Piet SouerBorn: March 29th, 1948, Eindhoven (the Netherlands)
Not much later, Piet discovered a music style which was more to his liking. “Listening to the radio, I heard Elvis Presley for the first time… but also Little Richard, the Shadows, and the Everly Brothers. From the start, it was the sound of the guitar which fascinated me. Behind it, there was a world of music which I desperately wanted to get involved in. I decided I wanted to learn to play that instrument. This, however, was beyond my father’s slightly narrow-minded mental grasp; and therefore mother, keen to avoid conflict, suggested asking one of my aunts if I could borrow her mandolin. She had played the instrument when she was younger… and so that mandolin was passed onto me. I cannot begin to explain how unhappy I was – compared to the guitar, a mandolin was such a bourgeois instrument – but what could I do about it? After all, I was only ten or eleven years old at the time. My parents, unable to understand how I had fallen in love with the sound of the guitar, sent me to music lessons every week. After a while, I became so frustrated that I stuck the mandolin in the spokes of my bicycle; the thing broke in a thousand pieces. Apparently, it was the only way to tell my parents I did not want this instrument. My father took up the challenge. In a matter of hours, he had repaired it completely. However, my mom and dad now understood this was not for me – so that was the end of my career as a mandolin player.”
Instead, a classmate at Piet’s primary school who owned a guitar taught him the first chords. “And from that moment on, I was off”, Piet comments. “Instead of taking lessons, I met up in music shops with other young guys keen to learn to play the guitar, teaching each other little melody lines, chords, and discussing sounds. That was the way to do it in those days. Meanwhile, my school marks became worse and worse as I immersed myself in any music activity I could find. Some classmates formed a Dixieland band in which I played the drums. Of course, I was not a brilliant drummer and Dixieland was not my favourite genre, but it was music!”
A gamechanger in Piet’s life was his participation in the 1961 edition of the so-called Cabaret der Onbekenden, a talent show held in the Carlton Hotel in Piet’s hometown of Eindhoven. Piet, twelve years old, teamed up with his elder sister, who sang Conny Froboess’ hit song ‘Midi-midinette’ accompanied by Piet at the guitar. Piet: “At that time, I did not have a guitar of my own yet, so I borrowed one from someone living a couple of streets away. The guitar needed a strap, so I tied a rope onto it instead – and that is how I went on stage. One of the jurors was Conny Froboess herself, and of course she said she loved our performance! We did not win, but the big moment for me was yet to come. To close off the evening, the organizers had hired Anneke Grönloh and Peter Koelewijn, backed up by Peter’s band, The Rockets (including Harry van Hoof at the piano, BT). I literally could not believe my ears. It was my first experience of hearing a band. It was such an impressive wall of sound! I cannot remember being so excited and ecstatic in my life, before or after. In retrospect, that was the first time the inner arranger in me awoke, albeit subconsciously.”
One year later, Piet met Paul Reekers, bass player of the Valiants, a local Eindhoven rock ‘n’ roll band. Piet: “Paul heard me play in Musica, the best-known music shop in town. Shortly after, he called me, asking if I was interested to join the Valiants as the lead guitarist. Of course I was keen to accept. My father, however, was totally against it – and I was too compliant to go against him. Luckily, mother came to my rescue and secretly escorted me out of the house, using the backdoor to allow me to do my first gig. When my father found out, he was beside himself with anger. To add insult to injury, that first performance was on a Sunday! It took years and years before he was reconciled to my career plans. Being a former police officer, he hoped I would follow his footsteps, but to me that prospect was utterly horrible. No way – by then, I knew I wanted to be a musician. I never seriously considered anything else.”
Between 1962 and 1969, Piet was a member of several Eindhoven pop bands; apart from the Valiants, he played the guitar in the Cavaliers and the Phantoms; with the last-mentioned group, Piet enjoyed considerable success in 1965 as their single ‘I’ll go crazy’ rose to the eleventh position in the Netherlands’ hit parade. “That must have been the first time I saw a recording studio from the inside”, Piet comments. “We recorded the track in the Bovema Studios in Heemstede. Around that same time, with the other members of the Valiants, I backed up Armand on his huge solo hit ‘Ben ik te min’ in Hilversum’s Phonogram Studios. Though musicians from Eindhoven enjoyed some nationwide success in the 1960s, the music scene was nowhere near as interesting as in towns in the western half of the country… we especially looked up to what was happening in The Hague. Looking back, I would qualify our style of playing as provincial, straightforward, and frankly rather goody-goody, but perhaps, that was part of the charm. I effectively played in several bands at the same time. All the while, though, I knew I did not want to keep on playing the guitar in rock bands for the rest of my life. There was a horizon full of musical possibilities to discover – I just did not know yet which direction to take.”
In between all the concerts, Piet finished his secondary education… and taught himself to play the piano. Piet: “At my parents’ home, there was no piano, but I found out one of my friends’ father owned one – so I went there and started experimenting, which is what I have done my whole life: instead of finding a teacher, I tried to find a way of my own. As soon as possible, I bought a piano of my own and collected the relevant music books to study. Incredibly perhaps, by the end of the 1960s, having earned my money as a musician for six years, I was still unable to read notes, but by studying hard I acquainted myself with the basics of music theory.”
