Saturday 18 May 1996


The following article is an overview of the career of Icelandic guitarist, songwriter, and arranger Ólafur Gaukur. The main source of information is an interview done with Ólafur Gaukur's widow, Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, conducted by Bas Tukker in Reykjavík, July 2012. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Ólafur Gaukur's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2012

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Ólafur Gaukur
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: August 11th, 1930, Reykjavík (Iceland)
Died: June 12th, 2011, Reykjavík (Iceland)
Nationality: Icelandic


Guitarist, songwriter, and arranger Ólafur Gaukur (full name: Ólafur Gaukur Þórhallsson), co-wrote, orchestrated, and conducted the 1996 Icelandic entry ‘Sjúbídú’, performed by his daughter Anna Mjöll Ólafsdóttir. In that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, held in Oslo, this quirky jazz song picked up 51 votes, finishing in a mid-table position on the scoreboard.


Ólafur Gaukur Þórhallsson was the oldest son of Þórhallur Þorgilsson (1903-1958), who studied Romanesque languages in Madrid, Grenoble, and the Sorbonne University in Paris, and his wife Bergþóra Einarsdóttir. Upon his return in Iceland (1929), Þórhallur worked as a translator and private teacher until becoming the Head Librarian of Iceland’s National Library in 1943. It was not Ólafur’s father, but his cousin who awakened his interest in music. Ólafur Gaukur distinctly remembered this moment in a 1996 interview.

“My dad, who on account of his studies knew a lot of people from Europe, hosted a German friend who stayed at our home for a couple of weeks. This was some years before the war broke out. When he asked my father how he could pay him back for the hospitality, my dad said he would like to have a violin. We never knew why – perhaps because this German didn't know the difference, perhaps because a violin was too expensive – but the parcel which arrived from Germany did not contain a violin, but a guitar. Quite disappointed, dad decided the guitar could be of no other use than wall decoration. Nobody touched the thing for years, until one day – I must have been 12 or 13 – I was alone at home, ill; and an older cousin, who was a student, came to visit for lunch. He grabbed this guitar from the wall, tuned it, and taught me two grips. When he had left, I kept practicing and found out about the third grip myself. I was hooked from that moment onwards!”

When his parents noticed that young Ólafur Gaukur was caught by the music virus, they allowed him to follow guitar lessons privately with Sigurð Briem, while he also took some piano courses and had a go at the trumbone somewhat later. In the course of the Second World War, young Ólaf and his school friends became interested in jazz music, which was brought to their attention by the occupying American army on so-called V-Records, morale boosting records sponsored by US government for the use of US military personnel overseas. 

Ólafur Gaukur (far left) in the Gunnar Ormslev Quintet (1946) with Guðmundur Steingrímsson (drums), Eyþór Þorláksson (double-bass), band leader Gunnar Ormslev (sax), and Steinþór Steingrímsson (piano)

Steinþór ‘Steini’ Steingrímsson, pianist and Ólaf’s lifelong friend from elementary school onwards, explains, “There was hardly any jazz on local radio and there were no jazz records available apart from these American V-discs. To us, it was very inspirational to get to know the American jazz giants. Gaukur’s first inspiration was guitarist Charlie Christian, but he also liked Benny Goodman, Svend Asmussen, Count Basie… and of course Django Reinhardt from Belgium."

"Inspired by the music of a local bandleader by the name of Aage Lorange, Gaukur and I formed a jazz trio when the war was over, with Ólaf on the guitar, me at the piano, and Árni Elfar playing the clarinet. Ólaf was 15, I was only one year older! In the spring of 1946, we started playing professionally in saloons and bars around Reykjavík and we continued to do so for two years. We preferred playing jazz, but in fact we played anything; waltzes, tangos, and also straightforward dinner or cocktail music. There was plenty of work around the town. All of us worked for other bands and ensembles as well. We didn't think about becoming famous; we just went for it, enjoying ourselves by playing music.”

