German-Language Pop Superstar Udo Juergens Dies

Udo Juergens, an Austrian-born star who dominated pop music in the German-speaking world and sold more than 100 million records in a career spanning five decades, died on Sunday. He was 80 years old.

Juergens collapsed unconscious during a walk in Gottlieben, a town on Lake Constance north of Zurich, Switzerland, and was taken to a hospital where he died of heart failure 4:25 p.m., according to a statement on his website posted by his management company Freddy Burger Management.

Photo: KEYSTONE/Steffen Schmidt/AP, file
Performing in the Hallenstadion venue in Zurich, Switzerland.

Germany’s minister for culture, Monika Gruetters, called Juergens a gifted composer and singer. “In Udo Juergens we have lost an exceptional artist,” Gruetters said in a statement.

Juergens was recognized for bringing piano artistry and clever, introspective lyrics to German “Schlager” (hit) songs. He burst onto the scene in the 1960s with a number of catchy tunes and later infusing his music with a growing social consciousness.

His early career took off after a series of impressive performances in the annual Eurovision Song Contest during the mid-1960s, culminating in his 1966 victory for Austria with “Merci, Cherie” (“Thanks, Darling”).

“Warum nur, warum” became a No. 1 hit in France. “Walk Away,” an English-language version sung by Matt Monroe, went to No. 1 in Britain and No. 2 in the United States, selling 1.5 million records.

Monroe then bought the English rights to “Sag’ ihr…,” (“Tell her…”) producing the worldwide hit “Without You.”

Juergens continued to churn out the hits in Germany, recording more than 800 songs and becoming one of the country’s most iconic figures. A 1969 poll showed Juergens as one of three most beloved figures for German young people, placing him alongside John F. Kennedy and Mao Zedong.

His 1970 mammoth tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Soviet bloc lands of Eastern Europe set a European record by bringing out more than 500,000 people for more than 200 concerts.

Juergens was born Udo Juergen Bockelmann on Sept. 30, 1934, in his family’s Ottmanach Palace in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia. The son of a north German woman and a top Prussian banker from Russia, Juergens began his musical education at the Klagenfurt Conservatory and later at the renowned Mozarteum in Salzburg.

Art and politics were never far from the young Juergens. His father was forced to leave his birthplace of Moscow after the Communist Revolution. Until 1917 Udo’s grandfather headed the German Bank Junker in Moscow.

Juergens found in the piano an escape from politics and the fear impressed upon him as a child in an “extremely bourgeois family.” He found role models in Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin and dreamed of becoming an easy-listening entertainer after their mold.

“I was without fear for the first time when I sat at the piano and recognized that I mastered things there that other people could identify with,” he explained. “Everything that somehow made a noise fascinated me.”

Despite settling in Switzerland, he remained passionate about Germany and its politics. He butted heads with the Roman Catholic Church over abortion, right-wing extremists for using one of his songs, and the government in Berlin over economic and social questions.

Juergens also made successful forays into the world of classical music. In 1979, he composed the musical piece “Wort” (“Word”) for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Seven years later he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to open the Vienna Festival.

He was married from 1964 to 1989 to German model Erika “Panja” Meier. Together they had two children.

Juergens also fathered two daughters out of wedlock with longtime girlfriend Corinna Reinhold. In 1999, he married Reinhold, 25 years his junior, in a secret, Fourth of July ceremony in New York. They separated in 2005.