Karel Gott retro exhibition charts success of Czech pop icon

Werbung für die Show Europa 68 in Las Vegas mit dem größten Star Europas – Karel Gott (Foto: Archiv NFRF)

An ambitious floating exhibition has opened in Prague with the target of at least equalling some of the new style of shows devoted to rock and pop greats such as the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. And who else could be the focus for such a Czech show other than the so-called Golden Voice of Prague or the Sinatra of the East – Karel Gott. The exhibition understandably puts the onus on Gott’s success but also covers some stardom’s costs.

Karel Gott, or at least a holograph of the iconic Czech singer greets visitors to the specially constructed floating exhibition on Prague’s Vltava embankment, Gott, My Life, dedicated to his 60 years in show business. Many of those were at the top, not just in former Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic but around the world. Gott is truly a local and worldwide phenomenon with a mass following in Germany and Austria, substantial success in Russia, and even a star in the home of the stars, the United States.

The show, opened to the public on June 8 and lasting until September 30, is backed by the foundation of one of the Czech Republic’s biggest advertising companies, BigBoard, and one of its founders, Richard Fuxa. Fuxa outlined at a pre-opening press conference how the idea had come up and what the organisers were seeking to create:

ʺWe agreed a year ago that we would put on a big retrospective exhibition about Karel Gott’s career, Gott My Life. The exhibition is connected with the contemporary worldwide exhibitions trend which combine an experience and a show. Reference was made to the David Bowie show which is touring cities around the world and the Rolling Stones exhibition. We went to see that [Rolling Stones] exhibition in New York and I must say that we were a bit worried whether we could come up with that kind of high quality back in the Czech Republic on the Big Media boat."

ʺ…he can see his past professional life coming together in one place and you can see how his star rose to the present day.ʺ

Indeed, the exhibition has drawn on many sources and many sources of inspiration. The singer himself has lent some of his coveted gold and diamond records, his awards, personal photographs, and his collection of favourite stage costumes, including his Abba style white shoes and the "Godfather styleʺ suit that was for long his favourite. As Gott’s PR manager, Aneta Stolzová, commented, the singer was far from a passive participant when this exhibition was put together.

ʺThe idea appealed to him [Karel Gott] from the very start when Mr. Fuxa sounded him out about it. In fact, Mr. Gott sort of took up the idea in a certain sense as his own. He was not a passive observer when this exhibition was put together about him but took an active part in it. In the last days, weeks, and months he got together with the curator of the exhibition, Peter Balog, and Mr. Fuks and they contributed things that were closest to him. And I think Karel Gott would be very positively surprised and the emotion that this [exhibition] evokes has touched him as well because he can see his past professional life coming together in one place and you can see how his star rose to the present day."

'Gott, My Life', photo: archive of NFRF
The emotion being talked about will likely be brought by Czech and Slovak fans of Gott over the generations, but also by his mass audience outside his homeland. Gott’s life is very much a seismograph of the six decades of Czechoslovak and Czech history that coincided with his personal success but will also probably evoke many personal memories as well.

ʺWhen I went round this exhibition there was one thing that struck me. As well as its world class quality, this exhibition brings something more and that is emotion. When you go around the exhibition you will identify with the incredible Karel Gott story and it touches every one of us. There are perhaps moments from childhood, some special moments which I think everyone can find. I hope that everyone, young, middle aged, and old can find that experience. "

As well as drawing on the singer’s own memorabilia, the exhibition has pumped the sizeable collection of the Czech National Museum’s special collection devoted to the history of music. And that includes one very particular contribution from a Karel Gott fan who devoted herself to tracing his career over the decades. Exhibition curator Peter Balog:

ʺThere are perhaps moments from childhood, some special moments which I think everyone can find."

ʺWe at the museum got this collection comprising around 10,000 items from this woman. Many of them are what could be described as collages. The woman over 50 years cut out from the papers all the articles about Karel Gott and stuck them on paper in an archive. She put together Karel Gott’s life story and you can see some of that through her eyes. It is a link between the star and a fan and she is still in some sense a witness because she is still collecting."

