Atilla Şereftuğ

Born: November 16th, 1950, Istanbul (Turkey)
Nationality: Turkish (1950-1985) / Turkish & Swiss (1985-)

Eurovision record
A conductor with a Eurovision record that is hard to beat, Atilla Şereftuğ composed, co-arranged, and conducted two Swiss Eurovision entries, the first one being ‘Pas pour moi’ for Daniela Simons, which finished second in the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest in Bergen (Norway). Two years later, he wrote ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’, with which Céline Dion managed to win the Eurovision Song Contest held in Dublin.

At home in Avenches, July 2013

Atilla Şereftuğ’s father was the timpani player in the Istanbul Opera Orchestra and the Istanbul Municipality City Orchestra, of which he had been one of the founders in 1945. “But my father was more than that”, Atilla adds. “He also was a fantastic clarinet player and, now and again, he even conducted the City Orchestra himself. When I was four and a half years old, he discovered that I had perfect pitch. Apparently, I heard a song on the radio, walked to my father’s piano, and simply played the melody. My father immediately contacted a friend of his who worked at the conservatory. They did not believe him about the perfect pitch, but after having tested me, they concluded he had been right. Therefore, I entered conservatory as a piano student at four years of age. I learnt reading music before I read the alphabet!”

Atilla studied the piano with Austrian pianist Ferdi Statzer (1906-1974) at Istanbul’s Municipal Conservatory between 1955 and 1965. One year later, he returned for several additional courses (1966-’67), including conducting, arranging, and harmony with professor Rachid Abed. “Looking back on my youth”, Şereftuğ comments, “I was a pitiful child. My father used to say he had found his own Mozart… it was up to me to fulfil his ambitions. While other boys played football in the streets, I just sat at the piano, endlessly practicing. I had a wonderful father and for most of the time we got on well, but in reality he had not really given me a choice of my own! Coincidentally, in the summer season of 1963, I was asked to play the piano in the band of Tülay German, a popular chansonnière in Turkey. For several months, I toured with her and three other musicians, who were thirty years my senior! Because I was so young, even press articles were written about me. Even though it was not classical music, my father was very proud of me. Slowly but gradually, however, my interest in serious music waned. These were the days of the Beat Revolution and, with some conservatory friends, I formed a Beatles cover band. My professors said I was an anarchist, but they let us go about. It dawned to me that I was not a classical musician. Even though I was fond of Bach and Chopin, I did not feel like playing the same pieces over and over again. The jazz and pop genres with their possibilities to improvise attracted me much more.”

A newspaper article from 1963 showing Atilla as an twelve-year-old playing the piano in Tülay German’s band

Quitting the conservatory, Atilla Şereftuğ joined the band of Süheyl Denizci, staying with it for two years (1967-’69). “Denizci was a jazz saxophonist”, Atilla explains, “and we played in a bar in Istanbul where intellectuals gathered. Apart from performing soft jazz, our band accompanied pop vocalists. Thanks to Süheyl, I discovered the works of George Shearing, which fascinated me endlessly. I immersed myself in his repertoire… it was only years later I understood how profound Shearing’s influence on me had been. After a while, my father, who had been very unhappy with me quitting high school and conservatory, realized that I had to find my own way in music and stopped pushing me in a classical direction. From that moment onwards, luckily, our mutual relationship improved!”

At eighteen years old, Atilla decided to go on tour abroad with the Turhan Eteke band, mainly working in West Germany and Switzerland for the following three years (1969-’72). Şereftuğ: “Turhan Eteke was our drummer and band leader. He was the person who took me away from my family once and for all, drawing me into a world of contemporary rock. It was a genuine long-haired band and I mostly played the Hammond organ in it. Our guitar player and singer was Erdal Kızılçay, who later worked with David Bowie for fifteen years. A multi instrumentalist, he also played the trombone and violin. We were a talented bunch of musicians and the Eteke band was an important element in my learning curve of becoming an all-round musician. Moreover, it was my first introduction to Switzerland. In Arosa, high up in the Alps, I met the woman who later became my first wife.”

