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Memphis produced some of the biggest names in the popular music of the twentieth century. W.C. Handy, Elvis, B.B. King, Otis Redding and other Stax recording artists occupied the national spotlight for many decades. Meanwhile another Memphian was playing his sophisticated brand of music in the background: Berl Olswanger, “Mr. Music of Memphis.” He may have had as great an impact on his hometown as any of the big names. Yet his story has never been told.
Berl’s talent and personality set him on a trajectory for fame from the time he played his first gig at twelve. During WWII, after touring with the George Olsen Orchestra, he enlisted in the Navy and was appointed by Admiral Halsey to be Director of Entertainment for the South Pacific, a huge job for someone still in his twenties. Moving to New York after the war, Berl was contracted by the William Morris talent agency, which planned to groom him to be a nationally known performer by putting him on tour as an accompanist for the wildly popular Danny Kaye.
Berl thought about the offer for a ‘New York minute,' and realized that he hated New York, and wanted to take his talents and energy back home to the place he loved best.
For the next forty years, Berl made a wide variety of contributions to music in Memphis as a performer, composer, educator and successful businessman. He had his own TV show; started a music store that provided instruments, lessons and inspiration to young Memphians; and created an innovative piano instruction course. All the while, he was composing popular songs and advertising jingles, mentoring aspiring vocalists, and leading an orchestra whose performances set the standard for elegance for several generations of Memphis Society.
Through interviews with music scholars, band members and fans, footage of television appearances, high quality photos spanning his career, remastered recordings of songs he wrote and performed, “Berl: Mr. Music of Memphis” will be a melodic journey through the second half of the twentieth century, a nostalgic look at Memphis as it used to be, and a tribute to the man who was instrumental in bringing the gift of music to so many Memphians for so many years.
Previous Verissima Productions documentaries in Memphis have included “The Jews of Memphis," and “Citizens not Subjects!” about the E.H. Crump political machine. Pam and Rob Cooper were Co-Producer and Director of “Zamir Chorale: Jewish Voice Return to Poland." Rob was also Producer/Director of “Good Mornin’ Blues," hosted by B.B. King, which aired on PBS.