The standbys of our popular culture--films, music, comic art--all have their counterparts in Europe. This is not only true today, it was also true 60 and 70 years ago. The purpose of this page is to call attention to the existence of some remarkable jazz and close harmony vocal groups that performed and recorded in Europe primarily in the 1930s.
Few, if any, of these performers are well known in the United States. The one group most likely to be recognized is the fabulous "Comedian Harmonists." But this is like saying that The Beatles were the best known British rock group and letting it go at that. Shouldn't The Rolling Stones, at least be mentioned? Of course. And there were many other jazz and close harmony vocal groups during the swing era in Europe, as well.
Regrettably, this page will serve only as a brief introduction to them, as your humble author is also operating with a bare minimum of information. Still, if this whole area is a complete blank to you, I invite you to regard the following as an entreé to something truly extraordinary.
The story of The Comedian Harmonists is more than a story of their music. It is a classic tale of the mercurial rise and tragic fall of exceptionally talented performers. Sixty-five years after their preeminence, they are little known in the United States. But, as we shall see, this has begun to change. In the meantime, gaze upon this dapper group of men in wonder. They were something special! (Click the image for a better look.)
I can offer no better introduction to the music of this exceptional group than that found in the notes by Charles Haynes accompanying CD 7000 - The Comedian Harmonists, released in 1993 on the "Flapper" label:
The idea of singers vocalising to make humorous mimicry of music conceived for instrumental forces must be familiar to many from the Swingle Singers' renderings of Bach in the 1960s. ... The concept in fact dates back a good deal earlier. Late in 1927, a gifted but unemployed German singer/comedian named Harry Frommermann thought of trying to form a male voice quintet to explore this genre. Frommermann had been inspired by hearing records of an American group, "The Revelers". Their aim would be not merely to vocalise, but to give renderings of a variety of different kinds of song, the accompaniments to be provided orally, supplemented discreetly on occasion by a piano.
Some brief historical perspective is in order. In 1927, Frommermann, seeking to compliment his own rich tenor voice, placed an advertisement in the Berlin Lokalanzeiger, soliciting other members for the quintet. Many applicants were turned away before Robert Biberti, the son of a singer at the Berlin Opera House, presented himself along with his deep and softly resonant bass voice. Biberti's advice and contacts soon led to the engagement of the other members. Ari Leschnikoff, a Bulgarian who had given up a military career to become a professional singer, became the lead tenor. Erich A. Collin, became second tenor, Frommermann himself was third, and Roman Cycowski, a Pole well known as an operatic singer in the '20s, was the baritone. The sixth man (and sometimes sixth voice) was Erwin Bootz, piano accompanist who, in collaboration with Frommermann, also worked on the musical arrangements.
As stated by Peter Dempsey in notes to a recent CD to be mentioned below:
... the ensemble was blessed, in addition to prodigious vocal and musical talent, with a multi-lingual capacity and a broadly based facility in many styles ranging from classical to the latest popular material.
And, as observed on the liner notes to an Australian LP (also to be mentioned):
There has never been another male-voice quintet quite like the Comedy Harmonists. "They adorn whatever they touch" wrote a critic at the time. Certainly their exquisitely conceived performances, rendered with immaculate musicianship, have never been surpassed. The group's originality lay in the imitation of musical instruments, the way their five voices could sound like a small orchestra.
The men soon achieved great success, producing many recordings, appearing in a dozen films, and sharing the bill with such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich. In-person tours included engagements in Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, and London, with their popularity eventually taking them to the United States, where they appeared at a celebrated performance aboard the "Saratoga" in the Hudson River in June 1934. The group also found time for several radio concerts on NBC. The fairy tale rise to fame came to an abrupt end due to the emergence of Adolph Hitler in Germany. Three members of The Comedian Harmonists were Jewish and the group was forcibly disbanded, giving their last German concert in Munich on March 25, 1934.
Seeing these guys in person must have been quite an experience. Their popularity is evidenced by the packed house shown in this rare concert photo. The overflow crowd was seated on the stage. Click on the picture to see a larger image. Notice the five singers facing the audience with the sixth man, on the right, at the piano.
In later recordings and appearances, new men replaced some of the original members, but the fact that the "Comedian Harmonists" is not a household name today can be attributed directly to the tragedy that dominated Europe for more than a decade. Those of you interested in additional historical information will want to track down the article entitled "Their sweet song turned bitter long ago," which appeared in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times on March 31, 1991.
For those who read German, I refer you to two excellent books: "Die Comedian Harmonists" by Eberhard Fechner, published in 1988, and "Comedian Harmonists" by Peter Czada and Günter Große, first published in 1993. A second (and corrected) edition appeared in January 1998.
