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Little Tony, the Italian Elvis

The Sammarinese singer Little Tony, born Antonio Ciacci, poses on a motorbike with open arms. - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

Emma Luck on the singer who shook up Italy.

When the long-awaited call came for a meeting with Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker and the King himself in Memphis, Little Tony leapt at the chance.

Known as ‘the Italian Elvis’, the performer had always acknowledged the influence of his American hero. It was not hard to detect, in his impassioned singing voice, his impressive quiff and taste for flashy suits and chunky sunglasses… not to mention his voracious appetite for hedonism.

Indeed, just as he was due to set off to meet the real Elvis, in came a rival offer to fly to New York instead and hang out with some Playboy Bunnies. He jumped on a jet to head for the Big Apple, planning to reschedule his visit to Graceland. Alas, before he got round to it, the other Elvis was dead.

It wasn’t just the superficial details of style and personality that had connected the two men, but the impact on their respective countries. Just as Elvis Presley revolutionised American popular culture from the 1950s onwards, so his Italian Mini-Me had helped transform post-war Italy.

Born Antonio Ciacci in 1941 in Tivoli, near Rome (six years after Presley, in Tupelo, Mississippi), he came of age in what came to be known as il boom economico, as the country enjoyed a period of growth from the mid-1950s onwards. It was also a critical period for Italy’s popular culture, with the advent of the musica leggera (‘pop scene’).

It owed a huge debt first to swing and then rock ‘n’ roll, and American artists like Chuck Berry became incredibly popular. Indeed, it was in homage to another American star, Little Richard, that Ciacci took his name, Little Tony.

He had had an interest in music from an early age thanks to a family passion that united his father Novino, a singer and accordionist, a guitar-playing uncle Settembrino and Antonio’s brothers, guitarist Enrico and bassist Alberto.

In 1957, the group Little Tony & His Brothers was born. The following year they were signed by Durium Records and released a series of US rock ‘n’ roll covers including Johnny B. Goode, Splish Splash and Shake, Rattle And Roll.

He was convinced that singing in English helped him to stand out from rival Italian singers although at this point he did not understand a word of the language.

Despite his enthusiasm for all things American, it was Britain that provided his big break. In 1959, Italian singer Marino Marini – of Volare fame – was in London to appear on the TV show Oh Boy! and recommended Little Tony’s group to the producer Jack Good, insisting that they were even better than a certain chart favourite of the time, Cliff Richard.

Intrigued, Good went to Italy to see the brothers in concert and was so impressed he signed them on the spot. They moved to England where they performed for 18 months. They made their first appearance on Good’s new programme Boy Meets Girls in September 1959, and released their first single in the UK, I Can’t Help It – the 11th of their Italian career – on the Decca label.

Their third British single saw Little Tony record in London for the first time.

The result, the angst-ridden teen ballad Too Good – written by Elvis hit-makers Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman – spent three weeks on the UK charts, peaking at No.19 in January 1960.

It was the group’s only chart success in Britain but this and regular appearances on Boy Meets Girls and its replacement Wham! made sure that Little Tony continued to have records released in Britain well into the 1960s, even when he reverted back to singing in Italian. The group remained a British TV fixture until 1962.

That year, they returned permanently to Italy and Antonio went solo. Singing in his native tongue, he had his first No.1 in his homeland with Il Ragazzo Col Ciuffo (‘The Kid With The Quiff’) that same year.

He also began working as a film actor.

He would ultimately appear in more than 20 Italian movies in the musicarello genre, which featured young singers in the main roles (think Elvis’s film career).

The films generated several hit songs for Little Tony, including I Teddy Boys Della canzone (The Teddy Boys From The Song) and the spoof Rocco E Le Sorelle (Rocco And His Sisters), and the 1960s saw him recording regularly and shifting millions of records in Italy. One, Cuore Matto (Crazy Heart) was No.1 for nine consecutive weeks. His successes led to him launching his own label, Little Records, in 1969.
He fully embraced the rock ‘n’ roll life.

In the late 1960s he moved into a villa on Rome’s star-studded Via Appia Antica where his neighbours included Gina Lollobrigida, Valentino and Franco Zeffirelli. Tony’s property had a juke box, a bed with mirrors, a four-metre high statue of Presley on the front lawn and photos of the King, and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. He embraced the freedom of the era and his home was always open to his many friends, male and female.

From humble beginnings himself, he liked to hang out with people from all walks of life. To burnish further his rock star image, Antonio – a lover of cars in general and sports cars in particular – built up an impressive collection of Ferraris and Lamborghinis over the course of his career.
But just as Elvis found himself overtaken by changing trends and tastes, and falling out of fashion, so Little Tony saw his own star fade as the 1970s wore on. Indeed, one symptom of his creative struggles was the 1975 album, Tony Canta Elvis, a kitsch tribute to the King.

The decline in his career coincided with a turbulent period in his personal life. In 1972 he had married Giuliana Brugnoli, a flight attendant he had known for 12 years after spotting her on the beach at Ostia.

He had pursued her for six months before she agreed to go out with him and was much heralded in the Italian media as his great love, despite his many infidelities that followed. It was a complicated and turbulent relationship and the pressures of Tony’s public life took their toll on his private one.

Two years after the couple wed their daughter Cristiana was born, even though they were pretty much living apart by then. In a parallel with Elvis and his wife Priscilla, the union seems to have fizzled out completely after the birth of their child.
For the first two years of Cristiana’s life, the spouses lived in two separate households and their daughter was placed in a third with a succession of nannies. Not unsurprisingly, Tony had a troubled relationship with Cristiana who only saw him sporadically throughout her childhood. (Tony did remain on civil terms with his estranged wife, however.

He was by her bedside when she died of cancer in 1993, and after her death Cristiana and Tony were reconciled.) Meanwhile, Tony was trying to revive his musical career. In the 1980s, he teamed up with close friend Bobby Solo and Rosanna Fratello to form the group Robot (from Rosanna, Bobby, and Tony) to try to re-boot his flagging sales. But it was a flash in the pan: the golden age of Italian rock ‘n’ roll was gone.
Tony himself wasn’t finished, however.

He provided the voice for the theme song of the Italian version of the popular daytime TV series The Love Boat – apt given his Casanovan reputation – and, in the 1990s and 2000s, turned his attention increasingly towards television and film, once more.
During this time, he starred in dozens of Italian productions. British cinema audiences might recall him for his cameo as Cliff in Ken Loach’s drama Raining Stones in 1993.

He hadn’t given up on music, though, and continued to record and perform into his sixties. Even at this stage of his career, he still had the rock ‘n’ roller’s ability to shock. In 1999, at the age of 58, he married for the second time.

His bride was backing vocalist Luciana Manfra, who at 25 was the same age as his daughter. The union was not announced until the day they were wed, and the age difference scandalised his fan base.

Seven years later, he suffered a heart attack during a concert in Ottawa, and although he recovered and returned to the stage, his career was entering its end game – even if he raged against it. His last album was titled, poignantly, Non Finisce Qui (This Is Not The End). It was released in 2008, but spent only a single week in the Top 100 chart.

If he wasn’t the star he once was, Little Tony remained a popular figure on Italian television until he was forced to retire after receiving a cancer diagnosis which he kept quiet from friends and fans alike.

To the surprise of many, Antonio Ciacci passed away on May 28, 2013 in Rome. He was 72, and had enjoyed a longevity denied to his idol, Elvis, and secured – in Italy at least – a legacy that stands comparison with the King.

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