Şereftuğ during his days with the Istanbul Gelişim Orkestrası, c1973

Returning to Istanbul, Şereftuğ and Erdal Kızılçay joined the Istanbul Gelişim Orkestrası of band leader Selçuk Başar. This pop group brought together no fewer than five musicians who later participated in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor: apart from Selçuk Başar and Atilla Şereftuğ, there were Onno Tunç, Atilla Özdemiroğlu, and Garo Mafyan; the two other members were Kızılçay and singer Fatih Erkoç. The Gelişim band allowed Şereftuğ to discover yet another corner of music spectrum: “Selçuk Başar selected a very unusual choice of repertoire for the band. He was fond of Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, but we also played Jobim’s Brazilian bossa novas. Though these were all covers, we turned it into our music, for instance by changing the tempo. Fatih was an excellent singer for the American soul repertoire. We were immensely popular in Turkey, recording several albums and creating a huge fan following. This was one of the happiest episodes in my life as a musician. Essentially, though we performed on stage night after night for huge audiences, we played music for ourselves… we played the songs we genuinely liked without really thinking about how this would be received by the public. In Western Europe with its record companies and charts, it would hardly have been possible to play this kind of music at such a high level without having to worry about commercial success.”

After three years with the Istanbul Gelişim Orkestrası (1972-’75), Şereftuğ returned to Switzerland, where he married his Swiss girlfriend and studied jazz piano and arranging at the Swiss Jazz School in Berne for the next three years (1975-’78). “Actually, my ambition was to go to the Berklee Academy in Boston”, Atilla admits, “but, given my personal situation, Switzerland was a more logical choice. I had played pop for most of the ten years before, but ever since discovering George Shearing’s music, I had been obsessed by jazz. I wanted to get to know more about it. At the jazz institute in Berne, I especially immersed myself in arranging for big bands with teacher Axel Jungbluth. At first, these arrangements seemed complicated and incomprehensible, but in Berne I analysed the works of others… discovering the anatomy of music, so to speak. It was fantastic finding out what methods Herbie Hancock used and I was really relieved when I found out how to write such arrangements myself. Meanwhile, I made my living as a musician, playing here and there.”

Part of the Istanbul Gelişim Orkestrası in 1975, from left to right: Selçuk Başar, Asim Ekren, Onno Tunç, and Atilla Şereftuğ

In 1978, Şereftuğ was offered the opportunity to become a member of the gala orchestra of Austrian maestro Roland Baker. Atilla: “Their keyboard player had had an accident and the band’s drummer, who was a friend of mine, called me wondering if I was interested to step in. I subsequently convinced my old friend Erdal Kızılçay, who had meanwhile also settled down in Switzerland, to join the band as well. With the Baker Band, we mostly played at big sponsor events and galas in West Germany – especially West Berlin. We were even invited to perform at a gathering of the German Christian Democratic Party (CDU). The Baker Band often accompanied popular vocalists who did performances with us: Caterina Valente, Roberto Blanco, and Katja Ebstein, for example. We twice travelled to Mexico, performing in Mexico City and Acapulco. Moreover, we regularly recorded music programmes for ORF radio in Vienna. It was not long before Roland Baker allowed me to write much of the band’s orchestral and vocal arrangements. In fact, he gave me a completely free hand in my style of writing, which was one of the reasons I liked working for him. Nevertheless, and in spite of the very good money I made, I could not have stayed in the orchestra for much longer than a couple of years. In music, I have always continued looking for variation and quality, but here we were, playing ‘Amarillo’ and similar one-dimensional repertoire night after night. It had started feeling like a nine to five job! Therefore, I decided to go and look for new ways.”

Eventually, Şereftuğ left the Roland Baker Orchestra in ’81. Just a few months later, the next project came his way, the Swiss mainstream pop group Dorados. Staying with the band from 1981 until its demise in 1985, Şereftuğ was its keyboard player and arranger. He also composed several songs for the group, including, ‘Sunset romance’, ‘See you tomorrow’ and the 1983 hit success ‘Amore mio’. “After the Pepe Lienhard Band, they were probably the best-known pop group of Switzerland”, Atilla comments. “Initially, I had my reservations, but when I found out Francis Coletta, a fantastic jazz guitarist from Marseilles, was with the group as well, I decided to give it a go. The nicest thing about the years with Dorados was that I finally had the opportunity to make my mark as a songwriter. In the years before, I had often written material, but all of this had been schubladisiert: it had vanished into a drawer without anybody taking a look at it again, because I did not have a studio of my own and lacked the connections in the industry. Now, for the first time, my creations were picked up by Dorados. During my years with them, I arranged all of our albums and live material – logical, as most of the others did not even read music.”

