Going out on a song: Nana Mouskouri sets off on farewell tour after 40-year career

It could have all been so different. Back in 1966, a young Nana Mouskouri, then relatively little known outside mainland Europe, embarked on a tour of the US with Harry Belafonte.

It was a big moment in her embryonic career. The calypso legend loved Nana's voice but when it came to her choice of eyewear he was unequivocal, insisting she ditch the black horn-rimmed specs on stage.

According to the fairytale legend that is her life story, Nana acceded to his demands but grew deeply unhappy. After two days of sadness it was her turn to deliver the ultimatum to Belafonte – love me, love my glasses. The glasses stayed.

Forty years on, 450 albums, 230 gold and platinum discs and 300 million records sold later, Nana Mouskouri took to the stage of St David's Hall in Cardiff last night still sporting those famous spectacles to begin the first British night of her epic farewell tour.

She will perform before sell-out crowds in Gateshead, London, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham before decamping to Saarbrucken in Germany where the world first took notice of the commercial potential of the young Greek singer with the nightingale voice. It was there that her German language version of "White Rose from Athens" sold more than a million copies.

The Nana musical juggernaut has already rolled across the US, North America and Ireland this year before coming to Britain. After touring mainland Europe, she will then head to Australia, Asia and South America in 2008 where her loyal army of fans are waiting to bid their ageless heroine with the jet black hair and trademark centre parting, a tearful adieu.

It is not bad going for a woman who turned 73 two weeks ago. Though still clearly in rude good health and at the top of her game Mouskouri insists that, after singing for 50 years, it is time to make way for younger performers.

There can be little doubt that few singers coming through today in this increasingly fickle world can expect to emulate the kind of musical longevity she has enjoyed. Nor in this fast-moving digital age, where pop stars must reinvent themselves every few months to stay in touch, can they hope to do so by sticking so closely to the geeky image and basic musical formula that have proved so incredibly popular for Mouskouri over the decades.

Nana was born into a close-knit family in Chania, Crete, moving to Athens at the age of three. The city was occupied by the Nazis for much of her childhood yet her father, a film projectionist, and her mother who taught her the native folk songs, worked hard to get her and her sister into the Hellenic Conservatoire.

She recalls how, by night, her dad used to slip away to fight with the Greek resistance against the German invaders. Times were tough as well as dangerous and despite the money running out she continued to have lessons though her teacher's desire for her to be the next Maria Callas could not survive her nights at the city's Zaki club where she learned how to sing like her new heroines Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Her route to fame was the Greek national song contest and Mouskouri was later to be something of the patron saint of the later Eurovision movement, first representing Luxembourg because her native land did not have television. She eventually made an emotional performance when the contest was finally held in Greece for the first time in 2006.

Marriage came along in 1961 and her fame spread to France and Germany before her first trip to New York with legendary impresario Quincy Jones. British audiences had to wait until 1968 when she made her first television appearances on Nana and Guests .

At that time, however, the record shops were woefully unprepared and had to desperately seek out some of her records to satisfy the demands of her fans.

Yet the Nana story had another twist yet. In 1993 she was appointed as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, undertaking a mission to visit children in Bosnia. The following year she was elected as a Member of the European parliament, representing the right wing Greek New Democracy party. She claims not to have liked politics – "it dries your heart" she once said, though despite being heckled by her fellow Eurocrats for her apparent guilelessnes, she proved an effective communicator, even joining forces with her old Eurovision sparring partner Dana when she ran for the Irish Presidency. In 1998, Mouskouri came back to the UK –that time seeking the return of the Elgin Marbles and campaigned across the world for women's rights.

She served only one term as an MEP, returning to her Unicef work and making music. Having divorced her husband in the mid-70s, she lives with her partner Andre Chapelle and plans to dedicate the rest of her life to her family and her humanitarian work. While still wearing those glasses, of course.

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