Some singers have careers so memorable and fruitful that whole generations identify with their songs. People don’t just end up loving them – they end up worshiping them. For Croatians, Oliver Dragojević is one of those performers.
In the last days of July 2018, Oliver Dragojević left this world after spending the previous year and a half battling cancer. After the cancellation of his concerts in the winter of 2017 due to his advanced illness, his fans knew the end was near. Still, his eventual passing brought a lot of sadness and hurt to many.
People were spontaneously bursting into song in the streets and social media was dominated by dedications to him. It was one of those pivotal moments in Dalmatian and Croatian culture that is difficult to explain to foreigners.
Oliver Dragojević’s songs were a soundtrack to life in Croatia. Listening to him over the years as we grew up and experienced life created an indelible bond between Oliver and Croatians. Everybody agrees this bond is hard to describe in words, but the connection to him and his music is real and unbreakable.
The best example of our dedication to Oliver was our farewell to him in Split, the place where he spent most of his life. His funeral was comparable to no other in Croatia’s history. The whole city of Split came together to say goodbye to Oliver as he was carried down Riva by family and friends, then aboard a naval ship for the journey to his final resting place on the island of Korčula.
In addition to the crowds on Riva packed in like sardines just to get a glimpse of Oliver as he passed, the harbor was filled with boats of all sizes, each covered with even more people there to say goodbye and escort him on to Korčula.
Oliver Dragojević’s Early Life
Oliver was born on December 7, 1947 in Vela Luka, a charming island town on one of Dalmatia’s islands called Korčula.
He spent most of his childhood there, but as a teen moved to Split when his father was offered a new job. Oliver’s musical talents were immediately recognized within the family. When he was only five, Oliver’s father bought him his first instrument – a harmonica. Later, he learned how to play the guitar, clarinet, and piano. He went on to graduate from Srednja Glazbena (a music-focused high school) in Split.
The entire family on his father’s side was very musical. Both his father and older brother could sing very well. Oliver’s first public performance happened when he was only 10 years old. With his older brother Aljoša, he entered a singing competition on Radio Split.
The brothers continued to sing together as amateurs on the terrace of a popular restaurant “Kod Vicka” in the Split shipyard’s cultural club.
At the age of 15, Oliver joined his first band called “Tequila” in 1962. The band soon changed their name to “Batali” and became very popular on the dance circuit. They performed covers instead of their own songs, as it was common practice at the time to learn popular Western music by listening to it on the radio. Oliver once confessed that he preferred the Beatles over the Rolling Stones.
By the time he was nineteen, Oliver was already hooked on performing so when a friend asked that he accompany him to his gigs in Germany, Oliver eagerly accepted. He spent nearly 5 years touring Western Europe with a band called “Tony Stars”. It was during this time, that his signature, raspy voice formed, which Oliver attributed to smoking a lot of cigarettes, long nights, and singing 7 days a week.
Upon returning to Croatia, he continued his career in Dubrovnik, singing with a very popular group called “Dubrovački Trubaduri” (The Dubrovnik Troubadours).
He moved back to Split and continued performing with his old band “Batali”. At the age of 27, Oliver was about to catapult his career into super stardom.
Oliver Dragojević started his musical career in the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1974 that he won over the sympathy of the audience with a very catchy song called “Ča će mi Copacabana” (What is Copacabana to me). From that point on, Oliver was a constant in the music world for the next 44 years across Yugoslavia and later, in Croatia.
The first half of his career was marked by a collaboration with the poet Zdenko Runjić. Together, they are responsible for some of the most consequential and important songs that inevitably formed Dalmatian culture including “Galeb i ja” (Seagull and me), “Skalinda”, “Oprosti mi, pape” (Forgive me, dad), “Ča je život vengo fantažija” (What is life but fantasy), “Vjeruj u ljubav” (Have faith in love) and so many more.
Still, Oliver was never about being exclusive to only one writer. He was very approachable and open to working with new people.
In 1992, he collaborated with another well-known Dalmatian writer, Zlatan Stipišić Gibonni. Gibonni wrote “Cesarica” for another singer, but Oliver really wanted to perform it based on the lyrics. Gibonni consented and the rest is history. To this day, “Cesarica” is one of his most memorable songs. In 1994, the newly formed “Porin Awards” named it Song of the Year.
During his enduring career, Oliver was given numerous awards, recorded 20 original records, five live records and 10 ‘Best Of’ records. He had numerous successful tours in Croatia and abroad. He often mentioned that the highlight of his career was performing in Olympia, the world-renowned Parisian concert hall in 2006.
Still, despite all his success, Oliver Dragojević remained a simple man, dedicated to his family who, apart from singing, enjoyed spending time on his boat and fishing in the coves of his beloved home on island of Korčula.
Oliver may be physically gone, but he will never leave our hearts.
And now, a crash course in Oliver.
1. “Ča će mi Copacabana”