Ólafur GaukurBorn: August 11th, 1930, Reykjavík (Iceland)
Died: June 12th, 2011, Reykjavík (Iceland)
As his parents noticed young Ólafur Gaukur was caught by the music virus, they allowed him to follow guitar lessons privately with Sigurð Briem, while he also took some piano courses and had a go at the trumbone somewhat later. In the course of the Second World War, young Ólaf and his school friends became interested in jazz music, which was brought to them by the occupying American army on so-called V-Records, morale boosting records sponsored by US government for the use of US military personnel overseas. Steinþór ‘Steini’ Steingrímsson, pianist and Ólaf’s lifelong friend from elementary school onwards, explains: “There was hardly any jazz on local radio and there were no jazz records available apart from these American V-discs. To us, it was very inspirational to get to know the American jazz giants. Gaukur’s first inspiration was guitarist Charlie Christian, but he also liked Benny Goodman, Svend Asmussen, Count Basie… and of course Django Reinhardt from Belgium. Inspired by the music of a local bandleader by the name of Aage Lorange, Gaukur and I formed a jazz trio right after war’s end, with Ólaf on the guitar, me at the piano, and Árni Elfar playing the clarinet. Ólaf was fifteen, I was only one year older! In the spring of ’46, we started playing professionally in saloons and bars around Reykjavík and we continued to do so for two years. We preferred playing jazz, but in fact we played anything, waltzes, tangos, and also straightforward dinner or cocktail music. There was plenty of work around the town and all of us worked for other bands and ensembles as well. We did not think about becoming famous… we just went for it, enjoying ourselves by playing music.”
It was not long before others recognized the talents of the young guitarist. In 1946, Ólafur Gaukur was invited by saxophonist Gunnar Ormslev to join his quintet. In the following years, he also occasionally teamed up with the KK Sextet, the most renowned dance and jazz band of the country. In ’48, with Kristján Magnússon (piano) and Hallur Simonarsson (double-bass), he formed the King Cole Trio, whilst also becoming the guitarist in the dance orchestra of Austrian maestro Carl Billich at Hotel Borg. At Billich’s request, Ólafur Gaukur, who later used to say that he regretted he had not become a pianist – probably because it would have allowed him to focus on arranging earlier in his career – also started arranging pieces for the orchestra. All the while, he was still in high school. When, in early ’48, the headmaster discovered an ad in a local newspaper in which his pupil was advertised as a fine jazz musician, he threatened to remove him from school if he did not quit his music activities. Ólafur Gaukur, though he realized jazz music was not approved of by the older generation, ignored the anger of the headmaster and stubbornly played on, until his father, who wanted his son to become a doctor, had had enough and sent his son to faraway Akureyri in Northern Iceland to finish his high school education as an extracurricular student. Young Ólafur graduated with flying colours in June ’49.
Upon his return in Reykjavík, Ólafur Gaukur enrolled at university to start his medicine studies. Meanwhile engaged to be married with the first baby underway, working as a musician was imperative to earn some badly needed money. Between 1949 and 1952, he played in several bands, including those of Björn R. Einarsson, Steinþór Steingrímsson, and the renowned KK Sextet. The last-mentioned band was regularly invited to perform in the wildly popular Mjólkurstöðin dance hall. During the summer season, Ólafur Gaukur did tours across Iceland with cabaret artists. In 1952, he quit university, deciding it was impossible to combine his studies with being a professional musician; one year before, he had begun working as a journalist at the Tíminn newspaper, where he stayed on for several years.
