Born Nana Mouskouri in Athens, Greece, October 10, 1936; married George Petsilas, 1961 (divorced 1975); children: Nicholas, Helen. Addresses: Office--Princeton Entertainment, 20 Forest Blend Dr., Titusville, NJ 08560.
Mention the name Nana Mouskouri today in America, and someone is sure to ask, "Is that the woman with the glasses?" After over 30 years of European singing stardom, Nana Mouskouri is finally becoming known and recognized in the United States, and her trademark hairstyle and dark-rimmed glasses are becoming as familiar as her voice and sincerity. At an age when many singers retire, Mouskouri is still gaining new audiences and making new friends.
Nana Mouskouri first learned to sing from the movies. Her father was a movie projectionist, and when she was a child, her family lived behind the outdoor screen of their open-air theater. "So I grew up behind the big screen, listening to the music," she told the Detroit Free Press. "From the age of three or four, I heard the film music. Because I loved the music so much, I was inspired [to become a singer]." Her earliest influences were American popular singers. "I learned to sing in English from Judy Garland and Billie Holiday," she continued in the same interview.
As much as she loved pop, Mouskouri's earliest formal musical training was in classical music; she spent nine years studying classical singing at the Athens Conservatory. She continued to sing pop, jazz, and folk songs as well, much to her music professors' chagrin. They eventually told her to choose between pop and classical, for they did not believe anyone could sing both. In 1959 after winning the first Greek Song Festival, she opted for pop, and made her first record later that same year.
Mouskouri's early career coincided with an international interest in Greek popular music, due in part to the success of the movie Never on Sunday, the soundtrack of which contained several songs by the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis. Hadjidakis wrote a number of songs for Mouskouri, including "White Rose of Athens," recorded in 1961, which became her first record to sell over one million copies.
In the early 1960s Mouskouri signed with the recording company Philips-Fontana France and moved to Paris. Her fame quickly spread throughout Europe. With her husband, guitarist George Petsilas, she formed the group the Athenians and began touring all over the world. "I became for Europe the first singer who both opened and closed an evening, alone with her musicians," she wrote in her autobiography. "I worked very hard and my popularity grew internationally."
She toured not only Europe, but other countries and continents, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, and the United States; she appeared on television specials, and even had her own series in London. She received requests for royal command performances, and her concerts continually sold out. Her albums usually went platinum or gold. In 1975 she was awarded a wall of 100 gold and platinum records by Phonogram Philips Paris; by the early 1990s, she had received over 250 gold and platinum records. Her numerous awards include France's Grand Prix du Disque, the Golden Tulip Award in Holland, and the Golden Ticket Award in Germany for selling more than 100,000 seats in one year.
One of Mouskouri's popular appeals is the vast variety of songs she sings. "Music has so many faces, styles, different expressions," she told the Detroit Free Press. "When I started off, I was influenced by the classical singers and the Greek singers. But I also like rock and roll. I can go for [pop singer] Annie Lennox, [or the group] Dire Straits. I like jazz very much, and I love traditional music. I have sung traditional Greek songs, children's songs, German, English, Welsh, Irish, I have done Scottish folk songs."
She performs with equal ease the aria "Casta Diva" from Bellini's opera Norma, the spiritual "Amazing Grace," and Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender." She tallied up more songs in her autobiography: "I have also sung songs of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Tom Paxton, Dolly Parton, Cat Stevens, Bette Midler, Serge Lama, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Neil Young, Neil Sedaka, John Denver, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat 'King' Cole, Carole King, and Don McLean."
Mouskouri also sings most of her songs in their original language. Early in her career, she traveled extensively and found to no surprise that her fans preferred to hear their songs in their own language. She also wanted to talk to them, so she started learning languages. "I started to travel in the 1960s and I needed to explain my songs. I said to myself that if I want to be serious about this, I have to learn the languages," she told the Washington Post. "So I learned on stage. I would travel with a heavy bag of language books. Today it's so easy--I feel at home in Holland, Belgium ... in Italy." In any one concert, she might sing in any of a number of languages, including Spanish, French, and Hebrew as well as English and her native Greek. While on tour in Japan, she even sang a few songs in Japanese. The language seems to matter less than the meaning of the words.