Atilla (in pink) as a group member of Swiss pop formation Dorados. The single release ‘See you tomorrow’ was composed by Şereftuğ himself

When Dorados disbanded in January ’85, Şereftuğ went freelance, finding his way in the music business as a producer, composer, and arranger. Acquainting himself with the possibilities of the Atari computer, he managed to become successful as a composer of radio jingles and music to TV commercials. Besides his studio work, he occasionally accepted offers to play the piano and keyboards in concert performances with different groups, including a summer tour with the Roland Baker Band on a cruise on the Baltic Sea and in Norway (1985).

Şereftuğ’s career in those years, however, cannot be understood properly without taking into account his two Eurovision compositions: ‘Pas pour moi’ for Daniela Simons (1986) and ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ for Céline Dion (1988), the latter of which won the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin (much more about both songs in the Eurovision part of this article, below). Especially after winning the festival in ’88, Şereftuğ became much in demand in his motherland of Turkey as a producer and songwriter. In 1992, at the request of Istanbul-based record company RAKS, he composed and produced the song ‘Sev dünyayı’ (lyrics by Cem Karaca & Verda Sümer), described by himself as a Turkish ‘We are the world’, recorded with a selection of famous Turkish pop singers: Ajda Pekkan, Cem Karaca, Selçuk Ural, Fatih Erkoç, Ibrahim Tatlıses, Ayşegül Aldinç, and Muazzez Abacı. Apart from this special project, Şereftuğ composed the song ‘Altı saz üstü caz’ for Sibel Tüzün (1993) and signed for the music of two big hits for the dance duo Ajlan-Mine, ‘Pranga zinciri’ (1993) and ‘Aşk olsun’ (1994). Furthermore, he produced Ajda Pekkan’s album ‘Ajda ’93’, which included his hit composition ‘Eyvah’, whilst also Kayahan Açar came over to Switzerland to work on a studio album with him. “Especially working with Ajda Pekkan was important”, Atilla explains. “She is diva number one in Turkey. Around that same time, RAKS took me under contract for one year to check all their studios. They wanted my know-how to get their equipment up to date with Western European standards.” Apart from reaping the results of his Eurovision success in the Turkish recording business, Atilla was awarded with a special prize awarded to him in Istanbul by the Turkish government in recognition of his achievements abroad (1988). A keen football fan, Şereftuğ also became Galatasaray SK’s cultural attaché in Switzerland that same year, a function he has not relinquished since.

Atilla and Daniela Simons meeting up with Al Jarreau at a concert in Canada (1990)

Meanwhile, Şereftuğ had divorced from his first wife and gotten into a relationship with Daniela Simons, for whom he had previously written the song she performed in the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest. In the late 1980s, upon the release of her first studio album, ‘Shout back’ (recorded in London with producer Nigel Wright, 1988), the duo started touring Switzerland for concerts. With the birth of their son Jason (1992), Daniela put her singing career more or less on hold for some time, though she and Atilla were invited to perform at a 1993 Unicef Gala in New York’s Empire State Building; this concert, featuring many international artists, was broadcast live on CNN TV. Daniela made her comeback in 1998 with the Italian album ‘Un’ altra donna’, co-composed and produced by Atilla. Since, Atilla and Daniela have re-appeared on the touring circuit in Switzerland and beyond, as they have also been in demand in their respective home countries Turkey and Italy. In 2004, a new album, ‘Daniela Simmons’, was released, once more produced by Şereftuğ.

