Karel Gott, a romantic Czech crooner whose popularity behind the Iron Curtain helped earn him the nickname “Sinatra of the East,” died on Tuesday at his home in Prague. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Ivana Gottova, on his website. Last month he wrote on Facebook that he had received a diagnosis of acute leukemia.
“Extremely sad news for our whole country,” Milos Zeman, president of the Czech Republic, said in a statement. “Karel Gott was a real artist who gave himself to others.”
A dapper and expressive tenor who sang in Czech, English, Russian, French and German, Mr. Gott recorded hundreds of albums and performed before audiences in his home country; in Poland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and West Germany; and in the United States and Canada.
He won the Golden Nightingale Award as his country’s top male singer, voted on by Czech music fans, 42 times.
“It says a lot that almost everyone in the Czech Republic loves Karel Gott,” Pavel Turek, a music journalist with the Czech magazine Respekt, told The New York Times in 2017. “His popularity is exceptional, and it is really interesting that all generations appreciate him.”
Mr. Gott largely thrived under Communism in Czechoslovakia. He was not known for challenging the Soviet-backed regime. But while on tour in West Germany in 1971, he said he would remain in the West indefinitely — he did not specifically call it a defection — because of the Czech government’s attempts to censor his lyrics and demands that he cut his long hair.
Gustav Husak, the chief of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, rebuked him at the Slovak party congress as a pampered performer.
“Everyone knows what conditions of work we gave him — glory, money, as much as he wanted, travel throughout the world,” Mr. Husak said. “Let him decide for himself if he wants to return to serve the Western bourgeoisie.”
Mr. Gott did return, several months later, after Mr. Husak took a surprisingly conciliatory tone in a letter that guaranteed the singer’s continued freedom to travel to the West to perform.
“It was completely logical” to accept Mr. Husak’s appeal, Mr. Gott told the writer Alan Levy in an article in 1978 for the journal Index on Censorship. “The Czechoslovak people made me whatever I am. Besides, I wanted very badly to see my parents.”
Karel Gott was born on July 14, 1939, in Pilsen, which had become a part of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. His desire to sing was initially discouraged by his father, who wanted him to learn a trade. He worked as an electrician for several years until he began studying opera at the Prague State Conservatory in 1960.
He was soon performing on television and radio and in theaters. He won his first Golden Nightingale in 1964. He signed with Polydor, a major European record company, in the late 1960s; his first Polydor contract eventually became a lifetime deal.
One of his biggest hits was the theme song from “Maya the Bee,” a popular German cartoon series. Singing in various languages, he covered hit songs like “Moon River,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Lara’s Theme,” from the film “Dr. Zhivago.”
In 1985, Mr. Gott was named a National Artist by the Czech government. In 2009, Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, presented him with the Medal of Merit for his contributions to Czech culture. But the government’s decision to give Mr. Gott the medal was excoriated by Jan Rejzek, a culture critic.
“My view is that the president should honor people who were persecuted by the former regime,” Mr. Rejzek told Czech Radio. “And it strikes me as distasteful when someone is honored for ‘only’ being good at what they do — without the same level of merit.”
When Mr. Gott received his final Golden Nightingale at a ceremony in Prague in late 2017, he dealt with the incongruity of sharing the spotlight with a neo-Nazi heavy metal band, Ortel, which won second place in its category.
“The organizers made a big mistake,” he told The Times, referring to Ortel, some of whose songs have anti-Muslim lyrics. “They should have made a rule that you cannot mix politics and music.”
Complete information on survivors was not available.
In July, hundreds of fans lined up outside a record shop in Prague to buy a limited edition of souvenir zero-denomination bank notes bearing Mr. Gott’s portrait in honor of his 80th birthday. Some had slept overnight to buy a maximum of two notes.
“The zero euro is a big phenomenon in our country,” one fan told France 24, a news channel, “and so is Karel Gott.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
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