It was not long before others recognized the talents of the young guitarist. In 1946, Ólafur Gaukur was invited by saxophonist Gunnar Ormslev to join his quintet. In the following years, he also occasionally teamed up with the KK Sextet, the most renowned dance and jazz band of the country. In 1948, with Kristján Magnússon (piano) and Hallur Simonarsson (double-bass), he formed the King Cole Trio, while also becoming the guitarist in the dance orchestra of Austrian maestro Carl Billich at Hotel Borg. At Billich’s request, Ólafur Gaukur, who later used to say that he regretted he had not become a pianist – probably because it would have allowed him to focus on arranging earlier in his career – also started arranging pieces for the orchestra. All the while, he was still in high school. 

When, in early 1948, the headmaster discovered an ad in a local newspaper in which his pupil was advertised as a fine jazz musician, he threatened to have him sent away if he did not quit his music activities. Gaukur, though realising jazz music was not approved of by the older generation, ignored the anger of the headmaster and stubbornly played on, until his father, who wanted his son to become a doctor, had had enough and sent his son to faraway Akureyri in Northern Iceland to finish his high school education as an extracurricular student. Young Ólafur graduated with flying colours in June 1949.

Gaukur (far right) with American vocal group Delta Rhythm Boys in Reykjavík’s Austurbæjarbíó Theatre (1956)

Upon his return in Reykjavík, Ólafur Gaukur enrolled at university to start his medicine studies. Meanwhile engaged to be married with the first baby underway, working as a musician was imperative to earn some badly needed money. Between 1949 and 1952, he played in several bands, including those of Björn R. Einarsson, Steinþór Steingrímsson, and the renowned KK Sextet. This last-mentioned band was regularly invited to perform in the wildly popular Mjólkurstöðin dance hall. During the summer season, Ólafur Gaukur did tours across Iceland with cabaret artists. In 1952, he quit university, deciding it was impossible to combine his studies with being a professional musician. Furthermore, one year earlier, he had started working as a journalist at the Tíminn newspaper, staying on for several years.

Leaving the KK Sextet, he brought the trio of his high school days back together. With it, he did stage performances with the most popular light entertainment artists of the country, perhaps most notably Adda Örnólfs, Ólafur Briem, Öskubuskur, Sigrún Jónsdóttir, and crooner Haukur Morthens. In 1956, the trio accompanied the American vocal group Delta Rhythm Boys for one week in Reykjavík’s Austurbæjarbíó Theatre. 

Between 1952 and 1966, Ólafur Gaukur – in the Icelandic live music industry of those days in which music groups were formed and disbanded all the time, and in which musicians left a band to join another after only a couple of months – continued working with many different bands and dance orchestras, such as the Björn R. Einarsson Band, which played at Hotel Borg, the Leik-Trio, and, once again, the KK Sextet. Groups like these did not only perform in dance halls and saloons in Reykjavík, but did summer tours around Iceland, performed for the American soldiers based in Keflavík, and played live on the radio. Most of these formations played the flavour of the day, meaning that, from the late 1950s onwards, Ólafur Gaukur’s focus inevitably moved from his beloved jazz music to light entertainment and rock ‘n’ roll. For most of the bands he played in the 1950s and early 1960s, he penned the bulk of the arrangements.

Performing a cabaret act with one of the other members of the KK Sextett, Jón Sigurðsson (Reykjavík, 1957)

While, in the 1950s, Ólafur Gaukur, was recognized as Iceland’s best jazz guitarist by a mile, he also established himself as an arranger and studio musician in the country’s fledgling recording business. It was not long before he led most of the recording sessions himself, working with light entertainment artists. In 1957, he co-composed and arranged ‘Ljúfa vina’, recorded as a duet by Ragnar Bjarnason and Sigrún Jónsdóttir backed up by the KK Sextet; it was a major hit success and was chosen as the best pop song of the year by the Association of Icelandic Composers. 