Apart from his work with Daniela, to whom he got married in 2008, Şereftuğ has also worked on productions with Swiss artists, such as Géraldine Olivier and Maya Wirz. In 2010, one of his biggest dreams came true. “I did an ambitious CD production involving my arrangements to the most famous film melodies and musical standards”, Atilla explains, “performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, consisting of one hundred and forty-three musicians, and performed by Daniela and two other female vocalists – the so-called Aventia Crooners. I had always had this idea in the back of my head… to rework famous melodies such as ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ and ‘As time goes by’ for a classical orchestra. This probably is the highest level production I have ever worked on. It was one of those nice things coming on my path… as a musician, I have never tried to plan my career. I was happy with the things I did and, occasionally, the wind took me somewhere else, left or right, and I enjoyed letting it happen, being introduced to new musical horizons.”

Daniela Simons and Atilla Şereftuğ in 2001

Atilla Şereftuğ in the Eurovision Song Contest
Representing Switzerland, Atilla Şereftuğ took part in the Eurovision Song Contest as a composer, arranger, and conductor on two occasions. Two years before winning the event with Céline Dion in 1988, he wrote ‘Pas pour moi’, with which Daniela Simons finished second in the international festival final in Bergen (Norway) behind Belgium’s Sandra Kim. It was not Simons’ first festival attempt, as she had tried to represent Switzerland in 1983 and 1985, but failed to win the Swiss final – in 1985 just narrowly with a song penned by herself, ‘Repars à zéro’. Urs Peter Keller, manager of both Şereftuğ and Simons, asked Atilla if he would be interested to write a Eurovision song for Daniela.

The story, however, begins several months before ‘Pas pour moi’ was written. In Istanbul, Atilla Şereftuğ was on a family visit, watching the broadcast of the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest. “The Bobbysocks won it for Norway”, Şereftuğ recalls. “All of a sudden – I do not know why – I told my mother and cousins, who were with me in the room: “Next year, I will participate in this contest and I will win!” It was an ambition which I had maybe had for a long time, but only subconsciously. I had never given the Eurovision Song Contest much attention to that point. Coincidentally, in the summer of ’85, I spent some time in Norway, touring with the Roland Baker Band, in which I played the keyboards. Quite opposite to the Swedes, who I thought were, generally speaking, quite arrogant, I really got to appreciate the Norwegians and their mentality – Scandinavians with a warm, Mediterranean heart. I had a great time there and told all Norwegians I met that I would be back next year to win the Eurovision Song Contest! Strange but true, I was perhaps even more surprised by myself than the people to whom I told this. I did not recognize myself, as I had never been that single-minded about anything before.”

Daniela Simons’ Eurovision single ‘Pas pour moi’ (1986), signed by Atilla Şereftuğ

“When I returned to Switzerland in September”, Şereftuğ continues, “I told my manager Urs Peter Keller about my intention to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. Urs, who had also been the manager of the Dorados, a pop band I had been in the first half of the 1980s, was quite enthusiastic about this, as he had long encouraged me to try my luck as a songwriter. Moreover, he had this young, talented, and attractive singer Daniela Simons. In 1984, she had won ‘La Grande Chance’, a talent show on TSR TV. In order to give her an international stage, Urs wanted her to try again at the Swiss Eurovision pre-selection, but this time with a song written by me. To participate as a songwriter for Switzerland, however, I needed a Swiss passport first. As I spent most time in Arosa in Graubünden, where my first wife ran a hotel, I applied in this municipality, but I was refused on grounds that I did not live there permanently – being a musician, I was away for most of the time! My lawyer managed to find me another municipality, Santa Maria im Münstertal, high up in the Alps close to the Italian border, and, there, finally, I was accepted.”

With this formal obstacle out of the way, Şereftuğ focused on writing a winning song: “Composing a song is something which usually does not take a lot of time, but the preparatory process preceding it is often lengthy and exhaustive. To get started, I once more listened to all the songs of the 1985 contest. Except for a couple of songs, I thought most of the material was weak. Most entries lacked an interesting melody. No, I never considered writing something resembling ‘Diggi-loo, diggi-ley’ or ‘La det swinge’… it had to be a song matching my own style and, most importantly, a song with which Daniela would be happy. Urs introduced me to her and she turned out to be a conservatory student of classical piano. From that moment onwards, it was obvious to me that the song had to be piano-based – perhaps even with a piano solo. It is a bit like creating a football team: the singer is the centre-forward, being up front, while a songwriter is more like a defender, creating a solid foundation. The results of my songs in the Eurovision Song Contest proved that this teamwork approach of mine was correct. When the music was ready, Urs Peter Keller contacted Nella Martinetti to write the lyrics. The result, ‘Pas pour moi’, was tailor-made for Daniela: an interesting powerful song with a striking intro and finale, and a middle part which allowed her to showcase her skills at the piano.”