A lot of these newspaper articles, many of them proudly recounting Gott’s latest foreign successes punctuate the exhibition. And, as the organisers promise, there is a lot of parallel history reflected in Karel Gott’s life: history of his homeland, history of the recording and show business industry, and that of the East-West divide, which the singer to some degree bridged.

In some senses, Gott’s life shows he was often at the right place at the right time, though for some periods he clearly wondered whether contemporary Czechoslovakia was the right place to be. He arrived on the musical scene in the late 1950s, when a comparative thaw was taking place in Czechoslovakia as the former Stalinist doctrines receded or became discredited. Jazz, Gott’s first love, had been regarded as an American import and therefore ideologically suspect at the start of the decade. The music was banned in public places and could only be played in private in the early and mid-1950s.

'Gott, My Life', photo: archive of NFRF
But jazz was in any case morphing into swing and soon to be followed by rock and roll. From his first campfire performances, Gott became semi-professional, playing in Prague cafes and clubs at the same time as following in his father’s footsteps as an electrical engineer. And by 1960 he had decided to quit his engineering career and follow his musical muse, signing up in the process to voice training lessons at Prague’s conservatory. At, the end of that training in 1963, Gott was already emerging as a star, though still mainly on the cabaret and big band scene. He won his first Czechoslovak singing award, the so-called Nightingale, in 1964 for his achievements in the previous year. Gott was already feeling that the cabaret and band format was not fitted to his ambitions of a solo career and decided to quit the Semafor theatre and provide his own stage for his ambitions. To his surprise the authorities agreed and the Apollo Theatre was born.

The exhibition testifies to Gott’s success at home. A letter to him from fan Alena in 1965 was addressed to Karel Gott, singer, Prague, Semafor, was actually delivered. Gott was also establishing himself abroad. In 1967 he topped the bill at a Las Vegas hotel – he was portrayed in part as the Communist bloc’s top singer although Gott in vain protested that he was not a Communist. The US marketing men liked to sell him that way and that is how he stayed. Gott was being educated in the ways of show biz East and West. In the same year, Gott signed with the West German record label, Polydor, a significant moment for his growing sales and fan base there.

ʺHe’s still active. He’s still popular. And last year the top selling album in the Czech Republic was Karel Gott."

Gott was prospering in an environment where he could move pretty free across the so-called Iron Curtain, but events in August 1968 with the invasion by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces created a much more complicated situation. The invasion brought a slow clamp down and return to Communist orthodoxy, many Czechs and Slovaks left their country. And there were rumours in 1968 that Gott had done the same thing on a trip to Vienna. The exhibition shows an extract from an interview on Czechoslovak Television firmly denying an intention to emigrate.

Gott’s managers and artistic team were by now frequently complaining of the blind alley they were in as a result of the so-called Normalisation. There’s an interesting anecdote from the period. Gott was in London to visit the Beatles record company, Apple, in 1970. H broached with John Lennon the possibility of them doing a charity concert in Prague for Czechoslovak children. Gott warned Lennon though that the leaders back home might insist on Lennon getting his hair cut. Back in Prague Gott, perhaps naively, raised the possibility of the concert with the Communist authorities. He was sent packing.

'Gott, My Life', photo: archive of NFRF
And in 1971 Gott spent several months in West Germany although he did not have a valid visa for such a long stay. His parents were interviewed by the secret police. Gott was allowed back without any apparent penalties imposed. He was no doubt warned to keep in line. And that’s what he apparently did. Part of that conformity meant signing the so-called Anti-Charter in 1977, a regime organised declaration of loyalty and attack on human rights protesters and dissidents. Other singers, such as Marta Kubišová, who got the female version of the national singing award in 1968 with Gott again the male winner, were banned for their opposition to the Soviet led invasion. Gott was made a so called "national artistʺ in 1985 – the first person from the pop world to get such an honour.

While Karel Gott somewhat surprising appeared on the balcony besides Václav Havel in Prague’s Wenceslas Square at the height of the Velvet Revolution to sing the national anthem, Gott believed the revolution meant an end to his career and was prepared to retire. But the response to what he thought would be a farewell tour in 1990 made him think again. He went on, and on. Supraphon’s marketing manager Michal Máka paid this tribute.

ʺHe’s still active. He’s still popular. And last year the top selling album in the Czech Republic was Karel Gott."