Berl Olswanger accompanying Bing Crosby at the San Francisco World's Fair, 1939
Berl Olswanger, dubbed "Mr. Music of Memphis" by the local press, grew up in Memphis in the 1920s and 1930s. 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.
With the start of the Second World War, Berl landed in the Navy. Admiral "Bull" Halsey immediately recognized the young pianist’s talent and placed him in charge of all music and entertainment for the South Pacific. After the War and Berl’s return to Memphis, impresario Ike Myers asked him to make no public appearances in order to prepare for a Middle Brow concert at Ellis Auditorium.
The concert was a sell-out. Mr. Myers gave Berl all the proceeds to go to New York where the William Morris Agency represented him for bookings. The Morris Agency said it would take several years to build up his name in order to be a drawing card at concerts and arranged for Berl to start by touring with Danny Kaye as his accompanist. After getting a good look at show business in New York, Berl decided that he loved Memphis more and left for home.
During the rest of his life he opened several music stores, influenced local music education, composed famous jingles, and wrote classic songs, including those he recorded at Pepper Records. From the 1940s until the 1980s in Memphis, if music was involved, Berl was there in some way. As the local press made clear, Berl could have been a big star, but he chose to live in Memphis with the family and friends he loved. Memphis, in turn, loved him. As a columnist for the Memphis Press-Scimitar wrote when Berl died in 1981: "His music will be missed, true, but what I will miss even more than his music will be Berl Olswanger, the man." The life of “Mr. Music of Memphis” was legendary on both a local and national scale.
Berl performs his arrangement of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" at the 1958 WMCT dedication.
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