Still in Eindhoven, Piet met a young local chansonnière, Lenny Kuhr. Piet: “That must have been in 1967 or 1968. She was a singer-songwriter who accompanied herself at the guitar. We met at some party and, right from the start, there was a click. We both took our guitars and it simply worked. As she put it, my Spanish guitar sang along with her – and she liked the vibrato in my playing. From then, we continued playing together. Lenny tried to accomplish her nationwide breakthrough by performing in Amsterdam and on several radio shows, and I was there with her. This was a style of music which was completely different from the rock and beat which I had become used to… and I thought it was a really interesting new world to discover.”
In 1969, Lenny Kuhr was invited to take part in the Netherlands’ Eurovision pre-selections. Piet backed her up playing the guitar: “… and we won that selection and went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid with ‘De troubadour’, but the key-moment for me was the recording session of the song in Hilversum. The arranger was Bert Paige, a legendary figure in the recording business. I remember him as an amiable guy, who conducted the studio orchestra smoking a cigar. Harmonically, he was a genius. As I saw him at work with the orchestra, I immediately knew I wanted to be what he was: an arranger. Following our Eurovision victory, Lenny recorded several albums with Bert Paige and another good arranger, Ruud Bos. During the sessions, I followed every move they made. Studio musicians taught me useful tricks – and I absorbed everything. Having said that, it was still a long way before I could stand up in front of that orchestra myself.”
Following Lenny Kuhr’s Eurovision victory, Lenny and Piet travelled across Europe and beyond to play their winning song – from Scandinavia to Israel, even to as far away as Japan. In early 1970, thanks to the efforts of Lenny’s producer Nico Knapper, they were invited to join Georges Brassens on a two-month-tour, performing at forty venues across France and Switzerland. “Touring with a giant as Brassens was a positive experience”, according to Piet. “I got to write my first little rhythm arrangements, for Lenny, myself, and our bass player. After a while, though, I was slightly unhappy to have to play the same melody lines over and over. How could I get closer to my goal to become an arranger? When I asked Bert Paige, he said: “You cannot learn how to be an arranger, you have to hear how to do it.” Well, I knew I heard it; and I was working on my theoretical knowledge by ploughing my way through different textbooks. At that point, I felt it would be a good idea to go to conservatory, but I was turned down in an audition – probably because the professors thought this young guy who was so immersed in popular music could not be moulded into their classical framework.”
“It was not a big disappointment to me”, Piet continues. “I kept on studying and working on my own projects. In Eindhoven, I wrote the arrangements for a gospel group, which gave me a good opportunity to experiment with harmonies, whilst setting up a new little band with two friends, Triple Track. We were inspired by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I composed most of the material myself. As we wanted to try to have our songs recorded in Hilversum, I put together demos using a tape recorder, a Philips Pro 12. Putting a microphone between my knees, I created the bass drum by beating a fist on my knee; and the snare by using my open hand on the other knee. Having created the base of the sound, I recorded the piano, guitars and bass parts – and sent such demos to producers in Hilversum, hoping we would be invited for a session.”
One of Piet’s homemade demos found its way to the desk of Hans van Hemert, a successful young producer at Phonogram. Although not being particularly impressed by the group Triple Track itself, he was fascinated by the way Souer had put together the demo. After a while, he decided to make a phone call to Eindhoven. Piet: “Hans had just had a conflict with the arranger he usually worked with, Harry van Hoof, and was looking for someone to replace him – something I knew nothing about at that time. Calling me, Hans bluntly asked me what I wanted to achieve in life. After I had told him about my ambitions as an arranger, he said: “Well, that is very nice – listen, this Monday, we are recording the orchestra to a Willeke Alberti single. I want you to write the full arrangement and strings.”
Piet, continuing: “Well, this was my dream come true and I would have been a fool to say no, but, my goodness – strings! I knew what a violin looked like, but I had no idea how to write for it. I immediately bought myself a new textbook – one about string instruments, and wrote a score to Hans’ song for Willeke. Because I did not know about copyists yet, I wrote out the individual parts for all players myself. My wife drove me from Eindhoven to Hilversum, whilst I was in the backseat frantically working on the final parts. I could not have been more nervous when I walked into the studio in Hilversum, where the finest string players of the Metropole Orchestra were waiting to record my arrangement. All I knew about conducting was based on what I had learnt from watching guys such as Bert Paige. Because I had once seen a conductor ticking on a music stand with his baton to ask for his musicians’ attention, I did the same… well, as I did not have a baton, I used a pencil instead. At that point, everyone in the studio started laughing, because what I did was a total breach of convention – but after having played the arrangement, all violinists took their bow, ticking it on their stands; as I learnt, it was their way of expressing praise for an arrangement. This was the best start imaginable for me as an arranger.”
