Karel Gott lost the battle with cancer on the night of October 1st and leaves behind a ginormous fan base. While most of his records were in Czech or German, he sang in 15 languages and was a hit from Canada to Japan.
Karel Gott had many nicknames, including Golden Voice of Prague, Sinatra Východu [Sinatra of the East] or Divine Charlie. He was also known as the guy who can sing anything. As a fun fact, his father was named Karel Gott, so this is really no stage name.
His father was not against Karl’s artistic ambition but told him to get a real job first and sing on the weekends. So, by trade Karl was an electrician. Apparently not a very gifted one. In his early career, he was particularly interested in Jazz and performed as a singer here and there and entered talent competitions.
He scored a job at Vltava Prague Cafe as a singer. Now, this has nothing to do with the cafes we know today. It was more a stage for entertainers, that grew large crowds. He went on to study opera at the Prague Conservatory under Konstantin Karenin for three years. From Karenin he learned how to sign with emotion. He worked at the Semafor Theatre and later established the Apollo Theatre together with Jiří and Ladislav Štaidl.
In 1968, Karel represented Austria in the Eurovision Song Contest with a song written by Udo Jürgens. He also performed at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for six months. His time in the US helped him to understand all the unwritten rules of showbusiness and establish a strong stage persona.
In Germany, he is best known for the title song of Maya the Bee
and Babicka, a song he was not particularly fond of initially.
Karel Gott was a true artist; also interested in acting, painting and songwriting. While his repertoire has a great range in Czech, the German songs were really on the Schlager side of things. Preferably not too demanding. He released an album of contemporary popular song covers and learned the hard way, that no one in Germany wanted to hear Karl sing a cover of Paint It Black. (It is wicked!)
The overall sale of his records can only be estimated. It is believed he sold at least 50 million records. He won the Czech Nightingale, an audience award, 42 times in 44 years. Karel received the Golden Needle from Polydor, an honor only awarded to Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. His Czechoslovakian record company Supraphon also awarded him a rare Diamond Record in 1992.
While he enjoyed enormous freedom to travel for an artist from behind the Iron Curtain, in the documentary below he describes his anxiety every time he had to cross the border. He was widely criticized for supporting the government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic by signing a document named Anticharta. Maybe, it was different times and in order to be able to work many artists had to lay low. However, his support for inconvenient artists and activists is widely overlooked, too. In 1977 for example, he recorded a cover of All by Myself in dedication to Jan Palach, a student who killed himself in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1969. When Karel recorded the song, Soviet troops were still in the country.
Karel Gott enchanted three generations and his legacy won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Karel was 80 years old. The Czech government honored this one of a kind artist with a state funeral on October 12th.
PS. Just yesterday, I’ve scored a record from 1973 titled ‘Karel Gott’. This is no compilation but a proper album; an Amiga print from the former GDR in mint condition, for 1 Euro. Maybe I should seal it and hang on to this for a few decades …
While my love for Schlager is usually more on the ironic side of things, I really admire the talent of Karel Gott. He was a true legend. May he rest in peace.