We are fortunate that the career of The Comedian Harmonists was relatively well documented by photographers. In addition to their fabulously popular concert appearances, the six gentlemen appeared on the theatrical stage and in motion pictures. At left we see a great photo of the horse-drawn "van" presumably used by the touring group. A selection of other photos is set forth on a separate page.
Quite a few recordings by The Comedian Harmonists are available. Regrettably, there is also a good bit of duplication among the various collections. Here are details relating to several of the available CDs of which I am aware:
Public Domain (ZYX Music) PD 2004-2 - Comedian Harmonists - Veronika, Der Lenz Ist Da
If you can find it, this double CD is the hands-down choice. It has the triple advantage of delivering relatively superior sound quality, containing 35 well-chosen selections, and being budget priced, as well. Its only negative is the total absence of liner notes. This is a German CD which my wife bought at Virgin Records in London in 1996. At least three numbers on this CD are classic. Similar collections released on other labels either are (or will be) available. If you plan to buy only one Comedian Harmonists CD, check to ascertain that these selections are on it:
Flapper CD 7000 - The Comedian Harmonists
This is an excellent selection of 22 recordings which, in the words of the liner notes, are "...marvelous! Amusing perhaps, but much more than that--virtuoso, tender and delicate, utterly musical and, on some tracks, pretty unbuttoned!" The sound quality on this disc leaves something to be desired, but it does contain the three numbers mentioned above as well as a wonderful rendition of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call," and Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz."
Don't trust my enthusiasm. Here's a review of this collection found at the "Primarily A Capella" site:
What a find! The Comedian Harmonists were a German ensemble with a brief but glorious musical career from 1929-1935 (terminated by Hitler, as three of the group were Jewish). The group began with a focus on "voicetrumental" music - imitating instruments with only voice (aided at most times by "just" a piano). This wonderful recording opens with a tour de force performance of "The Barber of Seville" Overture--clearly, the inspiration for the later version by the Swingle Singers. They do a credible balalaika on "When Sonia Danced in Russian Style," and the jazz band on "Creole Love Call" is simply wonderful. There are twenty-two songs on this compilation of historic recordings. We highly recommend this to anyone, especially those interested in learning about the roots of contemporary a cappella, as today's voicetrumentalists owe much to these inspirational pioneers.
ASV/Living Era CD AJA5204 - Comedy Harmonists
If you want as much variety for a good price as possible, this is your best and most readily available introduction to The Comedian Harmonists. The ASV/Living Era series, generally, is quite exceptional and, even though they are imported from Great Britain, CDs in this series can usually be bought for between $10.50 and $13.00 from local shops or on the Internet. This 1996 release, with good notes by the aforementioned and ever-reliable Peter Dempsey, presents 25 well-chosen selections, including all of the titles mentioned above, with the glaring exception of "Dorfmusik." Still, this is a better buy than the Flapper disc, if for no other reason than the superior sound quality. Examples from the entire range of the groups' 1930's experience are included, from a 1929 recording on which they are joined by tenor Marcel Wittrisch to an English version of "Congo Lullaby" recorded by the reorganized version of the group in London in 1937.
Notice that the group name is given as "Comedy" rather than "Comedian." The difference in spelling came about when the singers reached London in the late '30s. EMI's Fred Gaisberg thought that "Comedy" would be better received by the British public.
Best.Nr. 2113-203 - Comedian Harmonists--Definitive Collection
This double CD collection on the "Arena" label may or may not be "definitive," but it certainly presents a lot for the money. While this set includes only one (Perpetuum Mobile) of the "classic" numbers aforementioned, there are several selections not included in the other collections mentioned here. An odd and wonderful example is "Kannst Dupfeifen Johanna," for all you whistling and gargling fans. Released in 2002, this is the most recent of the CDs mentioned on this page. There are absolutely no liner notes, other than a listing of the titles, but the sound is relatively good and, at $11.99 for 51 songs, the value just plain can't be beat.
EPM 983782 - Les Comedian Harmonists--Chantent en Francais
For something a little different, try this exceptional collection of 45 recordings on the reliable French EPM label. Popular entertainers in Europe commonly recorded the same tune in more than one language, the better to market their product throughout the continent. There are many examples by The Comedian Harmonists recorded not only in the original German, but in English and French versions as well.
