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From Prog-Rock Pioneer To Kitsch King: Remembering Demis Roussos

International pop star Demis Roussos hams it up for the camera at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1975. Roussos died in Athens Sunday at age 68.
Ralph Gatti
AFP/Getty Images
International pop star Demis Roussos hams it up for the camera at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1975. Roussos died in Athens Sunday at age 68.

Demis Roussos went from an early start as a prog-rock pioneer to wearing a kitsch crown. He died Sunday at age 68 in Athens after suffering from cancer of the stomach, pancreas and liver.

His death was first announced on Twitter this morning by a close friend, French-Greek entertainer Nikos Aliagas, and was later confirmed to the French newspaper Le Figaro by his daughter, Emily Roussos, who made a documentary about her father's life in 2010.

Roussos was born Artemios Roussos on June 14, 1946 in Alexandria, Egypt, then home to a large and thriving Greek community. His father was an engineer of Greek descent; his mother, Nelly Mazloum, was a famous actress and dancer of Italian heritage. But like many in that community, the family fled Egypt in the wake of a series of intense political shifts and the Suez Crisis. During this period, many Greek Alexandrians, including the Roussos family, saw their businesses nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime and lost all their assets.

The Roussos clan wound up in Athens, and soon Demis found his place as a singer, first in the band The Idols. His first big break was as a member of the prog-rock group Aphrodite's Child, founded in 1967, in which his bandmates included keyboardist Vangelis Papathanassiou — later known around the world simply as Vangelis, creator of themes for films like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.

Very soon, tectonic shifts in politics again dictated Roussos' fate. When a right-wing military junta seized power in Athens in April 1967 — only a few years after his family's arrival — the members of Aphrodite's Child tried to make their way toward artistic and political freedom in London. On their way, they wound up in Paris and decided to stay. Mercury Records signed them, and their reworking of Pachelbel's Canon in D as "Rain and Tears," fronted by Roussos' plaintive tenor, became a huge international hit.

Aphrodite's Child went on to record two more projects, 1970's It's Five O'Clockand, in 1972, the ambitiously scaled double album 666, inspired by the biblical Book of Revelation. But the band was drifting apart, both personally and aesthetically. Roussos had already released his first solo single, "We Shall Dance," in 1971.

Within the next few years, the flamboyantly dressed Roussos — usually sporting a wild head of hair and beard and wearing an extravagant kaftan, in part to deflect his ballooning weight — became a staple artist across much of Europe and the U.K. as well as Latin America, the Middle East and Japan with soft-pop, mildly psychedelic songs like "Forever and Ever."

Over the course of his career, he sold some 60 million albums. In 1975, as he proudly noted to London's Guardiannewspaper in a 1999 interview, he had no fewer than five albums in the British Top 10 simultaneously, including the No. 1 spot. In 2013, he received a French Legion of Honor medal for his life's work.

One of his oddest moments in the spotlight came in June 1985, when he was one of the passengers of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome, which was hijacked by Hezbollah-backed terrorists and diverted to Beirut. A U.S. Navy diver onboard the plane was killed by the terrorists, and most of the 153 passengers were held on the plane for 17 days.

Roussos was allowed off the plane after four days, however, along with his American companion of the time, Pamela Smith, as well as a Greek-American teenager, Arthur Targotsidis. Roussos' 39th birthday fell on the day of the hijacking, and speaking to Reuters after the ordeal ended, Roussos said that the hijackers treated him "quite well," adding that they had given him both a birthday cake and a guitar.

"These people, these nice people. They were so nice to me I cannot tell you," Reuters quoted Roussos as saying at the time. "Yes, they asked me to sing and I don't see why I shouldn't have sung." Later in his life, the singer denied those quotes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.

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