1978, six backing singers, five countries, Eurovision Again and a mystery solved

Last night I watched the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest and ended up solving a mystery that’s been bugging me for three months.

From a Six on Stage perspective, the 1978 Contest is particularly interesting because it features the same backing singers on four different songs – or that’s what I’d been led to believe.

There aren’t a lot of primary sources you can go to when it comes to identifying backing singers from 40+ years ago, so there are some excellent secondary sources I fall back on: in particular the no longer updated Diggiloo Thrush and the comprehensive Dutch Eurovision Artists site.

Both sites agree that Georges and Michel Costa, Martine Latorre and Francine Chantereau provided backing vocals in 1978 for France, Germany, Belgium and – sans Michel – for Monaco. (It’s Michel’s absence there that means his brother has performed the most songs at Eurovision with 17, while Michel has sung on 16.)

But then I watched the French entry, illustrated here via a screengrab from one of the low-res copies of the Contest floating illicitly on YouTube:

Joël Prévost with three female and two male backing singers

Voici Joël Prévost, accompanied by not four but five backing singers. We know that two of the female singers are Francine Chantereau and Martine Latorre, but who is the third?

Let’s take a diversion to the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest in Norway. There, Georges and Michel Costa made their final appearance as Eurovision backing vocalists on a song they wrote themselves, Européennes by Cocktail Chic. Cocktail Chic comprised sisters Dominique Poulain and Catherine Bonnevay and their cousins… Francine Chantereau and Martine Latorre.

The four singers of Cocktail Chic
I’m not sure if you can tell but this was the 1980s.

A bit more research reveals that these four formed a group at the end of the 1960s first called Les OP’4 and then, as Les Fléchettes, primarily providing backing vocals for singer Claude François. They also performed as Dominique et les Fléchettes, with Dominique (third in the image above) taking lead vocals. And in the 1970s they performed with the Costa brothers under the name Chance.

Cover of "Une Fille est Toujours Belle" by Les Flechettes

Francine and Dominique also sang backing vocals for Marie Myriam on the winning song in 1977 that brought the Contest to Paris.

So it stands to reason that the third female singer supporting France in 1978 is either Dominique or Catherine. Better check the other performances to see if they have the extra singer too!

Here’s Belgium:

Three female and two male backing singers

Aha! Yes indeed. It’s a blurry picture but once again there are three female backing singers. Except… even in this low-quality copy it looks like those are not the same three.

What about Germany? Although that’s odd in itself as Germany isn’t a Francophone country. This interview (in French) with the Costa brothers sheds some light there. Translated:

Michel: There was a year when we sang for five countries, in Paris: France, Luxembourg, Monaco, Belgium and Germany. We changed jackets between songs.
Interviewer: Under what circumstances did you accompany Germany?
Michel: We went to rehearsals, and Germany was in the room, they did not have any singers and said to themselves “These singers must be very good because they represent everyone!” (laughs)
Interviewer: Wasn’t it too hard to sing in German?
Georges: No, it was just “Feuer” to sing, and the rest was the “Ah”, sounds like that.

NB: Baccara representing Luxembourg did not appear to have any backing vocals.

Germany was represented in 1978 by the glorious Ireen Sheer, who had sung in French representing Luxembourg four years earlier. Here she is in Paris:

Ireen Sheer with three female and two male backing singers

Right. The gang is back but they’re different again. And Monaco is the very next song. Will they have time to change?

Monaco's singers with one male and two female backing singers

No, no they won’t.

Although the picture quality is grainy, one helpful aspect of the ’78 Contest is that instead of postcards there is backstage footage of each act making their way to the stage. In most cases the previous act is waiting to wish them good luck (well, waiting for them to vacate the lift so they can go back to their dressing rooms).

When Monaco and Germany cross, we see the Costa brothers backstage with four women in purple dresses. Four!

As you’ve probably worked out, the whole Fléchette family was there and rotated the backing vocal honours amongst them. So the next challenge was to identify who was who in order to list them correctly on Six on Stage.

I crudely classified them based on height and hair, because that’s pretty much all there is to go on in this video. So we have:

  • France: ginger, short with dark hair, tall with dark hair
  • Belgium: ginger, blonde, tall with dark hair
  • Germany: blonde, short with dark hair, tall with dark hair
  • Monaco: ginger, short with dark hair

I told you it was crude. The next step was to name them. Helpfully, the Diggiloo Thrush’s page for Cocktail Chic identifies them in their 1980s personas. Francine is the taller of the dark-haired women and Dominique the shorter. Catherine is blonde and Martine is not really ginger.