The song for Willeke Alberti was called ‘Zal ik gaan dansen’ and was released in 1973. Though it did not hit the charts, Hans van Hemert was duly impressed and secured Piet a contract with Phonogram as a staff arranger in 1974. With his wife, Piet moved from Eindhoven to the so-called ‘Phonogram apartment block’ in Soest. In the following years, Piet worked with countless producers and artists, writing the arrangements to a sheer endless list of hits, including ‘I see a star’ and ‘Ah! L’amore’ for Mouth & MacNeal (both in 1974), ‘Upside down’ for Teach In, ‘Dr. Bernard’ for Bonnie St. Claire, and ‘Bakker de baksteen’ for Cornelis Vreeswijk (all three from 1976). Meanwhile, he also started making his mark as a songwriter, composing hit material such as ‘I’m the grand pretender’ for Cardinal Point (1973), ‘Te veel, te vaak’ for Liesbeth List (1974), and ‘Valentino’ for Champagne (1977).
“Champagne were a group formed by Martin Duiser”, Piet comments. “Martin was a producer with whom I worked extensively for some seven years. He was a huge ABBA fan and, honestly speaking, Champagne was a total ABBA rip-off. Having said that, the project was hugely successful, and not only in the Netherlands! Why I started composing besides my arranging work? Well, it did not start at that point – I had written songs from my adolescence onwards! There had always been this desire to create. Composing could be defined as the inspiration flowing from that desire. Inspiration can come from anywhere; from a book, for example, but perhaps from the way the sunlight enters a room as well. After having composed a melody and written the words, the next step is to decide which sound to give to one’s composition. That is where the craftsmanship of an arranger is needed. Arranging is more than just musical craftsmanship, though. Here, creativity is hugely important too. There are always multiple choices – to illustrate a given part of the melody with parallel high violins or instead by using two trumpets. Even in pop music, in which producers are usually looking for a recognizable sound, the possibilities are countless.”
Apart from his work as a composer and arranger, Piet Souer regularly took up his guitar for session work as well. Amongst many other credits, he played the guitar part in Ramses Shaffy’s evergreen ‘Laat me’ from 1978. Moreover, Souer recorded two solo easy-listening albums, ‘Strings by candlelight’ (with Harry van Hoof, 1976) and ‘Romantic feelings’ (1977). In 1978, he was the frontman of an instrumental band, Conquistador, which climbed to number three in the Dutch charts with ‘Argentina’, a title referring to that year’s FIFA World Cup which was held in that South American country. Piet: “I had been commissioned to write a theme melody for the World Cup broadcasts of Dutch national television. For the recording session, I played the guitar and most other instruments myself. I had envisioned forming a group without me to perform it on TV, but the director was adamant that I should be in the group. Though I was not really fond of being recognized by people in the street, in the end I gave in and it was a big hit. Cover versions were recorded by Jørgen Ingmann, Ricky King, and Francis Goya. As for ‘Strings by candlelight’, that was something else. Producer Will Hoebee, who was enthralled with my style of playing, toyed with the idea of creating a series of instrumental records with Harry van Hoof and me as CBS had done with Rogier van Otterloo. The album was recorded in the CTS Studios in London with the best English session musicians. It was a gold record and an album I am still quite proud of.”
In 1977, Piet embarked on a new adventure with Hans van Hemert. Using their pseudonyms Janschen & Janschens, they formed the girl group Luv’, for which they composed and produced all material together; besides, Piet took care of all arrangements. In the following years, Luv’ turned into a hit machine, heaping one international chart success on the other, most notably ‘You’re the greatest lover’ and ‘Trojan horse’ (both in 1978). Piet: “Having heard some of the arrangements I had written for Champagne, Hans told me he thought they were great – and he shared with me his idea of putting together three attractive girls in a group, following the example of The Supremes. One of the girls, José van de Wijdeven, was a talented young singer from Brabant. When I moved away from Eindhoven, I had promised her to try my best to help her find fame. Luv’ was just the ideally suited project for her. The other two ladies, Marga Scheide and Patty Brard, were picked in an audition organised by Hans.”
What about the Luv’ songs? Piet: “Most of them were Hans’ brainchildren. He simply was a genius at inventing painfully simple tunes, to which he added a disco beat… ‘You’re the greatest lover’ is a good example of this talent. It was up to me to turn Hans’ demo with his ideas for a chorus into a fully-fledged song with a suitable instrumentation and all. I also took care of some lyrics. Lastly, I wrote the orchestrations, in which I usually included a surprising element; bagpipes in ‘Trojan horse’, for example. With Luv’, we travelled across Europe and beyond – to as far away as Mexico and Australia. I remember a gig for which a private plane took us to Bremen and Paris for performances on the same evening, flying on to Italy the next morning, and back to Rotterdam the same day. I was wrecked, but the girls’ energy seemed inexhaustible. The three voices matched wonderfully well together – that is perhaps the explanation of their success; well, apart from their looks, of course…”
As Luv’s successes petered out after 1979, partly due to infighting amongst the group members, the working relationship between Hans van Hemert and Piet Souer deteriorated as well. Piet: “For quite some years Hans and I had been a great team. In creative terms, we managed to bring out the best in the other. After a while, though, personal differences came to the fore. Hans usually claimed all the credits… and so the good spirit between us evaporated. Do not get me wrong, Hans is the person who got me into the studio business and one of the most creative persons I have ever worked with – nobody has a keener eye for commercial success than he does. Perhaps, it was simply time for each of us to go our own way. I left Phonogram and embarked on my own freelance projects, the first one being Doris D & The Pins.”