Leaving the KK Sextet, he brought the trio of his high school days back together; with it, he did stage performances with the most popular light entertainment artists of the country, perhaps most notably Adda Örnólfs, Ólafur Briem, Öskubuskur, Sigrún Jónsdóttir, and crooner Haukur Morthens; in 1956, the trio accompanied the American vocal group Delta Rhythm Boys for one week in Reykjavík’s Austurbæjarbíó Theatre. Between 1952 and 1966, Ólafur Gaukur – in the Icelandic live music industry of those days in which the coming together and disbanding of groups were rife and musicians leaving a band to join another after only a couple of months were a common feature as well – continued working with many different bands and dance orchestras, such as the Björn R. Einarsson Band, which played at Hotel Borg, the Leik-Trio, and, once again, the KK Sextet. Groups like these did not only perform in dance halls and saloons in Reykjavík, but did summer tours around Iceland, performed for the American soldiers based in Keflavík, and played live on the radio. Most of these formations played the flavour of the day, meaning that, from the late 1950s onwards, Ólafur Gaukur’s focus inevitably moved from his beloved jazz music to light entertainment and rock ‘n’ roll. For most of the bands he played in the 1950s and early 1960s, he penned the bulk of the arrangements.
Whilst, in the 1950s, Ólafur Gaukur, was recognized as Iceland’s best jazz guitarist by a mile, he also established himself as an arranger and studio musician in Iceland’s fledgling recording business. It was not long before he led most of the recording sessions himself, working with popular light entertainment artists such as Adda Örnólfs, Ragnar Bjarnason, Haukur Morthens, Ólafur Briem, and the Öskubuskur group. In 1957, he co-composed and arranged ‘Ljúfa vina’, recorded as a duet by Ragnar Bjarnason and Sigrún Jónsdóttir backed up by the KK Sextet, which was a major hit success and was chosen as the best pop song of the year by the Association of Icelandic Composers. In ’62, Ólafur Gaukur – who in his younger years had been inspired by Charlie Christian’s records to use the guitar not only as a rhythm instrument, but for solos as well – was responsible for the all important guitar solos in Ellý Vilhjálms’ monster hit ‘Vegir liggja til allra átta’; it is often considered the first true pop guitar solo ever invented by an Icelander.
Slightly atypical for an instrumentalist and arranger, Ólafur Gaukur produced far more song lyrics than compositions. His second wife Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir tries to explain: “Though he regularly composed songs, Ólafur often said that he could impossibly top all the good songs that had been written all over the world. Writing lyrics came naturally to him. He wrote hundreds of lyrics, and for everyone. In the 60s, he specialized in writing Icelandic lyrics to foreign hit successes. When he was working on lyrics, he used his old typewriter like a hammer – it could be heard from the street!” Ólafur Gaukur wrote Icelandic words to a Danish song of the Four Jacks, ‘O Marie, jeg vil hjem til dig’ (1960), which became an instant hit for the KK Sextet in Iceland. A couple of years later, he turned Gigliola Cinquetti’s 1964 Eurovision winner ‘Non ho l’età’ into ‘Heyr mína bæn’ for Ellý Vilhjálms. He also wrote lyrics for the likes of Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, Haukur Morthens, Ragnar Bjarnason, and many more. Ólafur Gaukur showed his versatility by writing song lyrics suitable to rock groups Dátar and Hljómar; especially his songs for the last-mentioned band, such as ‘Bláu augun þín’ and ‘Fyrsti kossinn’ (1964), ‘Þú og ég’, and ‘Syngdu’ (both from 1967), have stood the test of time wonderfully and are still amongst the best-liked pieces of Hljómar’s repertoire.
During his short spell in the Leik Trio, Ólafur Gaukur met Svanhildur Jakobsdóttir, who was Iceland’s contestant in Miss Universe 1960. Professionally, she was an airhostess, but the Leik Trio’s bass player Kristinn Vilhelmsson invited her to give singing with the group a try. Ólafur Gaukur and Svanhildur left the band in the spring of 1960. The couple got married in 1963; three years later, in 1966, they formed a band, the Sextett Ólafs Gauks & Svanhildur, with Ólafur Gaukur naturally playing the guitar, writing the arrangements, and leading the band, and Svanhildur providing the lead vocals. The band, which changed personnel regularly and had well-known musicians as its members – the likes of Björn Einarsson, Carl Möller, Engilbert Jensen, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, and Pálmi Gunnarsson –, was extremely successful, with monster hits such as ‘Segðu ekki nei’ (1967) and ‘Þú ert minn súkkulaðiís’ (1971), the latter song being a cover of Clodagh Rodgers’ UK Eurovision entry ‘Jack in the box’ with Icelandic lyrics by Ólafur Gaukur himself.