"Success for me was always based on communicating with my audience, honesty and feelings," she wrote in her autobiography. "I always have expressed my feelings, my hopes my expectations, and the love I need to live. Sometimes I have also given words to my anger, my fear and my doubts." For Mouskouri, the most important aspect of a song is the meaning. "When I sing a song, I need to tell a story," she told the Washington Free Press. "I need to feel strongly about what I'm singing. If the song doesn't come from the heart, I can not sing it." Because songs combine music and poetry, the meaning can be unique. "The magic of a song is to belong to every one at the same time for different reasons," she continued in her autobiography. "To make you dream, and create your own reality in order to find your own truth and freedom in it."
In the early 1990s American fans finally began to appreciate and understand the magic of Nana Mouskouri. Although she started touring in the U.S. in the early 1960s, and has toured here more than ten times since then, she never spent enough time here to develop a large audience. With her release of the English-language album Only Love in 1993, however, she decided to change this.
With the support of her American label Polygram, she set off on a 34-city North American tour, selling out performances and garnering rave reviews. Although some have criticized her soft-pop material for being too syrupy, others care less about the type of songs she sings than about how she sings them. As music critic Paul Robicheau wrote in the Boston Globe, "When you possess a full, shimmering soprano like Mouskouri's, you could practically sing the phone book, and leave an audience in bliss." Finally Americans have begun to figure out what the Europeans have seemed to know all along.
by Robin Armstrong
Nana Mouskouri's Career
Released first record, 1959; signed with the recording company Philips-Fontata France, 1961; recorded first English LP "A Girl From Greece Sings," 1962; formed the band Athenians, 1963; toured with Harry Belafonte 1964-66; appeared on BBC in Nana and Guests, 1967-69.
Nana Mouskouri's Awards
First prize, Greek Song Festval, 1959 and 1960; first prize, Mediteranean Song Contest, Barcelona, 1960; received "Silver Lion" from Radio Luxembourg, 1961; gold record for "White Rose of Athens," 1961; gold and platinum records every year from 1968 to 1992; Academie Charles Cros Grand Prix du Disque, 1962; Academie du Disque, Institude of Musicolgie, 1963; silver medal from the "Schlagerfestspiele," 1964; Oscar Monte Carlo de la Chanson, 1968; Edison Award Statue, 1971; Golden Tulip Award from Holland, 1975; Golden Europa, 1978; Golden Ticket in Germany, 1980 and 1981; named chevalier des arts et des lettres, 1986.
- Selective Works
- Over and Over, Fontanel, 1969.
- Turn on the Sun, Verve, 1971.
- Passport, Mercury, 1976.
- Vielles chansons de France, Verve, 1978.
- Roses & Sunshine, Philips, 1979.
- Nana (I), Verve, 1984.
- Alone, Verve, 1986.
- Libertad, Mercury, 1986.
- Ma Verite, Verve, 1986.
- Why Worry, 1986.
- Tierra Viva, Mercury, 1986.
- Par Amour, Verve, 1987.
- Je Chante Avec Toi Liberte, Verve, 1988.
- The Magic of Nana Mouskouri, Verve, 1988.
- Nana in English, Verve, 1988.
- Nana (II), Verve, 1989.
- The Classical Nana, Philips, 1990.
- Oh Happy Day, Verve, 1991.
- Only Love, Philips, 1991.
- Falling in Love Again, Philips, 1993.
- Nuestras Canciones, Polygram Latino, 1993.
- Gammond, Peter, The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 1991.
- The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, Ltd., 1992.
- Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th- Century Popular Music, Faber and Faber, 1990.
- Mouskouri, Nana, Nana Mouskouri, 1993.
- Periodicals Boston Globe, May 5, 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, May 7, 1993.
- Variety, August 22, 1984; June 15, 1988.
- Washington Post, September 15, 1991.