Produced by Piet Souer, the newly formed girl group Doris D & The Pins found immediate success with their first single, ‘Shine up’, which rose to number one in the Dutch charts in early 1981. In the following years, Piet Souer was incredibly successful as a songwriter and producer, working in Hilversum, but also internationally in London and Hamburg with the likes of Vicky Leandros and Middle of the Road. Songs of his charted in France (‘La sortie de secours’ by Sylvie Vartan, 1982) and the UK (‘Fantasy Island’ by Tight Fit, 1982); meanwhile, for the Dutch market, he penned breakthrough hit successes for Anita Meyer (‘Why tell me why’, 1981 – number one in the Dutch charts) and Vanessa (‘Upside down’, 1981). Moreover, still in the Netherlands, Souer wrote and produced albums and single releases for the likes of George Baker, Albert West, and Ciska Peters, whilst arranging the music to several concert series of the Metropole Orchestra with vocalist Lee Towers. Apart from his countless participations in the Eurovision Song Contest as a composer and arranger, Souer took part in the 1981 edition of the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, where ‘Too young to know’, a song he co-wrote with Martin Duiser for Anita Meyer, won a Most Outstanding Song Award; nine years later, in 1990, Souer won the Holland Casino Scheveningen Song Festival with ‘Solo tú’, a melody co-composed with Peter van Asten for Chilean vocalist Luis Jara.
Meanwhile, Souer had made his mark as a composer in the world of television as well. In 1975-’76, he wrote all music to the successful puppet series ‘Suske & Wiske’; he also invented the tunes for several cartoon series, game shows (‘Lingo’, ‘Boggle’), and entertainment programmes. Souer: “The guy who wrote the scenario for ‘Suske & Wiske’, Wim Povel, approached me through my record company Phonogram. As he liked the first sketches of songs which I created to his script, he decided I could do the entire series. Though I have never been a fan of puppetry, these programmes worked out really well and it was good fun to work on children’s music for once. After that first success, I was regularly commissioned by broadcasters to write for them. In the 1980s, advertisement agencies also crossed my path once and again, and I wrote some music for them – but with less success. In advertisement as in the television world, logically, producers usually turn to the composers who have already proven they can be successful in that particular corner of the business. That is why, after ‘Suske & Wiske’, I worked quite a lot for television and not so much in the advertising business.”
Crossing into the 1990s, Piet Souer remained in demand as an arranger and songwriter for the likes of Sandra Reemer, Rob de Nijs, Danny de Munk, Lee Towers, BZN, and Willeke Alberti; internationally, he worked on albums of Helen Shapiro, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Dana International. He wrote the orchestrations to hit successes by Gordon (‘Ik hou van jou’, 1992) and BZN (‘Banjo man’, 1994). Souer, asked about these involvements: “Peter van Asten asked me to rearrange ‘Ik hou van jou’ for Gordon. Peter had co-written the song for Maribelle, who represented the Netherlands in the Eurovision Song Contest with it some years before. By the early 1990s, my collaboration with Martin Duiser had stopped; his role had more or less been taken over by Peter, who was involved with a lot of artists as a producer. We co-composed quite some material together, for which he did the production bit, whilst I took care of the arrangements. We got along well on a personal level, explaining why we had a continued working relationship. And BZN? Well, I wrote most of their arrangements back then, but I cannot say it was my favourite repertoire to work on, but I have yet to meet the first person in the business who would turn down anything which does not entirely match his personal tastes and preferences. Times had changed. Studio orchestras had been replaced to a major extent by computers. I have always been interested in these developments, most of which have made the life of a musician much easier, but they have changed the music business forever. Arrangers have become a rare quantity.”
Since the turn of the century, Piet Souer’s activities have – if anything – become even more varied than before. In the recording studio, he worked with artists from the Netherlands and beyond, including Tamara Tol, Peggy March, and Ernst Daniël Smid; moreover, he recorded two CDs with musical singer Maaike Widdershoven and wrote the orchestrations to several Frans Bauer concert series. In 2004, Piet’s composition ‘Zwei alte Freunde’, recorded by Ute Freudenberg, charted in Germany. He composed music to several art documentaries, amongst others about Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, and coordinated all live music on the set of Paul Verhoeven’s blockbuster film ‘Black Book’ in 2006, working with star actress Carice van Houten. In 2011, he arranged and produced the music for Ivo Niehe’s theatre tour highlighting the memory of chansonnier Yves Montand which took them to Paris. Six years later, Souer once again proved his versatility by composing all music to ‘Drs Down’, Singspiel-type musical, again in collaboration with Ivo Niehe, which turned into a major theatre success in the Netherlands.
