Richard OesterreicherBorn: November 10th, 1932, Vienna (Austria)
When World War II ended, Richard was only thirteen years old. It was not until the final months of the war, when it was obvious Germany’s defeat was only a matter of time, that he was forced into the Hitler Youth. “Every boy of my age had to join the Hitlerjugend. For me, being so young, it did not seem that repulsive. My friends were there with me and everyone was given a dagger which you were supposed to carry on your belt. I quite liked that. My mother, however, after that first time said: “Now you are not going there anymore, nimmermehr”, and several weeks later the war was over. It was the end of a scary couple of years. When the Allies started bombing Vienna, it was an event for us, children, to go and look at houses which had been hit. With my friends, I went to a house in the Tenth District where I saw the first bomb crater in my life. Over time, however, the attacks became more frequent, destroying more and more housing blocks all over the city. When the radio announced the next squadron of allied bombers was on its way, everyone withdrew into the closest bomb shelter. We were incredibly lucky when our neighbours’ house was utterly destructed, whilst ours only had the windows broken. The worst thing was when a bomb hit a shelter only a couple of blocks away from us. Forty people died, including twenty children – some of whom were classmates of mine. I will never forget how the corpses were placed on the street one by one… simply on the pavement; absolutely horrible. Upon war’s end, there was yet another scare, as nobody knew how the Soviet occupiers would behave – but fortunately they turned out to be quite all right.”
In 1947, Richard left secondary school without a diploma. Though his father, keen to see his son follow in his footsteps, sent him to the Vienna City Conservatory for additional piano studies, the passion for classical music was lacking – and Richard Jr gave up on that as well. Instead, he took up working at a publishing house: “My parents found me a job as a typesetter. I did not even know what a typesetter was. As an apprentice, I gradually began to enjoy the work I was doing. It was a good job for me. The only downside was that it was a communist publishing house. As a child from a conservative background, I abhorred the stupid newspapers which were printed there, but my work mainly consisted of setting children’s books anyway. In all, I worked for this company for eleven years.”
Though Richard had given up his classical music studies, he had become enthusiastic about another type of music in the months following the end of the war – jazz. For the first time, Austrians had the opportunity to listen to American and English popular music, mainly thanks to a new radio broadcaster, founded by the Americans as a propaganda station for the western powers: Sender Rot-Weiss-Rot (RWR). “This radio station was a sensation”, Oesterreicher comments. “My friends and I had never heard music before which appealed to us so strongly. I was hooked virtually from the start. Someone managed to copy some songs directly from the radio onto gramophone records. These records were taken to a dancing hall in our neighbourhood – and so there was an opportunity to dance to our favourite music! To have a good time, I formed a little band with two of my best friends. Somehow, we managed to find the instruments we needed to play… in my case, a piano. Admittedly, we were not very good, but our enthusiasm largely made up for that. After some time, we founded our own club at Margaretenplatz in Vienna’s Fifth District. For quite some years, we came there after work to play and enjoy ourselves. At one point, there were a pianist and a vibraphone player in the audience who were keen to join us. Immediately, I noticed the piano player was much more talented than I was, which gave me the idea to let him take care of that and switch to the guitar myself.”
Having bought himself a guitar, Oesterreicher managed to master his new instrument astonishingly fast; he never again played the piano professionally. In 1958, he decided to audition as a guitarist at the Cobenzl Bar in the Döbling district, north of Vienna’s city-centre: “At this bar, there was an Italian band which was looking for a guitarist. I decided to have a go. According to the bandleader, I looked like an Italian – and was given the job accordingly. It was the first opportunity to work amongst professional musicians. We had to entertain the audience with Italian hit songs: ‘Volare’, ‘Ciao ciao bambina’, things like that… not the most inspirational repertoire, but I made double the amount of money that I was earning as a typesetter. As the band at the Cobenzl Bar performed every single night, it was inevitable that I should make a choice between continuing as a typesetter or trying to make it as a professional musician. Though being a musician offered much less job security than the publishing house, I wanted to have a go. Luckily, my wife agreed – and that was it! I learnt being a musician the hard way… at the Cobenzl Bar, we played the whole year round, seven days a week, at least four hours every evening. Our only days off work were All Souls’ Day and the twenty-fourth of December.”
Keen to improve his practical and theoretical knowledge, Oesterreicher meanwhile studied the guitar and music theory for some time at the Krayner Conservatory, moreover taking private lessons with Walter Heidrich at Vienna’s Jazz Institute. After his stay at the Cobenzl Bar, Oesterreicher also found work in bands in the Splendid Bar and the Kursalon. “Both were open all year round”, Oesterreicher comments. “The whole of Vienna was teeming with dance bars and jazz clubs. In effect, bands and music groups regularly changed from one nightclub to the other. In those years, I played in different bands. Contracts usually lasted for a month and a half. At one place, the band had to provide dance music for the guests on the dance floor, at another people were enjoying their dinner with us playing softly in the background.”
“My work in those years enabled me to build up a huge repertoire”, Oesterreicher further explains. “Guests would come and ask the band to play their favourite song, which you then had to improvise on the spot. During these first years as a professional, I was also lucky enough to be given the opportunity to try my hand at arranging for these small groups. Most of the arrangements we were playing were old-fashioned. All in the band agreed we should choose a more modern approach, but how? One of the bandleaders I worked with simply said to me to have a try… which I did – and of course, my first arrangement was not really good, but he assured me that I was not doing badly for a beginner and that I should persevere. This worked out well, and gradually I became the main arranger for the bands I played in.”
