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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Godfather of Soviet Song Bids Farewell to Stage

When the curtain comes down Thursday on Iosif Kobzon, it will be for the last time. Much to the chagrin of a nation, the burly baritone who put Jewish singing on the map, has announced an end to his 40-year career.

"It was a difficult decision for me to make," Kobzon said at a press conference Monday. "But I wanted to stop singing while there was still life in me."

He will no longer sing professionally, although he said he would be prepared to perform at charity events in the future. From the beginning of next week, he intends to dedicate his life to teaching, politics and the deficiency of culture in Russia today.

"I can do more for this country when I am in a position of power," said Kobzon, who is a candidate in the State Duma elections Sept. 14 in the Aginsko-Buryatsk region in Siberia.

"The worst crime in this country at the moment is tax evasion. These people are robbing Russia of her culture," said Kobzon, who revealed he has earned 2.5 billion rubles ($500,000) since the beginning of the year.

Kobzon has spent the last nine months on a marathon circuit of the former Soviet Union. His farewell tour, aptly called "I Have Given Everything to My Song," began in Tallinn, Estonia, and has taken him to every one of the former republics except Uzbekistan.

"I can't understand why they wouldn't let me sing there," said the entertainer, who was refused entry without explanation.

It wasn't the first time he has been denied a visa. In 1995, he was denied a tourist visa to the United States because of his suspected mafia connections. Last year, he spent six hours on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, while the Interior Ministry came to a decision. "I am going to sue the Israeli government for moral damages," a fuming Kobzon was quoted by Izvestia as saying when he was finally granted a visa to the country. He has been called the Russian Frank Sinatra, and perhaps not solely for his warbling voice.

But former quibbles have been pushed under the carpet this week as Kobzon celebrates the last leg of his musical career. His final public appearance tonight is timed to coincide with his 60th birthday.

"He was never going to slink off the stage," said Lena Zinchinka, a retired teacher and seasoned devotee at Tuesday evening's concert. "The man has panache. He could only go down in style."

Kobzon has been singing for as long as he can remember. "I used to sing everywhere -- in the yard, on the way to school, at the table, in the bath," he said. At first, he denied his musical talent. At 14, he ran away to join a mountain engineering college in Vorkuta.

It didn't last. Early photographs show he was destined for the stage. While his fellow students stand in tidy rows on the steps in front of the institute, the young Kobzon, with nonregulation flairs, fuzzy black hair and a saucy grin, takes center stage with a flamboyant bow.

In 1958, Kobzon came to Moscow to join the circus. From there it was a small hop to the stage and the vocation he had always secretly craved. Kobzon brought a new face to Soviet music.

"He symbolizes the best from our bad past," said Zinchinka. "During the stagnation of the '60s and '70s, it was Kobzon's warm melodies that kept us going."

No one has ever counted how many tunes Kobzon has sung. He says he could sing for eight hours straight and still have more ballads up his sleeve.

"Being on the stage is like sex and drugs all rolled into one," he once said. "It's everything you have always wanted -- a captivating novel you can't put down, a piece of fate you can't refuse."

Although Kobzon has decided to abandon his career as a singer, Tuesday's concert at the theater in the Hotel Rossia, the first of a final three in Moscow, was proof that he can still pull in the crowds. Disconsolate fans, hoping for a last-minute ticket, were turned away in droves. As the lights dimmed, a giant screen appeared on the stage showing the maestro in action at strategic moments in his life. There were clips from his memorial concert after the tragedy at Kaspiysk last year, when a nine-story tower block collapsed, killing 41 and wounding 82. Happier scenes showed Kobzon singing a duet with Alla Pugachyova -- perhaps the only other Russian singer in Kobzon's league -- kissing the Pope, hugging Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, shaking hands with Welsh singer Tom Jones.

The screen disappeared and Kobzon, sporting the same short back and sides and boyish smile he wore 45 years ago, glided onto the stage singing one of his favorites: "There is Victory in Our Hearts." Behind him, veiled by a thin net curtain, the orchestra of Russian folk instruments, including 26 balalaikas, strummed for all they were worth.

Meanwhile in the foyer, the waiting line for copies of Kobzon's farewell book -- a steal at 200,000 rubles ($35) apiece -- wound past the cloakroom and out onto the street.

"I don't know about his latest venture into politics," said Raisa Danilina, taking a break from selling cassettes, CDs and T-shirts bearing the face of the virtuoso. "People should do what they do best. For Kobzon that means singing until the day he dies."