REPORTER/PHOTOGRAPHER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LAKE WORTH, FL
Singer Eino Grön has been a beloved Finnish icon for over 50 years. He recorded his first record in 1958 and never since faded from the music scene. Grön is especially well known for his renditions of evergreen tangos such as ‘The Walls Have Ears’. He is also known to embody the image of a working man.
There is a private side to Grön that the public hardly knows anything about. For 30 years he has been living his winters in tropical Florida where he and his wife Marjatta own a beautiful oceanfront home. We recently got together on his winter turf, when he was getting ready to release his latest album of pop standards.
We met at the Palm Beach Bakery Café, a meeting place for Finnish ex-pats. There are two tables on an outdoor patio. Women sit at their table and men at another. Here everybody knows Eino. He greets the locals with a smiley face.
“This is where we gather to talk about the topics of the day. We all have our own hobbies but we always have our siesta here. Out of the ovens of this bakery come some great, genuine Finnish food – most importantly rye bread, “Eino explains.
His musical journey began in Pori’s Reposaari, the island where he was born.
“I sang a lot already at school. We had a band on the island. We performed at birthday parties and such. At the age of 16 I began traveling to nearby Pori to sing with orchestras.”
He wanted to make a record, but there was one thing that had to be taken care of first.
“I volunteered to do my military service early to get it out of the way. I served in the Turku naval station.”
It was in Turku where he met Toivo Kärki, the most famous Finnish pop composer and record producer of that time.
“He discovered me at the singing contest that he had organized there. I won and got to travel to Helsinki to record the song ‘Russian Tango’.
Even though he got a six month record deal, nothing happened and Eino Grön grew restless. Then he got whiff of another singing competition, this time in Helsinki.
“Toivo Kärki was once again one of the judges. The other ones were the top singer of at that time, Olavi Virta and Seija Lampila. It went very well for me. I won the men’s foreign and domestic series, and even the audience vote!”
In the autumn of 1958, Eino Grön entered into a three-year contract with Finland’s leading record company, Music Fazer.
“The top female singer of the time, Laila Kinnunen, had recorded an Italian song ‘Maliziusella’. Since she was with a different record company, Fazer offered it to me. After that I recorded other Italian tunes, like ‘Marina’ and ‘Too Much Money’. I did many recordings in those three years.”
Grön formed his own quartet and started touring Finland.
“Those were fun times. I bought a 1952 Dodge, we packed our drums and bass on the car’s roof rack and off we went. On our longer gigs, we stayed at modest inns overnight.”
The 1960s were the golden era of tango.
“In 1962 I participated as the Finnish contestant in the Baltic Sea Week Singing Competition in Rostock, East Germany where most European countries were being represented. The great 42-musician Leipzig Radio Orchestra accompanied us. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career.”
The climate of the’60’s favored traveling artists.
“Sports organizations gave concert organizers grants. They had built sports arenas that had a dance every Saturday night. Those venues could accommodate 1500-2000 people. There were over a thousand dancing halls in Finland back while now there are just about 200.”
At the end of the decade, tango’s popularity waned.
“People grew tired of the tango because they played it everywhere. It was then that the guitar bands entered the picture. They had been previously playing as our warm up bands. They took the youth audience by storm, and as a result of that, the overall audience attendance took a downturn.”
Eino Grön was able to hang onto his career by expanding his repertoire.
“I believe I was able to continue my career due to my vocal skills and versatility. I can work as big band soloist, perform Jazzy tunes, or go to a church and hold a gospel concert. My repertoire ranges from old standards to present day hits.”
One cannot help observing that,while Eino Grön’s career has endured, some of his old colleagues’ careers were cut short by alcoholism. The first one swept away was his boyhood idol, Olavi Virta.
“I got to know him well. Already as a boy, I went to see him on the sand dunes of Yyteri when he appeared at a dance pavilion there in 1955 and 1956. I admired his singing and his great band. In 1959, a record company manager invited me and Olavi to a sauna. We became good friends. Olavi was a high baritone, almost a tenor in the early days”
But at the ‘60’s progressed, so did Olavi Virta’s drinking.
