“Volare” 1958, the ramble

This is the story of how I discovered the hit song “Volare”, or “Nel Blu, Dipinto di Blu” (Volare) by Domenico Modugno. His only US hit, this sing was #1 in the US for 5 weeks in 1958. This was the first foreign-language single to top the singles charts in the rock era. “Billboard” magazine declared it #1 for the year 1958.

Speaking of 1958, in those days we – none of us – ever, EVER messed with the tuning dials on our parents’ radio consoles. Our household was solidly a Classical family; there was one radio station in the Bay Area as far as my parents were concerned, and it may have been KPFA. I had basically never heard a “popular” music station. Apart from hearing “Listen to the Mockingbird”, Connie Francis, and Rosemary Clooney, friends would sing parts of Bobby Darren’s “Splish Splash (I’m taking a bath)”. I had no idea what pop music was about. I was around 14.

Speaking of radios, the transistor was invented by GE in 1950 but had few practical applications in 1958. The “transistor radio” was still an oddity. A friend in junior high school had one. It was the size of a lunch pail. I had no radio of “my own”.

Speaking of transistors, in 1958 I read an article somewhere on how to make your own crystal radio “set”. After a couple of false starts, I got one to work. After bedtime, I turned on the light and experimented with it. The first song I ever tuned in on that darned thing was “Volare”.

And I fell in love with that song. It represented a whole new world to which I had only very limited access. The one station I was able to receive played it twice. Since the lyrics are in Italian, I assumed I was receiving some kind of transocean broadcast on a nighttime “skip signal”. None of you who know nothing of radio theory will have any idea what I am talking about. But, this was my curious introduction to popular music.

Speaking of “crystal sets”: I wound about thirty turns of fine copper wire around an empty toilet paper tube. When you let go of the wire, it all unravels, so I did it again and varnished the wire to the tube so it would stay. Next to that, you wind a smaller coil of about twelve turns – varnished, of course.

This is the tuning coil. One end of the short winding goes to a “long wire antenna” – I stuck something out the bedroom window and tied it to a tree. The other end goes to a water pipe – “ground”.

I had a really bad set of earphones – a “headset” – that I think came from an A.C. Gilbert toy. In series with the long winding, you were supposed to hear the radio signals. But the signals had to be “detected”.

The “detector” was supposed to be a specific kind of radio crystal. I had read somewhere that in a pinch a Galena crystal would do. I had one of these in my rock collection. You hook that up in series with the headsets. On one end of the crystal, you “scratch around” with the point of your copper wire until you receive a signal, completing the circuit with the headsets at the same time.

Please note that this remarkable contraption had no batteries, amplifier, volume control or even tuning. While I supposed I was receiving a signal from Europe, what I was actually receiving was the one strongest transmitter in the SF Bay Area. And I could receive no other.

It worked because point of contact of the copper wire to the lead oxides on the surface of the Galena (lead sulfide) were forming the world’s most primitive diode. This technology goes back to my grandparents’ time; I didn’t invent it, but merely rediscovered it first-hand. And “Volare”, as well.

And speaking of my grandparents’ time, it’s come full circle. Many of you will find much of this narrative to be a head-scratcher. The music was different. Attitudes were different. What hasn’t changed: life was fun, exciting and worth discovering and living. It still is.

Speaking of reminiscences, what sparked this one was a CD I picked up at Amazon. By legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, it featured tunes from his album “Caribbean Guitar” (circa 1964) and other hits of the era. Two of those songs were “Volare”, and “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise”.

“The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” (Words by Eugene Lockhart / Music by Ernest Seitz) dates to 1923, even yet an older era. The best cuts that I ever heard of this wonderful song were both Dixieland renditions. One was by Riverboat Five (Mercury, cira 1955). The other was by a private group featuring Pops Foster on bass, an Aussie named Cyril on the ivories, and Bob Neighbor on cornet. We have come full circle again, now to even older generations. I can only count myself as lucky to have spanned generations that knew and loved so many different kinds of wonderful music.

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1 thought on ““Volare” 1958, the ramble

  1. I read your latest My Notes post, “Volare” yesterday. I check your site daily and read it with pleasure and nostalgia as I had a similar experience but almost 20 years before your experiment with the cat whisker and the galena crystal (iron pyrites). My Dad was the same as yours but he lived for the program Amos and Andy, very popular at the time. He was the only one who could turn it on or tune it. To touch it meant banishment from the kingdom. I got my first crystal radio as a kit from a company called Philmore who specialized in those kits. I had it working one cold winter night in Pueblo, CO and KGHF was our only local station on 1350 KC. (We did not use hertz in those days.) An announcer was giving the local news and it was absolutely clear and no noise in the headphones. After the news the station played music and I remember a Guy Lombardo program playing many old favorites of the day. I listened to it until after midnight when my folks found me still awake and told me to get to sleep or else. I have not heard anything of that clarity and excellent quality since. I bought that kit with some of my newspaper money doing delivery of the early morning paper, getting up around 4 am and earning the magnificent sum of three dollars per week. The good old days, right?

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