IN my last blog, I talked of how I was first exposed to American band Eagles through the radio. Yesterday, barely a week after its publication, we heard of the death of Greek singer Demis Roussos, who was incidentally another artiste whom many of us first experienced on the radio. In fact, the news came barely an hour after we learnt of the demise of India’s greatest cartoonist RK Laxman, who was an institution by himself. While Laxman was mourned across India and by its diaspora, Demis’ death came as a double blow for a small section of us who have admired him earlier on.
Unlike the Eagles, whom I continued to explore over the years, and do so even today, my following of Demis’s music by and large ended in the 1970s itself. Yes, a few songs are definitely part of my childhood memories, and I have occasionally heard them in recent years. These include ‘My only fascination’, ‘Goodbye my love goodbye’, ‘Lovely lady of Arcadia’, ‘Forever and ever’, ‘My friend the wind’ and his version of George Baker Selection’s ‘Una paloma blanca’. Some would have heard his progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, formed in the late 1960s with famed keyboardist Vangelis. And, of course, the hardcore Hindi film music fans would know that RD Burman’s ‘Mehbooba mehbooba’ was actually a direct lift of his ‘Say you love me’.
In the 1970s, in the absence of music television, one was acquainted with Demis only through his voice on the radio. He had a distinct timbre, which was deep and sensuous, and though it wasn’t necessarily so as a rule, just by listening to him, one might have suspected that he was a towering personality. Only after seeing his photos in magazines like ‘Sun’ and ‘JS’ could one confirm that his bulk and his extra-colourful kaftans matched his enormous voice.
The timbre is like a signature of the voice. Though a distinct timbre is no guarantee for greatness or success, it’s definitely an advantage for those who possess it. Accompanied by flawless expression and good compositions, it can do wonders. Among the male English singers, there have been quite a few with a completely unique texture. Besides Demis, examples would be Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison, bluesman John Lee Hooker, James Taylor, the nasal Bob Dylan, later-day Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard, Paul Anka, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and among the newer singers Richard Hawley and the National’s Matt Beringer.
The thing about such voices is that they stand out, even when the compositions or words aren’t great. Though the singer may be influenced by someone from the past, he uses his timbre to sound completely new and unique. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to copy the singer exactly the way he sounds, unless one is a master mimic. Whenever someone tries to ape these singers, one can easily detect that he is just a clone, and vastly different from the original.
Demis’ voice had all these qualities, but what made him even more different was that he possessed a thick Mediterranean Europe accent which one hadn’t heard much in English music. There was a mix of pop, gospel, old-school opera and modern theatricality in his rendition style, and some people even called him the ‘pop Pavarotti’. And by mixing all this with lush, balladsy tunes that pleased the ear, he had a concoction that stood apart by miles.
Though Demis has sold a whopping 60 million records in his lifetime, his success was restricted to the 1970s. He released successful songs like ‘Follow me’, ‘I need you’ and ‘Island of love’ in the 1980s, but he couldn’t penetrate the much-changed pop market which relied more on Michael Jackson’s dance-driven showmanship, Madonna’s stage presence or Prince’s flamboyance. Later efforts to re-release his greatest hits on cassette or CD met with a limited response, restricted to the hardcore fans. Though he continued to perform live shows, he remained largely unseen on video. Unless one had heard him on the radio during his hey day, one barely got exposed to his music.
BACK in the 1970s, English music radio in India was a completely different scene. Most of us heard songs on All India Radio or Radio Ceylon, and a few tuned in to Voice of America or BBC. On AIR, Mumbai had slots on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Growing up in Delhi, I regularly switched on to ‘Forces Requests’ on Monday, ‘A Date With You’ on Friday and the 25-minute Monday-to-Friday programme ‘In The Groove’, which also became well-known because guest RJ Geeta Chopra and her brother Sanjay were kidnapped and murdered while returning after recording an episode in 1978, in what turned out to be the Billa-Ranga case.
The airplay on the radio shows primarily consisted of pop, evergreens and country, with a bit of radio-friendly rock thrown in. The teenagers couldn’t afford too many vinyl records, and the recorded cassette fad was yet to begin. So the best option was to catch the best songs on radio.
Broadly, one may divide the popular radio artistes of those days into three categories. The first comprised those who one first heard on the radio, and continued to pursue by buying vinyl records or cassettes, and much later, CDs. These included the Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, Cliff Richard, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Cerrone, John Denver, the Carpenters, Bread, the Eagles, Uriah Heep, Santana, specific Pink Floyd songs like ‘Time’, ‘Money’ and ‘Another brick in the wall’, and songs from the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Grease’ soundtracks.
Secondly, there was a category of singers who were primarily recognised for one or two songs in India, though they weren’t necessarily one-hit wonders abroad. Examples were Carl Douglas for ‘Kung fu fighting’, George McRae for ‘Rock your baby’, Mary Hopkin for ‘Those were the days’, Johnny Wakelin for ‘In Zaire’ and ‘Black superman’, Tina Charles for ‘Dance little lady’, Baccara for ‘Yes sir, I can boogie’, Helen Reddy for ‘I am a woman’, Gloria Gaynor for ‘I will survive’, the Archies for ‘Sugar sugar’, Susan Raye for ‘LA International Airport’ and even the versatile country singer Glen Campbell, who we in India knew only for ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. There were also acts like Mungo Jerry and Terry Jacks, whose respective songs ‘In the summertime’ and ‘Seasons in the sun’ were revived through remixed versions in the 1990s.
Thirdly, there were these acts which were quite prolific on radio in the 1970s, but lost much of our attention in the following decade, though some of us still bought their greatest hits compilations many years later to refresh memories of days gone by. These included Paul Anka, Perry Como, Lobo, Diana Ross, Brotherhood of Man and George Baker Selection.
Needless to say, Demis Roussos belonged to this last category. Those who heard radio during the 1970s would have specific memories of his ‘Goodbye my love goodbye’, ‘Lovely lady of Arcadia’ or ‘My only fascination’, and the news of his death would have taken them down melody lane. Significantly enough, even four decades after he created these songs, one can’t think of any singer who sounds remotely similar to him. That was the uniqueness of his style.