Toto Cutugno, an Italian singer and songwriter whose 1983 hit song “L’Italiano” became a worldwide sensation and was still hugely popular decades later, died on Tuesday in Milan. He was 80.
His longtime manager, Danilo Mancuso, said the cause of Mr. Cutugno’s death, at San Raffaele Hospital, was cancer.
In a career that began when he was in his late teens, Mr. Cutugno sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.
“He was able to build melodies that remained stuck in the audience’s mind and heart,” Mr. Mancuso, who had worked with Mr. Cutugno for 20 years, said in a phone interview. “The refrains of his most popular songs are so melodic.”
Mr. Cutugno’s career began with a stint, first as a drummer and then as a pianist, with Toto e i Tati, a small local band in Northern Italy. He soon branched out into songwriting.
His talent for writing memorable songs earned him collaborations with famous French singers, like Joe Dassin, for whom he wrote “L’été Indien” and “Et si Tu N’Existais pas,” and Dalida, with whom he wrote the disco hit “Monday, Tuesday … Laissez-Moi Danser.” He also wrote songs for the French pop star Johnny Hallyday and for famed Italian singers like Domenico Modugno, Adriano Celentano, Gigliola Cinquetti and Ornella Vanoni. International stars like Celine Dion sang his songs as well.
But Mr. Cutugno also found success singing his own compositions, first with Albatros. a disco band, which took third place at the Sanremo Festival of Italian Song in 1976. He then began a solo career and garnered his first national recognition in Italy in 1980, when he won the festival with “Solo Noi.”
He returned to the festival three years later with “L’Italiano.” He finished in fifth place, but the song, a hymn to a country straining to rebuild after World War II — marked by symbols of Italy like espresso, the Fiat Seicento and a president who had fought as a partisan during the conflict — became tremendously popular. It is still one of Italy’s best-known songs, played on television and at street festivals across the country, as well as a nostalgic reminder of their homeland for expatriates elsewhere.
The song’s success paved the way for an international career: Mr. Cutugno went on to tour over the years in the United States, Europe, Turkey and Russia.
“Russia was his second homeland,” said Mr. Mancuso, his manager. “The only Western entertainment that Russian televisions broadcast at the time was the Sanremo song festival, and Toto was often on, and was appreciated.”
He added that Mr. Cutugno’s nostalgic tunes were reminiscent of the musical styles of Eastern Europe, and especially Russia, which made them instantly familiar to those audiences.
In 2019, Mr. Cutugno’s ties to Russia got him into trouble with some Ukrainian politicians, who wanted to stop him from performing in Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Mr. Cutugno denied that he supported Russia in its aggression against Ukraine and noted that he had rejected a booking in Crimea after Russia reclaimed it in 2014. He eventually did perform in Kyiv.
In 1990, Mr. Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Festival. He was one of only three Italians to have done so — the others were Ms. Cinquetti in 1964 and the rock band Maneskin in 2021. His winning song, “Insieme: 1992” (“Together: 1992”), was a ballad dedicated to the European Union and its political integration. That same year, Ray Charles agreed to sing an English-language version of a song by Mr. Cutugno at the Sanremo festival; Mr. Cutugno called the collaboration “the greatest professional satisfaction” of his lifetime.
Mr. Cutugno, who was known for his emotional guitar playing and for shaking his longish black hair when he sang, also had a stint as a television presenter in Italy.
Toto Cutugno was born Salvatore Cutugno on July 7, 1943, in the small town of Tendola, near Fosdinovo, in the mountains of Italy’s northwest between the regions of Tuscany and Liguria. His father, Domenico Cutugno, was a Sicilian Navy marshal, and his mother, Olga Mariani, was a homemaker.
He went to secondary school in the city of La Spezia, where he grew up, and took private music lessons that included piano and accordion.
He is survived by his wife, Carla Cutugno; his son, Niko; and two younger siblings, Roberto and Rosanna Cutugno.