Since she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969 with her song ‘De Troubadour’, Lenny Kuhr has been regarded as the torchbearer of the Dutch song contest feeling. After that early peak in her career (she was 19), she remained active in music all these years. She sang in French, Dutch, English and Portuguese, toured all over the world, was at home in chanson and fado. She performed for large and small audiences, just like the noble troubadour she sang at the time at her Eurovision victory in Madrid.
He was so full of music
He sang for large and small audiences
He made happy, melancholy
For knights in the high hall
He sang in tough strong language
A long and bloody story
But also the work people from the barn
Heard his song full of adventure
Belonged to the nightly kitchen fire
And in the inn of the city
He sang a drinking song on the wet
For those who could still stand and who sat
He silently sang his song in the monastery
Of a miracle that happens
Even if no one sees the miracle
From women in velvet or gray
He sang the hearts of the wise
His love song went on a journey
He sang for farmers in the fields
A guy’s song of my own hand
He was of every rank and position
He sang like this all his life
His own song, his own song
Yet death just takes its course
Then it got quiet, the song was out
Just some mud to finish
But he who was comforted by his song does not forget him
Because he was so full of music
He sang for large and small audiences
He made happy, melancholy
At the European Song Contest of 2020 in Ahoy, she would make a prominent contribution to the gala performance as guest of honor. Corona threw a spanner in the works, but Lenny Kuhr didn’t give up. To sing to residents in lockdown she appeared on a cherry picker with her guitar at nursing and care homes in Eindhoven, Tilburg, The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. For people behind glass she sang the airy ‘Visit’, her big hit from 1980 that was long off her stage repertoire. “I think it’s a time-bound song that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of my songs,” she says. “But for those poor people, who couldn’t even cuddle with their loved ones and who could use something cheerful in their lives, I sang it anyway.”
And now, after more than fifty years of varying success, in which she sometimes had to self-publish her records because record companies were not interested, Lenny Kuhr is making a large-scale artistic comeback. The Amsterdam indie label Excelsior releases her new album simply titled Lenny Kuhr. Erik de Jong, better known as Spinvis, wrote the opening song ‘In My Book’. Stef Bos composed it for her ‘Still a Troubadour’. Producer Frans Hagenaars and arranger/musician Reyer Zwart place Lenny Kuhr at the center of a vibrant pop production in which she may sing better than ever before.
In this vibrant pop production, Lenny Kuhr may be singing better than ever before
Hagenaars and Zwart are true purists, says Lenny Kuhr with awe. “Their studio is full of old instruments. Fender guitars from the sixties. They knew exactly what they wanted.” What the duo envisioned was a production along the lines of Dusty in Memphis, a career highlight of singer Dusty Springfield from 1968. Neither orchestral parts nor horn sections were spared on Kuhr’s Excelsior debut, which in songs such as ‘Zonder Geluid’ and ‘Dierbaar’ sounds like an album in which Dutch-language soul and chanson intersect. Two songs that Lenny Kuhr wrote with comedian and Poelifinario winner Elke Vierveijzer are among her favourites. Dear is ‘Without Sound’, a text by her old life partner Herman Pieter de Boer (1928-2014) set to music by her daughter Daphna Bialystock.
Lenny Kuhr (71) talks about her life with enthusiasm, thoughtfully and modestly. Success has never been her main focus, she says firmly. The song, and the expressiveness of her music, that’s what it’s always been about.
One of your first self-written songs was called ‘Hi Dear’, later edited into ‘Never mind’. What was the reason for starting to sing in Dutch?
“I come from Eindhoven and spoke with a soft g. Most of the performers who sang with a soft g were teardrop singers. Terribly poor, I thought. “Hi Dear” was a line I had cobbled together in my high school English just so I could sing something. I wanted to participate in the Cabaret der Unknowns, a talent show in Eindhoven. But that was only allowed in Dutch. The producers of Phonogram then linked me to Armand. He drove up to us in a huge American sleigh, in a very large fur coat. He sat down, I sang it, and the inspiration flowed right through him. The Dutch text was finished in an hour. I ended up singing it with a louder g. My mother was from Amsterdam and I could imitate her very well. That’s how I won my first talent show.”
