Who is the biggest selling female vocalist of all time? Madonna? How about Taylor Swift, or maybe Adele? Madonna, with reported record sales of over 250 million is certainly a contender, but Nana Mouskouri beats that with 300 million.
If you are from the generation that dug Madonna’s outrageous concert outfits, or became pop-and rock-conscious with numbers by Lady Gaga, Adele or Kate Perry, you might be indulging in a bit of dome scratching right now. Nana who? you may be asking. The fact is the 84-year-old Greek-born singer has been wowing audiences worldwide, in several languages, for nigh on six decades. Next week she will bring her peerless delivery and enchanting stage persona to these parts for the first time in a decade as part of her suitably entitled “Forever Young” global tour. The Israeli leg of her worldwide circuit includes a concert at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv (November 6 at 9 p.m.) and at the Haifa Auditorium (November 7 at 9 p.m.).
The voice that came over the phone from her hotel in Germany sounded delightfully sonorous and energized. Mouskouri, as we say in the jazz world, seems to take care of her chops, and keeps her voice is good working order. In fact, jazz was one of Mouskouri’s first musical loves and she remains a fan. That, she says, is partly due to simply being around at the right time.
“When I was growing up in Greece, there was a lot of jazz. But then rock and roll came along – Elvis Presley and all that – so I got into rock and roll.”
That free-flowing approach has been part and parcel of Mouskouri’s professional output since the word go. Her long and winding career path to date has taken in numerous musical domains, including jazz, folk, pop and opera – and singing in Greek, English, French, Portuguese and German, to mention just some of the 11 languages in which she has performed and recorded to date. On previous visits here she even did a turn or two in Hebrew.
Her early jazz forays actually caused her some grief. While a student of opera at a conservatory in Greece, Mouskouri engaged in some extra-curricular activities, earning a few pennies singing with a band at night. She had become enamored with the vocal calisthenics of the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, and performed jazz standards. That did not sit too well with the conservatory honchos, and she was not allowed to take her final exams.
But Mouskouri is clearly made of sterner stuff and she prepared to embark on what became a gloriously successful and enduring career on the stage. In 1959, she won the Greek Song Festival with a number called “Kapou Iparchi Agapi Mou,” co-written by acclaimed composer Manos Hadjidakis. The two had already worked together on an EP and they teamed up again to win the next year’s Greek Song Festival, too.
Mouskouri says she was also drawn to jazz for its therapeutic benefits.
“We went through some hard times in Greece during the Second World War and jazz helped me express some of those difficult feelings.”
She was to maintain that emotive approach to her vocal work, and became famed for her moving readings as well as for her immaculate angelic delivery.
“Music in general is therapeutic, but jazz is especially so.”
You could say that Mouskouri has achieved some incredible success based on her supreme gifts, but she has also staked her claim for a place in the commercial music pantheon despite not ticking too many generally accepted image boxes. For starters, she wore glasses – and outsized specs at that. She wasn’t blonde either and did not come across as a seductress.
Seeming aesthetic disadvantages notwithstanding, Mouskouri shot to international fame in 1961 when another collaboration with Hadjidakis produced “Weisse Rosen aus Athen” (“The White Rose of Athens”). The Greek singer performed the song in a German documentary and it became a major European hit, achieving sales of more than a million.
Mouskouri had hit the big time and she expanded this marketing reach the following years by recording material from the Great American Songbook on a record with a catchy and self-explanatory title, The Girl From Greece Sings. The album was produced by now-celebrated multi-Grammy Award winning record producer-arranger-conductor Quincy Jones, then unknown in the industry.
By now, Mouskouri had become a hot property in the pop world, and singer-actor Harry Belafonte also got in on the act, touring with her in the mid-1960s. It is said that Belafonte was also not too keen on Mouskouri’s glasses but she stuck to her guns. It took a little while longer before her spectacles were fully accepted. Help came from someone who was to become one of the biggest rock stars in history.
“Until the moment Elton John started wearing glasses, I was really banned from everywhere, because they thought my glasses are ugly – including Harry Belafonte. At the time, people hated it. They said I looked like an old ugly secretary. But, you know, I survived with my glasses,” she laughs. She not only made it through with them, she eventually overcame marketing adversity and her vision enhancers were to become an enduring trademark.
She did pretty well in the United States, putting in an obligatory appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, but it was in Europe where she found her greatest success. By the early 1970s, she had her own weekly show on the BBC and people flocked to her shows from all across the continent.
Mouskouri was not only bringing in the crowds; she had become a bona fide member of jet set, and had been accepted into the inner sanctum of the pop and rock community. Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen became a friend and it was through him that she received a pat on the back from one of the icons of the fraternity.
“I was appearing in Los Angeles, at the Greek Theater, and Leonard brought Bob Dylan to hear me because I was singing [Dylan hit] ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ in French. Dylan said, ‘It’s impossible. Why is she singing it in French?’ He didn’t want to come to the show, and he didn’t really want to be in the auditorium, so he stood in the wings. At the end he said, ‘That was good.’ I did a few of Bob’s songs in French and I did some of Leonard’s songs in French, including ‘The Ballad of the [Absent] Mare.’”
Over the years, Mouskouri has lent her talents to other areas of life, including politics. In 1993, she became named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999.
We are lucky to have her over here again. Mouskouri stopped performing in 2008, following a world tour, although she recorded a new album three later that also featured Greek and French vocalists. She was temporarily coaxed out of retirement in 2011, when she performed in Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of the song that made it all happen for her, “Weisse Rosen aus Athen.”
And now she’s back here, at the age of 84, as energized and full of the joys of life as ever.
“I didn’t really know what to do after I retired,” she chuckles. “All my life I have been singing. I started singing after I saw Marlene Dietrich singing – one of her last concerts, in England – and she retired at the age of 73. I was very young at the time but, many years later, I thought I’d stop when I got to 70. I thought my voice would go, and I should stop before it’s too late.”
It took a while.
“I started a last world tour, but it lasted four years and I was 75 by the time it ended.”
It proved to be only a hiatus in her six-decade glittering career.
“I only knew singing. Once you stop something, it is difficult to start something else. I felt I needed to move forward and learn more things through my singing.”
It was the half century mark of “Weisse Rosen aus Athen” that kept the wheels of Mouskouri’s live appearance schedule merrily turning.
“I celebrated [the German hit] and, as I go from celebration to celebration, I find excuses to sing.”
Mouskouri is just as keen today to keep on spreading the good-feel factor as far and wide as she can.
“I keep on singing for all the wonderful people who wrote my songs and, of course, for the audience. It is really about the audience.”
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