Mats OlssonBorn: November 3rd, 1929, Stockholm (Sweden)
In the late 1940s, Olsson formed a band of his own. Later onwards, he played the piano in the Stockholm-based entertainment orchestras of Arthur Österwall, Carl-Henrik Norin, Gösta Törner, and Seymour Österwall, with which he played in the capital’s dance palaces, bars, and restaurants, while he went on tour with them to play in open-air folkpark concerts across the country during the summer months. Most importantly, between 1954 and 1957, Olsson was a member of the big band of Thore Ehrling, who, originally a trumpet-player, was amongst the best-known orchestra leaders of the country. His ensemble included some of the finest jazz musicians in Sweden, including saxophonist Harry Arnold. Ehrling’s band did not only play in bars and open-air festivals, but also worked extensively for Swedish Radio (SR).
Mats Olsson about this important stage in his career: “We usually had radio sessions twice a week, for which our band teamed up with the SR Underhållningsorkester, the light entertainment orchestra of the national broadcaster. At a given moment, I started penning arrangements for these sessions; this was a learning experience, because the two orchestras combined consisted of at least forty persons! Thore Ehrling was a very nice person: a friend in music. Whenever I had written an arrangement which he thought was good, he mentioned my name in his spoken introduction of the piece to the radio listeners – sometimes three or four times in one broadcast! It was a very unusual thing for an orchestra leader to do. This generosity of his was instrumental in forwarding my name in the Swedish music business.”
In 1957, by virtue of his well-liked arrangements for Thore Ehrling and several other orchestra leaders, Mats Olsson was offered the position of staff arranger with Grammofon AB Electra, which was the largest record company in Sweden at that time; it represented major foreign labels including RCA Victor, Decca, Telefunken, Disques AZ, A&M, and Reprise. Olsson’s first and foremost duty was to arrange the music to the songs recorded by Swedish artists contracted by Electra. He made his first recording in ’57 with crooner Lars Lönndahl and ‘Kärleksbrev i sanden’, a cover of Pat Boone’s success ‘Love letters in the sand’. In subsequent years, Olsson and Lönndahl further exploited their partnership with new versions of other international hits, such as ‘Piccolissima serenata’, ‘Piove’, and ‘Midnattstango’ (the Swedish version of ‘Tanze mit mir in den Morgen’), all of which were domestic bestselling single releases. In the 1960s, Olsson also worked in the recording studio with, amongst others, Towa Carson, Family Four, and actor-singer Jan Malmsjö.
Besides his work as a musical director for other artists, Mats Olsson also released many instrumental records with studio orchestras, the first of which was ‘With love from Sweden’ (1958). Globally published by RCA Victor, this LP turned into a major international success. Many solo recordings followed, including ‘Strö lite rosor’ and ‘Swedish brass’. In 1964, Olsson again managed to make his mark across the borders of Sweden, recording ‘Lappland’, a re-arranged version of the American traditional ‘Glory land’.
Between 1961 and 1964, Olsson combined his work for Grammofon AB Electra with being the musical director of the Stockholms Stadsteater. This involved composing music for theatrical performances of many different kinds, such as musicals (e.g. ‘Lax, lax, lerbak’), vaudevilles (e.g. ‘På vift i Wien’), and comedy plays, including ‘Trettondagsafton’, a translation of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth night’. Olsson’s relatively small oeuvre as a composer further comprises the ballet ‘The shooting of Dan McGrew’, orchestral works such as ‘Riksväg 13’ and ‘Tunnelbanepolka’, as well as music for films such as ‘Tre önskningar’, ‘Lockfågeln’, and Ingmar Bergman’s ‘En lektion i kärlek’.
In his last three years with Electra (1967-1969), Olsson also was the company’s Head of Artists & Repertoire (A&R), looking for new talented vocalists and commercially attractive songs. In this capacity, he discovered Mona Wessman and Claes-Göran Hederström, the both of whom scored a string of hits in 1967 and 1968 with songs scored by Olsson. Another important success for him as an arranger and producer was the monster hit ‘Mälarökyrka’, a song composed by Sven Lindahl that was recorded by Lenne Broberg (1968). In ’69, Olsson worked on the single recording ‘Peter Pan’ with soloist Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who later rose to fame as a member of the ABBA quartet. In 1967, Olsson himself sang a duet with Towa Carson, ‘Laxå’; looking back on this odd-one-out experience with a smile, Olsson says: “Well, may God forgive me for some of my sins. I discovered the song ‘Jackson’ by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Subsequently, I asked the publisher Stikkan Anderson to write Swedish lyrics to it. ‘Laxå’ is a Swedish countryside place comparable to Jackson. The original idea was to record it with Towa Carson and her husband Bengt Anlert, a famous football player. But when he came to the studio, we soon found out that it would take too much time to get an acceptable recording with him as a vocalist. Thus, there was no other option but to do it myself. The single became a top hit – a typical example of how it sometimes works in the recording industry.”