In 1962, Ólafur Gaukur – who in his younger years had been inspired by Charlie Christian’s records to use the guitar not only as a rhythm instrument, but for solos as well – was responsible for the all important guitar solos in Ellý Vilhjálms’ hit ‘Vegir liggja til allra átta’. It is often considered the first true pop guitar solo ever invented by an Icelander.

Slightly atypical for an instrumentalist and arranger, Ólafur Gaukur produced far more song lyrics than compositions. His second wife Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, when asked about this, says, “Though he regularly composed songs, Ólafur often said that he could impossibly top all the good songs that had been written all over the world. Writing lyrics came naturally to him. He wrote hundreds of lyrics, and for everyone. In the 1960s, he specialized in writing Icelandic lyrics to foreign hit successes. When he was working on lyrics, he used his old typewriter like a hammer – it could be heard from the street!” 

Ólafur Gaukur wrote Icelandic words to a Danish song of the Four Jacks, ‘O Marie, jeg vil hjem til dig’ (1960), which became an instant hit for the KK Sextet in Iceland. A couple of years later, he turned Gigliola Cinquetti’s 1964 Eurovision winner ‘Non ho l’età’ into ‘Heyr mína bæn’ for Ellý Vilhjálms. He also wrote for the likes of Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, Haukur Morthens, Ragnar Bjarnason, and many more. Meanwhile, Gaukur showed his versatility by writing song lyrics for rock group Hljómar as well. His songs ‘Bláu augun þín’ and ‘Fyrsti kossinn’ (1964), ‘Þú og ég’, and ‘Syngdu’ (both from 1967), are still among the best-liked pieces of Hljómar’s repertoire.

During the recordings of one of the ‘Hér Gala Gaukar’ TV shows, 1968

Hljómar's guitarist Gunnar Þórðarson has good memories of the band's teaming up with Ólafur Gaukur. “As a musician and specifically as an arranger, Ólafur Gaukur was in a league of his own in his days. The arrangements he wrote for his own sextet could always be pointed out easily, with the saxophone and guitar playing in unison. It was the owner of our record label who recommended asking him to write lyrics for us. Although at first sight it might seem an odd combination to have a jazz musician writing lyrics for a rock group such as ours, there was nothing uncomfortable about it. Ólafur Gaukur was a very nice man, who had an open eye and ear to our music.”

During his short spell in the Leik Trio, Ólafur Gaukur met Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, who was Iceland’s contestant in Miss Universe 1960. Professionally, she was an air hostess, but the Leik Trio’s bass player Kristinn Vilhelmsson invited her to give singing with the group a try. Ólafur Gaukur and Svanhildur left the band in the spring of 1960. The couple got married in 1963; three years later, in 1966, they formed a band, the Sextett Ólafs Gauks & Svanhildur, with Ólafur Gaukur naturally playing the guitar, writing the arrangements, and leading the band, and Svanhildur providing the lead vocals. The band, which changed personnel regularly and had well-known musicians as its members – the likes of Björn Einarsson, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, and Pálmi Gunnarsson –, was extremely successful, with hits such as ‘Segðu ekki nei’ (1967) and ‘Þú ert minn súkkulaðiís’ (1971), the latter song being a cover of Clodagh Rodgers’ UK Eurovision entry ‘Jack In The Box’ with Icelandic lyrics by Ólafur Gaukur himself.

While the band played in Reykjavík’s most popular places on a daytime basis, the Lido (1966-68), Þórscafé (1968), and Hotel Borg (1968-75), it performed in extensive summer tours across Iceland. 

“For several years, we did these cross-country tours in the summer months, performing our own shows and playing in dance halls," Svanhildur comments. "We usually had a tough schedule with long trips and stage shows for several days in a row. We bought a big car with the letters ‘Húllumhæ’ – the name of our show – painted on the sides, so from a distance it was very clear that the Ólafur Gaukur Sextet was in town! Ólaf, recognising the success of the band domestically, wanted to try his luck abroad and thus we played in Hanover and Dortmund in West Germany in August and September 1969."

