Obituaries

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Gene Raskin

Singer, songwriter and architectural scholar

Friday, 18 June 2004

When the Beatles launched Apple Records in August 1968, they topped the British charts with their own "Hey Jude" for a fortnight and then the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin's take on "Those Were the Days" replaced the Lennon and McCartney composition at No 1 for six weeks. Adapted from a Russian melody by the American folk singer Gene Raskin in 1962, "Those Were the Days" became a worldwide hit for Hopkin. She recorded the song in Spanish, French, German, Italian and Hebrew and sold eight million copies of the single.

Eugene Raskin, architectural scholar, singer and songwriter: born New York 1909; married (one son, and one son deceased); died New York 7 June 2004.

When the Beatles launched Apple Records in August 1968, they topped the British charts with their own "Hey Jude" for a fortnight and then the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin's take on "Those Were the Days" replaced the Lennon and McCartney composition at No 1 for six weeks. Adapted from a Russian melody by the American folk singer Gene Raskin in 1962, "Those Were the Days" became a worldwide hit for Hopkin. She recorded the song in Spanish, French, German, Italian and Hebrew and sold eight million copies of the single.

A playwright and singer who performed with his wife as "Gene & Francesca", Raskin had originally given "Those Were the Days" to the Limeliters, an American trio who popularised it during the folk boom of the early Sixties along with another of his compositions, "That's Just the Way it Goes". Paul McCartney heard Gene & Francesca play "Those Were the Days" in a London club and recalled the song when picking material for his protégée Mary Hopkin, who had triumphed on ITV's Opportunity Knocks show.

Born in the Bronx in 1909, Eugene Raskin studied at Columbia University and eventually became adjunct professor of architecture at his Alma Mater between 1936 and 1976. A multi-talented man, he wrote two plays, in 1949 One's a Crowd, a comedy about an atomic scientist who develops four personalities after his experiments go horribly wrong, and, two years later, a romantic play entitled Amata. In 1954, Raskin published Architecturally Speaking, the first of three books about architecture; Sequel to Cities came in 1971 and Architecture and People in 1974.

In the early Sixties, Raskin and his wife Francesca were involved in the folk-music scene of Greenwich Village in New York. Gene & Francesca only released one eponymous album, but "Those Were the Days" became a firm live favourite both for them and the Limeliters, a trio comprising Alex Hassilev, Lou Gottlieb and Glenn Yarbrough. Loosely based around a Russian folk song entitled "Dorogoj Dlinnoyu" dating back to the turn of the 20th century, it was recorded by the Russian cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky in the Twenties and later by the gypsy singers Rada and Nikolai Volshaninov. It travelled across Europe and to the United States when Maria Schell sang it in the Richard Brooks film of the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov in 1958.

Gene Raskin wrote a completely new set of melancholy lyrics but kept the oddly addictive combination of mournful verses and singalong chorus for his adaptation. When Paul McCartney expressed an interest in recording the song with Mary Hopkin, the music publisher Dick James tracked the music sheet down and brought it to Abbey Road studio in person. "Those Were the Days" has been recorded by the instrumental group the Ventures, Max Bygraves, Engelbert Humperdinck, Roger Whittaker, the Fifth Dimension and Wanda Jackson as well as the Three Tenors and remains the biggest non-Beatles seller on the Apple label.

Pierre Perrone

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