“Yes, I did my share of partying with him. We all partied a lot back then. But then his physique gave in. When celebrated his 50th birthday, he was still in quite good condition. But then his health took a downturn. He was unable to perform for four years before his death. He died at 57.”
Another popular singer, the beautiful Laila Kinnunen, suffered the same kind of fate. Eino and Laila were the same age and started their careers at the same time.
“Laila recorded her first album in the fall of 1957, and I did mine in the spring of 1958. She was such a sweet girl. We worked together and were great friends. I think that the people she associated had a lot to do with it. It seemed quite odd to me that she got hooked on alcohol. She spent her last years in really sad, squalid conditions.”
The reason Eino himself is still going strong dates back to a decision he made back in 1977.
“I have jokingly said that when Elvis died I put the glass down for the very last time. I guess it was not because of Elvis, but due to the conclusion that I had come to after much pondering. I was also surrounded by friends who had decided to quit drinking and that encouraged me. I told myself that I couldn’t be outdone by them and that decision has paid off.”
Eino had fallen in love with Florida a couple of years earlier.
“In 1974, I met a well-known Finnish businessman who owned a motel here. He asked me to come visit him. Then a good friend of mine had an exhibition in New York. I went there and continued onto Los Angeles, San Diego, and New Orleans. Then I came to Florida for six days.”
Eino immediately took to the balmy climate and easy-going life of the Sunshine State.
“The weather played a big part in it. I came here with the family in 1976 and 1977. On that second trip, I was offered a nice beach property which I made a preliminary agreement. We were able to move into our new Florida home the following year, 1978. We still live in the same place. It is a 6-story condominium-building. There is a sauna, a swimming pool, and stairs that lead to the beach. We can see the Atlantic Ocean from our condo. It looks different every day”
He has been married to her wife Marjatta for 50 years. They have one son.
“Ari is a musical guy, but did not follow his father on that career path. He is a physical therapist and lives in Helsinki. So he can give his father acupuncture treatments when necessary.”
Such treatments came in handy after two car accidents that Grön had in 1996 and 2010. In the first accident, Grön was blinded by late afternoon sun on a Finnish country road and hit a Caterpillar that was parked on the side of the road. He fractured his pelvis and was hospitalized for a long time. The second accident also happened on a country road in Finland.
“I was driving tired to our vacation house in Reposaari. Suddenly, a fox started crossing the road. I tried to avoid it by steering to the side. The loose gravel on the roadside grabbed a hold of the wheels and made me lose control of the car. The doctors had to remove a disc from my neck. Since then I have rehabilitated my self by exercising in the pool.”
Grön exercises and plays golf. He says that sleeping well is also good for the voice. In the spring of 201, he released his 40th record, ‘Lauluja rakkaudesta – Vuosikymmenten suosikit’ (Songs of Love – Favorites from Past Decades). “There are songs from post WWII war to the 2000s and they are all songs that I have not previously recorded.”
Eino plays some of the songs for me on his car stereo. His velvety voice has remained unchanged by time. There are wonderful tunes on the record such as Barbi Benton’s hit ‘Ain’t That Just the Way’, Anna Ericksson’s ‘When You Look at Me’ and Elvis’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. The disc contains 16 songs.
Eino and Marjatta Grön’s year follows a familiar pattern. Early fall, winter and spring are spent in Florida, the rest of the time ‘Eikka’, as he is know to fans, performs in Finland. There are the Christmas concerts that he gives in November and December and the big summer season that is spent touring the indoor and outdoor dance arenas of Finland.
Not many people know that Eino Grön is a dual citizen – he has both Finnish and U.S. citizenships.
“I got a green card in 1996. Then in 2007 I had the opportunity to acquire American citizenship which didn’t affect my Finnish citizenship. Now it is much nicer to come home to Florida. In the past it always involved a lot of explaining at the airport.”
At 72, Eino has no plans to retire.
“The quality of my voice has remained relatively high. I do not feel that I should quit any time soon. And I love music, so I go on.”
He mentions Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli as his favorite singers. His recipe for great singing:
‘I’ve been paying attention to the same issues as Frank Sinatra. He was brilliant in phrasing and pronunciation. In my singing, I’ve always strived to pronounce every word clearly. The rest is breathing technique and talent one is born with.’