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backing singers from 40+ years ago, so there are some excellent secondary sources I fall back on: in particular the no longer updated Diggiloo Thrush and the comprehensive Dutch Eurovision Artists site.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.

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!