Music Man

Dear Vance:: In the 1960s, I occasionally visited a music store on Highland to buy sheet music, but can't recall the name of that establishment. Can you help?

— T.C., Memphis

Dear T.C.: I know the store well, for it's where I also purchased sheet music for the twice-monthly oboe performances I used to conduct for the orphans. The director of the orphanage — a surly man with a tin ear — finally requested that I put a stop to these recitals, asking me, "Haven't the children already suffered enough?"

Anyway, the store was owned and operated by a very interesting fellow named Berl Olswanger, and his life story is almost as remarkable as my own. Born in 1917 in a rather rundown section of North Memphis called Goat Hill, Berl began picking out tunes on a battered family piano at the age of 3. That's right — 3. By the age of 12, when most kids are occupied with the Cub Scouts, he was playing piano at a nightclub across the street from Central High School called Dreamland Gardens. Despite the fancy name, the place was pretty much a dump, and Berl later told reporters, "People used to call Mother and bless her out for letting a little boy see such sights, and she would say, 'No, it's good for him.'"

As a teenager, he began to play anywhere and everywhere he could. "One night," he recalled, "I was playing in one of those places and two men got into a fight and shot each other. I just kept on playing."

Though he was too polite to mention it, I'm pretty sure this was Mother and Father Lauderdale's 25th wedding anniversary party.

Berl's older brother, a level-headed fellow named Melvin, tried to talk his sibling out of this risky business, warning him, "Either bums become musicians or musicians become bums," but Berl wouldn't listen, and very quickly became one of the hottest performers in town. At the age of 18, he became the staff pianist for the WMC radio station, and two years later was leader of the station's band. This was back in the day when radio programs and commercials had lots of background music, you understand. He played piano at hotels, restaurants, clubs, weddings, dances, debutante balls, Cotton Carnival parties, and even fashion shows. A 1937 newspaper story praised the young man's "smooth technique and large repertoire, which he plays from memory."

Still in his 20s, he got an offer to play piano and organ with the George Olsen Orchestra, one of the big bands of the 1930s. His boss at the radio station tried to warn him that the life of a touring musician would be a rough one, filled day and night with "wild women and wilder drinking." According to family lore, Berl told him, "I had to find out if it was all true." (If it was, he never mentioned it.) That stint carried him to Hollywood, where he performed with some of the top stars of the day, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Jack Benny.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Berl joined the Navy and was made a torpedo officer in the South Pacific. Then something really amazing happened, one of those life-changing moments. One evening in 1943, he was playing a piano — just for fun — in a military club when the tough-talking, cigar-chewing Admiral William "Bull" Halsey overheard him and liked what he heard. Right then and there, the admiral decided this young man's talents were wasted on torpedoes, so Berl was promoted to Naval Entertainment Officer, in charge of USO performances, dances, and other acts designed to boost morale for troops throughout the entire South Pacific, a position he held for two years.

After the war, a promoter urged him to move to New York City, where he could have been a big star as "that red-haired wonder of the jazz piano," as one reporter described him. Berl even held a concert at Ellis Auditorium featuring what he described as his "middlebrow music" to earn money for the trip. The show earned excellent reviews from critics, who observed, "Berl Olswanger proved himself a brilliant young jazz virtuoso and demonstrated he can take a crack at the classics without apologies to anyone. He tried his nimble fingers and agile brain at everything from Handy to Chopin. The consequences of that effort were completely, delightfully satisfying."

But after just two weeks in the Big Apple, he missed Memphis and decided to return home, telling reporters, "I'm just a country boy at heart. I'd rather come home and be poor and be with people I love than to make a lot of money in that rat race."

Berl and his wife Edna settled down in Whitehaven, later moving to an 11-room home overlooking Maywood Lake in Mississippi for several years. In 1948 he opened his first music store in Memphis, at 1531 Union.

More than just a place to buy pianos, band instruments, and sheet music, the store also served as an innovative piano school, following a quick-learning method called "Play the Berl Olswanger Way." It became so popular that it was adopted by the Shelby County school system. In his spare time, he joined up with a fellow named Jack Morgan and played for WMPS in a duo he called "Cats on the Keys."

Somewhere along the way, Berl managed to earn a bachelor's and master's degree in music from Memphis State University, and even began working on a Ph.D. In the early 1970s,he was named music and art consultant for the entire Shelby County school system.

Berl was, no doubt, a musical genius, but in his "aw shucks" way, he never admitted it. He practiced every day, from 5 to 7 a.m., and once told a reporter, "I know that talent is the basic 10 percent of ability, but practice is the other 90 percent. I practice daily or I must make it up."

For his own little jazz orchestra, Berl explained, "I try to pick musicians with personality. We memorize our arrangements. You can't project yourself and get your crowd with you if your eyes are down there on that paper. But if we can make things reach a fever pitch, get the crowd in a frenzy, then they think they've had a good time and everybody goes home satisfied."

And of course he also wrote plenty of his own songs, including such hits as "The Man Who Stole My Beale Street Gal" and "Berl's Blues."

A 1960 newspaper article summed up his many accomplishments: "piano and organ store proprietor, piano soloist and band leader, booking agent, song writer, head arranger for vocal groups, family man, and doer of good deeds." That same reporter noted that Berl was "an altogether noble soul. This does not take into account the fact that he writes television and radio jingles. But then nobody is perfect."

Love 'em or hate 'em, but those jingles for such clients as King Cotton Franks, Kraus Cleaners, and Stewart's Egg-Rich Mayonnaise earned him quite a bit of money.

When Berl opened his second music store at 804 S. Highland — this is the one you remember, T.C. — half of the business was a talent booking agency, featuring bands and groups for every occasion. He did this because his own band was in such demand that they couldn't perform everywhere they were wanted, so Berl sent out other bands and performers to fill the need.

Berl could play just about anything, it seems, and once explained, "Music should not be considered on a vertical scale, with some music higher than other, but rather on a horizontal scale. There is a time and place for all kinds of music in our culture." He was from the "sweet and sentimental school of music," he would say, and "I like any kind of music that makes people happy."

And he certainly made a lot of people happy. When he died in 1981, The Commercial Appeal observed that "Berl's life was a tune that everybody could hum" and "everything he touched turned to music. The touch was so obvious that people called him 'Mr. Music.'"

No story of Berl Olswanger would be complete without mentioning his children: Berl Olswanger Jr., currently living in Mississippi, and his daughter, Anna Olswanger, an author and literary agent in New York. Anna has published several short stories about her illustrious father, and I owe her special thanks, in fact, for providing me with the information and photos you see here. She has, in fact, compiled years of newspaper clippings and images into a handy booklet, The Memphis Music of Berl Olswanger. It certainly made a nice addition to the Lauderdale Library.

Years ago, Memphis Press-Scimitar columnist Bill Burk observed, "Berl could have been as big a star as Liberace had he chosen a life on the road, but he loved the people of Memphis and that love was returned a thousand times over. For Berl Olswanger, the song may be over, but his melody will always linger on in the lives of those of us he touched." 

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