People’s Artist of the RSFSR Eduard Khil died of a stroke at the age of 77. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone. Everyone knew of Khil’s humour and of the optimism that permeated his songs; he remained lively and energetic to the end. Khil possessed a composed but powerful lyric baritone voice, fantastic diction, and great artistry. His life wasn’t easy. At age seven, he was evacuated from Smolensk an hour before the Germans arrived. The spectre of death hung over his head… sinister planes with black crosses bombed a train carrying wounded people, to which the car with the children was attached at the last moment. Eduard remembered for the rest of his life the metallic glint of the low-flying aircraft and the blood of the newly-killed soldiers and children who were buried almost every day. Then, he went to an orphanage in distant Buryatia because his mother had lost him in the chaos of the VOV (by that time she was divorced from her husband). Eduard made two failed attempts to get to the front lines. He suffered from malnutrition. Later, he recalled that he often dreamed about bread at night. Eduard survived. He took part in concerts for the wounded. Towards the end of the war, his mother found him and took back home to devastated Smolensk. It’s no accident that Khil had so many military songs in his repertoire. He used to say, “Those who survived the war are not afraid of anything”.
Having witnessed so many horrors as a child, Khil looked at the bright side for his whole life. He not only survived, he became a professional singer after graduating from the Leningrad Conservatory in 1960. His first performance was in 1949, when he was a student at a vocational printing school. As he recalled later on, he was paid in crackers. Where did this son of a mechanic and an accountant get his talent? He probably inherited it from his grandfather Vasili. He was a church choir director before the Revolution, but he was purged by the Soviets. Why didn’t Khil become an opera singer? After all, he played the role of Figaro in Mozart‘s The Marriage of Figaro; he performed in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; he sang Janusz from Moniuszko’s Galka and the leading parts in Yevgeni Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Khil probably wanted to transcend the classical genre. He launched his career as a pop singer in 1962 and he soon became one of the country’s best performers. However, he didn’t forget about other musical genres, either. As the host of By the Fireplace on Leningrad television, he described the history of classic Russian lyrical songs and sang them himself.
Audiences in many countries loved Khil, and not just those in the Eastern bloc. Apart from his vocal talents, Khil had the important skill of always being “in synch” with his era. In the 1990s, when many Soviet performers lost their jobs, Khil and the youth band Prepinaki presented a project, “Khil and Sons”, offering updated version of popular Soviet songs. In 2010, Khil became popular all over the world as young American internet users fell in love with a video of him singing Arkady Ostrovsky’s 1966 song, I’m Very Happy ‘cause I’m Finally Goin’ Home. Khil became known as “Mr Trololo” after the sound he repeats throughout the wordless vocalise. He recalled his moment of international fame by saying, “I was sitting at home, peeling potatoes. My grandson rushed in and said, ‘What are you doing, Gran’pa? They’re showing you on the Internet!’ I don’t even know how many people saw me, but I was immediately showered with invitations from all over the world”.
Several generations were raised on Khil’s songs. As one of his fans wrote, “He was a great singer with a unique voice. He sang as if he were reading novels out loud, and it was impossible to be unmoved by his singing”. Khil once remarked, “Only fools believe that pop singing’s a simple genre. Many still consider show business easy, but I’ll tell you that all these things are very difficult”.
4 June 2012