Controversially, the song simply tells about the pain and longings of a man who is about to die while he is looking into the eyes of a girl who was very dear to him.
This song is most probably a way of romanticizing Enrico Caruso's last days in Sorrento and Naples. Enrico Caruso, a great legend of the Italian Opera was one of the greatest and most sought-after singers during the late 19th and early 20th century. He lived a very difficult and rather unhappy life having had many challenges and problems with Italian opera houses, but gained more fame and success in the United States.
He was born to a very poor family in Naples. He was often involved with women and had several love affairs with prominent married women in the performing arts. These love affairs often ended badly. With Ada Giachetti (his most passionate and longest love affair) who was already married, he had two sons, but in the end she left him for their chauffeur. Then he met and wed a woman 20 years his junior, Dorothy Park Benjamin, just a few years before he died, whom Lucio Dalla describes in this song "Caruso". With her he had a daughter named Gloria.
Guardò negli occhi la ragazza quegli occhi verdi come il mare Poi all'improvviso uscì una lacrima e lui credette di affogare Te voglio bene assaje ma tanto tanto bene sai
It is said that people thought that Caruso was not really in love with Dorothy Benjamin. Later Caruso admitted that he married her: "Because I want somebody who is completely my own." Sorrento is a coastal city not far from Naples. In the song it says "Surriento", in the Neapolitan dialect meaning Sorrento. It's where he spent many days in convalescence before he finally died at Vesuvio Hotel in Naples. The music and words of the refrain
Te voglio bene assaje ma tanto tanto bene sai è una catena ormai. che scioglie il sangue dint'e vene sai...
are not original but are part of a napolitan song, titled "Dicitencello vuje", published in 1930 by Rodolfo Falvo (music) and Enzo Fusco (text) written according to the best tradition of napolitan "romances" with a strong operatic style.
What is not clear is whether Caruso is talking to his daughter or to his wife while he sings, "Ti voglio bene assaje ma tanto bene sai", in the song. In Italian one can say "Ti voglio bene" to any family member or close friend. The phrase is rarely used toward one's romantic love. The exact words of the song are: "Te voglio bene assaje, ma tanto tanto bene sai" and are, in Neapolitan dialect, meaning: I love you very much. Very very much, you know." Followed by the lines: "We've formed a (chain) bond by now, that thaws the blood in my veins, you know". "Ragazza" is also used to reference a young lady, rather than one of Dorothy's age or relation to Caruso; therefore, it is safe to assume that the song is addressed toward Gloria.
Lucio Dalla's official video of the song was filmed at the Vesuvio Hotel where Enrico Caruso died.
Italian singer Milva, featuring music composed by James Last, covered the song in 1994, on her album Milva & James Last: Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz, recorded in collaboration with James Last. A live rendition of the song performed in Osaka, Japan in 1996 was included on her limited edition album Live and More (Milva Collectors Club), issued in 1998.
Luciano Pavarotti recorded the song in 1986. ( "The best version so far" is into the "Tutto Pavarotti" double album ). He sang it in many of his concerts, most notably in his 1993 "Pavarotti and Friends" album with Lucio Dalla, the composer, and in The Three Tenors, which is included in the Paris 1998 album.
Aldo Romano Quartet, muted trumpet (Paolo Fresu) in the album Non Dimenticar (1999)
Lara Fabian, a multi-national singer who sings in Quebec, Canada, as well as in Belgium and the US, included this song on her En Toute Intimité album (2003). She also gave a virtuoso performance of it as part of her 2003 Tour.