In his quest for work, Richard Oesterreicher also found a job as a guitarist at the Schlosshotel in Velden am Wörthersee, Carinthia. The band there was led by Willy Fantel, with whom he became good friends. In 1963, Oesterreicher founded his own quartet with Friedrich Kruntorad (piano), Kurt Weizmann (bass), and Ernst Rindauer (drums), with which he played at Velden am Wörthersee during the summer season, whilst going back to Vienna in the winter months to perform at the Eden Bar. Oesterreicher: “Though all four of us would have preferred to play jazz music all year round, there was no money in that – even back in the early 60s. Most of the time, our repertoire consisted of ballroom music and Schlager tunes. Having said that, the quartet was in high demand. We played in Munich, Frankfurt, and West-Berlin and were also invited to perform in radio programmes in Austria and West-Germany.”
The Richard Oesterreicher Quartet also released two records, firstly an EP with four ballroom pieces, ‘5 Uhr Tee am Wörthersee’, in 1964; and two years later a full album ‘Tanz um die Welt’, with light entertainment music, including some compositions by Oesterreicher himself. In spite of their studio recordings, the quartet sometimes struggled to find work. Oesterreicher: “Very occasionally, in between jobs, I was forced to accept commissions to play in striptease clubs in Vienna – simply because it was the only option. For any musician, such experiences are extremely unpleasant… the thought that, when growing older, one could end up playing in such cheap bars night after night was frightful. Thank God, in 1969, there was an audition at ORF, Austria’s broadcasting service. They were in the process of founding a radio orchestra and I was chosen as the band’s guitarist. A job at the national broadcasting company… what could be better? Having said that, I never thought I would stay at ORF for nearly thirty years! All of this inevitably led to the dissolution of the Richard Oesterreicher Quartet.”
The new radio ensemble was called the ORF Unterhaltungsorchester (literally: Entertainment Orchestra), a big band with a string section. Its bandleader was Czech jazz virtuoso Karel Krautgartner. When it was formed, the Unterhaltungsorchester had been instructed to only play music by Austrian composers. “It was a ridiculous idea”, Oesterreicher laughs. “Across Austria, amateur musicians dug deep into their archives and sent us all kinds of weird and outdated compositions. So there we were with a pile of yellowed music-paper on our desk, trying to digest anything from it which was up to date in one way or another… and of course there was nothing which was up to date. Therefore, arrangers were needed to try and create some sort of modern sound. From the beginning, I was one of the band members who wrote orchestrations for the Unterhaltungsorchester. Though most of the music I worked on was not really interesting, it was an ideal chance to put my experience as an arranger for smaller combos to use and take it to the next level, writing scores for a full orchestra.”
Though mainly in demand as an arranger, in 1971, Richard Oesterreicher composed as well as arranged the ORF entry to that year’s Rio de Janeiro Song Festival, ‘Ev’ry day’, performed by Eric Spitzer-Marlyn. Whilst the Unterhaltungsorchester’s performances were strictly limited to radio, Oesterreicher also played in several orchestras which were brought together for television broadcasts. Most notably, he was involved as a guitarist and arranger in the ORF-ZDF co-produced Saturday evening show ‘Wünsch dir was’, which ran between 1969 and 1972. Oesterreicher: “That was a great experience, as all kinds of big showbiz stars performed in this show. Although Johannes Fehring had been hired to conduct the orchestra, I arranged all pieces and was the band’s musical leader. Fehring was a role model. He was the musical director of the Theater an der Wien and was hugely experienced as a conductor for many television programmes in the 1960s.”
In 1972, Erich Kleinschuster became Head of Entertainment at ORF radio. Being a jazz man from head to toe, Kleinschuster disbanded the Unterhaltungsorchester and founded the ORF Big Band, picking the best musicians who were under contract at ORF; Richard Oesterreicher was one: “I also continued working as an arranger. With the big band, Kleinschuster did away with the outdated sound of the Unterhaltungsorchester, choosing a more modern approach. Musicians from abroad were invited to play with the band. In 1972, for example Art Farmer came over to Austria for a radio programme. It was great to have the opportunity to play with such a legend. Though, on a personal level, we were miles apart, Kleinschuster put great trust in me. In ’76, he appointed me as a co-musical director at the big band to arrange and conduct light-entertainment music for television shows which he did not really like doing himself.”
Meanwhile, the nucleus of ORF musicians was in high demand to play in sessions in Vienna’s recording studios as well. Apart from being involved as a guitarist, composer, and arranger in several jazz albums recorded by Erich Kleinschuster and the ORF Big Band, Oesterreicher made his mark as a studio arranger and producer in the 1970s for a string of pop artists, including Barbara Stromberger, Franco Andolfo, Karl Hodina, and Wilfried Scheutz. Moreover, he wrote the arrangement to Peter Cornelius’ 1974 hit single ‘Hampelmann’. Oesterreicher’s most lasting collaboration in those years, however, was with Marianne Mendt. For the queen of Viennese dialect music, he penned several songs as well as arranging and producing three of her albums: ‘Wienerlieder’ (1974), ‘Lieder Songs Schlager’ (1975), and ‘Neue Lieder’ (1978).
