Italian vocalist Andrea Bocelli recorded 13 albums of operatic arias and pop songs that generated some 75 million record sales worldwide, making him the top-selling classical artist in recorded history. He rose from humble beginnings, which included total blindness at age 12, to win over such established talents in his home country as Zucchero and Luciano Pavarotti with his warm, powerful tenor voice. By the 1990s, he was an international favorite, scoring two of the biggest-selling singles in pop history with "Time to Say Goodbye," a duet with Sarah Brightman, and "The Prayer," which teamed Bocelli with Celine Dion. Though hardline classical critics frequently dismissed his talent as untrained, he remained enormously popular with worldwide audiences, which in turn helped to bring countless esteemed classical works back from the dust of antiquity, a service rarely accomplished by even the most highly regarded classical performers of previous decades. Bocelli seemed untouched by the rebuke from aspects of the classical music community, preferring instead to use his vast worldwide star power in service to both the music and to countless charitable organizations across the globe. In doing so, he remained not only one of the most successful artists in the world, but a major force for charitable works.
Born Sept. 22, 1958, he was the son of Alessandro and Edi Bocelli, who operated a small farm and vineyard in Lajatico, a farming community in Tuscany, Italy. Bocelli showed enormous talent as both a singer and a musician from an early age, beginning with piano lessons at the age of six and soon adding flute and saxophone. He was also plagued by congenital glaucoma from birth, and became completely blind following a soccer accident at the age of 12. Undaunted, he continued to sing into his teenaged years, winning his first song competition at 14, but pursued the law as a career, graduating from the University of Pisa as a Doctor of Law before spending a year as a court-appointed lawyer. To support himself during this period, Bocelli sang in piano bars. His big break came in 1992 when Italian rock star Zucchero held auditions for tenors to record a demo of the song "Miserere," a track co-written with Bono of U2. Bocelli's rendition not only impressed the veteran rocker but also opera legend Luciano Pavarotti, for whom the song was intended as a duet. Pavarotti instead urged Zucchero to record the single with Bocelli, which became a major hit throughout Europe. Bocelli joined Zucchero's 1993 European tour, where his nightly vocal spotlight significantly increased his profile.
A series of high-profile performances, including a guest slot on the 1994 Pavarotti International Festival in Modena, Italy, led to his debut CD, Il mare calmo della sera, which debuted in the Top 10 on the Italian album charts before reaching platinum sales status within a few weeks' time. The title track, co-written by Zucchero, later helped Bocelli to win the newcomer title at the prestigious Sanremo music festival in 1994. The following year, he joined Al Jarreau, Bryan Ferry and other international artists as part of the "Night of the Proms" tour, which culminated in a live television performance seen by tens of millions of European viewers. After releasing another album of operatic standards with 1996's Bocelli, the singer focused on traditional songs from Naples for his third effort, Italian Journey, before experimenting with pop for Romanza (1997). The album featured a duet with Sarah Brightman on "Time to Say Goodbye," which topped singles charts across Europe. A series of high-profile duets with female singers from Europe, including Spain's Marta Sanchez and Hélène Ségara of France, preceded performances for the Pope in 1998 and Bocelli's debut in a major operatic role with a production of La bohème on the island of Sardinia that same year.
Bocelli made his American debut with a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1998, which was followed by a reception at the White House for then-President Bill Clinton. The following year, he recorded the David Foster-penned pop ballad "The Prayer" with Celine Dion for her album These Are Special Times (1998). The single, which also appeared on Bocelli's album Sogno and on the soundtrack for the animated feature "Quest for Camelot" (1997), would go on to sell over 10 million copies and net Bocelli his first Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, as well as an Oscar nod for Best Original Song. He would perform extensively in both America and Europe over the next year, performing at benefit concerts and in opera productions on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1999, his seventh solo album, Sacred Arias, made him the first artist to hold the top three spots on the Billboard classical music chart. His fourth record, Aria, the opera album, was No. 2 on the chart, while Italian Journey, was in the third spot.
The new millennium saw Bocelli contribute regularly to charity benefit concerts, including the Memorial Concert at Ground Zero in New York, the Music of Asia Festival in 2004 to aid victims of the Indian tsunami that year, and a duet with Mary J. Blige and David Foster at the 52nd Grammy Awards to raise awareness for the survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He also produced records at a steady rate, including 2001's Cieli di Toscano and 2006's Amore, which marked the singer's highest chart placement on the Billboard Top 200. He also performed at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, that same year, before receiving the title of Grand Officer of the Italian Order of Merit. The following year, he received the Best Artist and World's Best-Selling Classical Artist at the 2007 World Music Awards. Bocelli's album release that year, The Best of Andrea Bocelli: Viviere, sold over three million copies.
He then returned to his roots with Incanto (2008), a collection of songs from his childhood that sold over 1.5 million copies with four months of its release, while his first holiday album, My Christmas, sold five million units worldwide, with over 2.8 million in the United States alone. Bocelli received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010, before releasing his first digital only album, Notte Illuminata (2011), which featured operas in French, English, Italian and Spanish. A major world tour to promote the album culminated in his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February of that year. In September 2011, he gave a free concert on the Great Lawn at Central Park in New York City. The show, which featured guest performances by Dion and Tony Bennett, was seen by over 70,000 attendees, as well as a national television audience on PBS. That same year, he launched the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, which funded medical research while aiding in the fight against poverty.
By Paul Gaita