Ólafur Gaukur on tour with his band in West Germany, 1969. Standing, from left to right: Carl Möller, Páll Valgeirsson, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, Andrés Ingólfsson, and Ólafur Gaukur. Seated in front of them: Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir

"In Germany, we received several offers from other countries... the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Canary Islands, and even Rhodesia, but by that time some of the band members badly wanted to return to Iceland and, moreover, I was pregnant with our second child, Anna Mjöll… the first one being a son, Andri Gaukur Ólafsson, who works as a surgeon in New Hampshire nowadays. So home we went! Later on, we went on several short trips abroad at the invitation of the Icelandic Associations in England, Norway, and the USA. In the 1970s, we continued to be much in demand in Iceland. We played popular songs, many of those covers from abroad with Ólaf’s lyrics. Of course, jazz was the music of his heart, but he didn't have any inhibitions about playing pop – and, luckily, our band enjoyed great popularity.”

Apart from their performances in Reykjavík and across the country as well as recording several albums, in 1967, the group was invited to create a programme for television, just one year after the national radio station of RÚV had started its TV broadcasts. Ólafur Gaukur created an entertainment show, Hér Gala Gaukar, which contained sketches as well as the band’s most popular songs and ran for four consecutive seasons (1967-71). 

“Somebody from RÚV saw us playing in Lido,” Svanhildur recalls, “and invited us to try television. Ólafur wrote all the shows from beginning to the very end; the storyline, almost all of the songs, and naturally, the lyrics. This programme was a successful platform for the sextet, allowing us to play our repertoire for a nationwide audience.”

Ólafur Gaukur never entirely trusted being able to make a living as a performing artist alone. In 1965, with his colleague Björn Einarsson, he started a gardening company, while also publishing a short-lived teenage magazine with Þorsteinn Eggertsson. He continued writing arrangements for other artists, mainly at the request of Svavar Gests and his record company SG Hljómplötur. He hosted a radio talk show, Vikan framundan, in 1976. Picking up his old job of newspaper journalist after nearly twenty years, he became a member of the editorial office of the daily VR blaðið in 1982, where he stayed on for some twenty more years.

With daughter Anna (c. 1980)

Ólafur Gaukur worked as a private guitar teacher since the late 1950s and even developed an innovative guitar course on audio cassettes, allowing pupils to learn to play by using letters rather than music notes, in 1961. In 1975, however, the decision was taken to try to make these music lessons the main source of income for the family, as Svanhildur explains.

“Of course we had been working at Hotel Borg for seven years, but now we felt we had to sit down and think about the next steps in our life. Even though we had been lucky so far, we realised the time had come for a change. So it seemed to be a great idea to make use of Ólaf’s unique guitar skills and his popularity in this country, and start a new guitar school – especially since there was no such school in Iceland at that time. That is the way the Gítarskoli Ólafs Gauks saw the daylight in 1975! We began with absolutely nothing, but the school got off to a flying start. I can still see myself sitting on the floor answering one telephone call after the other. We rented a place in the city-centre for our school, but there weren't enough guitars available, as we could hardly handle the stream of students eager to start. Since 1975, the concept has basically remained unchanged; we teach any student, from absolute beginners to the pre-conservatory level. Ólaf loved to teach... he was a teacher at heart, an idealist!” 

In 1976, Ólaf published a textbook for his students, ‘Leikur ad læra a gitar’, which is still the basic study book used by the school’s students. As the guitar school kept on expanding, it had to move several times during its existence, until finally settling down in a house in Síðumúli Street in Reykjavík, where it is still operated.