Souer: “I do not necessarily have a predilection for musical as a genre, but, as always, I am open to being motivated by others – in this case, Ivo Niehe, who came up with this idea of turning into a stage show the story of a guy with Down syndrome who succeeded in obtaining a university degree. To my mind, the show, which includes two young Downers, has turned out really well. At the moment, we are exploring the possibilities of exploiting it internationally as well. Even after all these years, I still feel an immense yearning to create and to compose… in this case, by penning a musical. The next project due is an opera – classical music has always been in the back of my mind, from my earliest youth onwards. I have often described myself as a ‘melodist’, someone who creates melodies rather than beats. Operetta and opera are perhaps the corners of the world of music in which melodies are most fully appreciated. Besides, these are times in which music has become more about experiencing than about listening. In entertainment music, much more than in the past, audiences seem to feel the urge to clap, dance and sing along rather than simply sit down and listen closely. I wanted to get away from that and follow my heart to finally find the answer to that one question: ‘When will you write your masterpiece?’ Apparently, that time has arrived now. Needless to say, I am immensely looking forward to hearing the result.”
Piet Souer in the Eurovision Song Contest
The Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid took place on Piet’s twenty-first birthday, March 29th, 1969. “So whatever the number of points awarded to us, I had reason to celebrate”, he laughs. “After coming off stage, I immediately went looking for the bar. That is where I spent the rest of the evening downing a couple of beers – typically for someone from the Netherlands’ southern provinces, I have always loved the good life! At one point, Warry van Kampen, our head of delegation, stormed into this backstage bar, sighing: “Piet, quick, come upstairs – we have won!” He had been looking for me everywhere. It had never really occurred to me that we could actually win the competition. That evening in Madrid changed my life. Before I knew it, I was touring Europe and Asia with Lenny – and one year after, our Eurovision win resulted in an invitation to join up with Georges Brassens for a tour across France and Switzerland.”
Five years after ‘Madrid’, Piet Souer’s career had taken a different direction. The guitarist had become staff arranger at Phonogram, one of the Netherlands’ biggest record companies. In 1974, Souer took part as a conductor in the San Remo Song Festival, and as an arranger and percussionist on stage in the Eurovision Song Contest – in both cases, accompanying Mouth & MacNeal, the duo of Sjoukje van ‘t Spijker and Willem Duyn. At the Italian song festival in San Remo, one month prior to the Eurovision Song Contest, they participated with the song ‘Ah! L’amore’. How on earth did the Dutch duo end up on the San Remo stage?
Piet: “Mouth & MacNeal had been in the charts in Italy before and were invited to take part in San Remo. The Italians were keen to learn from Hans van Hemert, who was duly invited over to Milan to record the song with me and the two singers. I took care of the arrangement. The sessions were quite problematic; Hans was suffering from high-fever and there was a bunch of Italians looking over our shoulder all the time. To add insult to injury, one of these locals dropped a glass of coke over the mixing console, which meant we had to stop working for that day and start from scratch the next morning. At the San Remo Festival, I conducted the orchestra for our entry, the first-time ever I conducted an orchestra on stage. To many Italians, our song came as a shock – it was far more modern than most other entries and observers with a conservative attitude did not like our approach at all. We were the revolutionaries, the frontrunners perhaps, who tried to bring pop music to San Remo… and it was at least a partial success, as we made it into the final.”
One month later, on April 6th, 1974, the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Brighton. Mouth & MacNeal had not had to defeat any opposition to win the ticket to represent the Netherlands. Instead, an expert jury chose the most suitable entry amongst three songs submitted by the duo’s production team. The jurors’ choice fell on ‘Ik zie een ster’, a happy upbeat track quite similar to earlier Mouth & MacNeal hits, most notably ‘How do you do’. Composed by Hans van Hemert, the song was arranged by Piet Souer: “When I first heard Hans’ demo of ‘Ik zie een ster’, I tried to put myself in his place – as any good arranger does. What kind of instrumentation would he like with such a melody? My first impulse was to use a little ancient organ… yes, why not? Hans thoroughly liked the idea, and we went to the organ museum in Utrecht to do the recording. Now that we had a gimmick, the rest of the work was quite easy. The marching tempo of the song required using a bass part reinforcing just that tempo. Adding the orchestral elements, the goal was to further emphasize that particular element; to that end, I used celli and trombones in the intro – and further on in the song piccolo and flute with a xylophone behind. As Harry van Hoof had taught me earlier, arranging orchestral music is all about ‘doubling, doubling, doubling’ – doubling or copying the part of one instrument onto the other, that is.”
As a matter of fact, the same Harry van Hoof conducted the Eurovision orchestra for ‘I see a star’, as the unsurprising title of the song’s English translation was, whilst Souer was on stage in the backing group miming the pre-recorded percussion part of the song. Did Piet regret not being in front of the orchestra himself, as he had been in San Remo? “Well, no, not at all. Of course, from a Netherlands point of view, the Eurovision Song Contest was much more high-profile than the San Remo Festival – and there was an unwritten rule to leave the Eurovision conducting job to the same conductor every year, and in the 1970s Harry was that person. Who was I anyway in 1974? I had been working as an arranger in Hilversum for perhaps a year only. Harry has always been quite a healthily vain guy, so he liked being up front… without taking away anything from his huge musical talent; he was one of the most sought-after arrangers of his days. My position was still in the shades. As in Madrid five years before, I had a lovely week. I remember sitting on the balcony of our hotel facing the seaside, chatting away with Willem Duys (long-year Eurovision commentator for Dutch broadcaster NOS) about which self-tanning creams were best – there is something about showbiz and vanity, isn’t there?”