In 1970, Mats Olsson switched to the newly founded Swedish branch of another record company, CBS, becoming its A&R Director. He recorded the occasional instrumental LP, such as ‘Cocktails for you’, and arranged for Svenne & Lotta and some other pop artists, but slowly his role at CBS changed as a result of the developments in the recording business in the 1970s: “I kept on arranging and producing as before, but my main duty was to find new artists and new groups. The time of old-fashioned solo singers was over. They were replaced by singer-songwriters and lots of groups. Earlier, in the 1950 and 1960s, artists needed producers and arrangers to pick songs for them and write the orchestrations. From the 1970s onwards, most new groups produced their material themselves. It was sad to witness the decline of orchestral entertainment music and the great variety of music styles of the 1960s, but on the other hand I had to accept that this boom of rock music was a natural development which could not be stopped.”
From the early 1960s onwards, Mats Olsson became involved in Swedish television as an arranger and musical director, working on approximately two-hundred different programmes spread over a period of three decades. Olsson has fond memories of ‘The Hoagy Carmichael Story’ (1968), a musical tribute which featured Carmichael himself as well as Svend Asmussen, Sonya Hedenbratt, and Arne Domnerus. He also worked on a series of five programmes in memory of songwriter Jules Sylvain in 1969, ‘Räkna de lyckliga stunderna blott’, featuring young and promising artists such as Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Mona Wessman, Björn Ulvaeus, and Björn Skifs. The best-remembered of Olsson’s TV appearances is doubtlessly the entertainment quiz ‘Notknäckarna’, which ran for five seasons between 1981 and 1990 and comprised forty broadcasts in total; Olsson arranged every single note for these programmes and led a live orchestra consisting of forty musicians, accompanying virtually all important vocalists from the Swedish pop music spectrum. Other programmes, to which Olsson contributed, include ‘Melodier i Norden’ (1967), the quiz show ‘Dra en låt’ (1977), and ‘Glada gamla Berns’, a live show on location celebrating the 100th anniversary of the legendary restaurant Berns in Stockholm (1982). In 1985, Olsson was the orchestra leader of the televised gala ‘Honnör för radion’, which celebrated fifty years of Swedish radio.
In 1977, Olsson left CBS to set up his own record label, Planet Records, as well as a publishing company, Planet Music. Planet specialized in children’s repertoire, most importantly the duo Trazan & Banarne, Klasse Möllberg & Lasse Åberg. Their 1977 LP ‘Sångtajm med Trazan & Banarne’ sold 180,000 copies – thus giving Olsson’s label a kick-start. Other acts contracted by Planet Records included Hansson de Wolfe United, Drifters, and Peter Lundblad. Moreover, using his contacts from the time he worked for CBS, Olsson managed to obtain licenses to represent foreign music labels in Sweden; this led to the release of LPs by Eddy Grant, The Pet Shop Boys, Black Sabbath, and several other international acts on the Planet label.
In 1995, Mats Olsson sold Planet Records, holding on, however, to his publishing company. Since, he has continued working as an arranger for brass bands and orchestras in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany.
Mats Olsson in the Eurovision Song Contest
The 1965 pre-selection in Sweden was the first occasion when different conductors were allowed into the national final: the six participating songs were divided amongst three MDs, William Lind, Hans Wahlgren, and Mats Olsson. All entries were performed by opera star Ingvar Wixell. The only song conducted by Olsson was a composition by Owe Thörnqvist, ‘Stilla och tyst’, and it came second. Olsson: “This was a pretty bossa nova melody. My overriding memory of 1965, however, is that I was surprised to learn that an opera singer was chosen to do all entries. He was not a record-selling artist, least of all in the field of pop music.”