While Ólafur and Svanhildur changed the name of their sextet to the Hljómsveit Ólafs Gauks (Ólafur Gaukur Band) in the late 1970s and continued performing using that name on special occasions into the 1990s, Ólafur Gaukur himself took an unusual decision. 

At Restaurant Naust in Reykjavík, January 1986

“Until he reached the age of fifty, odd as it may sound, Gaukur never really accepted he was a musician," Svanhildur laughs. "He was always going to be something else – he worked as a journalist while teaching and playing – but as he was doing so well in music, he just kept going. In 1980, however, he finally accepted the fact that he was a musician; or rather - at last, he realised he was a musician, no matter if he wanted to be one or not. To expand his knowledge, he decided to study music. It was a friend of his, Steve Mosco, who taught music at the respected Cal Art School in Valencia Ca., close to Los Angeles, who gave him the idea to go to the Grove School of Music in L.A. For eight years, our family more or less moved to California, occasionally returning to Reykjavík. It was an adventure!”

From 1980 to 1984, Ólafur Gaukur studied composing and arranging at the Dick Grove School of Music, where he also took conducting courses and worked with Henri Mancini as one of his teachers. Subsequently, he enrolled on a new study, film music, at the same institute; his second graduation followed in 1988 – and with flying colours. A couple of years later, in 1994, he shortly returned to America, on a short course of guitar playing at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute to brush up his playing skills; at the end of the programme there, he was offered the post of guitar teacher at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, but, having his own school in Reykjavík to attend to, he decided to turn down the offer. 

During his student years, Ólafur Gaukur regularly arranged and produced studio work for the Icelandic market. For Svanhildur and daughter Anna Mjöll, he composed and arranged a Christmas album a CD with children’s songs. In 1989, Ólafur Gaukur was commissioned to arrange the track ‘Tidal Wave’ on the album ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week’ of Björk’s band Sugarcubes. A couple of years earlier, he had arranged his first pieces for the RÚV Big Band.

It took a couple of years before Gaukur was handed the opportunity to put his academic knowledge about scoring film music into practice. 

Guiding one of the students of the Gítarskoli Ólafs Gauks (1980s)

Commenting on this in a 1996 interview, Gaukur explained, “When I went abroad to study film music, I realised that I probably wouldn't receive the commission of composing an Icelandic soundtrack, because, in this country, people aren't keen to let someone step forward. They're always afraid that he might eclipse them. I had almost accepted this as a fact, when, two years ago, a young man who produced a music video called me to ask if I was interested to compose the music to it. One thing led to another, and then another film maker called me who was working on a full-fledged film, Benjamín dúfa. That was my first real soundtrack.” 

Ólafur Gaukur’s music to Benjamín dúfa (1995) was nominated at the Berlin Film Festival. Apart from composing many jingles and music to TV series and TV films, he wrote two more soundtracks; Perlur og svín (1997), including the title track interpreted by Emiliana Torrini, and Myrkrahöfðingjann (1999). 

“His film music was well received in Iceland," Svanhildur comments, "but the market here was too small and he never composed another soundtrack after 1999. He would have loved to have written more, because creating atmospheres was really what he liked best and it allowed him to show his technical abilities as a musician to the full.”

In the new century, Ólafur Gaukur kept on working on the occasional recording project with pop vocalists such as Friðrik Ómar and Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir. In 2002, he finally released an album with the music of his heart, ‘2 Jazzgítarar’, for which he teamed up with fellow Icelandic jazz pioneer and guitar legend Jón Páll Bjarnason. That same year, Ólafur Gaukur conducted the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in a concert celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’, for which he teamed up with producer Jón Ólafsson

As a student in Los Angeles, conducting a big band

When asked about the Sgt. Pepper's project, Ólafsson explains, "It wasn't the first time I worked with Ólafur Gaukur. Some years before, I had invited him to arrange some tracks for Emiliana Torrini, woodwinds and strings. Especially his string arrangements are charming and second to none. For the Sgt. Pepper’s concert, he with conducted the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, accompanying me and a band of rock musicians. He really enjoyed conducting that gig! It felt great working with one of the legends of Icelandic music. I have the utmost respect for him.”