Mouth & MacNeal might have had a chance to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, but they were out-gimmicked by ABBA and in the end had to settle for third place. Nonetheless, the song enjoyed considerable chart success in several European countries. In the following years, Piet Souer continued being involved in the festival as an arranger: in 1977, he orchestrated ‘Drop drop drop’, with which the Hans van Hemert-produced band Trinity finished second in the Belgian Eurovision selection programme behind Dream Express; two years later, in 1979, he scored ‘Colorado’, the Netherlands’ entry to that year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, performed by Xandra (Sandra Reemer) – and once again conducted by Harry van Hoof.
It took until 1981 before Piet Souer first entered the Nationaal Songfestival, the Netherlands’ Eurovision pre-selections, as a songwriter. His song ‘Stap voor stap’, co-written by Martin Duiser and Karel Hille, was performed by Lucy Steymel & The Millionaires. In the following year, these same Millionaires took part in their own right, again with a song by Souer, Duiser, and Hille: ‘Fantasie eiland’. Though favourites to win the ticket to the international festival final in Harrogate, the group were pegged from victory by Bill van Dijk and ‘Jij en ik’, a song composed by Dick Bakker. According to Piet, the expert jury were to blame for the result: “For some reason, these people were adamant to choose a quality song – whatever that might be. They did not seem to have any idea of commercial value. To them, it was a plus that the lyrics of ‘Jij en ik’ were by Liselore Gerritsen, an artist and poet with literary pretensions. Besides, Rogier van Otterloo, the conductor of the Metropole Orchestra who was the musical director of the selection programme, had indicated that he preferred ‘Jij en ik’ over the other participating songs. To add insult to injury, the jury’s president, Pim Jacobs, was a close friend of Rogier’s… well, that is why we lost it. But that is how the ball bounces sometimes in showbiz.”
Coincidentally, after the national final, the winning ‘Jij en ik’ was released on the Utopia label of Karel Hille; Hille passed the commission to produce and arrange the song onto none other than… Piet Souer. Working with Peter Schön, Piet completely re-arranged the song to give it more of an 1980s feel. Meanwhile, the English version of Piet’s own song, ‘Fantasy Island’, was recorded in a cover version by Tight Fit, a British dance group who managed a top five hit with it in the UK and Ireland. “We owed that success to Roba Music, our Hamburg editor”, Piet explains. “After the Eurovision heats in the Netherlands, he sent the Millionaires record to record companies in London. That is how the song landed on the desk of Tight Fit’s producers. The single version sold half a million copies. It confirmed to Martin and myself that we had been right to believe in this song. Of course, it is not a masterpiece in any way, but we had written it specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest – in other words, for an international audience. When Tight Fit turned the song into a UK hit, we proved we had succeeded in writing a song with an international appeal to it. I am convinced it could have done well in Eurovision, but we were simply unlucky – no hard feelings there. As for ‘Jij en ik’, as the producer and arranger of the song, I went to Brighton to oversee the rehearsals, but it came as no surprise to me that it finished near the bottom. With all due respect to Bill van Dijk who was the performer, it was a horrible composition.”
In 1983, Piet Souer and Martin Duiser had clearly set their minds on the Eurovision Song Contest. No fewer than four of ten songs in the Netherlands’ national final had been penned by them – whilst one more song was by Duiser alone. With song titles as ‘Rendez-vous’ and ‘Computer games’, it was obvious the songwriting duo was again looking at conquering Europe rather than just the Netherlands. In the end, the selection was won by Bernadette Kraakman, a completely unknown vocalist, performing ‘Sing me a song’ by… Piet Souer and Martin Duiser. Piet: “Of course, with so many songs of ours in the competition, it did not really come as a surprise when we won. Before the show, our editor Tony Berk even claimed we could not lose. In reality, it was not that easy, as Hans van Hemert had a song called ‘Een beetje van dit’ which came really close to winning. This was at a time when Hans and I had stopped working as a team, but there was no hostility between the two of us – rather a healthy form of competition.”
Rather than Hans van Hemert, Martin Duiser now was Piet’s songwriting partner in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Together, they were responsible for a string of hits for Champagne, Anita Meyer, and many others. “The partnership with Martin was a completely different one compared to how I had worked with Hans”, Piet comments. “While Hans had usually been the motive who brought up ideas for songs, I took over that role when working with Martin. He was more of a producer than a musician, but was really good at coming up with a solution for a song bridge when I was at a loss about how to finish a composition. Working that way, we were able to write lots of songs in a short spell of time. ‘Sing me a song’ is a typical example of how I worked with Martin. At least eighty percent of the music is mine – and the lyrics are my work completely. It was a composition intended for Eurovision right from the start. Martin and I were looking for the winning formula. That is why I put in loads of platitudes in English and French to circumvent the problem of having to sing in Dutch. Do not get me wrong, I love Dutch as a vehicle to express one’s inner-soul – and some really great literature has been written in Dutch – but it is not the language best-suited to be used in song. Internationally, having to sing in Dutch with all its throaty sounds is a liability.”