Atilla Şereftuğ and Daniela Simons at the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest in Bergen

‘Pas pour moi’ was accepted into the 1986 Swiss Eurovision pre-selection and Daniela Simons won it by a landslide, almost scoring the maximum of the votes. In this selection show, only the singing had been live. Was it obvious to Şereftuğ from the outset that, now that ‘Pas pour moi’ had been chosen as Switzerland’s entry to the international festival final where the music had to be played live, he would conduct the orchestra himself? “Of course!”, Atilla replies, almost indignant. “Like most of the conductors in the Eurovision Song Contest, I was more of a composer and arranger than a real conductor, but we all guided the Eurovision orchestra in our own way, using our own techniques, motivating the musicians to play our arrangements well. Though I admit I am not a conducting professional, I knew the basic techniques from my time at the conservatory in Istanbul and I had even conducted our conservatory’s Youth Symphony Orchestra as an assignment. I asked my friend Bela Balint from Zürich to turn this record arrangement, which already included some strings, into a live orchestration for the festival final in Norway.”

In Bergen, Atilla Şereftuğ had quite a hard time during the orchestra rehearsals. “In hindsight, I was happy that I had taken the decision to use a backing track for the rhythm instruments. One of the hardest things in a live TV show is to get the sound of the percussion at the right volume with the other instruments, but with three musicians from Switzerland which Urs Peter Keller had found for us, miming the drums and guitar parts on stage, this problem was out of the way. But the orchestra… most of them were old gentlemen with a classical approach. Whilst our song needed punch and energy, they played it with a legato feel – too laid back. Especially the phrasing of the flute players was much too slow. I tried to explain them what I wanted, but to no avail. The trumpet player who had to take care of the intro was another problem, because he never hit that high note at the beginning of the song – neither in any of the rehearsals nor during the TV broadcast. I was in it to win, but I did not allow all of this to affect my mood. Instead, the whole positive atmosphere in Bergen and all these friendly Norwegians around me gave me such a relaxed feeling, that I came to all rehearsals with a smile on my face. Choosing a psychological approach, I tried to motivate the orchestra musicians, exhausted after all those rehearsals of so many participating countries, by using the facial expressions of Jerry Lee Lewis-style. In short, I was playing the clown for them, trying to make them laugh. At one of the rehearsals, to my astonishment, I noticed that one of the cellists had forgotten her music sheets and was on the edge of her chair, trying to read the notes from her neighbour’s music-stand. Suddenly, while the musicians were already smiling back at my funny faces, she fell off her chair. Everybody stopped playing and the entire orchestra fell into a paroxysm of laughter! And what was the result of all this? When I came on to conduct in the live broadcast, I saw an orchestra full of faces smiling at me. They even applauded me! After all that had happened during the rehearsals, they felt sympathy for me and our song.”

Atilla Şereftuğ’s first Eurovision attempt as a composer/conductor with Daniela Simons and ‘Pas pour moi’ (Bergen, Norway, 1986)

Though Daniela Simons impressed the juries, picking up 140 points, in the end, she had to settle for second place behind thirteen-year-old Sandra Kim from Belgium. “Sandra Kim got sympathy votes because of her age”, Şereftuğ claims. “If she had been the same age as Daniela, she would probably not have won. Some years after, the rules of the festival were changed, forbidding children to enter the competition. Daniela was more frustrated than I was. Though I had entered with the sole purpose to win, this second place felt as a victory, even more so because Swiss newspapers sympathised with us. “Daniela Simons, number one amongst the grown-ups”, was a header in one of them. It was the best result for Switzerland since a very long time. We were invited to perform on a TV show in Turkey and Daniela was even recognized by people in the streets of Istanbul. The song was released in Switzerland and Turkey as well as in several other countries and did well. Looking back, I must admit that I am happy we did not win back then. Why? Otherwise, I would not have won the contest two years later with Céline! As a winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, there is no reason to try again – now, the motivation to give it a new shot was still there!”

