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Austrian pop superstar Udo Juergens dies

2014-12-22 08:50

Berlin — Udo Juergens, an Austrian-born star who dominated pop music in the German-speaking world and sold more than 100 million records in a career spanning five decades, died on Sunday. He was 80 years old.

Juergens collapsed in Gottlieben, a town on Lake Constance north of Zurich, Switzerland, and was taken to a hospital where he died his management told the German news agency dpa.

He was recognised for bringing piano artistry and clever, introspective lyrics to German "Schlager" (hit) songs. He burst onto the scene in the 1960s with a number of catchy tunes and later infusing his music with a growing social consciousness.

His early career took off after a series of impressive performances in the annual Eurovision Song Contest during the mid-1960s, culminating in his 1966 victory for Austria with Merci, Cherie (Thanks, Darling).

(Austrian singer Udo Juergens performing on stage during a concert at the Rhein-Halle concert hall in Duesseldorf. AFP)

Warum nur, warum became a No. 1 hit in France. Walk Away, an English-language version sung by Matt Monroe, went to No. 1 in Britain and No. 2 in the United States, selling 1.5 million records.

Monroe then bought the English rights to "Sag' ihr...," producing the worldwide hit Without You. In the same year, Sarah Vaughan found a hit with Juergens' Right or Wrong.

Juergens continued to churn out the hits in Germany, recording more than 800 songs and becoming one of the country's most iconic figures. A 1969 poll showed Juergens as one of three most beloved figures for German young people, placing him alongside John F. Kennedy and Mao Zedong.

His 1970 mammoth tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Soviet bloc lands of Eastern Europe set a European record by bringing out more than 500,000 people for more than 200 concerts.

In the 1970s, his talent blossomed as he incorporated more social criticism into his music at the same time that singer/songwriters began to dominate airwaves in British and across the Atlantic.

Griechischer Wein (Greek wine), his 1974 No. 1 hit in Germany, portrayed the condition of a Greek guest worker barred from fully integrating into German society. But in a small tavern packed with dark faces, engulfed by Mediterranean music on the jukebox and inebriated on the familiar taste of his native libations, the poor and lonely laborer forgets his daily toil and dreams of homeland.

The wine — "like the blood of the earth" — was not only a vehicle for bringing a human quality to Juergens' iconic Gastarbeiter (foreign worker), it also coincided with the singer's reconciled love for his home Germanic culture, despite its troubled history.

Juergens was born Udo Juergen Bockelmann on 30 September 1934 in his family's Ottmanach Palace in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia. The son of north German woman and a top Prussian banker from Russia, Juergens began his musical education at the Klagenfurt Conservatory and later at the renowned Mozarteum in Salzburg.

An escape from politics

Art and politics were never far from the young Juergens. His father was forced to leave his birthplace of Moscow after the Communist Revolution. Until 1917 Udo's grandfather headed the German Bank Junker in Moscow.

Juergens' uncle on his mother's side was the famous Dadaist artist Hans Arp. On his father's side, another uncle, Dr. Werner Bockelmann, would later become a Socialist mayor of Frankfurt am Main for eight years.

In his 2004 autobiography Der Mann mit dem Fagott (The man with the bassoon), Juergens wrote extensively about growing up a "good Hitler youth" as a little boy in Austria and later regretting the ignorance of his youth.

"We were all but castrated after the war," he said in a 2004 interview with the Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierter. "But Judaism must find a homeland in this country, it must return. That is my greatest dream. I'm attached to this culture with all my heart."

Juergens found in the piano an escape from politics and the fear impressed upon him as a child in an "extremely bourgeois family." He found role models in Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin and dreamed of becoming an easy-listening entertainer after their mold.

(Udo Juergens performing on stage during the live broadcast of the German TV show "Willkommen bei Carmen Nebel". AFP)

"I was without fear for the first time when I sat at the piano and recognized that I mastered things there that other people could identify with," he explained. "Everything that somehow made a noise fascinated me."

Despite settling in Switzerland, he remained passionate about Germany and its politics. He butted heads with the Roman Catholic Church over abortion, right-wing extremists for using one of his songs, and the government in Berlin over economic and social questions.

"Dear Fatherland, for what should I thank you?" Juergens asked in his controversial 1970 song Lieb Vaterland (Dear Fatherland).

"For the insurance palaces or the banks? For the barracks, for the expensive army? Where thousands of schools are lacking?"

He also criticised his native Austria when Joerg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party was included in the national government after 1999. "Austria is my emotional homeland, but I could only live there if the political situation changes," he said. "I have little sympathy with present tendencies (there)."

Songs touched on social themes

Juergens touched on other social themes, singing about Western decadence, excessive consumerism, drugs in society and environmental concerns. In his 1976 hit, Aber bitte mit Sahne ("But please with whipped cream"), he described a group of friends who indulge in every torte and cake possible, stuffing themselves to the brim in an attempt to consume their way to heaven.

But he also sang of his love for Germany.

His 1978-hit, Buenos dias, Argentina, was written as the theme song for the country's World Cup soccer campaign. While the squad failed to defend its 1974 title, the song went on to become another No. 1 hit and the top-selling single of his career.

On the same album, he also put out two other top-of-the-chart singles with Boogie Woogie Baby and Mit 66 Jahren (66 years old). The album was honored with numerous awards throughout Europe.

Juergens also made successful forays into the world of classical music. In 1979, he composed the musical piece Wort (Word) for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Seven years later he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to open the Vienna Festival.

He was married from 1964 to 1989 to German model Erika "Panja" Meier. Together they had two children.

Juergens also fathered two daughters out of wedlock with longtime girlfriend Corinna Reinhold. In 1999, he married Reinhold, 25 years his junior, in a secret, Fourth of July ceremony in New York. They separated in 2005.

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