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 an adult composer. He may have heard Bessie Smith, for example, the renowned blues shouter, who broadcast from the Palace Theater on Beale Street in 1923, or the many hot jazz orchestras that traveled through town and broadcast over local radio.
So, it's no surprise that as an adult, Berl wrote the blues numbers "The Man Who Stole My Beale Street Gal" and "Big Mistreatin' Bitter Sweet 'n' Blues," the latter appearing as a Big Band version on the Pepper Records label and as a traditional blues version on the Rivermont label.
Piano rags were still being composed in the 1920s, and they often showed a blues influence or were harmonically complex "display" pieces, so again, it's no surprise that Berl later wrote "Juice Harp Rag" (in the chromatic scale and considered a showpiece) and "Berl's Jazz Polka in Elevenths and Thirteenths" as rag display pieces. Others of his compositions, such as "You Can Play It Cool, Baby" and "Tennessee Skidoo," also had ragtime influences.
Berl was a prolific composer by the 1950s, but eventually gave up composing to focus on his music stores and orchestra. This website, created by his daughter Anna Olswanger, includes recordings that she discovered after her father's death in 1981, along with links to newspaper articles about him, fiction inspired by his childhood in the Jewish neighborhood of Memphis, and examples of his unrecorded music.
Berl was a child prodigy, and as the newspaper articles make clear, could have been a big star, but he chose to return to Memphis to be with the family and friends he loved. Memphis, in turn, loved him. As Bill E. Burk, 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."
Enjoy browsing through this website, and if you knew Berl, please click on Post a Message and share your stories about him.
Anna Olswanger with Memphis historian Dr. Richard Raichelson and University of Memphis professor Dr. David Evans