The same folks who helped turn Ray Charles' final album into the biggest seller of his career with assistance from a raft of superstar duet partners will put out a new album Tuesday featuring Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, Sting and other pop music celebs all singing with Zucchero.
No, that's not an Italian superlative meaning "extreme zest." It means "sugar," and it's the stage name of Adelmo Fornaciari, a star in Europe for some two decades who has yet to gain a significant foothold in the United States.
The vehicle that could help change that situation is "Zucchero & Co.," the latest collaboration between Starbucks' Hear Music division and Concord Records, which catapulted Charles' posthumous "Genius Loves Company" album to platinum-plus sales and multiple Grammy wins.
"Zucchero & Co." is being released nationally -- in retail music stores as well as at Starbucks. Despite Zucchero's low stateside profile to date, as well as the historic difficulty international artists have had winning over American audiences, "we're very excited about the potential of this album," says Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment. "Our customers make up a huge component of music consumers, but they have become disconnected and are constantly attempting to say that to us. They love being exposed to new music."
The album consists of duets Zucchero recorded over a number of years, most previously unreleased. The oldest is a 1988 track with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the most recent a 2003 number pairing him with soul singer Solomon Burke.
He also collaborated with rock en espanol band Mana, with whom he did his most recent U.S. tour, two years ago, as well as Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami, British rock-soul singer Paul Young and two of Zucchero's countrymen, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, the latter of whom he discovered. Zucchero shepherded Bocelli's debut album and gave him his first major European concert tour.
Possibly the biggest thrill for Zucchero is the leadoff track, "I Lay Down," on which he sang with John Lee Hooker just two months before the veteran bluesman's death in 2001.
"That was a dream for me -- he was one of my heroes," Zucchero, 49, said from Italy last week.
"I love American music, black music.... I also love Italian opera and romanza [romance songs]. They are the two parts in me. One is the blues and the other is the music of Puccini and Verdi."
Rather than simply assemble various recorded duets into a single collection, Zucchero revisited the original recordings and reproduced most to bring a greater sense of sonic and stylistic cohesion. The album was released last year in Europe.