Often underestimated by music critics in his own country, Toto Cutugno’s music is considered an Italian export hit abroad. “I’m an Italian. A real Italian.” When he intoned the chorus of what is probably his most famous song, Cutugno conveyed a pure Italian feeling to his foreign fans.

With “L’Italiano” (The Italian), known to most under the refrain “Lasciatemi cantare” (Let me sing) and other hits, he showed that he was a serious composer. Cutugno died in Milan on Tuesday at the age of 80 after a long illness, as his management confirmed to the German Press Agency.

More Italy clichés are not possible

In “L’Italiano” (The Italian), Cutugno sang about every imaginable Italian stereotype. From the Fiat 600 to the menthol shaving cream and the blue pinstripe suit. And of course the spaghetti – “al dente” mind you – and the strong espresso should not be missing. More clichés are hardly possible. This is probably why he was said, especially in Italy, to be a hit king, but not a venerable cantautore, i.e. singer-songwriter.

Cutugno was often publicly annoyed that Italian music critics called him a pop and hit machine because of his shallow pop numbers. With his songs, he also made a name for himself beyond the borders of the Mediterranean country in the 1980s and 1990s. The passage after the “L’Italiano” refrain almost seems to have been addressed to his critics: “Because I’m proud of it.”

With 100 million albums sold, Cutugno is one of the superstars in Italy – he is seen as the ambassador of Italian music in the world. He took part in the legendary Sanremo Festival a total of 15 times as an interpreter – but he only won the competition once: in 1980 with the song “Solo noi” (Only we). He composed the songs for Sanremo participants 15 more times.

On the Vespa to music lessons

In 1943 he was born Salvatore Cutugno in Fosdinovo, Tuscany, the son of Sicilian parents. He and his family ended up in the Ligurian city of La Spezia early on. Cutugno was interested in music early on. In the early 1950s, his father took him to a rehearsal with the La Spezia band. It happened immediately to the then nine-year-old. He learned drums and accordion. He later recalled how his father would take him to music lessons on his Vespa – Cutugno senior at the wheel and Cutugno junior in the back with the accordion on his back.

The Italian had already established himself as a successful songwriter and composer in the 1970s: songs for stars such as Mireille Mathieu (“Ciao bambino, sorry”), Dalida (“Laissez moi danser”), Gérard Lenorman (“Voici les clés”) and Adriano Celentano (“Il tempo se ne va”) came from him. He also wrote a song for American singer Ray Charles – Cutugno penned “Good love gone bad” sung by the “high priest of soul”. He’s considered a hit machine because of the songs he wrote for artists.

He won the Eurovision Song Contest 1990

In 1983 he made his international breakthrough as a singer: in Sanremo he performed “L’Italiano” on a stage appropriately decorated with the Italian flag. It placed fourth, but the song became a smash hit worldwide. Even after decades, Cutugno was not tired of his hits peppered with affectionate Italian clichés. On the contrary: In an interview, he said that he felt “great moments of joy and emotion” with the song until the end.

His victory at the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb with the European anthem “Insieme 1992” (“Together”) is one of his greatest successes. From Italy, victory before Cutugno was only achieved by Gigliola Cinquetti in 1964 and after him in 2021 by the rock group Måneskin. “Insieme 1992” was his declaration of love to the Europe that was uniting after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He sang about bringing the nations of Europe together and hit just the right mood for the show. “Unite, unite, Europe” was the English refrain. In 1998, Roland Kaiser released the German cover version “Extreme”.

Later it became more and more quiet around Cutugno. There were no major successes and he made himself rare. But his moderate success after his two top hits did not detract from his popularity. Cutugno is considered the icon of Italo hits. According to surveys, “L’Italiano” is one of the three most famous songs of all time in Italy. To this day, both non-Italians and young people sing and sway to the hit song after Cutugno’s time.

In old age, the thoroughbred Italian was plagued by health problems. In 2007 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Surgery and therapy cured him. A musician friend later reported that after an operation in which a kidney was removed, he was in poor health until the end.

In the early 2000s, the Italian once again dared to step into the public eye and onto the big stage – in 2005 and 2010 he sang again in Sanremo. But from year to year things have gotten quieter around him. Although music critics have never regarded him as a venerable cantautore, many see him and his music as a genuine Italian cultural asset. The “real Italian” will also delight future generations.