Lill-Babs obituary

Singer who was an omnipresent figure in Swedish pop for decades and became a regular on TV entertainment shows in the 1980s and 90s

In an age when some singers are known in every culture around the world, the phenomenon of the purely national celebrity is easy to overlook. Johnny Hallyday in France, Gordon Downie in Canada and Lill-Babs in Sweden are all examples of singers mourned with an extravagance that has excluded outsiders.

Lill-Babs, who has died aged 80, was a trouper: a phenomenon of energy, courage and good-heartedness. From her debut as a teenage ingenue from the provinces, she sang and toured with hardly a break for 65 years until she was at the dead centre of a certain idea of Sweden; in English terms, something like a cross between Vera Lynn and Bet Lynch. She was part of the first Swedish generation to experience general prosperity; the first teenagers to have spending money; the first to be hugely influenced by America. She was also part of the first generation to have its own celebrities, and was the queen of them all.

Born Barbro Svensson in Järvsö, 180 miles north of Stockholm, to Ragnar and Britta Svensson, she lived in humble circumstances for much of her early life, spending nine years in a cottage without running water. She began singing in church at the age of 11, and made her first public appearances with one of her father’s work colleagues, who accompanied her on the accordion.

After singing on a radio show aged 15, she was promoted by the bandleader and talent scout Simon Brehm, who gave her the name Lill-Babs (little Babs) to distinguish her from the already established Swedish cabaret singer, Alice Babs. Lying about her age, Lill-Babs had told Brehm that she was 16, and he became her manager, bringing her to Stockholm as something of a novelty from the backwoods, performing in nightclubs and restaurants. In 1954 she released My Mom’s Boogie on a 78rpm record, and her career looked set fair until an unplanned pregnancy shortly afterwards forced her to retreat to Järvsö, where she gave birth to a daughter, Monica.

She returned as an unmarried mother to showbiz in Stockholm as soon as she could, and in 1959 had her first big hit – singing, in a thick regional accent, a novelty song called Do You Still Love Me, Klas-Göran?, written by Stikkan “Stig” Anderson, who would go on to put together and manage Abba in the 1970s. It was a memorable tune, and with tremendous gusto she hammed up the part of the dumb blonde who fails to realise she has been abandoned by her lover.

In 1961 she sung the Swedish entry, April, April, in the Eurovision song contest at Cannes, and though she finished 14th with deux points, the appearance enhanced her reputation back home. By 1963 she also had a following in Germany (the Beatles scored her autograph when she appeared with them on a television show there) and in the same year released her best known hit, Live Life. Thereafter she performed frequently on national television and at events across the country, and over the next decade also featured in Swedish and German films.

Lill-Babs performing Live Life

Her 1971 hit song, Welcome to the World, written and produced by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of Abba, featured all four future members of Abba, and in 1974 she was Annie Oakley in a successful production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun at the Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg. Nationally she recorded hundreds of songs and had 16 charting studio albums over the years, including four greatest hits collections. An omnipresent figure in Swedish pop music for many years, she appeared regularly on light entertainment television programmes, chat shows and adverts. She also presented several TV shows throughout the 80s and early 90s.

For most of her career Lill-Babs’ personal life was public property. She was married and divorced twice, to the singer Lasse Berghagen from 1965 to 1968, with whom she had a daughter, Malin, and then the Norwegian footballer Kjell Kaspersen from 1969 to 1973; they also had a daughter, Kristin.

Her love affairs were a staple of the weekly magazines; the headline “Lill-Babs’ new love” came around at such regular intervals that it was one of the first Swedish phrases I learned when I moved there in the 70s. Later, returning to my ex-wife’s home town after an absence of 12 years, I was enchanted to discover the same headline in the rack outside the hot-dog stand.

When she appeared on TV in Här är ditt liv, the Swedish version of This Is Your Life in 1983, the producers had Lill-Babs greeted by a lineup of 10 of her exes, all in dinner jackets, singing together a parody of her first big hit. It was cruel, and it was said to have hurt her, but she went along with the stunt because she was always game. She might have been knocked back by love but was never needy, standing for an ideal of tough but vulnerable independence that was hugely attractive.

Above all, she worked. Every small Swedish town has a “people’s park” – an open air space with a bandstand where locals gather to dance in summer – and she played that circuit constantly. Although she never broke through into English-speaking countries, this did not matter; she came to meet the Swedish people where they lived, whether in the open air or through their television sets, and she was loved for it in a way that no other Swedish performer will be again.

Later in life she ran the Lill-Babs Foundation, which supports social programmes for women and children. At her death she was still appearing on TV, as a married lesbian matriarch in the SVT soap opera Bonusfamiljen. She had come a long way from singing patriotic songs in church, but so too had Sweden.

She is survived by her three daughters, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

• Barbro Margareta Svensson, born 9 March 1938; died 3 April 2018


Andrew Brown

The GuardianTramp

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