As a solo artist, Richard Oesterreicher released the album ‘Diesmal muss es Liebe sein’ (1976) with popular instrumental repertoire, produced by his old friend Willy Fantel, who had meanwhile become Head of Entertainment at ORF Burgenland. Apart from that, Oesterreicher released two novelty singles with disco versions of Strauss waltzes and composed ‘Immer wieder Österreich’, which was released as a single record on the occasion of Austria’s participation in the 1978 Football World Cup in Argentina.
In 1981, after a period of cold war between Erich Kleinschuster and the television branch of Austria’s state broadcaster, the former left his job at ORF. The ORF Big Band was disbanded, but there was still need for an entertainment orchestra to accompany TV shows. “That is where I came in”, Oesterreicher explains. “As I had regularly worked on television shows as a musical director for several years already, it befell to me to create a successor orchestra to accompany television entertainment shows. The band members were simply the guys who had already been playing in the ORF Big Band. As this name reminded TV bosses too much of Kleinschuster, the orchestra was renamed the Richard Oesterreicher Big Band. For the next sixteen years, I was the musical director of Austrian television. Apart from accompanying show programmes live on stage, we also worked on backing tracks which we pre-recorded to be used by singers who mimed their song in any given TV programme.”
Amongst the programmes backed up by the Richard Oesterreicher Big Band were talent show ‘Die Grosse Chance’ and Austria’s Eurovision Song Contest pre-selections. On the TV stage, he accompanied national and international stars including Marianne Mendt, Peter Alexander, Udo Jürgens, Bill Ramsey, and José Carreras; with the last-mentioned artist, he also recorded a Christmas album in 1986. Besides, Oesterreicher composed signature tunes for such ORF shows as ‘Countdown’, ‘Wer A sagt’, and ‘O du mein Österreich’. Meanwhile, he found the time to work as a freelancer as well, arranging Arik Brauer’s musical comedy ‘Sieben auf einen Streich’ (1978) and being the musical director of a new version of Paul Abraham’s operetta ‘Viktoria und Ihr Husar’, staged in Vienna’s Raimund Theatre in 1985.
In the 1990s, though still under contract at ORF, work for Oesterreicher more or less dried up: “Nominally, I continued being the musical director of game shows which in reality involved virtually only computer-generated music. There was no work for the Big Band any longer. In ’97, after some quiet years, I was pensioned. Now that I had more time available, and after all these years of working almost exclusively as an arranger and conductor, I was keen to try again as a music player. By this time, there was no interest from anyone in me playing the guitar, but, some twenty years before, I had bought myself a mouth organ for 120 Austrian schillings. From the start, though there was not much opportunity to play it amidst my TV work, I really liked the instrument. Being a big fan of Toots Thielemans, I taught myself how to play by imitating his style. Occasionally, I could put the mouth organ to good use, for example in recording sessions in which it sometimes was an attractive addition to the arrangement. I even recorded two albums as a harmonica player in the 1970s, unsuccessful though they were. After quitting ORF, I immersed myself in Vienna’s jazz circuit; to my immense joy, I found people loved the sound of the mouth organ. From then on, I have been playing regularly, sometimes backing up others, sometimes as a soloist. It has enabled me to work with all kinds of interesting young musicians.”
What is more, after all these decades, Richard Oesterreicher founded a new quartet bearing his name. With it, he has performed at several jazz festivals and concerts, teaming up with the likes of accordionist Karl Hodina and vocalist Tini Kainrath. In 2009, he recorded a duet CD with young jazz double-bass player Gina Schwarz, fittingly entitled ‘Airbass’. Away from performing as a soloist, Oesterreicher has also remained in demand as a conductor. With the big band which still bears his name, he backed up ten editions of the Christmas shows of cabaret artist Viktor Gernot, whilst he has conducted the final concert at the Marianne Mendt Jazz Festival from 2005 onwards.
Oesterreicher: “Marianne is a very special colleague. I first worked with her back in the 1960s when I accompanied her with my first quartet at the Eden Bar. Later, she often was a soloist in radio and television broadcasts in which I was involved. We have always stayed in touch and it is lovely to be able to conduct the band at her jazz festival. As for Viktor Gernot, he may have won his fame as a cabaret artist, but he is a fantastic singer as well. Our mutual love for big band music has brought us together. I must have met him for the first time around 2000. One or two years later, I accompanied him for the first time in his Christmas show. At the outset, he did two or three songs only, but gradually he became more confident, which resulted in him doing an entire concert of just songs by Sinatra and others. Viktor has become a great friend.”
If there is one quality which has kept Richard Oesterreicher going over the years, it is his ability to adapt to the wishes of younger generations of audiences and musical colleagues, who honoured him accordingly. In 2006, he was named an honorary professor, though he never uses the title. Eleven years later, Oesterreicher received the Golden Sign of Honour of the City of Vienna. In 2017, a 85th birthday party was organised in his honour at Vienna’s Globe Theatre, in which he performed Gershwin’s ‘Porgy & Bess’ with his jazz quartet as well as doing a gala show with his big band and Viktor Gernot.