These two discs collect the French versions of nearly all the popular songs for which the group is known. In addition, the collection includes several numbers recorded by the reorganized version of the group, headquartered in Vienna and London, and not previously available on either CD or LP. Another bonus with this set is the very excellent seven pages of notes (in both French and English versions), by Alain Délot and Marc Monneraye, which are more complete than any that I have seen elsewhere. Indeed, it is from these notes that we find details regarding the latter days of the group members:
... in 1947 Frommermann and Collin made a last-ditch attempt to resurrect the Harmonists. But the adventure would not last beyond a couple of years, and only a single record, made in Zürich, resulted from their endeavours: a coupling of The Donkey Serenade and You And The Night And The Music.
Considering the previously unreleased tracks, two numbers with Josephine Baker, and other goodies (eg. the rendering of "The Continental"), this release has a lot to recommend it. If having this marvelous music means more to you than hearing it in the original language, you couldn't go wrong in making this set your only Comedian Harmonists purchase. Of course if you get hooked on these guys, this French-import double-CD becomes a "must."
As we have seen, plenty of The Comedian Harmonists' recordings are available on CD. However, if you want to locate the treasure trove of their recordings, you need look no further than a series of LPs released by EMI Electrola, between 1974 and 1980. There were five double albums which means (let's get out the calculator) ten records. Each of these double sets contains between 24-28 selections, for a total of something like 125 recordings. I have volumes 1, 2, 3, and 5, more than enough to satisfy any appetite. There is a certain amount of duplication, if you count the different language versions of the same tune. Actually, it is quite interesting to hear both the German and English versions of recordings which otherwise have identical arrangements.
Apparently EMI Electrola has also released these (or very similar) double disc sets on CD in Europe. To be honest, this material is being repackaged and reissued faster than I care to keep up with it. For exhaustive details, I invite you to visit this well illustrated discography, which seeks to be complete.
Those of you with browsers that support certain plug-in music players may now click the little black right-pointing arrowhead and listen to the Comedian Harmonists singing "Maskenball im Gansestall." Some of you heard it when this page first loaded. [36 seconds -- 391K]
Recordings by the Comedian Harmonists are not easy to find, but leading online retailers have good selections. Clicking the Amazon image leads to a page where you may search for them. And if you buy something, there is a small rebate to yours truly that will help defray the expense of maintaining this site.
I was introduced to this marvelous group by Volume 2 of this series, EMI Electrola IC 148-31 468/69 Comedian Harmonists Folge 2, pictured here, and would recommend it to you without reservation. The interior of the fold-open jacket contains five great pictures, and the 28 selections on these records are hard to beat. Yes, in this case, Volume 2 is better than Volume 1.
One other LP of note is EMI (Australian) 260411 Virtuosi In Harmony - The Comedy Harmonists which collects 16 songs all performed in English. Some of these were recorded at the Abbey Road studio in London. This is a 1985 LP and I am not aware of its having been released as a CD. In addition to several of the numbers mentioned above, this disc includes the quintet's versions of two tunes from the Disney Snow White movie: "Whistle While You Work" and the "Dwarf's Yodel Song."
A further tidbit or two:
On the very excellent CD "Berlin By Night" (EMI CDP 7 96331 2) issued in 1991, we find a tune entitled "Regentropfen" (Raindrops) by the Ludwig Rueth Orchestra and "The Metropole Vocalists," recorded in 1935. Well, these Metropole guys either are The Comedian Harmonists, recording under an assumed name, or they are some other group with an uncanny talent for mimicry. This same CD includes "Wochenend und Sonnenschein" (Happy Days Are Here Again) recorded by our guys in 1930. Not many years would pass before that number would have to be dropped from their repertoire.
In September 1935, The Comedian Harmonists recorded two songs with the famous Josephine Baker, one a production number for the movie "Princess Tam Tam." The song, "Sous le Ciel D'Afrique," in addition to being included on the EPM French-import set described above, may be found on more than one of the available Josephine Baker CD compilations. I have seen this film and can report that while our guys' voices appear in the movie, their personages do not. Nor are they shown on the sheet music, as we can see. The second recording, "Espabilate," is a straight collaboration with Miss Baker joining in as a sixth voice. This one is also available on the EPM double-CD
I have been seriously tempted to create a Josephine Baker Web page. She was certainly a fabulously larger-than-life character. However, Miss Baker doesn't really meet the obscurity test more or less established as a criteria for my other pages. For those of you with a taste for French Music Hall performers, be sure to take a look at my tribute to Mistinguett.
"Real Audio" On The Web
If you just can't wait to hear more of these guys (and assuming your computer has "real audio" capability), you can log on to this German language web site, click on "sounds" in the little menu to your left, and proceed to listen to a lot more right now!
The Film, the Musical, the Rest ...
The Comedian Harmonists have once again emerged into the public consciousness. A musical production may be on its way to Broadway and a German-language feature film ("The Harmonists") has been released in the United States. Those who are interested may proceed to more about such matters, as well as a look (with pictures) at the later career of the original members and information about a "tribute" group that continues the tradition today.
