Until recently, Eduard Khil hardly ever ventured onto the Internet. Now the 75-year-old spends much of his time sifting through the avalanche of fan mail flooding his e-mail inbox.
Khil, a Brezhnev-era Russian crooner whose name had long since entered the pantheon of Soviet pop-star oblivion, is enjoying newfound fame, sparked when one of his old music clips went viral after being posted by an anonymous admirer on the video-sharing site YouTube. The 1976 clip features Khil, resplendent in a brown double-breasted jacket and heavily pomaded hair, grinning wildly as he lip-synchs -- often badly -- and strolls along a mustard-yellow background lined with metal gates.
But what makes the clip more of an oddity than the typical '70s video is the fact that, despite bearing the complicated title "I Am Very Happy Because I Am Finally Coming Home," the song has no lyrics. Instead, Khil hums, laughs, and belts out the melody in a long stream of la la la's -- a performance that has earned him the nickname "Mr. Trololo."
Asked to perform a few lines by telephone from his St. Petersburg flat nearly four decades later, it's safe to say he hasn't forgotten the words:
Khil's resurrected clip has earned the singer legions of new fans across the globe. Millions of people have viewed the video, and thousands have signed an online petition begging the elderly Russian baritone to launch a world tour and bring his "trololo" tune to audiences around the globe.
Amused, Khil this month posted a new video on YouTube calling on viewers to come up with new lyrics for the song and offering to perform the best version together with his fans in a kind of collective cyberconcert:
He has been flooded with entries from all over the world. One of his favorites is a video clip sent from Spain.
"They shot this clip. It made me laugh so much," he says. "They made this special costume. The singer tried to parody me -- my gestures -- and they even put gates in the background. It's funny. I like it."
The song, with its distinctive cowboy-style syncopation, was written in 1966 by popular Soviet composer Arkady Ostrovsky. It wasn't always wordless. In the original version, the lyrics told the story of a man, Johnny, riding his horse across the American prairie to his sweetheart Mary, who knits socks as she awaits his return.
But Khil and Ostrovsky eventually decided that the suggestive lyrics were too "naughty" to pass Soviet censors and opted instead for the wordless version. Today, the singer says he can no longer remember the lyrics that once might have caused such a stir.
Khil was actually unaware of the buzz around his clip until two weeks ago, when he was stunned to hear his 13-year-old grandson humming the tune.
"My grandson, Eduard Junior, told me, 'Grandpa, everyone knows your song on the Internet -- all around the world, in Japan, in England, in America. They're even selling T-shirts,'" he says.
It's unclear what most charms viewers about Khil's performance: the infectiously catchy tune, his tacky '70s outfit, or his comic gesticulation.
In any case, the craze is not abating.
On Facebook (where he's also known as Eduard Hill), a page dedicated to him has attracted more than 43,000 members and several websites already sell "Trololo" paraphernalia.
The clip has also won praise from U.S. political satirist Stephen Colbert and spawned dozens of spoof versions, including an impish rendition by Oscar-winning Austrian actor Christoph Waltz
Tapping Into YouTube
Khil appears unfazed by this sudden new fame.
"I'm very pleased, but I wasn't surprised because it is really a beautiful tune," he says. "I tried to make it cheerful. It's such a radiant song. Even though it was composed in 1966, it doesn't sound outdated."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev presented the Order For Services to the Homeland to Khil in November.
While foreign fans are just discovering him, Eduard Khil is well-known across the former Soviet Union. The singer was a big name in his days. Soviet authorities awarded him the prestigious title of People's Artist and allowed him to tour more than 80 countries in the 1970s and '80s. Current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev presented Khil the Order for Services to the Homeland in November.
After the Soviet collapse abruptly ended his career, Khil spent several years in Paris eking out a living by singing in a Russian restaurant before returning to Russia.
His recent reversal of fortune could represent a rare chance for the Soviet-era songster to pick up his career where he left it in the early 1990s.
A number of Soviet-era musicians have been able to stage extraordinary musical comebacks after their performances drew attention on YouTube.
Czech singer Ivan Mladek and his Banjo Band have been touring the world since a 1978 clip of their humorous song "Joey from the Swamp"
(Jozin z bazen), which tells the story of a monster feeding on Prague residents, became an Internet sensation three years ago.
YouTube has also helped younger, formerly unknown musicians shoot to fame overnight.
Perhaps the best example is Pyotr Nalich, a 28-year-old Russian architect who became a YouTube darling in 2007 after recording "Guitar," an amateur music video of himself and his friend at their dacha.
Nalich and his friends have since formed a popular band and this year were selected as Russia's entry for the 2010 Eurovision song contest.
Back in St. Petersburg, Khil, who still occasionally performs with his son and grandson, admits being tempted by his second chance at fame -- but says he still has trouble taking his online celebrity seriously.
"Switch off the button and you're gone. Tomorrow someone else will appear," he says. "That's what it means to be popular on the Internet."