For his daughter Anna Mjöll, who had meanwhile moved to the USA's West Coast to embark on a career as a jazz singer, Ólafur Gaukur produced, arranged, and conducted two albums, ‘Shadow of Your Smile’ (2009) and ‘Christmas Jazzmaz’ (2010).

In the last years of his life, Ólafur Gaukur received several accolades. In 2006, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Icelandic Association of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. Two years later, he became an honorary member of this society, while he was also knighted in the Order of the Falcon by Iceland's President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. In 2009, Gaukur's fellow-guitarists handed him the symbolic ‘Golden Guitar Plectrum’.

Ólafur Gaukur, who continued teaching at his own guitar school until the last, succumbed to an incurable disease in the summer of 2011.

Being accorded the honorary membership of the Icelandic Association of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers - Ólafur Gaukur flanked by guitarist, songwriter, and producer Gunnar Þórðarson and lyricist Ólafur Haukur Símonarson (2008) 


Ólafur Gaukur may only have conducted one entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, but his indirect involvement in the event dates back to the days far before Iceland even considered participating in the competition, writing Icelandic lyrics to two Eurovision classics. He turned Gigliola Cinquetti’s 1964 Eurovision winner ‘Non ho l’età’ into ‘Heyr mína bæn’ for Ellý Vilhjálms. Later, he wrote ‘Þú ert minn súkkulaðiís’ to the music of ‘Jack In The Box’, the 1971 UK entry. In the Icelandic version, it was recorded by Ólafur Gaukur’s wife Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir backed up by the Ólafur Gaukur Sextet.

Ólafur Gaukur’s daughter Anna Mjöll, born in 1970, started her singing career under the watchful eye of her parents and took part in several competitions in the first years of the 1990s, winning the Landslagið Song Festival, a televised song contest in Iceland, in 1991 with ‘Ég aldrei þorði’. In 1993, she came second in the Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection with ‘Eins og skot’. One year later she again participated in the same competition, this time with ‘Stopp’ (arranged by Jon Kjell Seljeseth). Her father was involved in both songs, as Anna recalls.

“Opposite to the song with which I won Landslagið, for which I wrote music and lyrics all by myself, ‘Eins og skot’ was completely written by my dad. Still, he insisted on putting my name on it as the songwriter, so I wouldn't look like all the other female singers out there (who needed others to write them a song - BT). For ‘Stopp’, I had the idea for the title and the theme of the song, composing the melody myself; dad wrote the lyrics, but he didn't want his name on this song either – because he always wanted to give everything to me... but also because he believed this song wasn't good enough.”

In 1996, Anna Mjöll received an invitation from RÚV to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest without a prior pre-selection to be held in Reykjavík. Having accepted the opportunity to finally climb the Eurovision stage, Anna now again turned to her father.

Anna Mjöll in 1996. Photo taken from the official press kit of the Icelandic delegation at the contest in Oslo

“Anna and Ólaf always were a good team," Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, Gaukur's wife and Anna's mother, comments. "They were very much alike, not only in music – she got the jazz-mania from him –, but character-wise, as well. Anna was determined to do this Eurovision project with her father and with nobody else.” 

“At the time when I was telephoned by RÚV, I was in Los Angeles," Anna adds. "The next thing I did was calling my dad asking for his help. I came up with the name of the song, ‘Sjúbídú’, because I felt we needed a catchword to make up for Icelandic not really being on a level playing field with the big beautiful languages out there that everyone understands, such as English, French, and Spanish; everybody, however, knows the international language of music: ‘Shoobe-doo’! I explained my dad I wanted the lyrics to state that the whole world sings ‘Shoobe-doo’, just like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley. I composed the melody for the chorus – and that is all I did, because dad took care of the rest, including the original idea that ‘Shoobe-doo’ is being sung from Skagaströnd to Timbuktu. In a few days, he had finished the lyrics as well as the rest of the melody. In the course of these couple of days, we were on the phone constantly. Our mutual phone bills must have been pretty impressive that month."