One year later, in 1966, Mats Olsson was amongst the conductors in the Swedish pre-selection again. He conducted no fewer than six of the competing entries, sung by Ann-Louise Hansson, Svante Thuresson, Gunnar Wiklund, and Carli Tornehave (the two last-mentioned artists were in the competition with two songs each). The winning entry, however, was ‘Nygammal vals’, composed and arranged by Bengt-Arne Wallin and conducted by Gert-Ove Andersson. Performed by Lill Lindfors and Svante Thuresson, this composition managed to do very well internationally, finishing in an unprecedented second place behind winner Austria.
1967 was the first year when the Swedish pre-selection was referred to with the now common name ‘Melodifestival’. Producer Olle Helander invited Mats Olsson to be the musical director of the show, arranging and conducting all ten entries. Olsson about this: “Helander was an old friend of mine, who produced radio programmes with jazz music. He had developed his taste, though, and also liked doing more commercial things such as the Eurovision Song Contest. He thought it was most fair towards all competing composers and artists to have one person to arrange and conduct all entries.”
In the 1967 Melodifestival, established Swedish recording artists such as Towa Carson, Sten Nilsson, and Ann-Louise Hansson competed. Landslide winner, however, was Östen Warnerbring with the melodious ballad ‘Som en dröm’, composed by Marcus Österdahl and Curt Peterson. Mats Olsson thought highly of Warnerbring: “He was an extremely qualified artist. Originally, he was an instrumentalist, playing the clarinet and saxophone in orchestras. It was only later onwards that he started a career as a singer. ‘Som en dröm’ was not amongst his best songs – but still quite a good composition.”
That year’s Eurovision Song Contest was held in Vienna’s Hofburg, where Mats Olsson made his first appearance as a conductor in the international festival, accompanying Östen Warnerbring. Sweden finished eighth. What was the festival in Vienna like for Olsson? “In a way, it was nothing more than just another conducting performance, but I must admit the atmosphere around a festival like this was inspirational and intense. It was not the first time I worked with a foreign orchestra, having made guest appearances in Finland and Norway before. There were no problems in the communication with the Austrian orchestra musicians; after all, music notation is the same all over the world. Moreover, Eurovision orchestras always consisted of competent musicians who knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, the attitude of the string section of the Vienna orchestra towards the competition was slightly negative. Contrary to the rhythm and brass section, the string players were classical musicians. There was no need to ask the first violinist what he thought about the Eurovision event: his face spoke for itself!”
“The winning song”, Olsson continues, “was of course Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a string’ from England. In the greenroom, where all the artists and conductors had gathered to watch the voting, I happened to be seated next to her. She was very young at that time and extremely nervous. We had a nice conversation and I told her I was convinced her song would win. She was not that confident herself, but in the end, when she won it, she was over the moon – what else would you expect?”
One year later, in 1968, producer Olle Helander again asked Mats Olsson to be the musical director of the Melodifestival, commissioning him to arrange all ten participating songs. Unlike the year before, however, there was a protest from several record companies. Olsson: “Three of my top artists of Grammofon Electra were in the final: Towa Carson, Claes-Göran Hederström, and Mona Wessman. It was not my initiative to bring them in – Olle Helander simply asked me if these artists were interested in participating. Other record labels suspected I would write briljant arrangements for my artists and bad ones for theirs. It was totally ridiculous, because as a musician, when given a job, you simply do it as good as you possibly can. Nevertheless, because I did not want to be the subject of a row, I decided to give up the seven entries which had been submitted by other record companies, allowing them to choose the arrangers of their preference. In spite of all that, two artists, amongst whom Lars Lönndahl, asked me to take care of their arrangement as well. So, during the final, I conducted all ten songs, although only half of these had been scored by me.”
The controversy surrounding the 1968 pre-selection was not over yet, though, as Olsson remembers well: “The winner was Claes-Göran Hederström with ‘Det börjar verka kärlek, banne mej’, arranged by me. The two girls from my company, Carson and Wessman, tied for place three. Svante Thuresson placed second with ‘Du är en vårvind i april’, but that was only because cheating had been going on behind our backs. The dominant person in the jury from Stockholm, which voted last, was Hans Fridlund, a journalist from the Stockholm evening newspaper Aftonbladet. Coincidentally, the songs for Hederström, Carson, and Wessman had all been composed by Peter Himmelstrand, who worked for a rival newspaper, Expressen. As a result, Fridlund did everything in his power to influence the other jury members in Stockholm to vote for Svante Thuresson. Indeed, while Thuresson’s song was not that well received by the other juries, he was awarded with seven points from that last jury, which gave no points to any of Himmelstrand’s entries. Luckily, it did not prevent Hederström from winning the competition, but I thought it was unfair towards Mona Wessman and Towa Carson. If they had been in second place, the triumph for me as an arranger after all the negative comments by the other record companies would have been complete. I was told about Fridlund’s behaviour by another member of the Stockholm jury later on. True, Hederström won it, but with all the slander and negativity surrounding the event, I cannot say I have fond memories of that 1968 Melodifestival.”
