The world of Hungarian pop is unknown territory for many. Those who take the time to discover the ‘magyar zene’, however, know how rich its history is. Here, in the first of a two-part special on Hungarian female singers of the 1960s, Matthew Meek opens this fascinating treasure trove of pop.
In the 1960s, Hungary succeeded in producing original, high-quality pop and beat – and, unusually, many of its most popular artists were female.
Like many eastern bloc countries during the communist years, Hungary’s state-owned record company operated the one and only label. Similarly, singles on the distinctive blue label of Qualiton Records (later Hungaraton) were often split between two artists. Frequently, they were issued in generic but fantastically designed paper sleeves, often featuring the word Táncdal (literally, pop music) emblazoned on the front.
Only the most popular artists enjoyed the privilege of picture sleeves to accompany their releases – and until the very end of the decade, LPs were restricted to compilations and soundtracks.
Hungary fell under the spell of the hully-gully-twist-craze as it swept across mainland Europe in the early 1960s. Emulating the US styles of the period, the results were by nature highly derivative.
The first female pop record of the era belongs to Márta Záray and her lively cover of Italian star Adriano Celentano’s Con venti quattro mille baci, in 1962. Similar releases, such as Éva Mikes’ Egy kicsi szerencse (1964), Kati Sárosi’s Oh, hully-gully (1963) and Kyri Ambrus’ Ilyen a twist (1963), are all also enjoyable. However, they suggest nothing of the talent that was to emerge just a couple of years later.
Arguably, the first record worthy of note is Minden olyan más by Kyri Ambrus. Tagged on as a
B-side to an ear-piercing version of Millie Small’s My boy lollipop, the driving beat and organ provided by the group Deák was to characterise Hungarian beat. This level of performing and song-writing would eventually allow Hungary to compete with the Western sound that its musicians had previously tried to emulate.
A drive by the government to promote original song-writing – in lieu of Western cover versions – helped to boost home-grown talent too.
The television talent show Ki mit tud? proved integral in launching the careers of many of the most popular artists. From 1966, the yearly and hugely popular Táncdalfesztivál competition pitted performers against each other in a live arena for best song. Importantly, it also enabled viewers to put a face to the names they had previously only heard on the radio.
Part one of this special will focus on three women who became some of these shows’ biggest successes.
In 1962, 16-year-old Zsuzsa Koncz and classmate Ági Gergely won the TV talent show Ki mit tud?, performing as a duo. A record was released on the back of their victory and launched the career of one of Hungary’s most luminous and talented stars.
Brought up in the small historic town of Pély, Zsuzsa’s rebellious nature saw her leave behind a promising future in law for the fickle world of pop. After a brief stint as the singer for beat combo Omega, she joined another group, Illés, as lead singer from mid-1963.
1964 saw Zsuzsa’s second foray into recording, with an EP recorded with Illés. She cut two tracks in English, including an uncharacteristically raucous cover of Long tall Sally. A further EP followed soon after with all four songs sung in heavily accented English, including a take on Françoise Hardy’s All over the world.
Her luck improved in 1966 with the release of the excellent Rohan az idő. With backing by Illés and written by prolific songwriter István Nagy, the song became a big success for Szusa.
Follow-up singles that year, Szerelem nélkül, Most az egyszer táncoljunk egy tangót and Itt élsz valahol, were similar in style and quality. Another, Nincsen olyan ember, made it to the final of the first Táncdalfesztivál, in 1966, and gave Szusa the chance for more public exposure.
One of her finest moments was the early 1967 release Keresem a szót. Written by Illés members János Bródy and Levente Szörényi, it combined the group’s trademark twang with a more folk-rock influenced melody.
Highlights of subsequent singles included her first foray into freakbeat, Ünneprontó vagyok, backed by her old group, Omega. The fuzz-fuelled Jaj mi lesz velem ezután with Liversing and Kopogj az ajtón, a contender in the 1967 Táncdalfesztivál final, were also strong.