"When the time came to write the arrangement, it was only natural my dad would take care of that as well; I mean, he had graduated from the Dick Grove School of Music in L.A. specialising in arranging for big bands and orchestras. We agreed we wanted the song to swing; given the contents of the lyrics, it had to swing! So that's what he did, writing this swinging big band arrangement.”

With the Eurovision finals in Oslo only a couple of weeks away, Ólafur Gaukur was interviewed by an Icelandic daily. Asked about the reputation of the contest, he made an interesting comparison. “At the time when I was a young man and came into the music industry, jazz music was pretty much looked down upon in the same way as Eurovision is nowadays. Some people thought of it as evil, trying to demonstrate that they themselves were on a higher cultural level. However, back then just as nowadays, there is always this silent majority of people which values good music no matter where it comes from. The waltzes by Johann Strauss were also despised by so many, but they are still popular nowadays with a large audience. Good popular songs have always been a valid product and they always will be.”

Anna at the Icelandic delegation's press conference in Oslo

Given the strong ties between Anna Mjöll and Ólafur Gaukur as well as the fact that he had written the arrangement, it was a natural thing that he himself would conduct the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. 

“Being the professional and the perfectionist that he was," Svanhildur thinks, "deep down, he might have been a little nervous about conducting the Eurovision orchestra live on television for millions of viewers, but he was determined to do so himself. He had invested a lot of time and money on his music studies in America in the 1980s. Now being a trained conductor, he wasn't going to let anyone take this away from him. Moreover, Anna was determined to have her father up on the stage with her. She wouldn't have accepted going with anyone else.”

In Oslo, ‘Sjúbídú’ was well received by the Norwegian orchestra musicians. Thinking back of the rehearsals, Anna smiles and says, “The orchestra was so happy with the arrangement that a couple of its players came to my dad to thank him for bringing a ‘real’ arrangement to the competition. In a field of competitors in which more and more of the music was computer-programmed, they had enormous fun playing our big-band oriented song. The orchestra members recognised they had a real pro in the room. They didn't hesitate to show their appreciation for him. It felt so warm and good to have my dad taking care of the band for my performance. Thank God there was still an orchestra in Eurovision at that time to play it; that's what made it fun! The rehearsals went smoothly; on the night of the concert, when the song was played by that amazing orchestra in Oslo which knew how to play a swinging arrangement in a swinging way... and when I saw the audience swinging out there, I knew we had succeeded!”

The Oslo experience really turned into an all-family affair. When the Head of Delegation of RÚV was unavailable, this task revolved upon Anna’s mother Svanhildur. 

Anna Mjöll on the Eurovision stage in Oslo Spektrum with her four American backing vocalists

“My mom took over PR and she did a brilliant job," Anna recalls. "For the remainder of the week in Oslo, I just saw glimpses of her here and there, because she was literally running all the time, keeping the international press happy. She was amazing and they all loved her.” 

When asked about her unexpected role in Oslo, Svanhildur adds, “Yes, I probably was the busiest of the family… I lost several kilos that week. We were too busy to hook up with other artists present in the contest, though I remember Jasmine from Finland. I liked her song! Later, I played it in my radio show in Iceland. It was so exciting to be able to participate in the Eurovision adventure – and Eurovision was something which was really big back then.”

Backed up by her quartet of American backing singers – Rick Palombi, Ross Bolton, Daniel O’Brien, and Michael Maher – Anna Mjöll managed to pick up fifty-one points and finished thirteenth amongst twenty-three participating acts. 