Atilla Şereftuğ remembers every single detail of the process that finally culminated in his and Céline Dion’s Eurovision victory with the power ballad ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ in Dublin (1988). “If it had not been for my manager Urs Peter Keller, I would maybe not have participated a second time. In 1987, he wanted me to compose a new song for the 1988 Swiss pre-selection. I told him that I would consider listening to him, if he came up with an interesting vocalist. A couple of weeks later, he invited me to his office, where he had assembled a pile of cassettes of fifteen different female vocalists. He did not mention any names, he just had the audio tapes and some photo material. We started going through the audio material, listening to one tape after the other. I turned all of it down, with the exception of some Polish singer who I thought was quite good. Quite consciously, Urs had saved the best for the last, putting Céline Dion’s cassette in the stereo machine. After ten seconds I said: “Wow, yes!” Immediately, I knew I wanted to write a song for this special voice.”

“Urs had his doubts because of her photos, but I insisted on this girl Céline. It turned out she was a Canadian who had had some sort of career in France already in the preceding years. I had never heard of her. She had been recommended to Urs by the English A&R manager of a record company based in Cologne. Céline herself and her manager René Angelil had not been consulted by him, so now it was up to Urs to write a note to Canada to explain to Angelil that we wanted his protégé to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest for Switzerland with a song composed by me. Very soon, he received an answer, thanking us for our interest, but explaining that, unfortunately, they were unable to accept because of concert obligations for Céline in Québec in the week in which the Eurovision Song Contest was scheduled. In other words: we had been turned down!”

The single release of Céline Dion’s Eurovision winner ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ with a dedication and signature by Atilla Şereftuğ

“In spite of this, I could not let go of the idea of writing a song for this girl. Without telling my manager, I decided I still wanted to compose something tailor-made for her voice. For one week, I listened to Céline’s song material. When I felt the moment of inspiration had come, I sat myself at the piano. From the intro to the finale, I played the entire melody of what would eventually become ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ – in three minutes, no more! The songwriting process took me a total of twelve minutes, with the last nine minutes being spent on making one or two modifications to the concept. Upon that, I immediately phoned a colleague and rushed to his studio, where we recorded a demo, with me singing just ‘la-la-la’, because there were no lyrics yet. With a cassette of this demo, I went to Urs Peter Keller, telling him to send it to Canada right away. Remember, the submission deadline for the Swiss selection was very close. He was astonished, repeating that Céline’s management had rejected our proposal of doing Eurovision. Because I insisted, Urs reluctantly complied. For a week, no answer came – and Urs even suggested offering the song to some other singer, but that was out of the question – it had been especially written for Céline and for nobody else!”

“Then, on the eighth day, at nine in the morning, I received a phone call from Urs Peter Keller, who told me: “They are coming!”. “Yes, I told you”, I replied, “and I assure you: we will win the Eurovision Song Contest!” From the moment I had created the song, I knew it was pure gold – the ideal mix of a memorable melody, a fantastic voice suited to the song, and – though this part had not been given its final version yet – a good orchestration. It was a composition complying with all codes and formulas of the Eurovision Song Contest as it was at that time. Nowadays, these parameters have changed and I am sure I could come up with something suited to today’s formula, but, frankly speaking, I have lost interest in the contest. What happened in Canada, I do not know. Probably, René Angelil, more than Céline herself, who was still very young at that time, took the decision to go for this Eurovision project after all.”

Céline Dion on stage at the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin

“There was still this approaching deadline to take into account. Keller immediately contacted Nella Martinetti to write suitable lyrics to the melody. With Donald Häfliger, a colleague of mine who was particularly proficient at modern software, I recorded the backing track with computerised sounds in his Atari computer (Häfliger was mentioned in the song’s credits list under a pseudonym, D.W. Richards). Subsequently, we went to a studio in Luzern, where we recorded the final version with the musicians of the Pepe Lienhard Band. It was a problematic session, involving many synchronisation problems, but eventually, we had the result we wanted: a two inch tape, with which I boarded the first plane to Montreal I could catch. René and Céline collected me from the airport with their worn-down Toyota. They were both extremely pleasant and friendly. That evening, they took me to a local Greek restaurant, telling me I would taste dishes the kind of which I had never seen or heard of before. They had forgotten I was a native Turk and that Ottoman cuisine is very similar to the Greek one, but I did not want to hurt my hosts and, therefore, I pretended to be delighted with what was put before me. Already at that stage, I was thinking of building a team again.”