This video from 1970 endorses the identification of Dominique.

All that was left to do was to update Six on Stage with the correct backing singers:

  • France: Martine, Dominique, Francine
  • Belgium: Martine, Catherine, Francine
  • Germany: Catherine, Dominique, Francine
  • Monaco: Martine, Dominique

They’re all there now on the 1978 page. Job done!

But that wasn’t the mystery that had been bugging me. I said this involved five countries, not four, and we haven’t even touched on Eurovision Again.

It’s Ireen Sheer’s fault.

She cropped up representing Luxembourg in 1985 during the most recent Eurovision Again. But she also represented them back in 1974.

Eurovision Again and the BBC treated us to that Contest as welcome lockdown relief in the middle of May. At the time, a number of eagle-eyed viewers tweeted that Ireen’s backing singers stayed on stage in exactly the same outfits to provide vocals for the immediately following act, Romuald from Monaco. Frustratingly, I’d been unable to identify these four singers, none of whom was recorded in my go-to sources.

Screengrab of Six on Stage showing unknown backing singers
This made me sad.

But then I started thinking: Ireen Sheer. Francophone countries. Four female singers. 1970s. Maybe there was more to Germany’s choice of backing singers in 1978 than the Costas remembered. You can hear the cogs turning.

Sometimes the only evidence is the Contest itself.

Romuald with four female backing singers
Ireen Sheer with four female backing singers in 1974
Short with dark hair. Tall with dark hair. Blonde. Possibly ginger.

I’ve looked at contemporary photos and videos. I’ve squinted at the 1978 footage. I’ve pored over Cocktail Chic.

Yep. I’m calling it. That is, left to right, Dominique Poulain, Francine Chantereau, Catherine Bonnevay and Martine Latorre.

Mystery solved.

Screengrab of Six on Stage showing Luxembourg 1974 with backing singers recorded
That’s better.
Data visualisation

Visualising the winners

We all know that Ireland is the all-time Eurovision champion with their seven wins, but I’d been wondering who was in the lead before them? Sweden are in second place now, but three of those wins came after Ireland’s last. What about in, say, the 1970s?

Thanks to a bit of data animation I’ve thrown together, you can now answer that question while being entertained by flying bars. Watch the leaderboard change over time:

This shows that the countries in joint lead before Ireland’s mid-90s dominance were France and Luxembourg. And it also highlights that from 2001 to 2008 eight countries consecutively got their first ever wins – soon after the rule that they had to sing in their own languages was abolished…


You’re a fire, and desire

It’s a cliché itself to suggest that Eurovision songs overuse the clichéd rhyme fire/desire. But how well-founded is that gripe?

I’ve run an analysis of all the lyrics I could get my hands on and identified just (or, depending on your view, a whopping) 18 songs that feature this word pair as a rhyme. The most tenuous is Tina Karol‘s Show Me Your Love, where the words are in separate verses but still clearly intended to rhyme; the most blatant is the only song to pull this off and take away the win, Helena Paparizou‘s My Number One. There are, unsurprisingly, many examples that didn’t make it to Eurovision hiding away in national finals (to take a random one, Survivor by, er, Helena Paparizou…).

One reason there aren’t more cases is the national language rule that was imposed for much of the Eurovision Song Contest’s history. For those periods, only the UK, Ireland and Malta were eligible to sing in English. There is a single song that I’ve identified before the rule changed in 1999 – also the earliest of this trope – and that’s Vikki‘s 1985 UK entry Love Is… The desire (ahem) was there though. One year earlier, Waiting in the Rain, the English version of Hot Eyes’ Danish entry Det’ lige det, gives us:

I never used to play with the fire
I always used to follow the stream
But now I’m burnin’ up with desire
‘Cause it’s for real, not a dream

While 18 songs of more than 1,600 isn’t a lot, they are bunched up, and nearly all from the 21st century. The 2004 Contest saw no fewer than three songs sneak that rhyme onto the stage: the Netherlands’ Without You, Denmark’s Shame On You, and Greece’s Shake It.

Red bars indicate fire/desire rhymes. Blue bars indicate the even more notorious fire/desire/higher triple, exemplified by The Roop in 2020.

