Born in Gothenberg, Sweden, Björn Ulvaeus frist gained recognition in the 1960s in Sweden as part of pop group the Hootenanny Singers. After Ulvaeus met fellow musician Benny Andresson, the two teamed up with vocalists Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad to form ABBA. The group became a major international hit with songs like "Dancing Queen," "Fernando," and "Money, Money, Money." ABBA's music remains popular around the world today.
Early Music Career
Musician. Björn Ulvaeus was born on April 25, 1945, in Gothenburg, a city on the west coast of Sweden. His family moved to the small eastern town of Vastervik in 1951, and it was there that Ulvaeus spent the rest of childhood. His parents, Aina and Gunnar Ulvaeus, were both passionate music lovers, and they bought Ulvaeus his first guitar for his 11th birthday. Under the tutelage of an older cousin, Jon Ulfsater, a folk and jazz guitarist, Ulvaeus showed rare talent and promise. As a teenager, he became enamored with rock 'n' roll and skiffle music.
Ulvaeus was also a gifted student, attending Lund University to study business law. At Lund he befriended three other aspiring musicians—Tony Rooth, Hansi Schwarz and Johan Karlberg—and, at the encouragement at one of the school's music teachers, formed a group named the West Bay Singers.
Playing a mix of folk and Dixieland jazz, the West Bay Singers competed in amateur singing competitions, soon developing a strong local following in the Vastervik area. In 1963, the foursome took a hiatus from school, borrowed an old Volvo and set out to tour across Europe. While the tour did not achieve staggering success, the band's gigs earned enough money to cover food, gas and hotel lodging, and by all accounts the group had the time of their lives. Returning to Sweden later that year, they learned that Ulvaeus' mother had entered them in a national talent show whose Swedish name translates to Place on the Stage. "I wanted to cancel our appearance straight away," Ulvaeus recalled, "because I thought that we weren't ready. And then finally, after some thought, I told myself that maybe we had a chance." The West Bay Singers reached the contest finals in Norrkoping, and although they did not place, they attracted the attention of music producer Stig Andersson, who signed them to a recording contract. He recalled, "I must confess that when I saw Björn singing and playing, I had a feeling that he had enormous potential. They were a good group, of course, but Björn stood out from the others."
Changing the band's name to the Hootenanny Singers and deciding to sing mostly in Swedish, which was very uncommon for Swedish commercial pop music at that time, the group released a debut single in early 1964. It skyrocketed to the top of the Swedish pop charts. They released their first album, which contained six Swedish and six English songs, later that year. Meanwhile Ulvaeus, who had kept up his studies while touring and recording, passed his exams to graduate from Lund University. For the next two years, from 1964 to 1966, the Hootenanny Singers remained one of Sweden's most popular pop groups, recording during the winter months and touring all across Scandinavia during the summers.
On June 5, 1966, in a coincidence that would have a profound impact on the course of pop music across the globe, the Hootenanny Singers' tour bus stopped at a crossroads far out in the Swedish countryside where the tour bus of the Hep Stars—Sweden's other leading pop group—also happened to be stopped. And during that chance encounter, Ulvaeus struck up a friendship with the Hep Stars' keyboardist, Benny Andersson. "We had the same musical tastes," he remembered. "When Benny started speaking, our ideas were so similar that it was like I was listening to myself."
Birth of ABBA
Over the next two years, although the Hootenanny Singers and the Hep Stars collaborated on several songs, Ulvaeus and Andersson mostly continued working with their respective groups. In 1969, Ulvaeus met and fell in love with a singer named Agnetha Fältskog; they married two years later, in 1971. Around the same time, Andersson fell in love with another singer, Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The two couples performed together for the first time in 1970 in a cabaret act called Festfolk. Two years later, in 1972, the quartet released a single, "People Need Love," which became a minor hit in Sweden. At that point, Ulvaeus left the Hootenanny Singers (and Andersson left the Hep Stars) to focus all their energies on this new lovers' quartet. Renaming themselves ABBA, an acronym of the first letter of each of their first names (Anni, Benny, Björn, Agnetha) and also the name of a popular Swedish canned fish company, the group achieved its big break in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. ABBA entered a new single called "Waterloo," an upbeat, disco-influenced pop track, winning first place in the prestigious international competition. The contest catapulted "Waterloo" to No. 1 on the UK pop charts and to No. 6 on U.S. Billboard Hot 100, announcing ABBA as one of world's biggest new pop groups.
Over the next seven years, ABBA enjoyed widespread international popularity on the way to becoming one of the most successful musical groups of all time. Their self-titled 1975 album spawned such hits as "SOS," "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" and "Mamma Mia," all of which were immensely popular in Europe, Australia and the United States. Their next album, Arrival (1976), featured the singles "Money, Money, Money," "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "Dancing Queen," the only ABBA track ever to reach No. 1 in the United States. ABBA—The Album (1977) featured another iconic international hit in "Take a Chance On Me," and later albums Voulez-Vous (1979), Super Trouper (1979) and The Visitors (1981) were all successful across the globe. In support of their albums during these years, ABBA toured extensively in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia, greeted by throngs of adoring fans everywhere they went.
But as they enjoyed professional success, their personal lives were in distress. Ulvaeus and Fältskog divorced in 1980, and Andersson and Lyngstad, who had married in 1978, announced their own breakup in 1981. The divorces sapped ABBA of its chemistry, and the group stopped performing together in 1982. In the aftermath of ABBA's dissolution, Ulvaeus and Andersson took their musical partnership in a new direction to collaborate on writing musicals.
Their first musical, Chess, the story of a love triangle among champion players of the game, debuted in London's West End in 1986 and on Broadway in New York in 1988. The well-reviewed show earned Ulvaeus and Andersson numerous Drama Desk, Tony and Grammy Award nominations, but the pair did not end up winning any of the major awards.
Ulvaeus and Andersson then collaborated on a 1995 Swedish-language musical, Kristina från Duvemåla, which also won widespread acclaim. Ulvaeus next worked on the orchestration for Mamma Mia!, the enormously popular 1999 musical featuring exclusively ABBA music. Mamma Mia! became the most-seen musical in history, with more than 42 million audience members worldwide. Ulvaeus co-produced the 2008 film version as well.
Björn Ulvaeus is one of the greatest pop stars in Swedish history, and as a member of ABBA he is also one-fourth of one of the most iconic music groups in world history. Largely due to the huge success of Mamma Mia!, ABBA songs remain nearly as popular today as they were during their heyday in the 1970s. However, although all four members remain musically active and on good terms, Ulvaeus says there is no chance the group will reunite. "We will never appear on stage again," he said. "There is simply no motivation to regroup. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were."
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