Music has fascinated Karel Gott already as a student, when he dedicated his complete sallary to buy expensive records on the bootleg market, then with unavailable current american hits and he combined this hobby with visiting of the musical café Vltava. At this time, he still did not suspect that he would be perfoming here himself soon…
„Music has completely fascinated me, but I was not sure yet if it will be singing or a musical instrument, which I will decide to lead my career. To make sure, I found a teacher and startet to take lessons, where I only learn how to hold a contrabass. Shortly, I ended the lessons very soon, though I still dedicated hours to practice at home, grinding scales and finger and fingering, positively persuaded that I would make it. But I hardly made a lesson into its half and then I begged the teacher to listen to a record. This decided once. He played some record of Stan Kenton, where the contrabass player performed a long and perfect solo. When the record ended, I saw my fingers, as they were trying hard to hold the fingerboard. In this moment I decided to lay down the contrabass lessons and never come back again.“
The first public performance was done in the amateur competition Free tribunes (1957) His has not introduced himself as Karel Gott, but as Karel Matějíček. Not because of the reason that he would feel ashamed by his name, but he wanted to make sure that his parents would not learn about his performance. They wanted namely that their son would serve out and become a real worker and did not spend his time on such an unsecure job as singing or painting. Under the pseudonym, his first victory came: „I was singing a kind of a western – it was a free tribune, so why not a free tribune. I enriched this song by yodelling and scatting, but above this, I try to mime as Ella Fitzgerald and Armstrong. To make the whole song look lively, I even added grins and movements like a black medicine man. I remember that I felt much smaller cumbers than I feel today. People let followed me rather by my rubbish I was performing than because of my singing… But my parents learned about this performance and they were definitelly not excited about it.
For the singing career of Karel Gott, the competition We look for new talets was deciding, it was held in the autumn of 1957, despite of the fact that the flopped all the way. „It was autumn and I finished the second year of my learning at the ČKD Stalingrad. It took a long time for me to decide whether I should participate at this competition. I suspected that it could have bad consequenses, if there was a rumour about me performing somewhere again. But finally I told myself that this was a unique opportunity – so I went there. The first fact that suprised me was realising that the competition was accompanied by the septet of Karel Krautgartner. When I came to the rehearsal, I felt almost like home, because the musicians new me as an excited listener from Vltava and they treated me really nice. The second suprise came in the fact that I did not win at all. But after the competitive singing, Karel Krautgartner came to me and told me that he liked my performace and that he invited me to sing with his orchestra in Vltava next wednesday.
Karel was regularly performing in Vltava with Kraugartner Orchestra until 1959. The work of a café singer and employment in the ČKD grew to a less ideal connection as the time went by and it began to create more and more problems, both at home and in the factory. And this began to plague my work, which I actually quite liked from the beginning. So my friends and the orchestra began to realise a growing change to the worse, so they took me aside once and told me: Now you have to decide. Either factory – or singing. This way, you won’t make it to any of them. I gave a start because I have had this thought in my mind for a very long time but I did not want to admit it. In this moment I realised that I have not been satisfied with myself for quite a long time. And when I heard, while talking to the musicians – that you will need to study in any way and you have to estabilish your voice, I came to a decision. I will leave the factory only in the case that I will make it to the conservatory.“
„The season in the Winter stadium Štvanice was slowly ending, spring 1959 was approaching and I pick-up the registration forms at the conservatory. Depending on the qualification exam as well, I got the evening egagement in the Alfa Café on the Wenceslas Square. Karel Gott devided his time between school and singing in the Alfa Café, where he alternated with past top stars of the Czech music, including Rudolf Cortez. This Café was rather a meeting spot for rebells, problem making boys and girls, rock’n’roll admires. Rock’n’roll became a sort of outlet and it announced the first half-illegal entrance.“
Even Karenin went there, his teacher at the conservatory: „The thing you were playing before, is like tailor-made for you, but your soul was missing there. You don’t put anything to it. Remember that you have to put yourself into even simpliest songs. When you manage this once, you will feel like disappearing in the song and it won’t be you anymore, only the song. Singing without sense, it’s enough around us. We will do it in a different way.“ „The other day, the classroom in the Prague conservatory witnessed a historical moment, where professor of singing played „Schlagers“ on his piano for his student and taught him how to find an own expression for them. He took his job really seriously and he enjoyed every apparent result. So the months went by and I felt, that problems with breathing slowly disappear, that I begin to loose bad habits which reveal a café singer and that my voice is being set.“
The first recordings
It’s always hard to begin, and it was not otherwise in the case of Karel Gott. The first TV performances in 1960 were also a complete flop, as the song (its name was Kos a švec) was estimated for singers with deep voice of Cortez-type, and not for the young tenor Gott. Nevertheless, soon after that Karel Krautgartner, band leader of the radio orchestra, remembered Karel Gott and with this orchestra Karel Gott recorded two tens of radio recordings (where most of them were released on gramophone records), though he mostly cooperated with Josef Vobruba, after the radio orchestra split into two parts – TOČR, Dance orchestra of the Czechoslovakian radio (lead by Josef Votruba) and JOČR, which represented the jazz part (lead by Karel Krautgartner). The first songs ever recorded in a studio and recorded on bands (if we don’t count private recordings) were recordings with Orchestra of Karel Vlach (Blues In The Night a Careless Love, 1960).