“I simply hope I can continue performing the music I love for some more time”, Oesterreicher concludes. “Sadly, mainstream media hardly seem to pay any attention to jazz music nowadays. I cannot help being pessimistic about the chances to change this development, which is such a pity, as the new generation of jazz musicians in Austria is the best there has ever been. At the beginning of my career, jazz music allowed me to develop myself as a musician, but then… these were the days before pop and disco radically changed the music scene. In the 1950s, jazz and big band was the most popular form of dance music. It is unfortunate there are so few opportunities for the younger generation to play the music of their heart.”
Richard Oesterreicher in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1976, Oesterreicher wrote a new arrangement to ‘My little world’, the song with which Waterloo & Robinson represented Austria in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest in The Hague. The original score had been penned by Christian Kolonovits, but ORF’s musical director Erich Kleinschuster had rejected it. Oesterreicher: “Erich asked me to adapt the orchestration. We made a studio recording with the two singers. That day, the short one of the duo (Sepp Krassnitzer / Robinson – BT) had lost his voice; he could not do more than just squeak. Therefore, the other one (Hans Kreuzmayr / Waterloo – BT) recorded both vocal parts. I did not come along with Waterloo & Robinson to the Netherlands, because Erich Kleinschuster preferred conducting the Eurovision orchestra himself. It was kind of ironic, because he hated everything that was not jazz, but he was vain enough to not let the opportunity go by to do Eurovision.”
Austria did not have a tradition of selecting its Eurovision candidate in an open selection. Instead, candidates were picked internally by a commission of ORF, the state broadcaster. In 1978, the choice fell on Springtime, a pop-rock group of three young male singers, and their song ‘Mrs. Caroline Robinson’. Surprisingly, it was not through his bosses at ORF that Richard Oesterreicher was selected to arrange and conduct the song. Oesterreicher: “It was at the request of Spingtime’s record company (Amadeo, an Austrian sub-branch of Polydor – BT) that I joined the group at the festival in Paris. In the years before, I had won my first experience as a conductor at the ORF Big Band and in studio sessions, so nobody could say that I was not prepared to do the gig. For me, it was some sort of an honour and I looked forward to working with a foreign orchestra; over the following years, I found that was the best thing about being a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest. Admittedly, there was not much work to do during rehearsals, as the music score had been submitted to the organizing broadcaster weeks before… so the orchestra had already been able to rehearse before I came in as a guest conductor. In Paris, it was not particularly easy for me to explain my wishes to the musicians, as I do not speak a word of French, but the music was not hard to play.”
During their performance in Paris, Springtime suffered from a technical mistake as one of their microphones was switched off. In the end, the trio finished fifteenth amongst twenty participating acts. According to their conductor, Springtime “were incredibly amateurish. In Paris, one of the guys had suddenly disappeared shortly before we were due to go on stage. Backstage, I went looking for him, until he finally came back just in time with a soaked head. It turned out he had felt a sudden need to wash his hair. What a fool! Given this kind of antics, it was unsurprising that little was heard of the group after the Eurovision Song Contest. They simply lacked the professionality to go far.”
“After the contest in Paris was over”, Oesterreicher continues, “a banquet was held by the French organisation. All delegations were invited. When the group and I arrived at the table which had been reserved for the Austrian delegation, all chairs had been taken by ORF officials who completely ignored us. I also remember the Israelis, who won the festival, were kind of cynical in their approach to other contestants. Lots of praise was heaped on their song during rehearsals, but all they could say was: “Do not worry about us… being Israeli, we will not be voted to win this contest in one-hundred years”.
The Israeli delegation in Paris could not have been more wrong, and the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest was duly held at the country’s capital, Jerusalem. Austria’s entry was a wonderful jazz ballad composed by Peter Wolf with lyrics by André Heller: ‘Heute in Jerusalem’ (= Today in Jerusalem); both songwriters were established names in Austria’s music business. It was performed by Peter Wolf’s girlfriend, a young session singer called Christina Simon. “Already back then, Peter Wolf had moved to the USA”, Oesterreicher comments. “He played in Frank Zappa’s band. In a stroke of megalomania, he had demanded from ORF that they should pay for three hugely expensive American musicians to accompany Christina on stage in Israel: a pianist, a saxophonist, and a bass player. The saxophone player was Lou Marini, who used to be in Blood, Sweat & Tears. The guitarist was in the Zappa band with Peter himself; due to a sound problem, he could not be on stage in Jerusalem, but had to sit in the orchestra during the performance. In normal circumstances, Peter Wolf would have conducted the orchestra himself; being an accomplished musician, he had written the orchestration to his own song. However, as he had a gig in the USA, he found himself unavailable – and I was his replacement.”
Did Richard Oesterreicher believe going to Eurovision which such a complicated song could be successful? “It was a really beautiful song and the members of the orchestra in Jerusalem voted it their personal winner; however, I felt it was slightly pushy to come to Israel and sing a song about Jerusalem. Of course, with his Jewish background, André Heller felt strongly about the subject, but I wondered if the lyrics would not work against us rather than in our favour. For me personally, it was a special experience to do a gig in Israel. I had never been there before. Security measures were strict; outside my seventh-floor hotel room, a soldier with a machine gun was walking up and down the corridor all day. Having said that, the local organisation was perfect, the orchestra was really good, and the country itself was absolutely wonderful.”
