Pavel Bobek – veteran voice of Czech country pop

Pavel Bobek

In this edition of Music Express we meet a veteran of the Czech pop and country scenes, Pavel Bobek. He was a member of the renowned Semafor theatre group for two and a half decades, had numerous hits with Czech versions of US country hits, and even got to perform with his life-long idol Johnny Cash.

Pavel Bobek
Pavel Bobek actually trained as an architect in Prague. Indeed he was a classmate and good friend of Jan Kaplický, founder of the Future Systems studio in London.

But Bobek was much better known for his endeavours in the world of music, which began in the late 1950s when he became involved in the burgeoning bigbít (Czechoslovak rock’n’roll) scene.

In 1963, when he was in his mid 20s, he joined the nascent Olympic. They were to go on to become one of the most popular Czech pop bands of all time, but by the time they became huge stars at the end of the 1960s, he had already moved on.

In 1966 Bobek’s love of country led him to sign up with Jiri Brabec’s group Country Beat. For two years the band were regular performers at Prague’s Semafor theatre, one of the most vibrant cultural centres in the communist era. The group’s engagements there eventually dried up, but Pavel Bobek stayed on. Indeed he was a member of Semafor for two and a half decades.

Pavel Bobek - Semafor compilation
Though now 73, Pavel Bobek remains active. I recently caught up with him briefly at an event in a Prague bar where he was receiving a gold disc for his most recent LP, and launching a compilation of songs he used to perform at Semafor. The theatre has attained such legendary status over the years. Where did he think its magic lay?

“I think at that time it was something which was very…hard to find anywhere else. In the years of brutality and dictatorship it was very, very free.”

Pavel Bobek has performed Czech version of the songs of a host of US musicians, including Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and others. But he has a particular love of Johnny Cash. What does the name of the Man in Black mean to the Czech singer?

“Very, very much…The only chance to hear American or Anglo-Saxon music at that time was to listen to Radio Luxembourg, and the American Forces Network, which came from Munich, Germany for the American soldiers stationed there. It was in the late ‘50s that I first heard Johnny Cash singing. He was only three or four years older than me. I heard a very, very special voice. The song was I Walk the Line, and I said, that’s something.”

Earlier this year, Pavel Bobek realised a dream when he flew to the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee, to record what he says will be his final LP with a group of top-notch American musicians. The title track Víc nehledám (I’m not looking for any more) is Bobek’s take on I Walk the Line. Indeed, the whole album is of songs that Johnny Cash performed.

When we spoke, Pavel Bobek recalled one of the greatest moments of his career – when he met, and got to perform with, his idol.

“I met him when he was in Prague to perform, in 1978. I was at a…matinee at the American embassy the day before. I shook his hand and said, Mr Cash, there is one song of yours that is very popular here. He said, what is the song? I said, Sunday Morning Coming Down. He said, it’s not my song, it was written by Kris Kristofferson. I said, Mr Cash, you made it famous…when the matinee was stopping he took his guitar, came to the stage, and looked out over all these people, there were around 200 people, and he looked at me and said, Mr Bobek, would you like to sing with me? It was fantastic, he remembered my name.”

While he may be best known for performing the songs of Johnny Cash and others, for many Czechs Pavel Bobek will always be THE voice of country pop.