Thousands of Czechs bid farewell to 'Sinatra of the East'

Jan FLEMR
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Gott, who sold tens of millions of albums, was popular with all generations

Thousands of tearful fans spent hours queueing outside a palace in Prague on Friday to bid farewell to Czech pop icon Karel Gott who died from leukaemia aged 80.

"I always dreaded the day he'd be gone and when I heard the news of his death, my world fell to pieces," Pavel Sychra, a fitter who travelled to Prague from the eastern city of Vyskov, told AFP.

Dubbed "Sinatra of the East" and the "Golden Voice of Prague", Gott died on October 1 after undergoing treatment for leukaemia.

On Saturday, a funeral ceremony with state honours and a requiem are scheduled to take place at Prague Castle's St Vitus Cathedral.

The first mourners arrived at the Zofin palace on an island in central Prague on Thursday afternoon and stayed the night.

City officials have restricted public transport and boosted police presence in the area.

Loudspeakers at the palace played Gott's songs on Friday while fans bearing flowers and presents patiently waited in line.

Once inside, they bowed to a coffin set beneath a large photograph of the singer who was also extremely popular in neighbouring Germany.

"I'm sorry, I can't," said a young woman from Berlin who rejected an interview request before bursting into tears.

"He was a good man. When I listen to his songs again now, I realise how... he sang from his heart," Berta Prasilova, a psychologist from the central city of Mlada Boleslav, told AFP.

The mourners have until 2000 GMT to pay their respects but the palace may remain open longer if necessary.

Smaller tributes were also organised across the Czech Republic.

Gott was known as "Divine Karel" for his impeccable tenor voice, and had been voted the most popular singer 42 times in the annual Golden Nightingale poll of Czech music fans.

He released almost 300 records and CDs, selling tens of millions of copies.

Although his hits included cover versions of The Beatles's "From Me To You" and Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman", most of his songs were written by Czech songwriters.

Born on July 14, 1939, Gott trained as an electrical mechanic before studying to be an opera singer.

He rose to stardom in the 1960s while touring the US and what was then West Germany, and represented Austria in the Eurovision song contest.

Gott, who was also a skilled painter and an occasional actor, won international awards including in Germany, Poland and Russia.