Date of Birth: 15 June 1946, Alexandria, Egypt
Birth Name: Artemios Ventouris Roussos
Nicknames: Demis Roussos
Demis Roussos, the Greek singer who has died aged 68, became an unlikely heart throb in the 1970s when his album sales earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
He scored his biggest success in Britain in 1975 when he had five albums in the top 10 simultaneously and in 1976 when his annoyingly unforgettable romantic ballad Forever and Ever was No 1 in the single charts. Worldwide he sold more than 60 million albums. “My music came right on time,” Roussos told an interviewer in 2002. “It was romantic Mediterranean music addressed to all the people who wanted to go on holiday. My music was liked by the people ... other artists of the same era, Mediterranean, like Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri, followed me.”
His publicity people described Roussos’s songs as a mixture of “Byzantine psalms and muezzin prayer calls”, and there was something otherworldly about his tremulous, near-falsetto delivery. But there was much that was strange about Roussos. Even if his voice had not compelled attention, his Falstaffian 23-stone girth, beard, long hair and penchant for billowing kaftans would have marked him out.
Incredibly to some, Roussos, who became known as “The Phenomenon”, became seen as a sex symbol. In Britain the mostly middle-aged female audiences at his sell-out concerts became every bit as hysterical about his wobbling chins and zithery ballads as their teenage counterparts had been for the Beatles. In later life he recalled that women in the front row would sometimes try to grab his kaftans to see if he was wearing anything underneath (the answer, he claimed, was no).
Critics, though, were less easily smitten. The Sun called him “The Big Squeak” and likened him to a cross between Mickey Mouse and Moby Dick. Others called him the “The Love Walrus” or “The Singing Tent”, while The Sunday Times said he sounded like a spaniel that had been kicked. And after two years of British hits, Roussos faded from view. The coup de grace, according to some, was administered by Mike Leigh in the scene in his Play For Today, Abigail’s Party (1977), in which the monstrous Bev (Alison Steadman) sways gormlessly to Forever and Ever, consigning Roussos to the ranks of the irredeemably unhip. His next two singles struggled to gain entry into the Top 40.
Roussos, however, felt that his inadvertent role in the film was proof that he had left an enduring impression on the 20th century: “Nobody can deny that my name left a mark into the century’s music,” he told The Guardian in 1999. “Even if I die tomorrow, Demis Roussos left a card, a trademark, something that cannot be forgotten.”
Artemios Ventouris Roussos was born to Greek parents on June 15 1946 in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father was working as an architect.
The family was forced to flee Egypt for Greece during the Suez crisis of 1956, leaving all of their possessions behind, and as soon as he was old enough young Demis, who sung in a Greek Byzantine church choir as a child and learned guitar, trumpet and piano in school, began work as a cabaret musician to to help his family make ends meet. His teenage years coincided with a boom in the Greek tourism industry and he began singing in tourist bars. By the mid-1960s he was performing covers of British and American pop hits, such as House of the Rising Sun and When a Man Loves a Woman, with a band called The Idols.
Towards the end of the decade he hooked up with the future film music composer Vangelis, with whom he formed Aphrodite’s Child, a prog-pop combo who fled to France after the Greek military coup of 1967 made them unwelcome in their homeland. In 1968 they released the song Rain And Tears (derived from Pachelbel’s Canon) during the student riots in Paris. Referring to the tear gas used on demonstrators, it sold more than a million copies in France and managed to scrape into the Top 40 in Britain.
After half a dozen albums in three years, Aphrodite’s Child broke up in 1971 and Roussos went solo, cutting his first album, On the Greek Side of My Mind, the same year. He was already well known on the continent but little known in Britain until 1974 when a BBC documentary, entitled The Roussos Phenomenon, turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
His first UK single to make the charts, Happy to be on an Island in the Sun, reached No 5 in 1975. Other hits included My Friend The Wind; Goodbye My Love, Goodbye; Quand je t’aime, Someday Somewhere and Lovely Lady Of Arcadia.
By the time his star began to wane in Britain Roussos was a wealthy man with a mansion outside Paris, a private jet, an estate in the south of France and all the other trappings of success. But he did not remain idle. In the early 1980s, while living in California, he went on a diet, shed more than six stone, then published A Question of Weight, which sold a million copies. He remained constantly popular in Europe, where he continued to tour, through his fluency in Spanish, French, Italian, German and Arabic, as well as Greek and English. In later years he found new fans in the Middle East, Russia and central Asia, developing what one critic described as “a new-age, ethnic kind of sound, influenced by Africa and the Balkans”.
In 1985 he made an unwitting comeback into the British national consciousness when he was held captive for a few days in Beirut after his flight from Athens to Rome was hijacked by Hizbollah militants. The press reported that he had sung to his captors (not true, said Roussos) and had a bit of fun at his expense, one correspondent rejoicing that his captors “did not go unpunished”. In 2002 he enjoyed a mini-comeback when his “Best Of” collection, Forever And Ever, reached number 20 in the album charts and he undertook a tour of Britain.
Demis Roussos was married and divorced three times.