Oesterreicher has vivid memories of the contest in Jerusalem, but not for the best of reasons. “Since our entry had been drawn in one of the last positions in the running order, we had to wait… and wait. In the hours between the dress rehearsal in the afternoon and the live concert, all participants were taken to some sort of canteen. All drinks were on the house. The bass player and the saxophonist thought this was a good occasion to have a couple of drinks… well, more than a couple. By the time we went on stage, both of them were dead drunk. Sie sind wirklich ausgeflippt. This had an effect on young Christina, who was petrified during her performance. Such a pity, because she is a good singer. Of course, the rendition suffered as a result. Lou Marini’s saxophone part… well, that was a crying shame, and the guitarist played the bass part twice as loudly as he had done in rehearsals. Afterwards, I complained to them about their behaviour, but they could not care less.”
In the voting, Austria finished joint-last, scoring a meagre five points – four from Italy and one from the United Kingdom. Oesterreicher: “In the greenroom, I was set next to André Heller. During the voting, it was obvious quite soon that we would not do well. André said he hoped we would come dead-last, because such a result would make more headlines than a position somewhere in the middle of the pack or just below that. Honestly speaking, though, es war ihm Wurscht – he did not give a damn.”
In 1980, at the second Eurovision edition held in The Hague in five years, Austria was represented by the quintet Blue Danube (three boys, two girls), which had been specifically founded for the Eurovision Song Contest. The entry, ‘Du bist Musik’, with lyrics extolling a long list of classical composers, was penned by German songwriter Klaus-Peter Sattler. “Mr Sattler gave me headaches”, Oesterreicher laughs. “He had not written the arrangement himself… what was more, he had never arranged, let alone conducted, anything in his life, yet he would have preferred to conduct the Eurovision orchestra himself. He was constantly looking over my shoulder during rehearsals, claiming the sound was not good; an awful man, really. Moreover, one of the boys in the group was the son of an opera singer (Wolfgang Berry – BT). He was arrogant as hell, singing far too loud. Even when I asked him time after time to sing in tune with the others, he refused – so blöd. All in all, even though we did quite well in the voting, The Hague stands out in my memory as a rather problematic week.”
In 1981, Richard Oesterreicher was appointed Musical Director of ORF Television and thereby became the logical choice to conduct Austria’s Eurovision entry annually. That same year, the Austrian broadcaster held its first-ever televised Eurovision pre-selection, though all three songs were performed by the same soloist: Marty Brem, who had been one of the band members in Blue Danube the previous year. The winner, ‘Wenn du da bist’, was a pleasant ballad by Werner Böhmler and Peter Orthofer, to which Richard Oesterreicher himself penned the orchestration. To the surprise of the whole of Europe, the song was presented on the Eurovision stage in Dublin with a background ballet which did not seem to be in harmony with the song itself at all; moreover, the backing vocalist was dressed in a bathing suit and an American football helmet. What on earth possessed the Austrian delegation to come up with such a performance? Oesterreicher: “ORF’s Head of Entertainment had come up with some German director. This guy was supposed to take care of the choreography… and he had fallen in love with a girl dancer, which gave him the idea to do a ballet – of course, the only thing on his mind was going to Dublin for a week with the girl! It was also his idea – and certainly not mine – that I should offer a rose to the concertmaster. Marty Brem was a young guy unable to put in enough weight to do something about the performance behind him. A real pity, as I am quite convinced that, if that weird choreography had been left out, the song could have done much better than the low position it actually got.”
In 1982, ORF again staged a national final, this time with multiple artists and twelve songs. Four of these twelve were performed by Mainstreet, the close harmony group which often performed with the Richard Oesterreicher Big Band in TV shows in those years. The winning entry, however, was ‘Sonntag’, performed by the duo Mess – or, in real life, the young love couple Michael Scheickl and Lizzy Engstler. “Lizzy later made a career for herself as a television host”, Oesterreicher adds. “When they won the pre-selection in Vienna, I was ashamed – and so were the musicians in my orchestra. It was a horrible song. Mainstreet should have won the selection, but their downfall was the fact that they were in the running with too many different songs. Accordingly, the points for them were divided and Mess walked away as winners. Michael and Lizzy were friendly and happy youngsters. He was what I would call a ‘computer composer’ who had written the song on his keyboards; I added the arrangement. Their performance, mit dem Herumhüpfen, with all that dancing around going on, well… it was slightly too much for my taste, though I have to admit they picked up more votes in the international festival than I expected. The contest was held in Harrogate, which was little more than a quiet little town, but there was lots to see around there – a nice week out, as far as I was concerned. I really liked working with Ronnie Hazlehurst, the bloke who was in charge of the local orchestra. The only downside of the festival was the fact that Germany ran away as winners with ‘Ein bißchen Frieden’. Nicole sang well, but the song itself was nothing special.”
