“Porretta belongs on every serious blues and soul festival-goer's bucket list, a confluence of positive forces to be honored and treasured.”
Dick Shurman, Paul Harris Living Blues 2017

ART DIRECTOR Graziano Uliani

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Porretta Soul Festival: a fairy tale turned into reality

I started listening to Soul music, or rather Rhythm & Blues as I used to call it, while watching Bandiera Gialla the legendary broadcasting by Renzo Arbore and Gianni Boncompagni. It was the golden age of that music, the mid-60s. I was nothing more but a boy, there was the English beat, and there were the Italian bands paying tributes to the bands that were main streaming. Of the latter, without knowing it, I liked songs that, I later discovered, were covers of songs that would become Soul classics. Later soon I started listening to soul music only. Those melodies, that rhythm, those winds and above all those voices. Expressive but above all, warm and intriguing. Later, as I heard Otis singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long I realized that Rhythm & Blues was my sound. In a couple of years between 1966 and 1967 all over Europe a real explosion of soul music took place, but musical fashions change quickly, and already around 1970 one of the few places where you could hear this music was in my mind.

The passion for Soul and Black music became a constant in my life. Then the long chats with the music critic Gianni Del Savio and later with Ernesto De Pascale gave me the certainty of not being the only one to dream of spinning Soul music in Italy. At first I began to publish a sort of newsletter, the title of which could only be Soul News, then came the collaborations with some prestigious music magazines, thanks to my work at Seat-Pagine Gialle which gave me the opportunity to get in touch with publishers.

In 1986 I went to Zurich to attend a Solomon Burke concert, I was trying to find a ticket when, walking around the Palazzo dei Congressi, I found myself in front of him, a sort of giant man almost two meters high with an imposing physique. I presented myself as the  founder of the Italian Solomon Burke fan club, which was not true. However, this made a great impression on Solomon who was enthusiastic and so kind to the point of satisfying all the typical requests of the fans, including photos. I promised him in a glimpse of madness that I would be able to make him play in Italy and this incredible dream, the utopia, came true. Back home I really founded, together with Del Savio, an association, Sweet Soul Music, which had the presumption to spread Soul music and promote it in Italy.

The final rush of the project will be given to me by another lucky coincidence. I was able to talk to Zucchero Sugar Fornaciari. In those years (1986/87) Zucchero was not yet the world star it has become today and I convinced him to bring with him, for the realization of his new album Blue’s, nothing less than the Memphis Horns, the legendary wind duo composed by saxophonist Andrew Love and trumpeter Wayne Jackson. It was an overwhelming success. The next blow was with one of my myths: Renzo Arbore. I managed to convince him, through the good offices of Ernesto De Pascale, to inaugurate the first season of D.O.C. on Rai 2 with Solomon Burke. Arbore wanted Wilson Pickett but luckily for me and especially for Solomon, Pickett was on probation for carrying a loaded rifle in his car. Not having credentials with the RAI, I was lucky enough to turn to a former member of the Italian national ski team, Andrea Cova, who had found the way to spend some of the assets of the family, owner of the historic Hotel Falken in Wengen. Cova had enthusiastically joined my association Sweet Soul Music and, pushed to organize something for Solomon, he led me to the legendary Leo Watcher, the impresario who had organized the Beatles’ tour of Italy in 1965. That was how Solomon arrived in Porretta on November 7, 1987. Got it.

Two overwhelming sets in the lounge of the Hotel Castanea for a total of three hours of music. The concert was supposed to be a tribute that Solomon and Cova paid to our association for allowing him to perform for Italian TV. Then Cova, a bit tipsy, demanded a compensation of one and a half million lire that we hardly collected. The success was sensational and the interest in the Sweet Soul Music association increased.

On December 10, 1987, I was in Macon, Georgia at the twentieth anniversary celebrations of Otis Redding’s death. Invited to the legendary Big O Ranch together with distinguished guests, I could only promise, without too much conviction, the widow Zelma, a festival in honor of Otis. During my stay in Macon and then in Memphis I met Rufus Thomas. Rufus was the dean of a generation of musicians and for the final week of D.O.C. in 1988 I proposed Rufus Thomas and the Memphis Horns to Arbore.

In June 1988, thanks to air travel paid by RAI, I was able to create the first edition of the Porretta Soul Festival. The big moment of that first edition was represented by what will become a regular guest: the sprightly 71-year-old Rufus Thomas with the Memphis Horns. It was Rufus’ first time in Italy and he suddenly become the true icon of the Festival and the park where Porretta Soul is staged every year will be dedicated to him. Zucchero himself will then be a guest in various editions.

Then in 1989 by dint of tormenting the producer Michele Torpedine and Zucchero himself, we went to Memphis to record Oro, Incenso e Birra. The album sold another 1.5 million copies with excellent featurings. The second edition of the festival saw the presence of Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band and, among the Italian bands, District 51 & The Capric Horns of Varese with Bobo Maroni at the Hammond organ who, a few years later,  became Minister of the Italian Republic. In 1990 Solomon Burke returned to Porretta in excellent company: Sam Moore of the legendary duo Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Billy Preston and a host of legendary musicians where guitarist Michael Toles excelled, already with the Bar-Kays.

Over 30+ years, the elite of soul performed on the stage of my town. From Wilson Pickett to Isaac Hayes, from Booker T. & The MGs to Millie Jackson to excellences such as James Carr, Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn or LaVern Baker. Top soul authorities such as Peter Guralnick, Rob Bowman, David Nathan or Tony Rounce will come to see for themselves what happened to Porretta. For fans from all over Europe this was a living fairy tale.

Finally, in Porretta there is a street dedicated to Otis Redding, in addition to the Rufus Thomas park, the Solomon Burke bridge and the Sam Cooke alley.

Peace, Love & Soul.
Graziano Uliani – Porretta Soul Festival Art Director