Now that I’ve mentioned both examples, it will be apparent that Greece is also one of the four countries to use this lyrical pearl more than once.

The triples include Romania’s Playing With Fire and Poland’s Flashlight.

While it’s tempting to blame Vikki for introducing the trope to Eurovision, so much time passed between the first and second occurrences that I’m inclined to look beyond the Contest. Lyricists have used the same pairing plenty of times in the pop charts. For instance, it was in 1999, the year of the next incident, that the Backstreet Boys released their hit I Want It That Way: a much higher profile culprit, and at the very time the rest of Europe began to sing in English.

Should you desire to set your heart on fire and make your pulse get higher, you can enjoy all 18 songs on my Fire/Desire YouTube playlist or the 14 of them that are available on Spotify.


Knowing who is missing

One of the challenges when it comes to tracking down missing people for Six on Stage is knowing who’s missing. Are there four people listed against a song because two are unidentified for were there really just four people on stage?

Today I’ve added a new feature to highlight where I know there are people whose names are as yet uncovered. Thanks to recent Eurovision Again re-watches of the 1997 Contest and the 2007 Grand Final, the first pages to benefit are 1997 and 2007. I’ve also added this feature to the 1957 Contest but you wouldn’t be able to tell as there is no-one missing!

This data relies on literally counting the number of people on stage, so it will be tricky to produce for the more recent Eurovisions now that backing singers can be in the wings. But for most years, I’ll gradually be able to signpost who still needs tracking down – and if you know who one of these mysterious people is, please let me know!

Speaking of gradual work, I’m continuing to manually check all of the data on the site. I’m mostly working alphabetically and am currently on the letter M, with around 1,500 people still to go…


What do we do with a cancelled Contest?

For understandable reasons, the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest has been cancelled. That’s sad and disappointing for fans but all the more so for the artists, writers and delegations who’ve been working hard towards it.

With the acts and songs all announced, I’d loaded all the artist information into Six on Stage already. So how to handle the unprecedented situation of a Eurovision Song Contest that’s no longer happening?

There are two changes to the site to reflect this. The first is that all the 2020 data will stay but it will be marked out on the relevant pages to clarify that the Contest didn’t happen. That’s only fair on the people who got this far and remains a useful reference source.

The second is that all the statistics shown on the site now only go up to 2019 and in future will only reflect the Contest once it’s broadcast. This also allows for last-minute changes to announced personnel (backing dancers have been known to retire injured!) while still enabling information for the upcoming year to be included and displayed.

On which note, the 2021 page is now live


Nine conductors who took the stage

Six on Stage has been updated with information on conductors from the start of the Eurovision Song Contest up to the final appearance of the live orchestra in 1998. To mark the occasion, here’s a look at some of the conductors who were also performers.

Mike Sergeant

Portugal-based British conductor Mike Sergeant made his first appearance at the Contest in 1978, representing Portugal in the group Gemini. He returned in 1983 to conduct their entry and, a whole 15 years later, was Portugal’s final conductor.

Among his other contributions, he arranged José Cid‘s 1980 entry Um Grande, Grande Amor.

Peter Reber

Peter Reber is one of the few artists to hold the joint record, alongside the likes of Lys Assia and Valentina Monetta, for the most songs performed in total. On top of those four participations for Switzerland as one-third of Peter, Sue and Marc, he also conducted Switzerland’s nostalgic 1980 entry Cinéma.

Rutger Gunnarsson

Bassist Ruger Gunnarsson was a regular collaborator with ABBA, playing on their albums and touring with them. His first appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest was in 1974 on stage for Waterloo – what a start! – and he returned for Sweden six years later to support Tomas Ledin.

It was apparently Benny Andersson who suggested Gunnarsson put himself forward to conduct for Alla Pugacheva in 1997. He took the advice and ended up waving the baton for Russia in Dublin.

Arne Bendiksen

Arne Bendikson represented Norway in 1964 with the song Spiral. In 1971, he returned to conduct the orchestra for Hanne Krogh, 14 years before she would return for her victory with Bobbysocks.

He also founded and gave his name to the Bendik Singers, who sang his composition for Norway in 1973.

Tarmo Leinatamm

Conducting in both 1996 and 1997 for Estonia, Tarmo Leinatamm returned 10 years after conductors disappeared as part of the trio Kreisiraadio, who sang Leto Svet in 2008.