Helena ‘Lenny’ Hubertina Johanna Kuhr was born on February 22, 1950 in Eindhoven.
1967 wins Cabaret of the Unknowns, Eindhoven
1969 (29 March) wins Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid, ex aequo met Salomé (Spanje), Lulu (VK) en Frida Boccara (Fr)
1970 tour of France with George Brassens
1974 The General, ode to Rinus Michels during the Football World Cup
1980 hit single ‘Visite’ with French choir Les Poppys
1981-1993 married to writer Herman Pieter de Boer
2001 album Fadista with Dutch fado’s
2007 Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau
2012album Love Song, made after performing in TV series Ali B at full throttle (2011)
2019 performs during the Great Eurovision Song Contest, Ziggo Dome
How do you look back on the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest?
“It was a circus. The parties, the interviews, the intrigue. I liked the glamor around it. Such a large orchestra, all those people working there. It was one big miracle. After winning the National Song Contest, fashion designer Frank Govers had given me a perfume to take with me to Spain. I learned that on the plane. To me it was the smell of the new, the rich, the promises hanging in the air. I had faith in what I was doing. It’s unbelievable how grand it was, the millions of people watching you. As an artist you always have the secret fear of forgetting your lyrics. But I stood there and all I had to do was open my mouth. It seemed as if I saw myself from a distance and it just happened. I felt no fear, just the joy of the music.”
Stef Bos has you sing ‘I’m still a troubadour’ on the new album. Did he have to put himself in your situation to be able to write that text?
“We already knew each other a little bit. We have many substantive interfaces in our texts and our thinking. He uses different metaphors, but actually he’s saying the same thing as me. I myself am too shy to just pick up the phone and ask someone to write me a number. When Excelsior came up with that idea, I loved being pampered musically. Stef came up with this song within a week. It rises above the personal. Like me, he is someone who is always looking for words, for new music. I would never have written a song that starts with “I’m still a troubadour” for myself. The word troubadour is a bit loaded with me. It would be arrogant if I said that myself. But because he did it, it takes on a whole new meaning.”
How did you end up at Excelsior?
„The two sisters of Clean Pete sit on the label and they said: listen to Lenny. I had previously been in the studio with Frans Hagenaars to record a song by Freek de Jonge to include, ‘Mother’s Womb’. They liked that at Excelsior, I heard later. In recent years I produced my CDs myself, purely as a record of what I did in the theater. I thought it would be good to finally be fully supported by the insights of producers. I felt like spreading my wings, stepping outside my frame. It all went very organically. I thought we were going to make a fado-esque record. We ended up with a kind of retro pop sound. Blues and soul have in common with fado that it expresses desire. Sehnsucht, or saudade, that is the essence of who we are. People are made up of desire. It is the common thread that always runs through my songs, also on this album. I had set myself the condition beforehand that it should not be a sad record.”
I felt like spreading my wings, stepping outside my frame
Are you viewed differently now, if Grande Dame of the Eurovision Song Contest?
“Of course you always keep the status of winner. I’ve never paid much attention to that. Making music is a party that you have to be open to to make it happen. Singing is like breathing to me. I got this talent to please people. Singing together is the most beautiful thing there is. In the past, everyone sang at the dishes, mothers and their daughters. Our society has become so individualized that we have lost the healing power of making music together.”
At Excelsior they like to compare you with Johnny Cash, who went through a period of artistic flowering in the autumn of his life. What do you think of that comparison?
“They can say that. I didn’t think of it. If my voice gets weaker, I think I should stop. Soon I will be in Paradiso, my first real pop stage. Awesome, especially with the whole orchestra. I don’t lack energy. For the past five years I’ve been taking a cold shower every morning for a few minutes, out here. I walk, I cycle, I sing, that’s my sport. Singing is easy for me. I take all that life experience with me and I see the relativity of things. I can now tell my story better than ever.”
Lenny Kuhr and Orchestra play Thursday, February 17 in Paradiso, Amsterdam. Inl: lennykuhr.com
The album ‘Lenny Kuhr’ will be published on Friday 28/1 at Excelsior.
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 27, 2022