Meet Germany’s Johnny Cash, record-breaker and maker

This elderly pop star is breaking all kinds of pop chart records with his latest unconventional effort, but his comeback is more of a stunt.

He's older than Mick Jagger, and in parts of Europe he's more popular than Justin Bieber. Seventy-four-year-old Heino is setting German pop charts ablaze, with an unconventional album that, at first listen, eschews the traditional folklore style he came to be known for. Just who is this hipster septuagenarian anyhow?

Born Heinz Georg Kramm, Heino has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide over a career that has spanned five decades. With his bright dyed blond hair and trademark Johnny Cash-style sunglasses, he has the look of a rock star but the legacy of a German crooner.

The runaway success of "Mit Freundlichen Grüßen" is unprecedented, according to Media Control, which supplies album sales data in Germany.

"Never before has an album by a German artist been legally downloaded as many times in the first three days as his new record," a representative at Media Control told Der Spiegel.

"Mit Freundlichen Grüßen" ("With Best Wishes"), was released Feb. 1, chock-full of cheerful, saccharine melodies that are derided as pure kitsch in some music circles. Yet in a matter of days the album has rocketed to the top of the charts. Currently, it is No. 1 in both CD and MP3 formats on Amazon.com's German site. "Mit Freundlichen Grüßen" is the No. 2 album in Germany on iTunes.

Trained as a baker, Heino made his mark on German pop culture with a style of music decidedly different than rock 'n' roll. To understand his success is to understand Schlager, as Der Spiegel points out.

Schlager, which translates roughly to "hit," is a music genre that is widespread throughout Europe, although it is particularly popular in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Schlager music frequently consists of sweet, sweeping ballads or light, jovial melodies. Covering topics like love and country life, the songs and style compare favorably to folk music.

At live performances, audience participation is a crucial part of the Schlager experience. At a Schlager music concert, it’s not uncommon to see the entire audience singing, clapping and bouncing along.

In Germany, Schlager music still maintains a faithful following, making Heino a little like Germany's version of Johnny Cash. With songs like "How Blue the Gentiana Blooms," Heino's repertoire is absent of anything that might resemble "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Ring of Fire."

Like Cash, though, Heino is a timeless figure in his native country's music scene, and he's reinvented himself for his latest release. The sunglasses (which Heino, who suffers from exophthalmos, or bulging eyes, as a result of Graves' disease, has worn in public almost exclusively since the 1970s) have remained a constant, but Heino appears on the cover of his new album with a black skull ring, chain necklace and leather jacket. His new logo, a human skull with blond hair and black shades, looks like something borrowed from a Guns N' Roses album.

As tough as the new look might seem, there's more than a hint of irreverence behind Heino's transformation. His new album is decidedly Schlager, but the songs themselves are covers of popular German bands whose songs are anything but. On "Mit Freundlichen Grüßen," Heino gives the Schlager treatment to everything from hip-hop to industrial rock. Hit songs from top German acts, including Rammstein, Peter Fox and Die Ärzte, appear on Heino's album. To put that in perspective, the covers on Heino's new album are akin to Alison Krauss recording a bluegrass rendition of a Snoop Dogg track.

How have these acts responded? Speaking to German tabloid Bild, a source close to Rammstein said, "We could puke." Die Ärzte reportedly threatened to sue Heino if he produced a music video for the cover of their song.

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