Before we sit down in the bar of a luxury hotel on Brussels’ Avenue Louise, Will Tura asks if he can keep his scarf on. It’s a typical reflex of an artist who takes his job seriously and always thinks ahead: He doesn’t want to get sick from air-conditioning, something that would compromise his voice, and the next show. It’s also the reflex of an artist who keeps listening to the advice his mother gave him as a boy: “You can be a musician and build your dream, but only when you work hard for it.” So that’s what he did, all through his career. For the one thing he loved the most, he had to sacrifice the rest.
His wife had already asked him to slow down – meaning only around 50 concerts a year. It’s a far cry from his 1960s heyday, when he’d do the same number of concerts in less than two months. You’ll find proof of his busy schedule in the new photo book Will Tura, een leven in beeld (Will Tura, a Life in Images). The photos are also on display at an exhibition in Ostend until 19 August. Among the pictures from the family archive – most of them never published before – there are a few lists of dates. Take July 1969: 31 days, 31 concerts, from Booischot to Berg. Every day he took his orchestra to another ball in another town.
“Now I try to stick to about 55 concerts a year,” he says, because he knows his wife is right: “I will be 72 soon, but I’m still acting like I’m 50. It must be the music that keeps me young. But if I slow down a bit, maybe I can even go on a little bit longer?”
The career of Arthur Blanckaert – that’s the name on Tura’s birth certificate – reads like a guide to post-war entertainment in Flanders. In the rural society of the 1960s and even the 1970s, he travelled the country to perform his countless hits for his fans, in a tent on the town square or in front of the church. “Now it seems like folklore, but they sure were great times,” he remembers. “The whole village was present and they all sang with me. I was the king of the balls.”
Later, as society (and the entertainment industry) changed, he was the first Flemish artist to sell out Forest National (in 1974), and in the 1980s he shifted from rowdy tents to more intimate indoor shows. “It was a risk my late brother Staf, who was my sound engineer, and I were willing to take. Instead of the drinking and dancing at the balls, fans came to sit down and really listen to my music.”
By the end of the 1980s, when the first Flemish commercial TV channel appeared, he took advantage of the renewed interest in local artists; with the catchy “Mooi, ’t leven is mooi” (Beautiful, Life is Beautiful) he had a big hit. “It’s a song written by Nelly Byl, who sadly passed away last year. I hesitated at first, wasn’t too sure about the lyrics, but ever since it’s been a standard in my repertoire.”
Tura really experienced the power of the small screen when he sang at the funeral of King Baudouin in 1993. His emotional performances of “Hoop doet leven” (Hope Gives-Life) and “Ik mis je zo” (I Miss You So) were broadcast live and written in the collective memory. “That was a very strange moment,” he recalls.
“Luckily, pianist Steve Willaert accompanied me. He showed me where to breathe. After the funeral I received postcards from all over the world, and even now, for my concert at Rimpelrock, the organiser asked me to sing ‘Hoop doet leven’ in remembrance of the victims of last year’s Pukkelpop disaster.”
In the meantime, younger generations have covered Tura’s songs on tribute albums, and today that mutual respect remains. Witness Tura’s collaboration with the rock trio Triggerfinger, who are backing him on a song on his latest album, Ik ben een zanger (I'm a Singer). “They can make me sound so huge,” he says with a big smile.
Raised in a working-class family in Veurne, Tura heard his mother singing all the time. It caught on. “While my brothers and sisters picked real jobs, such as baker, electrician and dressmaker, I was the problem child,” he says. “Where I lived, in West Flanders, it was important to learn a craft. Once I was writing music during a maths exam, and my teacher sent me to the head teacher. He said to my mother: ‘He’s useless here. Let him make his music.’ What a relief !
“I was very lucky I was allowed to follow a private accordion course, and later I studied guitar, so I could play in a band, and piano. My mother was much too proud to let me be just a street musician. I had to give everything I had to reach my goal, she insisted. For example, I couldn’t just play football if I had to perform the same evening, even if I was only the goalkeeper. Catching a cold, sweating, possible injuries: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As an adult, first he would buy a Steinway piano, which he really needed, and only later would he splash out on his favourite cars.
His education proved fruitful. Aged 12, he sang in a revue in Veurne, led by his accordion teacher. The black and white photo of him in country outfit in the photo book and at the exhibition is a cute souvenir. At the time he was still Arthur Blanckaert, but that would soon change. The director of the local revues suggested changing my name. ‘Tura’ sounded more modern and English than Arthur, especially combined with Will. And it would be better visually. I approved.”
By the time Tura was 17, he released his first single, a Dutch translation of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”, accompanied by Francis Bay’s big band. In December 1962, his breakthrough hit, the classic “Eenzaam zonder jou”, entered the charts and stayed there for seven months, competing with Petula Clark and Adamo to be number one.
“I had written the song in a laid-back Anglo-Saxon style, a bit like the easy rock’n’roll of Cliff Richard. The way I sang it was new here. My phrasing was more English than Flemish. I really connected and stretched out the words.”
Tura came up with the melody, but Ke Riema wrote the words. “She asked me what I was thinking when I composed the song. I told her I was in the south of France and I missed my girlfriend. I remember I had written the notes on beer mats. She linked my feeling with soldiers, far away from home and feeling lonely without their spouses.” Later, Tura worked a lot with Nelly Byl and producer Jean Kluger for his lyrics. “I recorded a song on a tape and a few days later Nelly would suggest the words. It was a close collaboration, but Jean had the gut feeling. He felt whether something would work or not.”
The strong coalition between singer-composer, lyricist and guiding producer, backed by a solid group of musicians and engineers, prevented his career from lagging. “I never needed a comeback. I was always there. And if things were quieter, we came up with a new concept, such as adding a symphonic orchestra or a country and gospel album recorded in Nashville. I was lucky that I was interested in all kinds of musical styles, so I could bring something jazzy, sing chanson, and even make a rap or reggae single.”
Every time the press announced a new Will Tura, he was a bit scared, he admits. His mother used to say: “Better take care; it can be over before you know it.” Though he was one of the most successful artists in the country, he always needed the approval of his peers and his audience. “I’ve been an insecure man all my life. My friends know me for this. But I also think this characteristic trained my perseverance. I was always busy, maybe to avoid doing something wrong. But this kind of adrenaline is better than indifference for a lasting career. I still want to be prepared when I step on a stage, and give all I have.”
Will Tura, een leven in beeld is published by Lido; the exhibition is in Ostend’s Venetian Galleries until 19 August. Tura plays in Blankenberge on 27 July, Veldwezelt on 28 July, Diest on 4 August and at Rimpelrock on 11 August.