Björn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, on 25 April 1945. He has one sister Eva. In 1951 the Ulvaeus family moved to the small town of Västervik, south of Stockholm, where his father ran a paper mill.
Björn’s father Gunnar and mother Aina both loved music and bought Björn his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. Showing an early talent, Björn quickly learnt some chords from his elder cousin and began playing the simple skiffle hits, popular in Sweden at the time. Before long he was also trying his hand at jazz and joined a Dixieland dance orchestra, where he played both guitar and banjo.
After completing his military service, Ulvaeus studied Business and Law at Lund University.
The Hootenanny Singers years (1961-1969)
In 1961, whilst still at school in Västervik, Ulvaeus formed his first real group the West Bay Singers. The boys modeled themselves on popular American folk groups and put together a repertoire inspired by their idols – the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four.
In 1963 the West Bay Singers entered a talent contest arranged by Swedish radio. Although they didn’t win, they were spotted by, the songwriter and music publisher, Stig Anderson. The band acquired a new name, the Hootenanny Singers and quickly became one of Scandanavia’s most popular groups, with 40 songs on the Swedish charts.
Björn Ulvaeus continued recording and touring with the Hootenanny Singers to great acclaim until 1969.
Before ABBA (1969-1972)
In June 1966, Ulvaeus encountered the rock band the Hep Stars, and quickly became friends with the group’s keyboard player, Benny Andersson. The two musicians shared a passion for songwriting, and later that same summer composed their first song together, Isn’t It Easy To Say, which was later recorded by the Hep Stars. The two continued teaming up musically and scored their first hits as songwriters in the spring of 1969: Ljuva Sextital (made a hit by Brita Borg) and Speleman (a hit for Benny’s band the Hep Stars).
Between 1968 and 1969, Björn also had a number of hits as a solo artist.
In 1970, Björn and Benny wrote the music for the obscure Swedish movie, The Seduction Of Inga. Although the film wasn’t a success, the single She’s My Kind Of Girl was released in Japan (re-named The Little Girl of The Cold Wind), and became a Top 10 hit.
This was followed by a string of hits for the pair, including Hej gamle man!, Lycka, En karusell, Love Has It’s Ways and Rock ‘N’ Roll Band.
While filming a nostalgic schlager special for television in March 1969, Björn met eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Agnetha Fältskog. Around the same time his songwriting companion Benny Andersson had himself met his future spouse, 23-year-old jazz and schlager vocalist, Anni-Frid Lygnstad.
The personal relationships together with Ulvaeus’ and Andersson’s songwriting collaboration led quite naturally to the very close co-operation which the four friends had during the following years. As the two couples began supporting each other during recording sessions, the sound of the girls’ voices convinced the songwriters to model their ‘group’ on the like of MOR acts Blue Mink, Middle of the Road and The Sweet. Thus, ABBA came to life.
The ABBA years (1972-1982)
The foursome’s breakthrough came with winning the Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden with Waterloo on 6 April 1974. During the next eight years, Ulvaeus (together with Andersson) wrote the music and produced eight studio albums with ABBA. The group achieved great success globally and scored a chain of number 1 hits.
ABBA’s popularity continues to this day, with record sales now in excess of 400 million. Their greatest hits compilation Gold has become the biggest-selling album of all time in the UK.
After ABBA’s last recordings in 1983, Ulvaeus continued writing music with Andersson. Their first project was the stage musical CHESS, written with Tim Rice. The CHESS concept album – with vocals by Elaine Paige, Barbara Dickson, Murray Head and Swedes, Tommy Körberg and Björn Skifs – was released in October 1984, selling two million copies worldwide. The Paige/Dickson duet I Know Him So Well became a major number 1 hit, and Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok gave Andersson and Ulvaeus a US number 3 hit.
CHESS was staged in London’s West End Prince Edward Theatre in May 1986, and ran for almost three years. A Broadway staging in April 1988 received disastrous reviews, and closed after just two months.
In 2002, after a drastic rewrite of both book and lyrics by Björn, Lars Rudolffson and Jan Mark, CHESS på Svenska opened in Sweden. It won 6 Swedish Theatre awards, and the CD cast recording went to number 2 in the charts. It was filmed by Swedish television and the recording released on DVD.
CHESS has subsequently had many reincarnations, including a concert version with almost no dialogue performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 12 and 13 May 2008, which Tim Rice described as the new “official version”. The recording of this concert was released on June 16 2009, as a DVD and 2-CD cast album.
Kristina från Duvemåla
From the late 1980s, Ulvaeus had worked with Andersson on an idea for an epic Swedish language musical based on his affection for traditional folk music, and in October 1995, Kristina från Duvemåla premiered in Sweden. The musical, based on The Emigrants novels by Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg, ran successfully for almost five years, before closing in June 1999.