“The following morning, we went to a studio in Montreal to record Céline’s vocals. I gave her some guidelines and she asked me if I wanted her to add fills to parts of the song without lyrics. I told her that I wanted the song to sound as a traditional chanson, fitting in the tradition of the Eurovision Song Contest. “All right, no problem”, she answered. It was that easy. René Angelil came with us, but he waited outside the recording studio. That was an exceptional show of confidence in me. My manager Urs Peter Keller always wanted to be there during any studio recording, but René simply said: “This is your project – you are the captain!” Céline gave a perfect rendition in the first recording, but due to a mistake by one of the sound engineers, she had to do it again. Only because Céline herself was not completely satisfied with the second take, we recorded it a third time – and that was the final version. All of the people present in the studio were elated and happy with the result, including myself. After staying for one more day in Canada, hanging out with René and Céline, I flew back to Zürich… immediately back into the studio to do the final sound mix. This version, which later was put on sale as a record, was submitted to the Swiss Eurovision selection board. We had made it, just in time before the deadline expired!”

Atilla Şereftuğ conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra during the rehearsals of the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin

“Of course, our song was admitted to the Swiss final, but I had not expected anything else. The reaction of newspapers to a Canadian being admitted into our Swiss selection was particularly hostile, but, contrary to songwriters, the singers did not have to have a Swiss passport! The pre-selection was held in Mursch. There was no orchestra, so we could simply use the studio track to backup Céline, who convinced the national juries by the sheer power of her voice. In the following weeks, she came to Switzerland a couple of times to perform on television. Urs Peter Keller, Nella Martinetti, myself, and a reporter of a big newspaper went to Canada for an extensive reportage on Céline and her songwriting team. Meanwhile, I had once again commissioned Bela Balint to turn my arrangement into a live orchestration for the orchestra in Dublin.”

“As I mentioned before, we had prepared a backing tape which included bass, drums, and the computerised sounds prepared by Donald Häfliger’s Atari. Donald went with us to mime the keyboards on stage, whilst two old friends from the Dorados band – Walter Parolo and Bruno Schwarz – took care of the bass and percussion parts. Bruno and Walti, who both died quite young unfortunately, enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the Eurovision Song Contest to the full. The rehearsals were far easier than two years before in Bergen. The Irish orchestra was excellent. Up to the moment she arrived in Dublin, Céline did not have an idea of what was awaiting her. It was only when she saw the giant stage – so tierisch gross! – that she realized she was about to be part of something really important.”

Céline Dion’s winning Eurovision performance in Dublin, with composer Atilla Şereftuğ conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra

“A couple of days before the contest, I was allowed an interview on Bayrischer Rundfunk (BR) radio. I mentioned that it was well documented that West Germany had given Switzerland hardly any points in the preceding years and, though I had not prepared making such a statement at all, I could not help wondering why the Scandinavians were always showing mutual sympathy in their voting, while in Central Europe we never did. In the contest, Germany awarded Céline with twelve points, which was a nice and very important reward. On the evening of the concert, Céline and I were both hyper nervous. We had been the favourites with the bookies all week, which felt some sort of uncomfortable. She had not been advised correctly again on her dress, but the song and her voice simply swept away the visual aspect. Céline deserved to win – and she did, though it became a tight affair, partly because the francophone countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, and France gave us very few votes, instead going for that arrogant singer from Britain (Scott Fitzgerald, BT)– my theory is that they probably did not like Céline’s Canadian-French accent. In the end, we won it with one point ahead of the British because the last jury from Yugoslavia gave us six votes and nothing to the English. The Irish crowd in the auditorium cheered our victory… it was like a bomb exploding – because the Irish were of course totally anti-England! Of what followed, I do not remember much more than that we were surrounded by hordes of press. The Irish had prepared a brilliant afterparty which I enjoyed to the full.”