While the band played in Reykjavík’s most popular places on a daytime basis, the Lido (1966-’68), Þórscafé (1968), and Hotel Borg (1968-’75), it performed in extensive summer tours across Iceland. Svanhildur: “For several years, we did these cross-country tours in the summer months, performing our own shows and playing in dance halls. We usually had a tough schedule with long trips and stage shows for several days in a row. We bought a big car with the letters ‘Húllumhæ’ – the name of our show – painted on the sides, so from a distance it was very clear that the Ólafur Gaukur Sextet was in town! Ólaf, recognizing the success of the band domestically, wanted to try his luck abroad and thus we played in Hanover and Dortmund in West Germany in August and September 1969. While in Germany, we received several offers from other countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Canary Islands, and even Rhodesia, but by that time some of the band members badly wanted to return to Iceland and, moreover, I was pregnant with our second child, Anna Mjöll… the first one being a son, Andri Gaukur Ólafsson, who works as a surgeon in New Hampshire nowadays. So home we went! Later on, we went on several short trips abroad at the invitation of the Icelandic Associations in England, Norway, and the USA. In the 1970s, we continued to be much in demand in Iceland. We played popular songs, amongst which many covers from abroad with Ólaf’s lyrics. Of course, jazz was the music of his heart, but he did not have any inhibitions about playing pop – and, luckily, our band was very popular.”
Apart from their performances in Reykjavík and across the country as well as recording several albums, in 1967, the group was invited to create a programme for television, just one year after the national radio station of RÚV had started its TV broadcasts. Ólafur Gaukur created an entertainment show, ‘Hér Gala Gaukar’, which contained sketches as well as the band’s most popular songs and ran for four consecutive seasons (1967-’71). “Somebody from RÚV saw us playing in Lido”, Svanhildur recalls, “and invited us to try television. Ólafur wrote all the shows from beginning to the very end: the storyline, most of the songs by far, and naturally, the lyrics. This programme was a successful platform for the sextet, allowing us to play our repertoire for a nationwide audience.”
Ólafur Gaukur never entirely trusted being able to make a living as a performing artist alone. In 1965, with his colleague Björn Einarsson, he started a gardening company, while also publishing a short-lived teenage magazine with Þorsteinn Eggertsson. He continued writing arrangements for other artists, mainly at the request of Svavar Gests and his record company SG Hljómplötur. He hosted a radio talk show, ‘Vikan framundan’, in 1976. Picking up his old job of newspaper journalist after nearly twenty years, he became a member of the editorial office of the daily VR blaðið in 1982, where he stayed on for some twenty more years.
Ólafur Gaukur had worked as a private guitar teacher since the late 1950s and had even developed an innovative guitar course on audio cassettes, allowing pupils to learn to play by using letters rather than music notes, in 1961; by 1975, however, the decision was taken to try to make these music lessons the main source of income for the family, as Svanhildur explains: “Of course we had been working at Hotel Borg for seven years, but now we felt we had to sit down and think about the next steps in our life. Even though we had been lucky so far, we realized the time had come for a change. So it seemed to be a great idea to make use of Ólaf’s unique guitar skills and his popularity in this country, and start a new guitar school – especially since there was no such school in Iceland at that time. That is the way the Gítarskoli Ólafs Gauks saw the daylight in 1975! We began with absolutely nothing… but everything went absolutely crazy: I can still see myself sitting on the floor answering one telephone call after the other. We rented a place in the city centre for our school, but there were not enough guitars, as students were flocking to us in much larger quantities than we had anticipated. Since 1975, the concept has not really changed: we teach any student, from absolute beginners to the pre-conservatory level. Ólaf loved to teach... he was a teacher by heart, an idealist!” In 1976, Ólaf published a textbook for his students, ‘Leikur ad læra a gitar’, which is still the basic study book used by the school’s students. As the guitar school kept on expanding, it had to move several times during its existence, until finally settling down in a house in Síðumúli Street in Reykjavík, where it is still operated”.
