Helmer OlesenBorn: January 4th, 1934, Hvidovre, Copenhagen (Denmark)
Died: June 11th, 1997, Copenhagen (Denmark)
At the Sankt Annae Institute, a catholic private high school for boys in Amager, he acquainted himself with the piano. One of his fellow students was Franz Ratz, later to become the conductor of the DR Radio Symphony Orchestra. Already at that time, both boys harboured ambitions to have an orchestra of their own. Furthermore, in his teenage years, Helmer Olesen learnt to play the trumpet and the flute as well as mastering various percussion instruments. In the 1950s, Olesen played various instruments, but mainly the trumpet, in several Danish jazz and dance orchestras, most notably Kai Ewans’ band. Professionally, though, he earned most of his money as a photographer, having been taught the basics by a good friend, clarinettist and band leader Ib Renard.
In 1958, Olesen got in touch with Bob Azzam, a Lebanese-Egyptian singer and band leader who lived in Geneva, Switzerland. In Azzam’s band, Olesen played the trumpet, piano, flute, and many more instruments for several years, entertaining a Saudi sheikh and touring Central America on cruises across the Caribbean. In those years, the multi-instrumentalist taught himself instrumentation and arranging. During Olesen’s time with Azzam, the ensemble scored a number of hits in France and beyond, such as ‘Fais-moi du couscous, chérie’ and particularly ‘Ya, Mustapha’, which even entered the British charts and stayed there for no fewer than twenty-three weeks (1960). Still in 1960, the Bob Azzam Orchestra was awarded the ‘Grand Prix du Disque’ in France for another of its single releases, ‘Viens à Juan-les-Pins’. Most of the covers for Azzam’s records in those years were designed by Olesen.
Upon his return to Denmark in the mid-1960s, Helmer Olesen found work as a session musician in the recording studios. With his arranging experience with Bob Azzam under the belt, it was not long before he became heavily involved in the business as an arranger too. Teaming up with singer and producer Johnny Reimar, Olesen was responsible for the orchestrations to a string of Danish hit successes, including ‘Når jeg tænker på lille Alvilda’ for Johnny Reimar himself (1969), ‘Bli’ væk fra vort kvarter’ for Peter Belli (1970), and ‘Jeg har set en rigtig negermand’ for Lille Bo & Familien Andersen (1970). Other artists Olesen worked with in the 1960s and early 1970s as an arranger include Otto Brandenburg, Annette Klingenberg, Dorthe Kollo, as well as bands such as Bjørn & Okay and the Walkers. For Johnny Reimar, he arranged and conducted some fifteen ‘Party’ medley albums, which were best sellers all through the 1970s. On top of all this, Olesen released some instrumental albums under his own name, including ‘Dansk top træffere’ with his own trumpet arrangements to local hit successes (c1970).
Helmer Olesen developed a close working relationship with fledgling pop singer Birthe Kjær, writing practically all orchestrations for her studio recordings for some fifteen years. Most of Birthe’s hit songs were arranged by Olesen, most notably perhaps ‘Mucho amore’ (1969) ‘Pas på den knaldrøde gummibåd’ (1970), ‘Sommer og sol’ (1971), and, later onwards, ‘En enkelt gang’ (1976). In 1976, Johnny Reimar commissioned Olesen to arrange the album ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’, recorded in Copenhagen with American gospel legend Clara Ward.
In 1975, whilst continuing his involvement with Johnny Reimar’s recording projects, Olesen founded a production company of his own, Magnet Music Production. For Magnet Music, he produced two albums with pop singer Henning Vilén, ‘Telefonen’ (1976) and ‘I skovens dybe stille ro’ (1978). Moreover, he helped bringing about several jazz projects, including ‘Swingtime’ by the Cox Band and an LP with vocalist Palle Holgersen. In the 1980s, he teamed up with folk singer Ole Stolle and worked as a session trumpeter on recordings with rock bands Peanuts and Rock Nalle. Lastly, in 1994, Olesen wrote the arrangements to Johnny Reimar’s successful medley album ‘25 års jubilæumsparty’.
Away from the recording studio, Olesen wrote dozens of jazz arrangements played by the DR Radio Underholdnings Orkestret, the light-entertainment orchestra of Danish Radio, from the early 1970s onwards. He was the Kapellmeister of his own orchestra from the mid-1970s onwards. In 1976, he conducted the annual Royal Ball for the first time, a commission he kept for years. With his big band, he entertained audiences with potpourris of golden oldies and popular hits at the Promenade Pavilion in Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli park for an impressive number of twenty summer seasons (1977-’96), earning him the epithet ‘Mr. Evergreen’. He was the mentor of vocalist Lene Siel, who sang with Olesen’s orchestra in Tivoli for three consecutive summer seasons. In 1995, Olesen and his orchestra provided the musical accompaniment on the occasion of the wedding celebrations for Prince Joachim of Denmark and his spouse Alexandra Manley. That same year, Olesen stood at the cradle of the birth of ‘Kapelmesteren’, a monthly for members of the Danish Association of Kapellmeisters which still exists today. He kept on working as a studio producer until shortly before his death, finishing several recordings with the Niels Bernhart Orchestra in May 1997. Succumbing to an incurable disease, Helmer Olesen passed away in June of that year, aged 63.