“Like my father, I was looking forward to the experience," Anna concludes. "He found it humbling and considered it a great honour to get to write an arrangement for one of Europe’s finest orchestras and then conduct it live on television for 125 million viewers. It was an exhilarating experience which made him extremely happy - and made me extremely proud. Oh yes, he was nervous… I remember watching him in the mirror as I was putting on my make-up before the show – he was pacing back and forth, saying, “This is crazy and I'm never going to do this again!” Then, after the voting was over, he looked at me and said, “This was fun… we should do this again sometime!”

Father and daughter: Ólafur Gaukur with Anna Mjöll (c. 2008)


Pianist and painter Steinþór ‘Steini’ Steingrímsson was one year older than Ólafur Gaukur and his lifelong friend. “We were in several swing bands together, including the Gunnar Ormslev Band, but I quit in the course of the 1950s, while Ólaf continued. As a musician, he was a natural talent, who picked up playing the guitar in a matter of no time; he stepped into the music business as if he had never done anything else but playing. His improvisations were marvellous! It wasn't very usual for a guitarist to write arrangements, but at this, too, Ólaf was gifted by nature, it seemed. He read some arranging books and just started writing those scores as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Of course, the arrangements for these trios and quintets with only rhythm instruments were quite basic and he got much better at it over the years, but it was remarkable that such a young guy managed to create a personal tone in his arrangements from the outset. Even after coming back from L.A., he always kept this personal touch. I could immediately distinguish a composition or arrangement written by him; the personality shining through was just so clear! Ólaf was quite a shy person, always a little locked within himself, and certainly not everyone’s friend, but those who really got to know him valued him as a very giving person. He was a very polite and nice guy and a remarkable musician.” (2012)

Jon Kjell Seljeseth worked with Ólafur Gaukur as a studio musician in the 1980s and 1990s, amongst others on two of his film scores. “It was always a pleasure working with Ólafur. He was a very likeable person with a great sense of humour. It was not least due to his character that I was always keen on teaming up with him. Having his diplomas for composing and arranging in the pocket, his arrangements were always written out to perfection. Having played thousands of notes from scores written by Ólafur Gaukur, I cannot remember one error – not a single note wrong; the level of his professionalism was simply extraordinary.” (2012)


Country – Iceland
Song title – "Sjúbidú"
Rendition – Anna Mjöll
Lyrics – Ólafur Gaukur Þórhalsson / Anna Mjöll Ólafsdottír
Composition – Ólafur Gaukur Þórhalsson / Anna Mjöll Ólafsdottír
Studio arrangement – Ólafur Gaukur Þórhalsson
Live orchestration – Ólafur Gaukur Þórhalsson
Conductor – Ólafur Gaukur Þórhalsson
Score audio semi-final – 10th place (59 votes)
Score final – 13th place (51 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed Ólafur Gaukur’s widow Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir in Reykjavík, July 2012
  • Many thanks to Ólafur Gaukur’s long-time friend and colleague Steinþór Steingrímsson (1929-), to his daughter Anna Mjöll Ólafsdóttir as well as to Gunnar Þórðarson, Jon Kjell Seljeseth, and Jón Ólafsson for sharing their memories of Ólafur Gaukur with us (2012)
  • In 2010, Sena Records released an excellent CD with a cross-section of the oeuvre of Ólafur Gaukur; the album contains a booklet with an extensive career overview written by Jónatan Garðarsson (in Icelandic)
  • An interview with Ólafur Gaukur in an Icelandic daily, Sunnudagsblað, April 28th, 1996: “Synd að ég skyldi ekki verða píanisti”
  • A book about Iceland’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest: Gylfi Garðarsson, “Gleðibankabókin”, ed. NótuÚtgáfan: Reykjavík, 2011
  • Photos courtesy of Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, Anna Mjöll Ólafsdóttir, and Ferry van der Zant; a special word of thanks to Kristján Ottó Andrésson for his assistance

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