In normal circumstances, the national final as well as the presentation of the Dutch entry in the Eurovision Song Contest proper would have been conducted by Rogier van Otterloo, who had been the Metropole Orchestra’s chief-conductor since 1980, but in the early months of 1983, he suffered from a severe illness – the cancer he would eventually succumb to five years later – and he had himself replaced by Ruud Bos, who took care of conducting the orchestra in the pre-selection programme in The Hague. There, a conflict broke out between the orchestra and the production teams of the participating entries. The Metropole musicians were adamant that all songs should be played live in their entirety, without pre-recorded rhythm tracks – though these had been allowed in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1973. No solution was found, and in the end, the Metropole Orchestra refused to accompany any of the ten participants, who then performed with backing tracks only – reducing the role of the orchestra to playing at the opening and closing ceremony and during the interval entertainment. In other words, though Ruud Bos was the musical director of the programme, his involvement with the participating songs was negligible. Therefore, the unwritten rule in Dutch Eurovision history – the conductor of the national final will also conduct in the Eurovision Song Contest – did not automatically apply this time. At the insistence of Tony Berk, the NOS agreed to let Piet Souer conduct his own orchestration to ‘Sing me a song’ at the international festival final in Munich; it is the only time ever a Dutch entry was conducted by one of the songwriters – rather than by the ‘neutral’ musical director of choice of the public broadcasting service NTS/NOS.
It is one of the few times during his career in which Souer was in the spotlight conducting a television orchestra. With years of experience as a conductor in studio sessions, though, leading the orchestra in Munich posed no particular problems for Piet: “As a matter of fact, in those early 1980s, I was taking lessons with a famous classical conductor, Jaap Spaanderman. I was interested in conducting – classical conducting, that is. If my career path had been in classical music, it is not unthinkable I would have been a conductor. A classical conductor has been trained to study scores of symphonies and concertos looking for the essence and creating an interpretation of his own. That is something completely different from counting in a band for a light-entertainment performance with perhaps one or two tempo changes at most. Frankly speaking, I could have become bored being the conductor of a band such as the Metropole Orchestra. In pop music, I have always been more interested in creating… composing and arranging songs. That explains for the fact why, apart from the contest in Munich, I have hardly ever pushed myself to be the conductor of my own work.”
What are Piet’s memories of the week of rehearsals in Munich? “Well, the organisation was extremely professional and, as always in a Eurovision Song Contest, the orchestra was excellent. German musicians are usually really good instrumentalists and moreover very docile. What I remember mostly about the days ahead of the contest is how annoyed Bernadette was when she discovered most journalists were more interested in Sandra Reemer, who was in our backing group, than in her. Sandra had taken part in the contest three times as a soloist and was treated as a star. It was obvious Bernadette felt ignored. In spite of that, she was a girl without any star pretensions – a typical product of this Calvinistic modesty which is so typically Dutch and so singularly obstructive when trying to build an international career. She sang extremely well, but lacked the charisma to be a star on and off stage. Having said that, it is something I only realized afterwards, because I was convinced we could win the contest; we had a good singer and an appealing and memorable melody. Besides, there is this well-known Eurovision phenomenon of being in a cocoon of one’s own delegation with people who keep on repeating how good they feel your song is. Every time someone told us we would probably win, we started believing more in our own chances.”
In the end, ‘Sing me a song’, performed by Bernadette and conducted by Piet Souer, finished seventh amongst acts from twenty participating countries – not bad, but not nearly as good as expected: “Yes, Martin Duiser, myself, the entire delegation – we were all disappointed at coming seventh. However, we realized there was nothing we could do about it, so we raised our glasses to celebrate the fun times we had had together… that is, all of us, except for Bernadette. She blamed Martin, me, and the others for not looking after her well enough after the voting. Apparently, she needed some sort of consolation which we were not able to give her at that particular moment. Instead of accepting one’s defeat, as we did and as we expected her to do as well, she chose the victim’s role.”
Strikingly, in the remainder of the 1980s, Piet Souer did not participate as a composer in any edition of the Dutch Eurovision pre-selection; in 1989, however, at the request of the song’s production team, he penned the orchestration to ‘Blijf zoals je bent’, the ballad with which Justine Pelmelay represented the Netherlands in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, held in Lausanne. In the first half of the 1990s, Souer had three songs in the pre-selections: ‘Later’ by Angelina van Dijk in 1990; ‘Freedom freiheit liberté’ by Jeans Unlimited in 1990 (co-written by Peter van Asten); and ‘Wachten op water’ by Sigi in 1992. Moreover, he wrote the arrangements to several other entries, including ‘Waar blijft de tijd’ and ‘Medeleven’ for Ruth Jacott in 1993; and ‘Laat ons dansen’ for Willeke Alberti in 1994.
In the 1990s, Souer’s regular songwriting partner was Peter van Asten, an experienced producer who worked with the likes of Gordon, Willeke Alberti, and the Dolly Dots. In 1996, Souer and Van Asten entered the Nationaal Songfestival with a co-composition called ‘De eerste keer’, a happily upbeat song performed by Maxine & Franklin Brown, a boy-girl duo brought together for the occasion. Though both singers were largely unknown to followers of Dutch pop music, they managed to win the ticket to the international festival in Oslo. What does Piet Souer remember about the songwriting process of ‘De eerste keer’?