A few years later, Leinatamm was elected to the Estonian Parliament.

Rolf Løvland

Rolf Løvland has won Eurovision not once but twice: as writer and backing performer for Bobbysocks in 1985 and a decade later as a member of Secret Garden and writer of Nocturne.

In between the two, he conducted the orchestra twice, for Merethe Trøan in 1992 and Silje Vige in 1993.

Stefan Raab

Comedian, composer and TV presenter Stefan Raab has managed to tick every box at Eurovision: lead artist, backing performer, songwriter, conductor and, following Lena’s victory for Germany, host.

Despite there being nothing to conduct, he took the conductor’s role in 1998 during the song he’d written for Guildo Horn. In 2000, he sang his far more serious composition Wadde Hadde Dudde Da? and returned in 2004 to provide backing on Can’t Wait Until Tonight, having hosted the talent show that chose singer Max – and having once again written the song.

Martyn Ford

Our final two on this list are in a special category: peripatetic conductors who appeared on stage during the same song.

Four years after he had conducted for Cyprus and Anna Vissi, Briton Martyn Ford travelled to Oslo to conduct for Elpida. He notably left his spot during the song to join the performers in encouraging the audience to clap along – before returning to the orchestra finish the job.

Henrik Krogsgård

Seven-time Danish conductor Henrik Krogsgård went one better in 1989. He joined the performers on stage mid-song and never went back, his role taken over by the show’s musical director Benoît Kaufman. In this respect Krogsgård was arguably more of a semi-conductor!


Running in the family: parents and their children at Eurovision

As I’ve been working through the data on Six on Stage, I’ve found lots of family relationships between participants. Sometimes they’ve been relatives within an act (e.g. the sisters of Las Ketchup); sometimes they’ve been many years apart.

Here are some of the most notable.

Jacques Pills and Jacqueline Boyer

Jacques Pills was Monaco’s first representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1959. He came last. But his daughter Jacqueline Boyer did somewhat better just a year later, winning the Contest for France.

(Every time I read the name Jacques Pills I hear it to the tune of Roberto Bellarosa’s Love Kills…)

Irma and Nina Tapio

Irma Tapio was a member of Ystävät, who performed for Finland with Fredi in 1976, and she returned two years later to provide backing for Seija Simola. Nearly 30 years after Irma’s debut, her daughter Nina Tapio was a backing artist for Geir Rönning’s 2005 entry Why.

Fredi and Hanna-Riikka Siitonen

Speaking of Fredi (aka Matti Siitonen), who first appeared at Eurovision in 1967, his late daughter Hanna-Riikka was a backing artist on several occasions, including alongside Nina in 2005.

Side note: Eva-Riitta Siitonen, Hanna-Riikka’s mother and Fredi’s wife, had a successful career in Finnish politics. She’s been an MP, an MEP, a provincial governor and Mayor of Helsinki.

Bo Halldórsson and Svala

Another father and daughter Nordic pairing is Bo Halldórsson, who represented Iceland with Núna in Dublin in 1995, and his daughter Svala, who represented them with Paper in Ukraine in 2017.

Lyubomir  and Dian Savov

Lyubomir Savov (aka JuraTone) and his son Dian Savov (aka DJ Dian Solo) were two of the founding members of Deep Zone Project, who represented Bulgaria in 2008. DJ, Take Me Away came 11th in its semi-final.

Knez and Ksenija Knežević

When Knez (Nenad Knežević) performed Adio for Montenegro in 2015, he was supported by his daughter Ksenija Knežević as one of his backing vocalists. This year she’ll be back as a lead artist, representing Serbia as part of the group Hurricane.

Michèle Arnaud and Dominique Walter

This is another pair who represented different countries as solo artists. Michèle Arnaud was one of the two singers to perform two songs at the inaugural Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 (the other being the winner, Lys Assia). Michèle did so representing Luxembourg.

Her son Dominique Walter represented France a decade later with the song Chez Nous.

Benny Andersson and Peter Grönvall

We finish with one of the biggest names in the history of Eurovision, ABBA’s Benny Andersson, who needs no introduction. His son Peter Grönvall represented Sweden 22 years after ABBA’s victory, performing as part of the group One More Time. They came 3rd behind the winners Ireland and hosts Norway.