A 3CD Box Set of the show was released entitled Kristina från Duvemåla – Den Kompletta Utgåva, together with a ‘highlights’ package on one CD, called 16 Favoriter which includes the single release version of Guldet blev till sand.
An English-language version, simply titled Kristina, was staged in concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City for two nights in September 2009, yielding a live recording, and at the Royal Albert Hall, in London for one night in April 2010.
In February 2012, a new Swedish language Kristina från Duvemåla production opened in Helsinki, Finland. In its first season, the musical played to 98% capacity audiences, and continues to be popular. The show will close in May 2013.
In the mid 1990s Ulvaeus began work on another collaboration with Andersson Mamma Mia! – a musical built around 24 of ABBA’s songs. The show became a worldwide box-office blockbuster. Since its premiere on London’s West End in April 1999, Mamma Mia! has been seen by over 50 million people in more than 300 cities around the world.
A film version of Mamma Mia!, starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth premiered in London on 30 June 2008. The film of Mamma Mia! has become the most successful movie musical of all time. It was the number one box office smash of 2008, and has become the biggest-selling DVD ever in the UK.
Ulvaeus’ latest project has been to write the lyrics to a new piece of musical theatre written in collaboration with Benny Andersson (music), Kristina Lugn (book), and Lars Rudolffson (production). Hjälp sökes which features ballads, including Bortom Sol och Måne (Beyond The Sun And Moon), alongside Russian-type marching music, pop, rock and circus-style pieces, received fantastic reviews following its premiere at Stockholm’s Orionteatern on 8 February.
A CD of all eight songs along with some of the incidental music that features in the show is currently being recorded with vocals by cast members Sofia Pekkari, Johan Ulveson and Magnus Roosman. The CD is expected to be released in May 2013.
In 1985, a brother and sister duo Anders and Karin Glenmark, released an album Gemini featuring new songs by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. The duo, who were themselves, called Gemini, recorded a second album with more music by Benny and Björn, Geminism, which was released in April 1987. It contained the hit Mio My Mio, which can also be found on the soundtrack to the film Mio in the Land of Faraway.
In 1993 an English-language album Shapes, featuring ten new Andersson/Ulvaeus compositions, was released by Josefin Nilsson, a member of the female cabaret quartet, Ainsbruck, with whom Benny Andersson had previously collaborated.
For the 2004 semi-final of the Eurovision Song Contest, staged in Istanbul thirty years after ABBA had won the contest in Brighton, Björn appeared briefly in a special comedy video made for the interval, entitled Our Last Video. Each of the four members of ABBA appeared in cameo roles, as did others such as Cher and Rik Mayall. The video was not included in the official DVD release of the Eurovision Contest, but was issued as a separate DVD release.
Since 1991, Björn has penned lyrics to much of the music written by Benny Andersson for his dance band Benny Anderssons Orkester. BAO have achieved huge successful on Svensktoppen (the Swedish chart) with many of these songs, most notably, Du är min man, which remained on the chart for 278 weeks, 66 of which were at number1.
In 2009 Björn wrote the lyrics to a song by Benny Andersson titled 2nd Best to None. It was originally intended as a jingle solely for the website of Benny’s Stockholm hotel ‘Rival’. However, it became a full-length promotional video, sung by and featuring the hotel’s staff, and reached number 54 in the Swedish charts when it was released as a single. This hit was followed in 2010 by another Benny and Björn song Merry Christmas My Friend, which also featured on the hotel’s website.
In October 2012 Bjorn wrote a song with fellow Swede, Tobias Gustavsson, called I Can See Myself In You. The duet was performed at the inauguration ceremony of Stockholm’s new Friends Arena by Tommy Körberg and Danny Saucedo.
Together with Andersson, Ulvaeus was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in a category Outstanding Music (for the musical CHESS), and for a Tony Award in a category Best Orchestrations (for musical Mamma Mia!). Original cast recordings of both musicals were nominated for a Grammy Award. Benny and Björn won a Touring Broadway Award for the musical Mamma Mia! (best score).
Björn has received the Special International Ivor Novello award from ‘The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters’, twice, The Music Export Prize from the Swedish Ministry of Industry and Trade twice, as well as the Lifetime Achievement award from the Swedish Music Publishers Association (SMFF).
Ulvaeus describes himself as a “free-thinker” and is an active member of the International Humanist Society. In 2006 he was awarded their annual prize, Hedenius-priset.
In 2009 Björn was presented with Rockbjörnen’s Lifetime Achievement award.
Björn Ulvaeus married Agnetha Fältskog on 6 July 1971, and had two children Linda Elin (born February 1973), and Peter Christian (born December 1977). In July 1980, Björn and Agnetha divorced. Björn married music journalist Lena Kallersjö on 6 January 1981. This marriage produced two daughters: Emma (born January 1982) and Anna (born April 1986).
Ulvaeus lives in Stockholm and has 5 grandchildren.