George Olsen, born March 18, 1893, was one of the most successful bandleaders of the 1920s and early ’30s. His music was the background for many a raccoon-coat clad partygoer prior to the fateful day in October 1929 when it all came to a sudden crashing end. I’ve always found it intriguing to hear the subtle difference in Olsen’s music — anyone’s of this era, for that matter — between mid-1929 and early 1930. It’s as if the music had been violated and was only just beginning to recover from the shock.
Olsen’s music fell rapidly out of favor as his rather care-free style was supplanted by crooners of sad songs such as Say It Isn’t So and Just a Gigolo. He kept on trying, though, changing labels to Decca in 1934, then going further into obscurity with several changes of personnel but without changing his music to suit the times. By 1943, he had hung up his hat. After the war, he opened a restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, where diners were treated to a sound system that played his songs in constant rotation. It was successful enough to remain open until his death on March 18, 1971. He was exactly 78 years old. I’ve always thought it almost poetic: he recorded exclusively on 78rpm records. Shortly before his death, he was asked what he thought of modern music. Bear in mind, this was the age of The Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, and Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin 3.He said, “It’s okay. Some of it’s quite good. It’s just that music today isn’t fun any more. There’s no joy in it.”
That’s exactly how I’d sum up the reason I love this music so much.
Who (1925) – This was the first George Olsen song I ever heard. I pulled the record out of a garbage can around the corner from my home in Brooklyn back in 1966. I was shocked that anyone would throw out music!
Sunny (1925) This is the B side of Who. Sunny was a successful Broadway play (where Olsen’s band was in the pit!), then a movie starring Marilyn Miller.
A Garden in the Rain (1930) – Notice how this is subtly slower, more thoughtful than the 1929 stuff. A very pretty song.
Big City Blues (1927)
I Don’t Need Atmosphere (1930)
Miami (1927) “Sunlight am a-shinin’ down on the sea / soon it will be shinin’ down on me”
My Baby Don’t Mean Maybe Now (1928)
Out Where the Little Moonbeams Were Born (1929) That’s G. O. himself giving the corny intro.
Old Man Sunshine (1928) This is easily one of the most infectious and durable songs of the ’20s, which unfortunately has not survived in the popular canon.
Pickin’ Cotton (1928)
Where Were You, Where Was I (1928) Quick and fun vocal up front, then all instrumental.
Horses (1929) This is a painfully silly song. Listen only if you have a high tolerance for mindless fun from 1929)
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