When the song played, listeners became so lost in their sadness that for many there was no way back…
He was found facedown in the snow, the raw January air biting at his lifeless fingers and nose.
Rezso Seress was dead. He’d taken his own life by jumping from the window of his tiny apartment in the swarming city of Budapest, Hungary.
He was 68.
Once upon a time, he’d been famous and celebrated.
Not by the end, though.
In his apartment, Rezso had left a note…
I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man, he’d written. This fatal fame hurts me. I cried all of the disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it.
But what had Rezso Seress been accused of?
Years before, Rezso had been young, handsome and romantic.
He worked as a songwriter, struggling to make ends meet by selling songs to the popular Hungarian artists of the time.
And then, in 1933, when he was 34 years old, something happened to Rezso that broke his heart.
The woman he’d loved left him.
Rezso coped the only way he knew how. He wrote music, pouring his aching heart into each note, each beat.
The music he created was sad, hopeless even.
But he liked it. And he got his friend, the poet Laszlo Javor to write some words to go with it.
Lazlo’s heart had also been broken.
Both men were suffering.
The finished song was called Szomoru Vasarnap, Hungarian for ‘gloomy Sunday’.
Before long, the two men had a hit on their hands. The song was recorded by Hungarian singing star Pal Kalmar, was played on the radio, in bars and clubs.
Listeners took the song to their hearts.
It was a turning point for Reszo. He got in touch with his ex, told her a famous singer had recorded his song.
She agreed to meet him.
But a day after the couple had been reunited, Reszo’s girlfriend killed herself. In the note she left, she’d written the words gloomy Sunday…
Soon after the song’s release, in February 1936, a shoemaker whose name was Joseph Keller killed himself in Budapest.
In his suicide note, he’d written the lyrics of Rezso’s song.
And there were more deaths.
Several bodies were found in the Danube, in their hands the sheet music for Gloomy Sunday. At least two people shot themselves after hearing a band play the song, and countless others had taken their lives as the record played.
Soon, the song had been nicknamed ‘the suicide song’.
But was it mere coincidence that so many deaths were connected to this one song?
It’s not as if Gloomy Sunday was the only gloomy song ever made or the only song about heartbreak.
However, fearful more deaths, the Hungarian authorities banned the song.
But by then it was already being played in other countries.
Gloomy Sunday had reached America.
The song was recorded in English with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis.
They were equally as bleak as Lazlo’s…
Gloomy is Sunday, the new words went, with shadows I spend it all,
My heart and I have decided to end it all…
In 1941, the new, English-language version of the song was recorded by famous jazz singer, Billie Holiday.
And the suicides started again.
In New York, a young secretary killed herself having written in her suicide note that Gloomy Sunday should be played at her funeral.
A young man in Rome was heard whistling the song, and seen immediately afterwards throwing himself off a bridge.
And in London, a woman listened to the song over and over before taking a fatal overdose.
Psychologists were asked to examine the song, in an attempt to understand its power, and how it seemed to push listeners over the edge.
They drew a blank.
There seemed to be no explanation at all.
And so, the song was banned by the BBC. It wasn’t heard again on BBC radio until 61 years later, when the ban was finally lifted in 2002.
As for Reszo, he never again wrote a song that so captured public imagination.
In 1939, war broke out in Europe. Because he was Jewish, Reszo was sent to a Nazi labour camp and it was only by miracle that he survived.
But Reszo was never able to step out of the shadow of Gloomy Sunday, and the effect his song had created.
When he took his life in 1968, it seemed he was a broken man.
Other deadly ditties…
The suicide solution?
In 1984, John McCollum, 19, killed himself while listening to the Ozzy Osbourne song, Suicide Solution. As did Michael Waller, two years later. Both men had apparently been happy. Their families claimed they’d been pushed into suicide by the song’s lyrics…Made your bed, rest your head, but you lie there and moan, suicide is the only way out. But in 1988, a California court ruled the suicides were not a foreseeable result of Ozzy’s song.
In the last ten years, at least six people have been killed while performing the Frank Sinatra song My Way at karaoke nights in the Philippines. The song was one of the country’s most popular karaoke tunes, but has recently been banned by many bars and clubs. Many of the killings have happened when people have performed the much-loved song badly or out of tune, angering the audience. Philippine karaoke singer Rodolfo Gregorio has suggested the violence erupts because the song is so popular. ‘The trouble with My Way is everyone knows it and everyone has an opinion,’ he says. ‘You can get killed.’
One of the world’s most popular karaoke tunes is John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. It’s so popular in fact, that when a doctor threw a party in her home in Thailand, all her guests wanted to do was sing it. Sadly, hearing the tune belted out over and over again was too much for the doctor’s neighbour. He burst into the party and shot dead eight of the country-loving revellers.