Born October 13, 1934 in Greece, Nana Mouskouri studied at the Athens Conservatory before being kicked out due to her reverence for jazz and pop standards. She released her first record in 1958 and hit it big in Europe with the song "The White Rose of Athens" in the early 1960s. In her career, she has sold over 200 million records in several languages and thus is one of the top selling artists in the world, exploring genres that range from Greek folk tunes to adult contemporary balladry. Mouskouri also served as a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999.
Tumultuous Early Life
Nana Mouskouri was born Ioanna Mouschouri on October 13, 1934 in Chania, Crete, Greece, the youngest of two daughters, to parents Constantine and Alice Mouskouri. As a toddler, her family moved to Athens, where her father worked as a film projectionist, thereby also giving his daughter access to a theater where she could sing after moviegoers had departed.
While still a child, Mouskouri lived under the Nazi occupation of Greece, lacking schooling, witnessing executions and enduring limited access to food, with the family at times forced to subsist on snails and frogs. Both Nana, her nickname, and older sister Eugenia were skilled singers, and both eventually studied at the Athens Conservatory. With the girls' father having a gambling problem via which he lost much of his money, the family could only afford to keep one of the siblings at the school, with Eugenia choosing to leave so Nana could continue to study.
Choosing Jazz and Pop
Though studying opera, Mouskouri had an avowed interest in jazz and American standards, singing with a band at night and being influenced by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. When the conservatory found out about her jazz leanings, she was summarily prevented from taking her final exams. Yet Mouskouri was undeterred, and in 1959 she won the Greek Song Festival singing “Kapou Iparchi Agapi Mou,” co-written by composer Manos Hadjidakis. Mouskouri had already worked with Hadjidakis on an EP, and the two would have a fruitful working relationship, with his Mouskouri-sung tunes winning the festival again in 1960.
Grand International Star
In 1961, Mouskouri’s recording of "Weisse Rosen aus Athen," aka "The White Rose of Athens," penned by Hadjidakis and originally appearing in a German documentary, became a major European hit. The single sold more than a million copies in Germany alone and shot her to superstardom.
In 1962, she recorded her first album of American standards, The Girl From Greece Sings, with help of a talented young producer named Quincy Jones. She recorded another English album mid-decade and also released a live record with singer/actor Harry Belafonte, with whom she toured in 1966. (Belafonte had reportedly requested that Mouskouri perform without what would become a beloved trademark that she refused to give up—her glasses.)
While she also appeared on American fare like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and The Danny Kaye Show, Mouskouri’s popularity in North America would pale compared to the fame she achieved in Europe. Having recorded an album in Greek and represented Luxembourg for their entry in the 1963 Eurovision contest, she also moved to Paris. She had several French hits and became renowned for the 1967 album Le Jour Où la Colombe. By the end of the decade, Mouskouri made inroads into the U.K. as well, hosting a variety show and scoring a top 10 album, Over and Over, in 1969, followed the next year by another top 10 album, The Exquisite Nana Mouskouri. From the late ‘60s to the ‘80s, Mouskouri was a top 40 fixture on the British albums chart, and she scored a no. 2 hit single in 1986 with the adult contemporary ballad “Only Love.”
Having toured internationally for decades, Mouskouri has sold over 300 million albums, has sung music in more than a dozen languages (including Greek, French, English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew), and is one of the bestselling music artists worldwide. During her accomplished career she has recorded over 1000 songs and received numerous gold and platinum discs. Notable later albums include Falling in Love Again: Great Songs From the Movies (1993), Nana Latina (1996) and Concert for Peace (1998), a live recording held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
UNICEF, Politics and Farewell Tour
Mouskouri was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1993 and was also a member of the European Parliament (1994–9). Mouskouri retired from singing in 2008 after completing a world tour and spends time at her homes in Greece and Switzerland. She also released new music in 2011 that featured songs of her native country and included duets with fellow Greek vocalists as well as French artists. She stepped out of retirement to perform a concert in Berlin in 2011, in honor of the 50th anniversary of her early hit, “The White Rose of Athens.”
Mouskouri was married to Yorgos Petsilas from 1961 until 1975. The couple had two children together, a son, Nicolas, and a daughter, Hélène. Mouskouri later wed music producer André Chapelle in 2003, though the two were together for decades before officially tying the knot. Mouskouri has cited motherhood as an appreciated stabilizing force in her life and work.
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