Published September 5, 2017
Way before there was Björk, in fact, before Björk was even born, there was Elly Vilhjálms–Iceland’s first musical diva. For decades she was among the most popular singers in the country, with hit after hit on the only radio station in the country. Born in 1935, till this day she remains a much celebrated artist and has long since become a key part of Iceland’s music tapestry–you’ll be hard pressed to find an Icelander who hasn’t listened to her music.
Through her life she remained a very private person and a somewhat mysterious figure, with gossip and truth often mixing into a complicated and hard to decipher mismatch of information. But there can be no denying that she possessed one of the most stunning and captivating voices ever to reverberate through the volcanic rock we call home.
USO shows and the rise to fame
In 1956, she joined the band Orion, which was founded by her first husband Eyþór Þorláksson. The band achieved a unique distinction in Icelandic music history as the only band to join the US Military’s USO show and together they toured military bases from northern Europe to northern Africa.
After the band broke up in 1958, she contributed to a number of works by other musicians through the next couple of decades recording numerous hit songs. There was hardly a better female vocalist in the country at the time and understandably, the charming Elly remained the go-to girl in the music industry. Despite a prolific career, she sadly only recorded two solo LPs. Possibly, this was due to her stepping out of the limelight for a long time. It was not easy being one of the country’s first bona fide celebrities and she had to suffer under constant gossip and rumours.
Italy, plagiarism and Eurovision
An hilarious, but often forgotten, part of Icelandic hit songs of the past, is the fact that often they weren’t Icelandic at all, but rather foreign hits with Icelandic lyrics. At a time when record players were a luxury, the internet was still decades from existence and trips abroad were too expensive, you could make a hit song by browsing record stores in another country.
For instance, in 1964–two years before there was a TV station in Iceland, Gigliola Cinquetti won the Eurovision Song Contest for Italy with the song “Non ho l’età”, which means ‘I’m not old enough’ (let’s just leave that at that). Then, a year later, Elly Vilhjálms released the song “Heyr mína bæn” with the same melody, but instead of whatever the original is about, now it was a beautiful love song in Icelandic. But no matter, the song is undeniably captivating and the lyrics are (probably, I don’t understand them) much better than the original.
The Girl Gogo
In 1962, the movie ’79 af stöðinni’ (The Girl Gogo) was released to overwhelming success. It was probably the most ambitious cinematic project to have been made in Iceland at the time, with Erik Balling, one of Denmark’s most celebrated director of the 20th century, directing the film. It was through the release of the movie that Elly got her major breakthrough.
Writer Indriði G. Þorsteinsson wanted the movie to include an iconic song akin to the ones in “Casablanca” and “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (we’ve always been a megalomanic nation). To that end, he hired the musician Sigfús Halldórsson to write the best track ever made, and he, in turn, picked Elly to provide the vocals. The result was “Vegir liggja til allra átta”.
You might say that Indriði’s ambitious goal was met, as to this day it remains one of the country’s most celebrated pop songs. And in 1999, Iceland’s most prominent musicians came together to pick the best of Icelandic music in 20th century. And that fine group of people picked “Vegir liggja til allra átta” as the best song of the past 100 years. It also has the rather badass claim to fame of including the first guitar solo in Icelandic history, and it is undeniably the finest song to listen to as you bang down the Icelandic highway.
Be cooler than your friends
My favourite track from her undeniably amazing back catalog has to be “Sveitin milli sanda”. Completely devoid of lyrics, Elly delivers what is probably the most haunting vocals every song on this barren island–a simple “ahhh” can get you a long way. Other recommendations would be “Ég vil fara upp í sveit” “Ég veit þú kemur”, “Í grænum mó” and for you non-Icelandic, English speakers, you should look up the swing number “Almost like being in love”.
So, the next time you want to talk to an Icelander about our musical heritage, skip Sigur Rós and Björk (we’ve all had to talk about them a million times), and instead say “I really love “Vegir liggja til allra átta” by Elly Vilhjálms, she was great!” I promise it will make you very endearing.