While Ólafur and Svanhildur changed the name of their sextet to the Hljómsveit Ólafs Gauks (Ólafur Gaukur Band) in the late 1970s and continued performing using that name on special occasions into the 1990s, Ólafur Gaukur himself took an unusual decision. Svanhildur: “Until he reached the age of fifty, odd as it may sound, Gaukur never really accepted he was a musician. He was always going to be something else – he worked as a journalist for twenty years while teaching and playing – but as he was faring so well in music, he just kept going. In 1980, however, he finally accepted the fact that he was a musician… or rather: at last, he realized he was a musician, no matter if he wanted to be one or not. To expand his knowledge, he resolved to study music. It was a friend of his, Steve Mosco, who taught music at the respected Cal Art School in Valencia Ca., close to Los Angeles, who gave him the idea to go to the Grove School of Music in LA. For eight years, we as a family more or less moved to California, occasionally returning to Reykjavík. It was an adventure!”
From 1980 to 1984, Ólafur Gaukur studied composing and arranging at the Dick Grove School of Music, where he also took conducting courses and worked with famous teachers such as Henri Mancini. Subsequently, he enrolled on a new study, film music, at the same institute; his second graduation followed in 1988 – and with flying colours. A couple of years later, in 1994, he shortly returned to America, on a short course of guitar playing at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute to brush up his playing skills; at the end of the programme there, he was offered the post of guitar teacher at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, but, having his own school in Reykjavík to attend to, he decided to turn down the offer. During his student years, Ólafur Gaukur regularly arranged and produced studio work for the Icelandic market. For Svanhildur and daughter Anna Mjöll, he composed and arranged ‘Jólaleg jól’, a Christmas album (1989), and ‘Litlu börnin leika sér’, a CD with children’s songs (1994). On a very special commission, in 1989, Ólafur Gaukur was invited to arrange the track ‘Tidal wave’ on the album ‘Here today, tomorrow next week’ of Björk’s band Sugarcubes. A couple of years earlier, he had arranged his first pieces for the RÚV Big Band.
It took a couple of years before Ólafur Gaukur was handed the opportunity to put his academic knowledge about scoring film music into practice. The maestro himself in a 1996 interview: “When I went abroad to study film music, I realized that I would probably not receive the commission of composing an Icelandic soundtrack, because, in this country, people are not keen to let someone step forward for fear of eclipsing them. I had almost accepted this as a fact, when, two years ago, a young man who produced a music video called me to ask if I was interested to compose music to it. One thing led to another, and then another film maker called me who was working on a fully-fledged film, ‘Benjamín dúfa’. That was my first real soundtrack.” Ólafur Gaukur’s music to ‘Benjamín dúfa’ (1995) was nominated at the Berlin Film Festival. Apart from composing many jingles and music to TV series and TV films, he wrote two more soundtracks: ‘Perlur og svín’ (1997), including the amazing title track interpreted by Emiliana Torrini, and ‘Myrkrahöfðingjann’ (1999). Svanhildur adds: “His film music was well received in Iceland, but the market here was too small and he never composed another soundtrack after 1999. He would have liked to write more, because creating atmospheres was really what he liked best and it allowed him to show his technical abilities as a musician to the full.”
In the new century, Ólafur Gaukur kept on working on the occasional recording project with pop vocalists such as Friðrik Ómar and Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir. In 2002, he finally released an album with the music of his heart, ‘2 jazzgítarar’, for which he teamed up with fellow Icelandic jazz pioneer and guitar legend Jón Páll Bjarnason. That same year, Ólafur Gaukur conducted the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in a concert celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’, for which he teamed up with producer and band leader Jón Ólafsson. For his daughter Anna Mjöll, meanwhile a celebrated jazz vocalist on the USA’s West Coast, he produced, arranged, and conducted two albums, ‘Shadow of your smile’ (2009) and ‘Christmas Jazzmaz’ (2010).