The first songs he released, were recorded for Supraphon first in 1962 (see below). In this time he performed in the Café Vltava again, where he was offered an engagement from Suchý and Šlitr to perform in their new theater piece Zuzana není pro nikoho doma and with this piece, the first hits of Karel Gott appear, which began broadcasting in radio and the public in the theatre wanted these songs on and on. „People got used with my tenor, which from the beginning seemed to cross everything what has been created in the pop music so far and the distance of the publice began to fade.“ The popularity of Karel Gott reached above the clouds and remained there.
Before we mention further performances, the key for the whole international career of Karel Gott, we have to note the year 1964, where he grounded an own music theatre Apollo, together with brothers Jiří and Ladislav Štaidl. This step meant leaving Semafor at the same time and building of new original repertoire in the new theatre. One of the first tours abroad of the theatre Apollo was the tour to Royal Belgium and performance in Antwerpen and in Brussels, after that Paris followed, in June 1964 Monte Carlo and the prestigious gala performance at the film festival in Cannes.
Other tours lead, except for Moscow, to West Berlin, Münich and Hamburg – these tours meant also the beginning of the long-term cooperation of Karel Gott with the company Deutsche Grammophon, after that the gramophone company Polydor. Before we move our attention to Nevada’s Las Vegas, let’s mention Gott’s representation of Czechoslovakia in Canada’s Montreal at the occassion of the EXPO ’67 international fair, held at the turning point of April and May. After the first rather stillborn performance, Gott managed to enter the TV there, where he performed five times during 14 days. Concerts of the Apollo theatre (repertoire Czech, French and Italian) received a warm welcome from the newspaper people, as well as from the Canadian audience. The headlines in newspapers annouced at the time: Karel Gott – the greatest Czech ye-ye half-way between Presley and Dylan or What a nice import!
The real break in the professional career of the most successful Czech pop singing artist of all times was the almost 7 months long regular performing on the stage of the hotel Frontier (June-December 1967), on the stage of one of the most modern buildings in Las Vegas then. Accompanied by the big orchestra and Orchestra of the Apollo theatre, Gott presented songs such as My World (V máji), Mamma, Bum, bum, bum, Torna A Sorrento (Vrať se do Sorrenta), Beethovenovo Adagio, My Prayer from The Platters oder Gondolánovu Duj, duj, duj to the American audience. „Reviews of the premiere program were more then great. The interest which was caused by newspapers after the premiere meant that I could not have a rest after the second performance either and I had to accept invitations to different clubs, where I kept on singing in the night,“ says Karel Gott, remembering the atmosphere of his first performances in Las Vegas.
No doubt, another pearl on the imaginary string of Karel Gott’s success abroad was the participation at the internaton festival Grand Prix d’ Eurovision ’68. In the fram of objectivity, let’s mention that his song was a flop for the jury and Karel Gott ended on the 8. spot, nevertheless a curiosity remains in the fact that the Czech singer was not representing Czechoslovakia then, he performed in colours of Austria with a song written by Udo Jürgens, Thousand windows (Vítám vítr v údolí).
After that, the real triumphs have followed in Rio de Janeiro (victory with Svoboda’s Lady Carneval), in Athens, Tokio, Zagreb, Poznan and all of the German speaking metropols, where he wins great acclaim with his songs even nowadays.. We can’t forget the invitation of the Association of country music to the Fan Fair festival in Nashville either, which has been repeated several times since 1979. In 1968, Charley Pride, black music star of the American country and host of the festival, commented Gott’s performance with the following words: „As I saw him for the first time backstage, I was afraid for him. This is a country festival and he comes in blazer and tie. I thought about how to explain that we wear embroidered skirts, stetsons, high leather boots, bossy belts… But finally, I did not say anything and it was the right thing to do. When he sang the second song, all of the stadium audince stood up and gave him standing ovations. And this is an audience which is used to meet the stars and even the biggest of biggest of them can not get a rise out of them.“ After this, Karel Gott visited USA many times.
Reviewed according to: Karel Gott – I Say It With a Song, 1968 and Melodie, 1999