“Upon our return to Zürich Airport, I was congratulated by the Turkish consul and ethnic Turks waving with flags. While I was on every front page in Turkish newspapers in the days and weeks after the festival, the response of the Swiss public was slightly underwhelming. Urs Peter Keller tried organising a concert with Céline in Zürich, but it was abandoned due to lack of interest. I was also hurt that Daniela and I were not invited to the 1989 contest final in Lausanne. They had forgotten reserving a ticket for me, whilst Swiss television should have remembered that I was the architect of the success. In the end, after asking for it, we were given two seats far in the back of the auditorium...”

The Swiss Eurovision team celebrating the victory, from left to right: Atilla Şereftuğ, lyricist Nella Martinetti, and Céline Dion

“Céline was in Lausanne too and performed her new song, ‘Where does my heart beat now’. I had also submitted two songs for Céline’s new album, but her American producer David Foster said he did not need any European intervention. There is no getting into this American mafia! It took quite a long time before Céline became successful internationally with her English hits, but it was probably inevitable that she would be a world star. To my mind, the Eurovision Song Contest was the trampoline she needed. After her victory in Dublin, René Angelil managed to increase the budget for her recording project from 250,000 dollar to over one million dollar – and all of this because of the Eurovision win! René, a very clever guy, had invited the boss of Céline’s American record company to Dublin, who was obviously very impressed by her winning the event, and managed to bargain a better prize for her there and then.”

“Many, many years later, Céline gave a concert in Genève. It was in 2008. I called Urs Peter Keller, asking if he could arrange for me to meet Céline during rehearsals – which he did. I went there with two of my friends from the recording studio, but I was the only one of the three of us who was allowed into the concert hall. While Céline was doing an excellent, professional sound check without any of the impossible behaviour you would expect from a diva, I sat down on row five, in the dark. Once she had noticed there was someone in the hall, she came to the edge of the stage to check who it was – and she recognized me: “Atilla, is it really you?” We exchanged a couple of words, and I told her I had brought two friends who wanted to meet her too. The three of us were guided backstage, where Céline kissed me and then embraced me for some two minutes… she did not let go of me! Though I was a little embarrassed at that time, I later realized this was her way of saying ‘thank you’… after all those years without being in touch. She told me about her life, of travelling from one concert to the other, from one airport to the other, without the opportunity to watch television or reading a newspaper. That is the downside of stardom!”

Atilla Şereftuğ and Céline Dion after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, 1988

“With ABBA, Céline is the biggest star ever to have been catapulted to world fame on the Eurovision stage. Of course, there are the likes of Vicky Leandros and Udo Jürgens… but who cares about Vicky Leandros in Singapore or Rome? Am I proud of having written the song which allowed her to embark on this unprecedented career? Well, of course, many people despise the Eurovision Song Contest, but this is undeniably something special to have been a part of – why else did big names such as Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler want to be in it as well? To me personally, winning the Eurovision Song Contest felt like obtaining a diploma… after having studied classical music, jazz, and pop music for so many years, now finally I told myself I had shown the world I was an all-round musician.”

The story of Atilla Şereftuğ’s Eurovision success has a sad and somewhat eerie epilogue. In 2011, Nella Martinetti, the lady who had written the lyrics to both of his Eurovision compositions and a professional singer herself, succumbed to an incurable disease aged just sixty-five. “Nella was a lively and funny lady who loved the spotlights”, says Atilla. “When we won the contest in Dublin, the hosts handed the winner’s trophy to her, but because Eurovision is a competition between composers, she had to give it to me. She had always felt a little sad about that and, shortly before she died, she decided she wanted to ask a sculptor to make an exact copy of the trophy for her. This never came about, though… but, just one hour after she had passed away, the trophy, which had been on the same spot in my home studio for eight years, fell on the floor. The glass in the inner part of the medal broke. It felt as if it was Nella’s spiritual way of saying adieu

Şereftuğ in his home studio, showing the broken Eurovision trophy, 2011

Other artists on Atilla Şereftuğ
So far, it has not been possible to gather memories of other artists about Atilla Şereftuğ.

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Atilla Şereftuğ in Avenches (Switzerland), July 2013.
  • All photos courtesy of Atilla Şereftuğ.


Songs conducted
1986: Pas pour moi
1988: Ne partez pas sans moi