In the last years of his life, Ólafur Gaukur received several prizes in recognition of his value for Icelandic music. In 2006, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Icelandic Association of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. Two years later, he became an honorary member of the aforementioned society, whilst the Icelandic president knighted him in the Order of the Falcon. In 2009, his fellow-guitarists handed him the symbolic ‘Golden Guitar Plectrum’ at a convention of guitarists in Kópavogur. Ólafur Gaukur, who kept on teaching at his own institute until the last, died of an incurable disease in the summer of 2011.
Ólafur Gaukur in the Eurovision Song Contest
Ólafur Gaukur’s daughter Anna Mjöll, born in 1970, started her singing career under the watchful eye of her parents and took part in several competitions in the first years of the 1990s, winning the Landslagið Song Festival, a televised song contest in Iceland, in 1991 with ‘Ég aldrei þorði’. In 1993, she came second in the Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection with ‘Eins og skot’ and one year later she again participated in the same competition, this time with ‘Stopp’ (arranged by Jon Kjell Seljeseth). Her father was involved in both songs, as Anna recalls: “Quite opposite to the song with which I won Landslagið, for which I wrote music and lyrics all by myself, ‘Eins og skot’ was completely written by my dad, though he insisted on putting my name on it as the songwriter, so I would not look like all the other female singers out there. For ‘Stopp’, I had the idea for the title and the theme of the song, composing the melody myself; dad wrote the lyrics, but he did not want his name on this song either – because he always wanted to give everything to me and also since he did not believe this song was good enough.”
In 1996, Anna Mjöll received an invitation from RÚV to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest without a prior pre-selection to be held in Reykjavík. Having accepted the opportunity to finally climb the Eurovision stage, Anna now again turned to her father. Svanhildur, Ólafur Gaukur’s wife and Anna’s mother: “Anna and Ólaf always were a good team. They were very much alike, not only in music – she got the jazz-mania from him –, but character-wise, as well. Anna was determined to do this Eurovision project with her father and with nobody else.” Anna adds: “At the time when I was telephoned by RÚV, I was in Los Angeles. The next thing I did was calling my dad asking for his help. I came up with the name of the song, ‘Sjúbídú’, because I felt we needed a catchword to make up for Icelandic not really being on a level playing field with the big beautiful languages out there that everyone speaks or understands, such as English, French, and Spanish; everybody, however, knows the international language of music: ‘Shoobe-doo’. I explained my dad I wanted the lyrics to state that the whole world sings ‘Shoobe-doo’, just like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley. I composed the melody for the chorus – and that is all I did, because dad took care of the rest, including the original idea that ‘Shoobe-doo’ is being sung from Skagaströnd to Timbuktu. In a few days, he was ready writing the lyrics as well as the rest of the melody. In the course of these couple of days, we were on the phone constantly. Our mutual phone bills were pretty impressive that month. When the time came to write the arrangement, it was only natural my dad would take care of that as well… I mean, he had graduated from the Dick Grove School of Music in LA specializing in arranging for big bands and orchestras. We agreed we wanted the song to swing… given the contents of the lyrics, it had to swing! So he wrote a swinging big band arrangement.”
With the Eurovision finals in Oslo only a couple of weeks away, Ólafur Gaukur was interviewed by an Icelandic daily. Asked about the reputation of the contest, he made an interesting comparison: “At the time when I was a young man and came into the music industry, jazz music was pretty much looked at in the same way as Eurovision is nowadays. Some people thought of it as evil, trying to demonstrate that they themselves were on a higher cultural level. However, back then just as nowadays, there is always this silent majority of people which values good music no matter where it comes from. The waltzes by Johann Strauss were also despised by so many, but they are still popular nowadays with a large audience. Good popular songs have always been a valid product and they always will be.”
Given the strong ties between Anna Mjöll and Ólafur Gaukur as well as the fact that he had written the arrangement, it was a natural thing that he himself would conduct the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Svanhildur: “Being the professional and the perfectionist that he was, I think, deep down, he might have been a little nervous about conducting the Eurovision orchestra on live TV for millions of people, but he was determined to do so himself. He had invested a lot of time and money on his music studies in America in the 80s and, now being a trained conductor, there was no question that anyone else would take this away from him… Moreover, Anna was determined to have her father up on the stage with her. She would not have accepted going with anyone else but him.”