In 1983, a close battle at the Austrian pre-selection programme saw boy band Westend walking away as winners with their uncomplicated pop song ‘Hurricane’. At the Eurovision Song Contest in Munich, the group finished ninth amongst twenty competing songs. “That year, I had lots of problems with the orchestration”, Oesterreicher recalls. “I was used to having to correct scores of songs which took part in the pre-selections in Vienna. Many composers and even singers believed they could write the arrangements to their own songs. Often, my orchestra and I found out during rehearsals their work was completely unusable. The situation in ’83 was even worse; then, it was only in Munich that I had to adapt the orchestration. Upon arrival, Dieter Reith (chief conductor of the Eurovision Song Contest that year) let me hear what he and his orchestra had prepared. It sounded dreadful. My immediate reaction was: “All brass out, all strings out!” Essentially, what was left was only the rhythm section with just a tiny additional string arrangement. Nobody in our delegation seemed to take notice, not even the vocalists; incredible, but true. To be honest, these guys did not take notice of anything. The guy who sang the first lines in the song, later became the guitarist in Falco’s band, as a result of which he could claim some sort of status he did not deserve. His singing was terribly out of tune. If you ask me, Gary Lux was the only member of Westend with vocal qualities. As for the song itself, I did not like it at all, while the ballet made things even worse. The girl from Luxembourg was the deserved winner that year.”
In the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest final in Luxembourg’s Nouveau Théâtre, Austria was represented by Anita Spanner and ‘Einfach weg’; this song, composed by the husband-and-wife team of Ernst and Brigitte Seuberth, finished nineteenth and dead-last. Richard Oesterreicher: “Well, that was ein Riesenflop, an epic failure – a song destined to lose. Unbelievably, all songs in the pre-selection which we organised in Vienna were hopeless. There was absolutely nothing which was even remotely interesting. Anita was a nobody in the business in Austria – and I mean before and after the contest. After my retirement at ORF, years later, I put together a DVD with highlights from my career, but of the ’84 Eurovision I only included the bit where I counted in the orchestra. I thought it better to cut away the rest.”
Now that he confesses that he felt many of the songs which he conducted in the Eurovision Song Contest were so weak, we wondered if Richard Oesterreicher ever considered skipping the festival: “Well, no, because when we did badly, I was not responsible… the composers and vocalists were the participants putting their head on the block. I was only there to help them on their way. Anyway, our entries usually were the least-worst on offer in Austria at a given moment – and there had to be a conductor to accompany them to Eurovision, right? One of our core problems was that Austria’s most popular singers in the 1980s were cabaret artists, whose main asset was their sense of humour. In a technical sense, most of them were not very good singers – and not very keen to take part anyway. If we had had our own Katja Ebstein in Austria, it might have been a completely different story. Another issue was the level of mismanagement at ORF. The people in charge were incompetent. Every time we did badly in the Eurovision Song Contest – and we usually finished somewhere between positions twenty and twenty-two – the editorial team was replaced and a new group of people set about to reinvent the wheel. And it mattered little anyway, because, at the end of the day, everyone else wanted to have a say in the selection process as well. In short: utter chaos.”
After the disastrous result in Luxembourg, it was only logical that the ORF decided to do away with the televised selection show, preferring to pick their artist and song internally. It was decided upon to give Gary Lux a chance as a soloist in 1985. His song, ‘Kinder dieser Welt’, was composed by a team of songwriters from England and Germany – including Mick Jackson, who penned ‘Blame it on the boogie’ for the Jackson Five. In Gothenburg, Sweden, this Austrian entry finished in a respectable eighth place. Oesterreicher: “For me, that was an easy Eurovision edition. The only thing I had to do was conduct the orchestra. The production and arrangement had been taken care of completely by the Munich record company who owned the rights of the song. The rhythm part was pre-recorded; just the string section of the orchestra played along. I thought this was a good song, produced professionally, and well performed. Gary Lux was at the keyboards and his performance looked confident; over the years, he has proved being at his best when singing whilst playing keys. The record company had prepared an effective promotion campaign. On the downside, it was a bit embarrassing that we were participating with a German product instead of an Austrian one.”
In 1986, the ORF wanted to send Gary Lux for a second year running. Oesterreicher: “For some mysterious reasons, this plan fell through. He did not have a song, if I remember well.” Instead, the Austrian broadcaster picked Timna Brauer to represent them with ‘Die Zeit ist einsam’, a dramatic and perhaps slightly presumptuous ballad composed and arranged by Peter Janda with lyrics by Peter Cornelius. In Bergen, Norway, the song failed to impress the juries, finishing second-last. Richard Oesterreicher was not involved in the selection process which led to picking Janda’s song for the contest: “At some point, Peter Hofbauer, the guy at ORF who was responsible for the Eurovision Song Contest at that time, called me into his office and started the tape. It turned out ‘Die Zeit ist einsam’ had already been recorded, produced, arranged… everything was ready. I did not hold back my criticism and said that I felt we could never win with such a song. It was not that bad in itself, but totally unsuitable for an international song festival. Moreover, it had not been written in a key which matched the vocal abilities of the singer. Even in the record version it was obvious that it was too high-pitched for her. Of course, live on stage such a problem is even harder to hide. Peter then passed my comments onto the producer, who claimed: “Yes, we know, but we will cover that with backing vocals.” When I heard that, I knew we were doomed. Where in Austria do you find backing singers good enough to cover that? Though we did badly in Norway, I have quite good memories of the Eurovision week. Timna’s father Arik Brauer was in our delegation. In Austria, he is a renowned painter and cabaret artist. Being the funny guy that he is, he helped setting our mood all week. Even after the voting, we were not too down-hearted.”