Some claim that the release of the film Ezek a fiatalok marked the beginning of Hungarian rock music. This seminal work featured performances from both Illés and Zsuzsa Koncz, as well as fellow singer Sarolta Zalatnay and groups Metro and Omega. It itself is essential viewing and features stunning performances from Zsuzsa, who provided vocals for three of the film’s songs.
The finest of these – and perhaps Zsuzsa’s best song – is the folk-styled Szőke anni balladája. This mournful tale features the unique sound of the Hungarian zither or citera, together with the contrasting harmony of Zsuzsa’s vocals and Levente Szörényi’s distinctive voice.
Further successes included Sajnálom szegényt a következőt, a masterpiece of fuzz, recorded with the group Metro, and the shimmering Hajnali lány. The latter exploited Zsuzsa’s beautiful higher range. With its smattering of organ and guitar, Eretnek vágy is generally considered one of her best beat recordings.
Her entry into the 1968 Táncdalfesztivál, the rousing Színes ceruzák, performed with Illés, earned her joint second place.
A total of five singles were issued in 1969 – of which the best of the bunch was the last, Azt hitted kis bolond. More importantly, the year also saw the release of Zsuzsa’s first album, Volt egyszer egy lány. Known for its eclectic range of influences, the album’s highlights included the title song and the fuzzy Nem hiszek neked már.
As new decade dawned, Zsuzsa found herself constricted by government censorship. Her 1973 albums Jelbeszéd was banned outright shortly after release, due to its political content. However, she found popularity in East Germany, where she recorded a number of German-language LPs.
With a total of 38 albums to the present day, Zsuzsa Koncz has remained a prolific performer and continues to fill stadiums with a reformed Illés.
Born in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in 1947, Sarolta Zalatnay was a naturally musical child, who studied classical piano and singing. She was urged by her parents to take an operatic path, but a tonsillectomy put paid to that idea.
During a performance at a high school music show in 1963, a 16-year-old Sarolta was spotted by Komar Laszlo, a member of Hungary’s first rock group, Scampolo. He opened up the world of pop to her. While still studying, Sarolta began recording with the group Bergendy, though their material tended to be slapdash cover versions with her voice pitched too high to be enjoyable.
Like Zsuzsa Koncz, Sarolta’s magic year was 1966, when she placed third in the first Táncdalfesztivál with Hol jár az eszem after graduating high school. Although not her best effort, it showed a new maturity in her voice. This was also apparent in the single Csak a szerelem – her first worth recommending.
It was during this time that she became known to the Hungarian public by her nickname, Cini.
Her next single of note was the early 1967 release Szervusztok, régi barátok, penned by talented songwriter Atilla Dobos. With its dramatic opening of strings and keys, and with Sarolota in a lower register, it was markedly different in style from her earlier recordings.
Sarolta’s year reached a high when she won joint first place at the 1967 Táncdalfesztivál with Nem várok holnapig. Backed by group Omega, the song adopted a more bare-bones approach to the beat style.
She repeated this approach in her follow up 45, Mostanában hosszabbak az éjszakák.
A new year brought an even more mature sound to Sarolta’s work with the release Magányra születtem. A wistful Sarolta accompanies an orchestrated sound and top guitar work by group Körmendi.
During this time, the wider world began to take notice of her too. She was invited to record two compositions by Jamaican star Jackie Edwards, L.O.V.E. and Open your hands, for the UK’s Island label. The single was produced by Dave Mason of Traffic and also gained a release in her home country. Not content with that, a Hungarian version of Open your hands was released with the title Átölelsz még, having been reworked with a harder, fuzzier sound.
Sadly for Sarolta, her entry for the 1968 Táncdalfesztivál, Óh, ha milliomos lennék, didn’t place but remains one of her best dance recordings, with its hard-hitting beat and a sharp vocal.
However, it was the last year of the decade that provided Sarolta’s finest run of singles. The piano-led Boldog idõk, recorded with Metro, and the groovy Fekete beat, featuring an excellent brass section, again by Metro, were two of the best.