In Oslo, ‘Sjúbídú’ was well received by the Norwegian orchestra musicians. Anna Mjöll: “The orchestra was so happy with the arrangement that a couple of its players came to my dad to thank him for bringing a ‘real’ arrangement into the competition. Amidst a field of competitors in which more and more of the music was computer-programmed, they had enormous fun playing our big-band oriented song. The orchestra members recognized they had a real pro in the room and did not hesitate to show their appreciation. It felt so warm and good to have my dad taking care of the band for my performance. Thank God there was still an orchestra in Eurovision at that time to play it… that is what made it fun! The rehearsals went smoothly and when the song was played by the amazing orchestra in Oslo which knew how to play a swinging arrangement in a swinging way, and I saw the audience swinging out there, I knew we had succeeded!”
The Oslo experience really turned into an all-family affair, when the Head of Delegation of RÚV turned out to have other priorities than promoting Anna Mjöll and ‘Sjúbídú’, this task revolving upon Anna’s mother Svanhildur. Anna: “My mom took over PR and she did a brilliant job. For the remainder of the week in Oslo, I just saw glimpses of her here and there, because she was literally running all the time, keeping the international press happy. She was amazing and they all loved her.” Svanhildur herself about her unexpected role in Oslo, laughingly: “Yes, I probably was the busiest of the family… I lost several kilos that week. We were too busy to hook up with other artists present in the contest, though I remember Jasmine from Finland, as I liked her song. Later, I played it in my radio show in Iceland. It was so exciting to be able to participate in the Eurovision adventure – and Eurovision was something which was really big back then.”
Backed up by her quartet of American backing singers – Rick Palombi, Ross Bolton, Daniel O’Brien, and Michael Maher – Anna Mjöll managed to pick up fifty-one points and finished thirteenth amongst twenty-three participating acts. Anna about her memories of the big night: “Like my father, I was looking forward to the experience. He found it humbling and considered it a great honour to get to write an arrangement for one of Europe’s finest orchestras and then conduct it live on television for 125 million viewers. It was an exhilarating experience which made him extremely happy and me extremely proud. Oh yes, he was nervous… I remember watching him in the mirror as I was putting on my make-up before the show – he was pacing back and forth, saying: “This is crazy and I am never going to do this again!” Then, after the voting was over, he looked at me and said: “This was fun… we should do this again sometime!”.
Other artists on Ólafur Gaukur
Gunnar Þórðarson, whose iconic 1960s rock band Hljómar often recorded lyrics written by Ólafur Gaukur: “As a musician and specifically as an arranger, Ólafur Gaukur was in a league of his own in his days. The arrangements he wrote for his own sextet could always be pointed out easily, with the saxophone and guitar playing in unison. It was the owner of our record label who recommended asking him to write lyrics for us. Although at first sight it might seem an odd combination to have a jazz musician writing lyrics for a rock group such as ours, there was nothing uncomfortable about it. Ólafur Gaukur was a very nice man, who had an open eye and ear to our music.” (2012)
Jon Kjell Seljeseth worked with Ólafur Gaukur as a studio musician in the 1980s and 1990s, amongst others on two of his film scores: “It was always a pleasure working with Ólafur. He was a very likeable person with a great sense of humour. It was not least due to his character that I was always keen on teaming up with him. Having his diplomas for composing and arranging in the pocket, his arrangements were always written out to perfection. Having played thousands of notes from scores written by Ólafur Gaukur, I cannot remember one error – not a single note wrong… the level of his professionalism was simply extraordinary.” (2012)
Producer and pop musician Jón Ólafsson called on Ólafur Gaukur’s help for several special projects in the 1990s and early 2000s: “I invited Ólafur Gaukur to arrange some tracks for Emiliana Torrini, woodwinds and strings. Especially his string arrangements are charming and second to none. A couple of years later, I did the Sgt. Pepper’s concert with him on stage conducting the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra accompanying me and a band of rock musicians. He really enjoyed conducting that gig! It felt great working with one of the legends of Icelandic music, for whom I have the utmost respect.” (2012)