Berl Olswanger at the piano
Release Date: January 8, 2021
Catalog #: BR8965
Format: Digital
20th Century

Berl Olswanger at the Piano

Berl Olswanger piano
Charlie Vunkannon bass
Thomas Bennett guitar
Bill Gilliand maracas

Big Round Records presents the first of five albums by “Mr. Music of Memphis,” Berl Olswanger, featuring tunes by Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, and more. From pop standards and jazz ditties to good old-fashioned polka, pianist Berl Olswanger wrested command of just about every style.

In 1930 twelve-year-old Berl hitched up his knee trousers and sat down at the piano at the WMC Studio in Memphis where he had his own radio program. Like many musicians before him, he later honed his chops playing in nightclubs across the city. In 1939 he garnered the attention of the George Olsen Orchestra and toured with the group from New York to Hollywood, and played for such legends as Bing Crosby and Jack Benny.

During World War II, Admiral “Bull” Halsey placed Berl in charge of all music and entertainment for the South Pacific. When he returned to Memphis after the war, Berl could have chosen to go on the road and become as big a star as Roger Williams or Liberace, but he preferred having a family life and loved the people of Memphis, so he chose to stay at home. Fifty years later, when Berl Olswanger, “Mr. Music of Memphis,” died, he left behind a legacy as a composer, arranger, and band leader.

Berl Olswanger’s piano arrangements were a feature of his daily radio programs over WMC in Memphis during the 1950s. He recorded Berl Olswanger at the Piano in 1953, which included his arrangements of such popular numbers as “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “Begin the Beguine,” in response to requests by his radio listeners for an album of Berl Olswanger piano stylings.

BERL OLSWANGER AT THE PIANO is a collection of eight tunes and was the first released recording of Olswanger’s work. Now digitized and rereleased on Big Round Records, the seminal album will be followed up by two others to immortalize the piano great’s legacy.


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"there's an undeniable charm to these tracks"

Memphis Flyer

Track Listing & Credits

# Title Composer Performer
01 That Old Black Magic (From "Star Spangled Rhythm") Harold Arlen Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 2:55
02 Beer Barrel Polka Jaromír Vejvoda Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 2:07
03 I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good Duke Ellington Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 3:09
04 Tenderly Walter Gross Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 3:23
05 Donkey Serenade (From "The Firefly") Rudolf Friml Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar; Bill Gilliand, maracas 2:51
06 Stardust Hoagy Carmichael Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 3:56
07 Begin the Beguine (From "Jubilee") Cole Porter Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 2:53
08 Berl's Yancey Meade "Lux" Lewis Berl Olswanger, piano; Charlie Vunkannon, bass; Thomas Bennett, guitar 3:14

Original album released 1953, by Music Shop Records

Recorded at WMCT television station in Memphis, Tennessee

Digitization for Big Round Records Paul Adams/Adams Media Preservation

Executive Producer Bob Lord

Executive A&R Sam Renshaw
A&R Director Brandon MacNeil

VP, Audio Production Jeff LeRoy
Audio Director Lucas Paquette
Addtl. Mastering Shaun Michaud

VP, Design & Marketing Brett Picknell
Art Director Ryan Harrison
Design Edward A. Fleming
Publicity Patrick Niland, Sara Warner

Artist Information

Berl Olswanger


Berl Olswanger, dubbed "Mr. Music of Memphis" by the local press, grew up in Memphis in the 1920s and 1930s where he heard music that would later influence him as a composer. He quickly developed an affinity for the piano and began playing professionally at the age of 12. After a stint on WMC radio in his twenties, he joined the tour of the George Olsen Orchestra, which led him across the country from New York to Hollywood as he accompanied legendary acts like Bing Crosby and Jack Benny.


The following is a newspaper article on Berl Olswanger at the Piano as printed in the December 21, 1953, edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar.


These are exciting days for Berl Olswanger. First, there was the new little girl born last Thursday, and now today Berl Olswanger at the Piano, his first record album, is released.

The album, in both long play and 45 speed extended play, has eight tunes. “I tried to put in something to please everybody,” Berl said. “There wasn’t any particular method in my choice of numbers other than that.”

The tunes are “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Tenderly,” “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Stardust,” “Old Black Magic” in a modified rhumba boogie, “Begin the Beguine,” “Donkey Serenade,” and “Berl’s Yancey,” his own variation on the famous old “Yancey Special.”

The record is released under the Music Shop label and is a WMCT production. RCA did the recording from tapes made in WMCT studios. Charlie VunKannon on bass and Thomas Bennett on guitar are the accompaniment, and WMCT announcer Bill Gilliand was the man with the maracas for the hoof beats in “Donkey Serenade.” That one took more time than any. They had to do it six times before they were satisfied.

“We were trying for an echo effect,” Berl said, “and that donkey just went hog wild.”

Eddie Frase, WMCT publicist, designed the cover.

The album is dedicated to Vice Admiral John Dale Price, Berl’s old commanding officer in the Pacific, now chief of Naval Air Training at Pensacola. And Berl is kind enough to say “Berl’s Yancey” was included because I’ve liked his version of it ever since he used to bring the house down with it when he beat it out on the Malco stage back in 1940 as one of the Cats on the Keys.

— Robert Johnson


Berl Olswanger, the Mid-South’s favorite pianist, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Except for a four-year tour in the Navy during World War II when he was entertainment officer for the South Pacific under Admiral Halsey, he has refused to leave Memphis—despite the many offers that have come his way.

Berl has had a radio program since he was twelve years old, and transferred his talents to television when WMCT, the Mid-South’s pioneer station, came on the air five years ago. He was the only Mid-South entertainer listed in “Who’s Who in Radio and Television” for 1953.

Berl is also famous for his commercial jingle writing; his vocal arrangements for nationally known vocal groups; his smart suburban music store, featuring phonograph records, pianos, television sets, and sheet music; his music school where hundreds of students from 3 to 83 are learning to play the “Berl Olswanger Way”; and his talent agency.

Berl’s unique piano arrangements are a feature of his daily television programs over WMCT, and this album is in response to the hundreds of requests by listeners for an album of Berl Olswanger piano stylings.

Dedicated to my best listener, Vice Admiral John Dale Price.