A couple of singles later the magic was still evident in the release Betonfej, which cemented (no pun intended) Sarolota’s standing as the country’s top beat girl.
Another chance at a wider European market came thanks to a partnership with President Records in the UK and Germany. The result was a cover of the Cilla Black’s I am a woman, backed with Change of heart, originally by Sandie Shaw. It coincided with a UK tour where she met and worked with the Bee Gees and even – she claims – an affair with Maurice that almost ended in marriage. (Don’t tell Lulu.)
An album, Ha fiú lehetnék, was released in 1970 and contained some of her best work to date. Of her 1970s work, the most important is perhaps the 1973 release Hadd mondjam el, which drew international acclaim.
Not one to live life shyly, Cini has been known for more than her musical output in recent years. She famously and allegedly bedded Brian May after a concert in the 1980s. In 2001, she appeared nude at the age of 54 after having her breasts enlarged. In 2004, her colourful life continued when she was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for fraud in relation to illegal activities with her TV company.
Kati Kovács’ success at least equals – and possibly surpasses – that of both Sarolta and Zsuzsa. Born in 1944 and brought up in the northern Hungarian town of Verpelet, Kati began singing at high school and was influenced mainly by American jazz artists.
Like Zsuzsa, Kati tried to enter the first Ki mit tud? competition, but she was turned down for the final as her cover of a Little Richard song was deemed too ‘raucous’.
After graduation, Kati worked as a medical clerk before chancing her luck with the second Ki mit tud? competition in 1965. After a tough series of rounds, Kati was eventually crowned winner and ‘voice of the year’. Her first record to be released on the back of her win included the jazzy Sóhaj.
However, bigger success was to come the following year. Winning the inaugural Táncdalfesztivál with Nem leszek a játékszered confirmed her place as one of the country’s brightest stars. The song itself was an emotional tour-de-force that allowed Kati to demonstrate her powerful vocal abilities.
The start of 1967 saw the release of Kati’s first true beat song, the excellent Többé ne telefonálj, with backing by Illés – proving she could stand alongside Sarolta in making the best dancers.
It was followed up with a release of covers of Italian hits by Little Tony and The Rokes entitled Bolond az én szívem and Veszíteni tudni kell. Rather than straightforward covers, Kati’s takes were even harder hitting than the originals, with a superb vocal performance again on each.
Sadly – but deservedly – neither of her entries into the 1967 Táncdalfesztivál placed.
1968 began with the release of Ne lépd át a küszöbömet, which was a return to form, as was its follow-up, Itt a világ vége. Both were mid-tempo compositions with interesting arrangements.
Around this time Kati branched out into acting. Having appeared in a minor role in Ünnepnapok the previous year, the 1968 film Eltávozott nap cast Kati in the lead role of a young woman trying to track down her biological mother. The film has gone on to become a classic of the era and is notable for Kati performing the incredible freakbeat style title song. Unfortunately, she never came to issue it on record.
During the film Kati sported her iconic tomboyish bob which distinguished her from other female singers of the time.
For the 1968 Táncdalfesztivál, Kati got through the initial rounds with her the superb Szerelemben soha sincsen igazság. The song found her in full powerhouse mode, with a wonderful orchestral backing, but it wasn’t a hit with the judges on the night.
Hazudik a drága opened 1969 as a great organ-based dancer. Later that year came the sublime A festö és a fecskék, a stunning piano-led ballad, which remains one of her best recordings.
Like Cini, Kati’s first album was released in 1970 and, for the most part, is enjoyable, although it suffers from song quality in places. A stronger album, Autogram helyett, followed in 1972, and showcased a harder, funkier side of Kati.
Like Zsuzsa, Kati found huge success in East Germany too, especially with 1974’s epic Wind, komm, bring den Regen her. She was also declared the country’s most popular foreign singer.
Ever the ceaseless performer, Kati now continues to play with her new group, The Qualitons, who recreate the 1960s beat sound, and she is said to be working on new material.
Other beat girls also found fame. Find out more in part two of our special on Hungarian female singers of the 1960s.