Helmer Olesen in the Eurovision Song Contest
The eighty-eight jury members made a surprise choice, preferring a quartet of four young rock musicians, Mabel, with a self-penned song called ‘Boom boom’, over the Olsen Brothers and their ‘San Francisco’. ‘Boom boom’, as the title suggests an uncomplicated up-tempo sing-along effort, was arranged and conducted by Helmer Olesen. What ensued was a veritable ‘Mabel mania’ in Denmark with a huge record success, but, in the end, a disappointing sixteenth position in the Eurovision Song Contest final in Paris. In an attempt to reconstruct the story of Mabel and Helmer Olesen, we were lucky to find two of Mabel’s group members, percussionist Christian Have and guitarist Michael Trempenau (in arte: Mike Tramp).
Christian Have explains how the four young boys were coupled to Olesen: “Johnny Reimar was the managing director of our record company. He was a close friend to Helmer and introduced us to each other while we were preparing for this Eurovision project.” Trempenau: “Helmer was an obvious choice, as we worked at the same record company and he was always around in the studios. We had met him many times before we actually got to work with him. By the time Helmer came in, we had already completed the recording of ‘Boom boom’. He added an arrangement for horns and strings.” “Olesen’s contribution to the song was quite important”, Have adds. “‘Boom boom’ was originally called ‘Message from my heart’ and was in the style of Queen’s ‘39’ with a more traditional rock instrumentation. We had not thought of the Eurovision Song Contest and the style needed for such a competition. It was obvious we needed a different arrangement, a different approach, and Olesen did a masterful job on it.”
Apart from his orchestration, Helmer Olesen turns out to have come up with the performance’s main gimmick as well. Christian Have, instead of playing a regular drum kit behind his three colleagues, now stood next to them with a big kick drum with a giant pink heart painted on the drumhead. “That is the thing everyone seems to remember from our performance”, Have recalls. “At the rehearsals for the pre-selection show in Tivoli, Copenhagen, there were sound problems. I was supposed to play regular drums, but the sound technicians found themselves unable to mike it up properly for our performance. Talking about this to Helmer, who was our musical director, he just put to me a very simple question: “What was it that made you want to become a drummer in the first place?” I told him about seeing the Royal Danish Life Guards, a marching band and how, as a child watching them passing us by in the streets, I was fascinated by the big kick drums in the band. That answer gave Helmer the idea that I should play one of those big kick drums on stage – a highly practical solution to the sound problem and fulfilling my childhood dream at the same time!”
“When we won the Danish final”, Trempenau recalls, “Helmer was our proud dad. He was a sweet guy. He was always in for some fun and obviously enjoyed music and life in general. In Paris, he had a great time.” Have agrees: “Olesen was highly likeable and very patient with us. His professionalism and experience were very interesting for us, a bunch of young rock musicians. He always managed to spread good vibes and energy around himself, which benefited us and the orchestras in Copenhagen and Paris, too. Having him on our team meant we were practically assured of a good atmosphere!”
In spite of Olesen’s loose approach, the Danish team experienced some difficulties during rehearsals in Paris. Christian Have: “Unfortunately, in terms of light and sound, we were not given the amount of time needed to get it right. There was no opportunity for a proper sound check, and Helmer and we ourselves knew that we had some challenges in that respect which we would probably not be able to overcome.” “It was more about doing what the TV production crew wanted”, Trempenau adds, “than attempting to bring about the best possible sound for our music. Everything had to be done in a rush and, as a result, the details of our song were forgotten about. In those years, everything was live and we were playing our own instruments. In mixing the sound of our instruments with the big orchestra behind us, the French sound engineers made some grave mistakes.”
“Of course, we were all slightly disappointed about coming sixteenth”, Have continues. “Given all the setbacks mentioned and, on top of that, the fact that we had to sing in our native tongue, the result was not all that surprising.” “Singing in our own language was not a plus”, Trempenau agrees. “Nobody cried, though, because all of us longed to get back to simply being a rock band again. From the first moment, we had felt slightly out of place in this Eurovision extravaganza. When Denmark returned to the contest, our record company got us in the Danish finals without us giving it much of a thought… and finding ourselves in the international final in Paris was kind of weird! Looking back on our band’s history, Eurovision was a side step and we slightly regretted having taken part in the first place… but there you are!”
“Helmer Olesen deserves credit for his arrangement, which added some interesting elements to our song”, Trempenau concludes. Have: “Unfortunately, we did just one or two more recordings with him the following year. After that, our ways parted. Though our group split up long ago, we meet up regularly. Looking back on the old days, we think of Helmer very fondly. He was a great musician and a great human being.”
From 1979 to 1983, the Danish broadcasting service DR preferred to have just one musical director and conductor for their pre-selection show and the international contest, Allan Botschinsky, thus denying other arrangers the opportunity to conduct their own work. Though Helmer Olesen possibly wrote more arrangements for the Danish national final, his participation with Mabel in Paris was his only involvement in the international arena. When Mabel participated in the 1979 Danish pre-selection, their song was not arranged by Olesen, but by Stefan Klinkhammer instead.
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