If you've stayed with me this far, it would appear that you have more than a passing interest in the subject of this page. The Comedian Harmonists truly were exceptional performers, fully worthy of the predominant amount of space that I have devoted to them.
Having said this, I should mention that their music is more on the "close harmony" side of the page than on the "jazz" side. Let us now turn to the other groups, mostly on the jazz or "swing" side, performers who are also worthy of much greater recognition, beginning with two remarkable gentlemen from Hungary.
These guys are just terrific! And they cut literally hundreds of records. Yet, I have only a tidbit of information about them. Then again, that's why I have these Web pages -- to seek those who may have more information than I do.
"The Two Jazzers" were Lászlo Mocsányi and Tibor Lakos, both of whom were born in 1903 in Budapest, Hungary, and attended the same school in their youth. At the age of 25, they made their first broadcast in Budapest. In Autumn of 1928, they made their first records with Columbia.
They became quite well known in Vienna, Austria, and in February 1929 were engaged at the famous "Haller-Revue" in Berlin, followed by an engagement at the legendary "Kabarett der Komiker", also in Berlin. In Germany, the fellows recorded for "Ultraphone," began appearing on the radio on March 19th, 1929, and were popular enough to attract the attention of Terra-Film.
At the end of 1930, they went back to Budapest. Prior to this time, their performances had been accompanied by well known orchestras, but they now developed their own style, performing mostly in Hungarian. In 1932, they organized the Harlem Melody Band and began recording on their own label "Radius and Weekend."
My sources have no mention of their activities after 1934, but it is estimated that they recorded something like 80-90 titles in German, a few in English, and up to several hundred in Hungarian and possibly other languages. A seemingly exhaustive discography, compiled by Ilona Abella, is available on a Hungarian web site.
Tibor Lakos died in Budapest, in 1945, a young man barely in his forties. Lászlo Mocsányi passed away December 24, 1982, at the age of 79.The Recordings
To the best of my knowledge there are no recordings by The Two Jazzers available on CD, except for a few titles on collections available in Europe. Even on LP, we find only the barest appetizer:
Harlequin HQ 2015 Jazz and Hot Dance in Hungary
Volume 6 in Harlequin's "Jazz and Hot Dance" series is one of the two or three best in the whole 20 or more volumes. Nearly every artist on it deserves more exposure. Primary among these are "The Two Jazzers," who, the liner notes tell us, recorded more than 400 sides(!) in Berlin, Budapest, and Bucharest. The one number on this LP, "Bimbambulla," recorded in Berlin in 1929, is falling-down great stuff, described on the liner notes as combining "attempts at scat singing and instrument imitation." Access to this recording is provided on the MultiMedia Page. If it is any indication of the nature of these guys' other sides, a double-album "Best of" CD would be a dream come true for fans of this sort of thing. Indeed, a collector in Germany reports that the fellows did record more "tonguebreakers" like "Bimbambulla."
EMI Electrola(Horzu Exclusiv) 1C 134-32
450/51 Jazz in Deutschland Vol. 2 (1928-1941)
These are two double LPs that I was fortunate enough to buy in a German record shop in New York City some years ago. The same recording of "I'm Doing What I'm Doing For Love" is found on both of them. Here we have the duo performing with a band led by the American clarinet player, Teddy Kline, recorded in 1929. I'm not going to say that this single recording is worth the price of an imported LP, but it is another fine example of The Two Jazzers' talent and the other material on both of these sets provides a good example of German Jazz as it was played between the wars.
"De Tre Rhythm Girls," effervescent young ladies from Denmark who recorded in the early 1930s, were Ulla Krause, Grete Hemmeshøj-Frederiksen, and Grete Kordt. This is another exceptional group, about whom I have great interest but little information. So this is largely a call for assistance from anyone out there who may have photos or other information about them.The Recordings
I have only two recordings by The Three Rhythm Girls, both of which are great fun, displaying a style that is sort of a cross between The Boswell Sisters and The Singing Chipmunks.
EMI Odean J9-10 Dansk Guldalder Jazz - Vol. 1-2
This 2-LP set, otherwise of great interest for its several early Danish Jazz numbers by Svend Asmussen and the Leo Mathisen Band, covers the period 1933-1941. The two earliest numbers ("Skoletimer" and "Geografi") feature our girls chirping some of the most enjoyable music of its sort that you are ever likely to hear. They are accompanied on both numbers only by pianist Kjeld Nørregård. On "Geografi" the girls are joined by opera singer Aksel Schiøtz. Both of these songs are from a jazz oratorio entitled "24 Timer" (The 24 Hours). I don't understand Danish, but the lyrics seem to mention "Hollywood" and maybe even President Roosevelt. Access to both numbers is provided on the MultiMedia Page. As with "The Two Jazzers," if these recordings are any indication of their other output, it would be a great treat, indeed, to find a complete CD featuring these delightful young ladies.