The ORF finally succeeded in convincing Gary Lux to have a second go as a soloist at the Eurovision Song Contest of 1987, held in Brussels. Songwriters were invited to submit their compositions for consideration in an internal selection, for which Richard Oesterreicher himself was one of the jurors: “From start to finish, that was an outright disaster. Apart from myself, there were five judges. Gary himself was present too, but he did not have a say as one of the songs we had to vote on was written by him. Our first problem was that the best song was by Ralph Siegel and Bernd Meinunger. We felt it would have been shameful for Austria to once again come up with a German song. In the end, we decided to go for Gary’s song, which was a ballad. Some six weeks later, however, ORF’s Head of Entertainment told me they had a new song, called ‘Nur noch Gefühl’. I was astonished, wondering why we had gone through the motions of putting together a commission to pick a song anyway, only to have it replaced by something completely else later on. When I asked Gary Lux what his thoughts were, he said he was ok with it… so then, who was I to object? At the request of the editorial team, I wrote the string arrangement. I did not like ‘Nur noch Gefühl’. Firstly, it was a rip-off of some old Austrian folk song. Furthermore, the composer was an American who worked in Vienna as a gold seller; in short: not a professional musician. He had allowed the English version of the song to be aired on a US radio station prior to the international festival, which was against the rules of the contest. In Austria, we did not hear about that until later on, but if it had done well at Eurovision, we would most certainly have been disqualified.”
As things turned out, Austria did not do well in Eurovision – again. ‘Nur noch Gefühl’ was voted into the twentieth position, second-last in a field of twenty-two participants. Oesterreicher: “Given what had gone on before, that did not come as a surprise. Just before we left for Brussels, I was interviewed by a newspaper journalist who asked me about our chances of success in Belgium. My answer was that we would never win with such a song – and I gave him explicit permission to publish that. When ORF officials read the comment the next day, they were seething with anger. The Head of Entertainment even wanted to replace me with another conductor, but as the accreditations from Brussels were already in, they could not get rid of me. At the contest, I was more or less ignored by the rest of the delegation all week. They were absolutely furious.”
“When, after the first five juries, we still had not been given any points”, Oesterreicher continues, “the mood started to change. All of a sudden, all of them, including the songwriter, were extremely courteous to me. On our way back to the airport, the ORF Head of Entertainment sat down next to me to ask me about my ideas on to do better next year. Apparently, they were all really surprised about our disastrous score. A couple of days before the concert, I even overheard Gary Lux saying: “Oh, Johnny Logan – he will most certainly not win a second time.” Well, apparently Gary had left his crystal ball at home in Vienna!”
Oesterreicher’s frankness did not win him many friends at the ORF: “In the twelve months after the contest in Brussels, I hardly received any commissions for television programmes. It might also have been the reason why Harald Neuwirth conducted the Austrian entry in the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest, though I suspect it was Wilfried who was keen to have Harald with him, as they are both from Styria. Fortunately, back then, I could fall back on my connections in the studio business, which allowed me to work as an arranger for recording projects.”
In the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne, Austria was represented by Thomas Forstner who finished fifth with ‘Nur ein Lied’, a song composed by Joachim Horn-Bernges and Modern Talking’s Dieter Bohlen, both Germans. Bohlen chose to have his production performed with a full backing track and without any live orchestral accompaniment. As a result, Richard Oesterreicher missed out on his second Eurovision in a row: “I remember ORF officials congratulating each other about how well they had done to invite a German songwriting team. Apparently they did not ask themselves any questions about why Germany itself had done so badly in that same contest (finishing fourteenth, incidentally with a song also written by Horn-Bernges and Bohlen – BT).”
After Yugoslavia’s surprising win in the 1989 contest in Lausanne, the Eurovision circus moved to Zagreb one year later. Austria was represented by Simone Stelzer, who performed a powerful pop song celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain: ‘Keine Mauern mehr’ – this in spite of the fact it had ended up in second place at the Austrian pre-selection in Vienna. The winning entry, Günther Gebauer’s composition ‘Das Beste’, performed by Duett, turned out to have taken part in a Eurovision semi-final in West-Germany two years previously, and was disqualified accordingly. In spite of the fact she was second choice, Simone ended up in a respectable tenth place amongst her European rivals. ‘Keine Mauern mehr’ has a striking instrumental intro with a slight classical undertone. The arrangement was the brainchild of the song’s composer and producer, Wolfgang Berry; with the help of Richard Oesterreicher, the studio arrangement was turned into a proper symphonic orchestration.
“The problem with Berry was his huge ego”, Oesterreicher dryly comments. “In 1980, he had been the group member of Blue Danube who insisted on singing louder than the others. In Yugoslavia, a bus brought us from the hotel to the auditorium. When we had arrived, he looked around him, saying: “Who will carry my guitar?” He was a guitarist in the backing group. I replied: “Well, you of course – why?” That was the end of it, but it goes to show what kind of character we had to put up with. On the other hand, he was a really talented musician and ‘Keine Mauern mehr’ was not a bad song at all. Another factor in the song doing well in the voting was Simone’s performance. In spite of her young age, she gave a spirited performance.”