Winning artist Claes-Göran Hederström had been signed by Mats Olsson for Electra one year prior to his Melodifestival victory: “I more or less discovered him. He was the singer in a small group which played bluegrass music, American folksongs. I heard a tape and I immediately loved his crooner voice, although the band’s music had no commercial potential at all. After having signed him in early ’67, we had had a string of domestic hit successes.”
Subsequently, Hederström and Olsson travelled to London together; the 1968 contest took place in the Royal Albert Hall. For Olsson, this was something to remember: “I only have positive memories of London. First of all, the Royal Albert Hall is not just a little chamber – it was a marvellous location and the atmosphere was electric! The orchestra musicians were keen to play this kind of music and were very much involved in what happened. A trumpet player came up to me after one of the rehearsals to tell me he thought our song would win. Probably he liked it, because my arrangement included interesting brass elements.”
In spite of the obvious sing-along qualities of ‘Det börjar verka kärlek, banne mej’, Mats Olsson was not convinced it would do well in the contest: “Although I could not really explain why, I was somehow apprehensive that our item was not suitable for an international audience. For me, it was a huge surprise when we did so well, finishing fifth. The song became a huge success – not just in Sweden, but in Norway and Finland as well. It sold more than 200,000 singles.”
In the years after, Mats Olsson’s involvement in the contest was limited to conducting one entry in the Melodifestival, Sten Nilsson’s ‘Gång på gång’ (1969). It was only in 1972 that he returned as a conductor in the Swedish finals – and how! He waved the baton for the songs that finished first and second, Family Four’s ‘Härliga sommardag’ and Östen Warnerbring’s ‘Så’n e’ du, så’n e’ jag’. After that, he accompanied Family Four to the Eurovision Song Contest final in Edinburgh, Scotland. In spite of the charming song and Family Four’s attractive performance, Sweden finished a mere thirteenth amongst eighteen competing countries.
Olsson on how he got involved: “Although Family Four were not at CBS, their producer at Metronome Records, Anders Burmann, asked me to arrange their song when we were both at MIDEM, an annual international music convention in Cannes. Honestly, I cannot say I liked ‘Härliga sommardag’. It sounded like an old-fashioned schlager from the 1940s. I found it difficult to find the style which matched the song or to do anything really good with it anyway.”
In spite of his reservations about the song, Mats Olsson enjoyed going to Edinburgh: “Many of the musicians in the orchestra were the same guys I had met in 1968 in London and with whom I had had a good connection back then. So, between rehearsals, we went to a bar together to drink a glass of beer. The highlight of the week in Scotland for me, however, was one of the sightseeing events, a visit to a whiskey distillery – which involved some tasting as well! The rehearsals were inevitably kind of stressful; with all these countries and artists participating, there was a strict schedule. As a conductor, you simply did what you were supposed to do: using the limited time you were given to rehearse the song thoroughly with the orchestra.”
For the 1973 Melodifestival, Mats Olsson composed a song himself, ‘En frusen ros’, which was performed by Inga-Lill Nilsson. Moreover, he conducted two other songs, but in a complete reversal of fortune after the success of the previous year, these two entries and Olsson’s own song finished in the three bottom places. Olsson, however, did not feel disappointed when ‘En frusen ros’ scored no points at all: “It was the first and only time I entered the competition as a songwriter. I was amongst the composers who were invited to submit a song. Perhaps lacking the ambition, I started working on the item very late, only finishing it two days before the deadline. The result was not exactly a masterpiece and I never believed in it at all. It was unfortunate for the girl who sang it, because everyone was impressed by her vocal abilities. The real success of that year’s final was ‘Ring ring’ by the ABBAs, but they were beaten by a totally hopeless song performed by Malta. Although its composer, Monica Dominique, is a very competent musician, I still cannot understand why it won.”