A couple of other selections on this LP are worthy of mention. Asta and Inga Kordt (Grete's sister) appear with a male quartet in delightful tunes, one of which includes a "wock-wock" or two. Overall, there is a lot to recommend this 28-selection album.
Harlequin HQ 2024 Jazz and Hot Dance in Denmark
By 1940, Grete Kordt had joined with sisters Inga and Elsa, and the threesome was recording as "The Kordt Sisters." The one example on this record is a fine rendition of "Some of These Days," with the gals still styling themselves after The Boswell Sisters, but having left the Chipmunks behind. The liner notes tell us that the sisters "made several records during the 1940s."
Thanks are owed to Erik Kordt Christensen for sending me this picture of his mother and her sisters. He tells me that his father Bernhard Christensen, a composer, arranged much of their music in the 40s from American jazz-standards such as Tiger Rag, Solitude, After You've Gone, Whispering, etc. As of the summer of 1999, his mother, aged 86, and father, aged 93, were still living and actively interested in music.
There were other European jazz and close harmony vocal groups, perhaps many others, both male and female. A group of Hungarian singers called "The 5 Songs" were apparently very popular, as was the "Abel Quartett," and a group entitled "Kardosch Sänger." I know absolutely nothing about any of them. A CD that has yet to find its way into my hands, entitled "Rivalen der Comedian Harmonists. Warum, weshalb, wieso?" (Duophon 01423) contains songs by the "Four Admirals," the "Melody Gents," and the "Singing Babies," among others. I hope to report on it in the future. In the meantime, a couple of other groups, found on the Harlequin label's series of "Jazz and Hot Dance" albums, are worthy of mention.The Recordings
Harlequin HQ 2017 Jazz and Hot Dance in Finland
"Girl groups," inspired by the Andrew Sisters and Boswell Sisters, seem to have popped up all over Scandinavia. Volume 8 in this exceptional series includes a recording of Cab Calloway's "Nain, Nain" by "The Harmony Sisters" whose picture is shown here. The gals recorded the tune in Helsinki in May 1945, at roughly the same time Adolph Hitler was committing suicide! Maire, Vera, and Raija Valtonen, really were sisters. The trio successfully toured Sweden and Germany and are said, in the liner notes, to have "recorded some remarkably swinging sides for the short-lived Mirva label." Here they are accompanied by "Ja Mirvan Sekstetti" (The Mirvan Sextette) under the leadership of pianist Toivo Kärki, who went on to become Finland's most successful popular composer and A&R man.
Harlequin HQ 2052 Jazz and Hot Dance after the Nazis, 1946-1949
A short time after the end of World War II, jazz musicians in Germany once again became active. The war had barely ended when the "Radio Berlin Tanzorchester" (abbreviated R.B.T.) was organized and began playing a modern mixture of dance music, swing, and jazz. By 1946, they were recording under the direction of composer/arranger Horst Kudritzki. The following is lifted directly from the liner notes of this Harlequin album, written by Dr. Rainer E. Lotz:
In late 1946 Kudritzki suggested the formation of a male vocal/instrumental trio Die 3 R.B.T.-Solisten, consisting of Mischa Andrejew (string bass), Fred Oldörp (bandoneon), and Eddie Rothe (guitar). They oriented their musical style after Nat King Cole's Trio and Slim Gaillard's combos. The trio was featured in many public appearances at concerts organized by Radio Berlin. ... In 1947 they occasionally performed for AFN, the American Armed Forces Network in the US sector. The American radio announcer did not want to introduce them as members of the Eastern R.B.T. and, therefore, invented the name The Three Travellers. This name stuck and later recordings were indeed issued thus. ... Very much like their great idol, the King of Vout, Slim Gaillard, this ensemble bursts its seams with musical wit and nonsense extempores. ... They were also rather capable parodists and occasionally talked and sang in in various German dialects.
This album contains four recordings by the group, three of them from a rare unissued acetate the sound quality of which is little better than atrocious. The fourth one, "Inspiration," showcases the trio as a clever and entertaining group, but the quality of these recordings is so poor as to be of little more than academic interest.
Yes, the information on these jazz vocal groups is sketchy at best. I will be pleased to provide further detail, as well as information regarding similar performers not mentioned here, once such information comes to my attention.
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