Franco Migliacci, composer whose global hit Volare was inspired by a Chianti-soaked nap – obituary

Franco Migliacci had never written a lyric before Volare
Franco Migliacci had never written a lyric before Volare - Alamy

Franco Migliacci, who has died aged 92, was an Italian songwriter and actor best known for the joyful number Volare (To Fly), arguably the most popular Italian song since O Sole Mio; written with Domenico Modugno, Volare won the 1958 Sanremo Music Festival, came third for Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest and earned the pair two Grammy awards.

Volare, also known as Nel blu, dipinto di blu (In the blue, painted in blue), began life one hot June day in 1957 when Migliacci was waiting in his Rome apartment to be collected by Modugno for a day at the beach. Modugno never arrived, having decided instead to spend the day with his girlfriend, and Migliacci drowned his sorrows with several glasses of Chianti before falling asleep and dreaming vividly.

He awoke to find himself staring at two Chagall prints on his wall, Le coq rouge and Le Peintre et son modèle. Both depict a topless woman, while in the latter the painter’s face is smeared blue. Despite having never previously written a lyric, Migliacci immediately thought of the somewhat surreal lines “Di blu mi sono dipinto/ Di blu mi sono vestito” (In blue I painted myself/ In blue I dressed myself).

Migliacci and Modugno met that evening in the Piazza del Popolo, where Migliacci shared his ideas. Modugno was convinced of their potential and the pair spent the next six months refining the song.

Volare became a worldwide hit, selling more than 22 million copies. It topped the Billboard charts in the US, where for many years it was the only Eurovision hit to make an impact – though neither of its creators had any idea why. Since then it has been covered by everyone from Gracie Fields, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Armstrong, David Bowie and Frank Zappa. In 2003 Paul McCartney sang Volare at the Colosseum in Rome.

Migliacci went on to write dozens more songs including C’era un ragazzo... (There was a boy who, like me, loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, 1967), an anti-Vietnam protest song that spent three weeks in the Italian charts. He also had minor roles in about 18 films, including appearing with Sophia Loren in Ci troviamo in galleria (1953). But he never again achieved the same success as he enjoyed with Volare.

Francesco Migliacci was born in Mantua, in Lombardy, on October 28 1930. The family moved to Florence, where his father worked for the Guardia di Finanza, tackling financial crime. As a child he had roles in local shows and on one occasion won an acting competition in which his prize was a small role in a Nino Taranto film.

His parents insisted that he study accountancy, but he was increasingly drawn to illustration and was soon creating stories for children’s comics. He was also a film extra, and in 1952 met Modugno, known as Mimmo, when they were both auditioning for the war film Carica eroica (Heroic Charge).

After Volare they collaborated for a couple more years, including writing the oriental spoof Pasqualino Marajà, Io (a hit in the US for Elvis Presley) and Farfalle. Going alone, Migliacci wrote all-Italian hits such as Tintarella di luna, Fatti mandare dalla mamma and Una rotonda sul mare for artists including Mina and Gianni Morandi.

He continued to be involved in films and music. He was the Italian voice for the German actor Klaus Kinski, and had another success at the Sanremo festival in 1971 with In cuore è uno zingaro performed by the young Italian singer Nada. He spent two years as president of SIAE, the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers. Meanwhile, Modugno died in 1994.

Franco Migliacci was married to Gloria Wall; they had two sons and a daughter.

Franco Migliacci, born October 28 1930, died September 15 2023