep on a billiard table and then went away annoyed.

The death

Tenco then returned to the hotel, in room 219 of the Hotel Savoy in Sanremo. There, in the night, a gunshot to the head ended his life. It seems that no one heard the shot from the Walther PPK, a semi-automatic 7.65 caliber, reported two months earlier by the artist to the Recco carabinieri. Among the first to find the body, around 2, Dalida and Lucio Dalla. Suicide was immediately thought of, although for years – and still today – many have raised doubts about what happened and talked about murder. A note was also found in the room. “I loved the Italian public and I have uselessly dedicated five years of my life to them. I do this not because I’m tired of life (far from it) but as an act of protest against a sending audience I you and the roses in the final and to a commission that selects The revolution. I hope it helps to clarify ideas for someone. HI. Luigi,” she read. Family members argued that it was not her handwriting, but several expert reports confirmed otherwise. Before the gunshot, according to some reconstructions, Tenco would have telephoned Valeria to confide in her that the following day she would have reported the combine of clandestine bets around the Festival. For years, therefore, alternative versions have circulated, which cast shadows and discredited the official one. After decades of pressure, with the investigation reopened several times, in 2005 the Sanremo prosecutor’s office decided to exhume the body from the Ricaldone cemetery to carry out new tests. Exams that reconfirmed the thesis of suicide.

What do we have left

About a hundred pieces of Luigi Tenco, who died at the age of 28, remain, some of which were published posthumously. Timeless songs that have left a mark in the world of Italian author music and influenced generations of artists. Tenco sang about life, existence, current events. His lyrics went beyond the sadness he is often associated with. They were also ironic, of protest, of denunciation. “Why do you only write sad things?” he was asked in an interview. “Because when I’m happy, I go out,” he replied. And speaking with Sandro Ciotti, in 1962, he added: “My greatest ambition is to make people understand who I am through my songs, something that hasn’t happened yet”. In another interview, then, he explained what singing meant to him: “I’ll sing as long as I have something to say. And when no one wants to listen to me anymore I will only sing in the bathroom shaving, but I will be able to continue looking in the mirror without feeling contempt for what I see”. His message was received and is still carried forward today by the Tenco Club, founded in Sanremo in 1972 with the aim of supporting songwriting: the greatest songwriters of the last decades participated, from Paolo Conte to Francesco Guccini, from Bruno Lauzi to Sergio Endrigo, from Giorgio Gaber to Francesco De Gregori, up to Fabrizio De Andrè. De Andrè who, for his missing friend, wrote the song Pclosing in January: “Well-meaning gentlemen, I hope you do not mind if in heaven, in the midst of the saints, God, in his arms, stifles the sobs of those pale lips, which preferred death to hatred and ignorance.”.