The best-selling female recording artist of all time is having coffee in a busy London bar, but not one of the young customers has clocked her.
It’s not Madonna, because she’d be mobbed, nor Adele whose fans would be queuing to say Hello.
Mariah Carey would clearly have a massive entourage shielding her from selfie-seekers.
No, the megastar who outranks all three pop queens with her 350 million album sales, is a bespectacled 83-year-old gran from Greece.
In the 1970s, Nana Mouskouri was the most famous songstress on British TV with a mellifluous voice that touched millions.
Now, to celebrate an incredible six decades of music, she’s back with yet another album – called Forever Young.
She says in her soft Greek accent: “People all over the world have bought my records. But I’ve never felt in competition with anyone.
“All I ever wanted to do was sing.”
Famed for her flowing kaftans and iconic black-framed glasses, Nana recorded over 1,550 tracks in Greek, English and a dozen more languages.
No 70s dinner party was complete without a bottle of Mateus rosé in the wine cooler, coq au vin on the hostess trolley and a Nana album on the stereo.
She became such a cultural icon that Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies imitated her.
Born Ioanna Mouschouri in Crete in 1934, Nana moved to Athens with her projectionist father Constantine, mother Alice, and elder sister Jenny.
In April 1941 Greece fell to the Nazis and Nana, six, saw horrific bloodshed. The family became destitute and she remembers collecting frogs and snails to eat.
But after the war she ate all she could – and weighed 16st in her teens.
“I also wore glasses as I was myopic,” she says. “But in school they called me four eyes and I had to fight ridicule and rejection. I was shy, scared and ashamed so I was comfort eating.”
But Nana had always wanted to sing and felt that would change her life. “It gave me courage to exist,” she says.
She and Jenny both won places at the Athens music academy but her parents could only pay for one.
Tutors told them Jenny had the best voice but Nana had “a need” to sing. “So my sister sacrificed herself,” says Nana. “I didn’t realise it at the time but later I felt guilty.”
After eight years’ classical study, hard-up Nana began performing in jazz clubs. But when her stuffy professor found out he banned Nana from taking her exams and she left.
“It was very sad as my parents thought classical music was everything,” she says. “But it was the start of something wonderful.”
In 1957 Nana recorded her first single, Fascination, in English and Greek (she is fluent in six languages).
Sent to sing for 5,000 men on a US Navy ship in 1959, she saw the entertainment manager’s
disappointment at her appearance.
But Nana told him: “I do not look nice, but I sing well.”
And, with her first song, that incredible voice had the sailors in the palm of her hand.
She said: “I moved to Paris the following year and a friend got me interested in fashion.
“I realised if I lost weight I could wear nice clothes.”
However she resisted the 60s idea of female sexiness. “People said, ‘Nana you must dye your hair blonde and get rid of the glasses!’ But I said ‘No. People will like me for my singing, not my glasses.’”
In 1959, aged 25, she had married Yorgos Petsilas, a guitarist in her backing band, The Athenians. They had a son, Nicolas, and a daughter, Helene, but divorced in 1975.
Soon after she met her current partner, music producer Andre Chappelle, who she wed in 2003.
In 1961 Nana set aside her painful war memories to record a single in German, Weisse Rosen Aus Athens, (White Roses From Athens).
It was re-recorded in several languages, won Nana her first gold disc and became a signature tune.
Then she met a young Quincy Jones, who took her to New York to record a jazz album. Hits followed and in 1966 Nana joined actor and singer Harry Belafonte on tour.
But, she explained: “Harry told me I could not wear my glasses on stage and, for two days, I tried. But I couldn’t see and it did not feel right. I told Harry ‘If I can’t wear them, I quit’. So he let me.”
British fans loved her and, in 1968 she was given her TV show, Presenting Nana Mouskouri.
Her LP, Over and Over, spent two years in the UK charts.
Nana would sing traditional songs in different languages, after explaining the story behind them in her heavily
Ronnie Barker took the mickey by dressing up as “Nana Moussaka” and Benny Hill did the same. “But it was wonderful!” laughs Nana. “They were very funny men and being imitated was such flattery.
“I felt like I had become part of the family in Britain and other countries like Australia. Dame Edna had me on her show and we bonded over our ‘face furniture’. I’d never heard glasses called that before.”
Nana met many other famous fans and friends including her countryman, the late Demis Roussos, and Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016. Nana still sings Hallelujah in his honour.
“And of course I was friends with The Beatles and The Stones and worked with Cliff, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Lulu….” The list goes on.
So which of the new generation of female singers does Nana rate?
“Adele is quite wonderful, of course,” she says. “But Amy Winehouse’s voice touched me deeply. It had an anger and sadness to it… a pain, like Billie Holliday in the past.
“It was so sad that she could not look after herself.”
Nana has covered Amy’s Love Is A Losing Game on the new album.
“A song has to fit you,” she says.
In the 80s and 90s Nana toured the world and released more than 200 albums. In 1985 she had a huge hit with Only Love – the theme to hit TV series Mistral’s Daughter.
In 1992 Nana was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, replacing Audrey Hepburn, and two years later she became an MEP for Greece’s New Democracy party.
But she didn’t enjoy politics and resigned after five years.
“As the song goes, Music Was My First Love. And still is.”
At 71 Nana announced she was retiring… before going on a three-year global farewell tour. But she missed singing dreadfully and by 2011 was recording again.
And now the gran of three is preparing for a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in October, three days after she turns 84.
So where does she get the energy?
“From my passion for performing,” she says. “I know I’m not 20 any more – but I am young in my heart.
“And the love you get from the audience is so incredible – who would want to abandon that?”
- NANA plays the Royal Festival Hall on October 17 (ticketline.co.uk). Forever Young is out now.
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