Swedish singer Agnetha Fältskog shared lead vocal duties as part of ABBA, one of the most successful pop groups in music history, with over 370 million singles and albums sold worldwide. She was the primary vocalist on several of the group's biggest hits, including "SOS" and "Take a Chance on Me," while also sharing lead vocals with Agnetha Fältskog on "Waterloo," "Dancing Queen," "The Name of the Game" and contributing to ABBA's trademark four-part harmony with her husband, Björn Ulvaeus, and his songwriting partner, Benny Andersson. For much of the 1970s, ABBA was massively popular throughout Europe, Australia and Latin America, with the United States coming somewhat late to the party in the latter half of the decade when the group reached its apex with the No. 1 sensation "Dancing Queen." Personal turmoil between the two couples led to ABBA's breakup in 1982, after which Fältskog enjoyed solo stardom in Europe, though with only minor returns in America, before beginning a self-imposed hiatus in 1988. After enduring several problematic relationships in the 1990s, Fältskog returned to performing with My Colouring Book (2004), which charted highly throughout Europe. She soon returned to the public eye via reunions with her former group mates while continuing to mine hit singles on the Continent throughout the 2000s. Though her musical career contained many dramatic ups and downs, Agnetha Fältskog's efforts with ABBA minted her as one of the reigning queens of '70s pop as well as a vital performer in her own right.
Born Agnetha Åse Fältskog on April 5, 1950 in Jönköping, Sweden, she was the elder of two daughters by department store manager Knut Ingvar Fältskog and his wife, Birgit. She began writing songs as early as six years of age, and took piano lessons while also singing in her church choir. In 1960, she formed her first group, The Cambers, which performed in small local venues. Though the trio called it quits soon after, the 15-year-old Fältskog decided to leave school and press on with her musical career. She was soon performing with musician Bernt Enghardt's dance band, which led to a demo for Cupol Records producer Karl Gerhard Lundkvist. However, Lundkvist was more interested in Fältskog's voice than the band, and signed her to a contract with CBS Records. She penned her first single, "Jag var så kär" (1967), which topped the Swedish record charts that year. Several more hit singles followed before she met and became engaged to German songwriter-producer Dieter Zimmerman, who promised her stardom in his native country. But Fältskog disapproved of the material offered to her by the German producers, prompting a return to Sweden in 1970 and a new relationship with singer-songwriter Björn Ulvaeus. That same year, she also released another hit single, "Om tärar vore guld," which was subsequently embroiled in a plagiarism lawsuit filed by a Danish songwriter who claimed that Fältskog had reproduced 22 bars of music from a composition called "Tema" for her song. After a five-year court battle, Fältskog was required to pay a settlement to the plaintiff in 1977.
After marrying Ulvaeus in 1971, she began recording vocal tracks on her husband's musical projects with Andersson, which included "Min Egen Stad" ("My Own Town"), a chart-topping 1971 single by Andersson's wife, Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The track, which featured backing vocals by Andersson, Ulvaeus and Fältskog, marked one of the first collaborations between all four future members of what would soon be ABBA. The foursome had tried to launch a group, Folkfest, the previous year, but it was poorly received by the listening public. A subsequent single, "People Need Love" (1972), credited to Björn & Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid, reached the Top 20 on the Swedish charts while also providing them with their first placement in America by reaching No. 114 on the Cashbox singles chart. Buoyed by this taste of success, they soon formed a new group, ABBA - an acronym formed from the first letters of each group member's first name - in 1973. While recording their debut album, Ring Ring, they discovered that when all four members shared lead vocals, the result was an exceptionally pure, clean harmony. When applied to engineer Michael B. Tretow's production technique, which combined a powerful "Wall of Sound" approach with glam-rock beats, the end result was the unmistakable sound of ABBA. Ring Ring established the group as hitmakers throughout Europe and in South Africa, but they remained almost completely unknown in the biggest international music markets: the United States and England.
Since 1971, Andersson and Ulvaeus had tried and failed to produce a song that would capture top prize at Melodifestivalen. They submitted "Waterloo," the title track from their second album, which took top prize at the 1974 Eurovision Contest and provided the quartet with worldwide exposure via the show's telecast. "Waterloo" would become their first No. 1 single in the U.K. and throughout Europe, as well as their first Top 10 song on the Billboard 100. The album itself, however, only reached No. 145 on the Billboard 200, which would begin a pattern for the group of hit singles, including "SOS" (1975) and their first U.S. No. 1 "Dancing Queen," balanced by low-ranking albums. During this period, both Lyngstad and Fältskog released solo records between albums by ABBA. Lyngstad scored a No. 1 hit with a Swedish-language version of "Fernando," which would later become a hit when re-recorded by ABBA, while Fältskog's LP, Elva kvinnor I ett hus (Eleven Women in One House) (1975), reached No. 11 on the Swedish albums chart on the strength of three singles, including a Top 5 hit with a Swedish-language version of "SOS."