In 1990, the Yugoslavian production team had come up with the idea to skip the traditional conductor introduction before each entry in an effort not to exceed the three hours allotted to the show as a whole. In the end, the plan was reversed, mainly thanks to a collective effort of the maestros from all participating countries. Oesterreicher: “Usually, at the Eurovision Song Contest, everyone stuck with their own delegation; over the years, I did not get to know any of the other conductors well. The exception was in Zagreb. At some point, there was a knock on the door of my dressing room and the conductor who was the ringleader – I do not remember his name (probably Noel Kelehan – BT) – explained to me what was going on. Up to that point, I was unaware of the producer’s decision. After a meeting, we sent a delegation to the organisation explaining that not showing the conductor on screen was unacceptable to us. I was not in this delegation and my role in the affair was minimal. I simply signed the petition with the others and that was the end of it… because the production team dropped their initial plan. That is about all I recall of it. My most vivid memory of Zagreb is Toto Cutugno’s performance for Italy. He simply stood there with a group of backing singers he had picked up in Yugoslavia. The orchestration was entirely live, without any backing tracks, no tricks, nothing; and his performance was first-class – he had the best song and fully deserved to win that year.”
In 1991, the Austrian pre-selection was a tight race between Thomas Forstner, who had already represented his country in 1989, and Tony Wegas, a future Eurovision contestant for Austria. In the end, Forstner won with ‘Venedig im Regen’, a pompous ballad by a trio of songwriters: Robby Musenbichler, Hubert Moser, and lyricist Wolfgang Eltner. Oesterreicher: “In fact, everybody involved in the program agreed Wegas, being the better performer of the two, should have won, but at that time, he looked awfully outdated with his long hair. I told him so, bluntly: “If you had had another haircut, you would have won”. It did not make him angry, but perhaps my remark stuck in his mind, because he went on to take part in the international contest twice with short hair and a slicker look.”
In the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest in Rome, Thomas Forstner experienced the worst festival nightmare, finishing bottom of the scoreboard without any point. Richard Oesterreicher was his musical director: “As a result of his fifth place in the 1989 contest, Forstner had become too big for his boots. Turning up at ORF with his manager, he submitted a long list of demands which he wanted honoured now that he had won the Austrian final. He asked for a group of backing singers and came up with an absolutely awful purple suit to wear on stage. Being part of the delegation, I was at the meeting with Forstner at ORF. The conduct of the guy annoyed me to bits, but he saw his entire list of requirements honoured. This cut across the plans of the songwriters; they would have preferred to send a band of rhythm players along to accompany him on stage, but now that he had gotten his four vocalists, there was no room for backing musicians (Eurovision rules not only stipulated a maximum of six people on stage, but also that any instrument on the backing track should be mimed by a performer on stage – BT). By consequence, the entire musical arrangement had to be played live by the orchestra.”
Understandably, Oesterreicher does not have the fondest of memories of Rome, his last participation in the Eurovision Song Contest: “The rehearsals were a disaster from start to finish. Forstner, who had of course practiced his performance endlessly back home with the record version of his song, turned up at his first rehearsal at the contest and was scared half to death when he heard the brass players of the orchestra. Inevitably, they sounded much louder than in the studio version. Moreover, he claimed the drummer in the orchestra was too slow. Having a metronome with me, I was able to show him there was nothing wrong with the drummer, but Forstner kept on moaning and complaining. At this rehearsal, I had to count in the orchestra seventeen times for him. The song was not that bad and I was even awarded with some prize for the arrangement back in Austria; I never really quite understood why it finished last, but Thomas Forstner fully deserved what he got. I really could not care less about that result.”
Though Richard Oesterreicher worked for ORF Television until his retirement in 1997, he did not take part in the Eurovision Song Contest anymore after ‘Rome’. “That was not a conscious decision on my part”, Oesterreicher explains. “I simply was not asked anymore. In ’93, it was only logical that Christian Kolonovits was the conductor of his own Eurovision song – after all, he is an excellent arranger. The year before that, the Austrian entry was produced by a German record company who chose their own conductor (Leon Ives – BT). In 1994, I was involved in the pre-selection in Vienna as a juror.”
Looking back on his Eurovision record, Oesterreicher says: “It was simply a job, but of course I was lucky to be the person to have the job, because I really liked being involved in the international festival… and, frankly, as an arranger and conductor I made some good money thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Proud? No, I am not particularly proud of my twelve participations. Perhaps it would have been a different story if we had won the contest, but we never even came close. We were mostly stuck with vocalists who were too inexperienced to perform successfully on an international stage with a grand orchestra. Never mind how carefully they had prepared their performance, a lack of experience always shows on such a big occasion.”
And, concluding about later developments in the Eurovision Song Contest: “To be honest, I have lost interest in the contest since the orchestra was done away with. I hardly follow the contest nowadays. The exception was when the Rounder Girls represented Austria (in Stockholm, 2000 – BT). They are marvellous singers; later on, I have been on stage quite a bit in jazz clubs and also with my big band accompanying one of them, Tini Kainrath. The last time I watched the contest must have been when Alf Poier took part with that idiotic performance of his; when he picked up lots of points, I decided it was time for me to spend my time on better things.”
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