Mats Olsson conducted on two more occasions in the Melodifestival, in ’74 with Lena Ericsson’s attractive ballad ‘En enda jord’ and in ’79 with Timjan and the original rock tune ‘En egen fela’ in 1979. Timjan included Mats’ son Peter and two other family members. At the request of his son, Olsson wrote a string arrangement and conducted the orchestra during the group’s performance. Unfortunately, Timjan failed to make an impression, finishing second from bottom. Without being mentioned in the programme itself, Olsson contributed to the 1996 Melodifestival by writing the orchestration to ‘Förlorad igen’, with which Mårten Eriksson came fourth.
The highlight of Olsson’s involvement in the festival came in 1975, when the honour of being the musical director of the first-ever Eurovision Song Contest final held in Sweden was bestowed upon him. After ABBA had stormed to victory in ’74 with ‘Waterloo’, Swedish broadcaster SR organized the 1975 festival in Stockholm’s St. Eriksmässan Hall. Olsson was commissioned to arrange two pieces of music for the introduction and the interval act. Originally, however, there was no talk of him being involved in this event as a conductor: “SR wanted Lars Samuelson to be the musical director. He was kind of a logical choice, too, as he also was the arranger and conductor of our entry that year, ‘Jennie, Jennie’. Apparently, when the musicians of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra heard that Samuelson was going to be their conductor in the contest, they rebelled. They did not accept him. During my career I came across similar situations several times – classical musicians who ran amok when they were working on non-symphonic music. Somehow, they wished to explain their status and high standards by turning down Samuelson. As I knew most members of the orchestra from recording sessions, they knew I was a professional conductor. That is why they agreed to SR’s new proposal to replace Samuelson by me. Nevertheless, I thought they were being very arrogant and rude. After all, conducting in the Eurovision Song Contest is quite something different than working on a classical piece by, let us say, Hindemith or Bartók. For a classical conductor, technique is everything! With light entertainment music, however, giving the right instructions to the orchestra musicians on how to play is far more important, because it is the kind of music that symphony musicians are not used to playing.”
“So it is right to say that I was second choice”, Olsson admits, “but I did not feel upset about that at all. My job did not involve rehearsing the songs with the orchestra; I presume the musicians studied the arrangements themselves before the rehearsals with the guest conductors from all over Europe started. I only conducted during the opening music theme and the interval film about painter John Bauer. The music to the film was a Swedish folksong, to which I wrote a new arrangement. This item attracted considerable attention from the guest conductors, some of whom were eager to buy my arrangement.”
Olsson’s preparations with the orchestra in the run-up to the contest were marred by opponents of the event: “In the 1970s, the left was very dominant in Sweden. People from such circles, with composer and journalist Roger Wallis as one of their ringleaders, tried to sabotage the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm in many different ways. They disliked the event, because, to their mind, it was only intended to make the ‘fat wallets of the record companies’ directors even fatter’ – as they put it. One of their schemes was to bully the orchestra musicians into refusing to work on the contest at all. I was told by the orchestra musicians that each of them had received a letter from the action group with this request. This was an official and very deliberate action, extensively covered by newspapers. Another plan was to organize an ‘Alternative Festival’ on the very same evening as the Eurovision Song Contest proper. As the contest’s musical director, responsible for this orchestra of seventy pieces, I was naturally asked for my opinion. I stated that it was unfair to intimidate musicians – most of all the freelancers who were added to the symphony orchestra and who were always looking for gigs to earn their money – into turning down the most attractive gig imaginable due to some obscure political idealism. In the end, just two out of all seventy orchestra musicians succumbed to the action group’s threats and left the orchestra. One of them was the guitarist, Janne Schaffer, who was very young at that time. So all in all, the vast majority of the orchestra went ahead with the preparations for the Eurovision Song Contest – and it genuinely was a fantastic group of professionals to work with! Nevertheless, this campaign was one of the reasons Sweden eventually withdrew from taking part in the 1976 contest in The Hague; the other was that, at that time, SR was dominated by people with far-left sympathies anyway.”
A final question: the best-remembered scene involving a conductor in Eurovision history is and will forever be ABBA’s maestro Sven-Olof Walldoff dressing up as Napoleon to fit in with the theme of the group’s song ‘Waterloo’ for the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton (1974). Would Mats Olsson ever have agreed to do the same if he had been asked to? “Ha, that is an interesting question, because I have thought about that many times. I think my answer would be: ‘Never!’ Simply because I think the music itself should always be at the centre. When your song is good, there is no need to dress up in a stupid way. So my principles about music in general would have forbidden me to go along with that!”
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