“Peter van Asten once visited me and I played him a demo of a little melody I had written some time before. He was convinced it was a song tailor-made for Eurovision. Maxine and Franklin were two rather unknown solo artists for whom he was the producer. He was really keen to have them sing this song as a duo. Naively, though the lyrics were ready and the music was more or less finished as well, I allowed Peter to add one or two bars to the demo version, thus making him co-composer. In the course of my career, I made this same mistake quite a few times. I liked the concept of working together with others, making use of one another’s talent and creativity, but all too often I created a song and allowed others to sign their names under it, though their contribution had been minimal. Call me an idealist – because I was, and it cost me an enormous amount of money. As with ‘Sing me a song’ in 1983, I consciously left out guttural sounds from the lyrics, to avoid an international audience being turned off by the Dutch language.”
Onto the subject of the lyrics of ‘De eerste keer’, these are about a man and a woman meeting up again after many years, reviving a love-affair they had many years before. Was their any autobiographical element in all of this? Piet, laughing: “No, not at all… but a lyricist has to be capable to put himself in someone else’s shoes. In my fantasy, I imagined watching a romantic film, and the words followed naturally. As it turned out, many people identified with the lyrics of ‘De eerste keer’… and of course it is an appealing thought to meet up with someone you fell in love with during your high school days, feeling the same vibes again years later. The combination of music and lyrics was dynamic, happy, and upbeat – ideally suited for Maxine and Franklin, so credit to Peter van Asten for suggesting them. It was a good match and I was pretty convinced we would win the selection in the Netherlands. In the charts, it did extremely well too, climbing to third spot.”
Though Piet Souer had written the orchestration to ‘De eerste keer’ himself, the orchestra in the pre-selection and in the Eurovision final in Oslo was conducted by Dick Bakker, who had taken over from Harry van Hoof as the regular musical director for the Dutch broadcaster’s Eurovision hopefuls – the same Dick Bakker whose composition ‘Jij en ik’ had robbed Souer from victory in the 1982 Netherlands’ Eurovision pre-selection. “That was completely OK for me”, Piet says. “Dick is a good guy and an able musician – I did not worry for a moment about him being our conductor in Oslo. There was another problem… Peter and I were keen to arrive in Oslo on time to attend all rehearsals, especially the first orchestral rehearsal. Because the Norwegian orchestra did not have any saxophone players, I had had to rewrite the sax parts for the trombonists. I wanted to make sure the new arrangement would sound right. Unfortunately, those responsible for Eurovision at the NOS did not want to listen and instead preferred to include some of their own people in the delegation, though they did not have any function in Oslo other than having a one-week-holiday. The NOS’ proceedings were completely opposed to what a song festival should be about: the song. It was sheer idiocy. In the end, Peter and I had enough of arguing with them; instead, deciding to pay for our own expenses, we booked our own flight to Norway.”
In the international Eurovision final, Maxine and Franklin again managed to convince the jurors, picking up 78 points and finishing seventh amongst songs from twenty-three participating countries. Souer about his stay in Oslo: “The Norwegian organisation was wonderful – at every reception, the delegations were treated to loads of salmon and champagne. On the downside, however, it was obvious the contest had lost some of its dignity and importance. Where there had been serious newspaper journalists in Munich, we were now met at press conferences by hordes of Eurovision fans with cheap photo cameras. Maxine and Franklin were extremely professional all week and gave a good performance. Their mistake was to believe that success was waiting for them at the horizon – individual success, that is. In Oslo, they organised separate press conferences to announce they had signed a record deal. If they had been more realistic, they should have continued working as a duo in the aftermath of their newly won popularity. I am sure they could have continued with considerable success for at least three or four more years. That could have been the launching pad for a solo career. What happened after was predictable: they both failed to realize a breakthrough, which is really unfortunate given their unmistakable talent. Peter van Asten and I tried to explain them all of this in 1996, but in vain.”
After ‘De eerste keer’ in 1996, Piet Souer participated one more time as a songwriter in the Eurovision pre-selections in the Netherlands; in 2000, he teamed up with Dick Plat, BZN’s synth player, to compose ‘Hit it off’, performed by Dewi Lopulalan. In spite of the modern production, the song failed to make an impact and finished last, far behind winner Linda Wagenmakers. Souer: “I have never minded losing, but it was disappointing to lose out to a dress. ‘Hit it off’ was rather funky and rhythmical – not a typical Souer song, I would say. I really believed in that song, because I felt it could have stood out as a modern Eurovision entry. Unfortunately, Dewi’s performance was slightly screamy and over the top. She failed to connect with the audience in the hall. I do not know if I would be interested to participate in Eurovision again. The programme has turned away from being a song festival into a show festival. That is why I have lost interest. I was always in it for the music. It was an important international podium and, moreover, a unique chance to have your compositions played by a grand orchestra. That is why, around that same time, I was so thrilled to accept the invitation to write orchestrations for ‘Una voce particolare’, a successful TV programme with classical singers; it was hugely inspirational and inspired me to write compositions in classical style as well. As for the Eurovision Song Contest, from a songwriting point of view, the commercial and artistic value has decreased enormously.”
Other artists on Piet Souer