ABBA's fortunes on the albums chart would not change until 1977, when Arrival became their first Top 20 album in America. For the next two years, ABBA was a consistent presence in the American Top 20 with hits like "The Name of the Game" (1977), "Take a Chance on Me" (1977) and "The Winner Takes it All" (1979), as well as lesser tracks like "Chiquitita" (1979), "Voulez-Vous" (1979), "Does Your Mother Know" (1979) and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" (1979). Though the group's harmonies were its trademark, the decision to move Lyngstad and Fältskog's vocals to the forefront of songs provided ABBA with their greatest success. Fältskog did lead vocals on such hits as "SOS," "Chiquitita," "Take a Chance on Me," "The Name of the Game" and "Disillusion," for which she wrote the music while Ulvaeus penned the lyrics. She and Lyngstad were the leads on "Waterloo," "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen," among others. By the latter half of the 1970s, the focus on ABBA highlighted growing tensions within the quartet, which came to a head when Ulvaeus and Fältskog announced that they were seeking a divorce in 1979. Andersson and Lyngstad, who had finally married in 1978, fell victim three years later, separating in 1981 and finally divorcing in 1982.
ABBA's profile on the international music scene had also gone into a slow decline, with tracks like "Super Trouper" (1981) and "When All is Said and Done" (1981), from their final studio album, The Visitors, barely breaching the Top 40 in America. Though ABBA remained exceptionally popular in the U.K., Australia and other countries, their tenure at the top of the charts had run its course. After struggling to produce three new singles, including "Just Like That" and "You Owe Me One," which appeared on a compilation album, The Singles: The First Ten Years (1982), the group gave their last performance at a TV studio in Stockholm shortly before Christmas that year. While ABBA was winding down, Fältskog returned to her solo career, issuing a duet with former ABBA backing vocalist Tomas Ledin on the single "Never Again" in 1982 while also making her acting debut in the comedy "Raskenstam" (1983). That same year, her first post-ABBA solo album, Wrap Your Arms Around Me (1983), was a massive hit throughout Europe, though response in the United States was modest at best, with its lead single, "Can't Shake Loose," reaching only No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its immediate follow-up, Eyes of a Woman (1985), saw even lower returns in America and Europe, though she minted a No. 1 hit in Sweden with "The Way You Are," a duet with singer Ola Håkansson. Fältskog then traveled to California to record I Stand Alone with former Chicago singer Peter Cetera, which became the best-selling album of 1988 in Sweden. But its lead single, a duet with Cetera called "I Wasn't The One," reached only No. 93 on the stateside singles chart, prompting Fältskog to take an extended hiatus from both her music career and the public eye.
The 1990s were a tumultuous period for Fältskog, with a second marriage to surgeon Tomas Sonnefeld ending after three years, while a relationship with Dutch resident Gert van der Graf resulted in the Swedish courts barring him from entering the country after multiple reports of stalking the singer at her home in Ekerö, Sweden. Fältskog subsequently published her autobiography, Som jag ar (As I Am) (1996), but kept her distance from both the music industry and the media until 2004, when she released a new single, "If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind," which had been a 1969 hit for English singer Cilla Black. Fältskog's version reached No. 2 on the Swedish singles chart and No. 11 in the U.K., despite her reluctance to promote the song beyond a Swedish television special and a handful of interviews. The song was soon followed by a full album, My Colouring Book, comprised of covers of '60s pop hits which topped the charts in her native country and peaked at No. 12 in the United Kingdom. A second single, Jackie DeShannon's "When You Walk in the Room," reached the Top 40 in England. Fältskog soon made additional public appearances, including a reunion with Ulvaeus at the final Stockholm performance of "Mamma Mia!," a musical built around the ABBA songbook, and with all three of her former group mates at the Swedish premiere of the musical's film adaptation in 2008. Two years later, the ever mysterious ABBA was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though Fältskog did not attend the ceremony, preferring instead to join Lyngstad at the 2010 Swedish Rockbjörnen Awards, where ABBA received a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013, Fältskog released singles from a new album, titled A, in both Sweden and Germany.
By Paul Gaita