Willy Berking

Born: June 22nd, 1910, Düsseldorf (Germany)
Died: May 21st, 1979, Frankfurt am Main (West Germany)
Nationality: German

Eurovision record
Willy Berking, conductor of the HR Orchestra from 1946 to 1972, was the musical director of the 1957 contest – the second time the festival was held – which took place in Frankfurt am Main, home of broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk (HR). Apart from conducting that year’s entry from West Germany, ‘Telefon Telefon’, performed by Margot Hielscher, Berking stepped in for three delegations (Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland), that had not sent a guest conductor along to the event. Before the contest proper, Berking had also been the MD of the West German preselection, a task he would fulfil on six more occasions between 1960 and 1971; in ’63 and ’64, he joined the respective German entrants of that year, Heidi Brühl and Nora Nova, to the international contest as their conductor. His last appearance in the contest was in Luxembourg in 1966 with ‘Die Zeiger der Uhr’, sung by Margot Eskens. In total, Willy Berking conducted seven entries.

Destined to become one of the most famous German orchestra leaders, Willy Berking studied classical piano and composition in his home town Düsseldorf and, subsequently, in Berlin. He was taught to play the trombone, vibraphone, and double bass as well. From a young age onwards, Berking was drawn towards jazz music; at 18, he formed his first big band.

Jazz, however, was anathema to the Nazi regime and more specifically its propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who wanted to create a German brand of popular music, purged from Anglo-Saxon and Negro influences. During the 1930s, Berking was much in demand as a trombonist in several government-approved ‘Tanz- und Unterhaltungsorchester’ (literally translated: dance and amusement orchestras), amongst which Die Goldene Sieben and Heinz Wehner’s Telefunken-Swing-Orchester. Berking joined Wehner in 1934, when the latter moved his orchestra’s working terrain from the Ruhr to Berlin.

In 1939, Imperial Records contracted Berking as a conductor. He was commissioned to form a studio orchestra, often referred to as ‘Willy Berking und seine Solisten’. Between 1939 and 1943, Berking and his men produced a string of brilliant records, the so-called ‘Berking-Spitzenserie’, with dance repertoire, much of which the young conductor had composed himself. Well-known songs from this particular time include the fox ‘Regenschirm’ (1939, vocals: Iska Geri), ‘Denn ich bin zum Tanzen geboren’ (1940, vocals: Rudi Schuricke), the instrumental ‘Vielleicht ein andermal’ (1940), and the melancholic ‘Warum nur warum?’ (1942, vocals: Rudi Schuricke).

Whilst working with his orchestra in the studios, Berking was recruited to work in a propaganda big band, Charlie and his Orchestra (mockingly called the ‘Mr. Goebbels Jazz Band’), an anonymous radio band which played propaganda tunes and anti-American swing to keep up the spirits on the home front in an increasingly war-ravaged country. In 1942, he was transferred to the ‘Deutsche Tanz- und Unterhaltungsorchester’, a similar ensemble. The next year, however, due to Allied bombings on Berlin, this orchestra was evacuated to Prague, meaning that Berking had to cease working on his studio recordings for Imperial.

In the fall of 1946, Berking was appointed conductor of a new radio orchestra, the ‘Tanzkapelle des Hessischen Rundfunks’, composed of freelance musicians from the Frankfurt area. Later it was re-baptized the ‘Grosse Tanz- und Unterhaltungsorchester des Hessischen Rundfunks’. While for the musicians, initially, playing in this ensemble meant nothing more than some extra work next to performing in all kinds of jazz clubs for American soldiers, the HR orchestra quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the German music and amusement landscape.

During his years with HR (until 1972), Berking’s most important job was to arrange music for, and perform with his orchestra in countless radio broadcasts, such as the immensely popular play ‘Frankfurter Wecker’, in which national and international singers and musicians participated. From 1953 onwards, this work was augmented by appearances in an endless list of amusement shows on HR television (‘Einer wird gewinnen’, ‘Zwei auf einem Pferd’, ‘Wer gegen wen’, ‘Schlager Express’, etc.), which catapulted Willy Berking and his orchestra into nationwide fame.

Willy Berking remained active as a composer, too. His creations ‘Barbara Barbara (Komm mit mir nach Afrika)’ (1949, sung by Evelyn Künneke) and the waltz ‘Der Zauber von Paris’ (1951) are just two examples of his extremely popular compositions from the ‘Nachkriegszeit’. On top of that, he regularly worked with his orchestra in the recording studio, accompanying the likes of Maria Mucke, Mieke Telkamp, and trumpeter Horst Fischer. In 1957, Berking received a golden disc as a reward for the one million records sold during his career.

In 1972, a heart attack forced Willy Berking to give up conducting and working altogether. Heinz Schönberger succeeded him as the musical director of the HR Orchestra. Seven years later, Berking died from an incurable disease.

Willy Berking in the Eurovision Song Contest
In 1957, the second ever Eurovision Song Contest was organized in the HR Studios in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany. All ten songs were accompanied by Willy Berking’s Grosse Tanz- und Unterhaltungsorchester des Hessischen Rundfunks. Obviously, the West German entry ‘Telefon Telefon’ was conducted by Berking himself. This novelty song, performed by Margot Hielscher with the hearer of a telephone in her hand, had won the German preselection, of which Berking had also been the musical director; in the field of ten international entries it finished in a shared fourth position. Three other countries had not sent a guest conductor along with their respective delegations; thus, Berking led his orchestra during the performances of Danièle Dupré (Luxembourg) and her melancholic ‘Tant de peine’, Bobbejaan Schoepen (Belgium) with ‘Straatdeuntje’, and 1956 winner Lys Assia (Switzerland), who finished a mere second-last this time around with ‘L’enfant que j’étais’.

In 1960, the German preselection was held in Wiesbaden, capital of Bundesland Hessen. Willy Berking’s orchestra accompanied all entries, amongst which the hot favourite ‘Wir wollen niemals auseinander gehen’, performed by Heidi Brühl. This song, however, was surprisingly beaten by ‘Bonne nuit, ma chérie’, a bolero composed by Franz Josef Breuer and sung by Wyn Hoop. In the international contest, it was not Berking, but Breuer who conducted the orchestra for this West German entry which did quite well, obtaining a shared fourth position.

In 1961, the HR again organized the West German heats for the Eurovision Song Contest. The competition was held in a spa town near Frankfurt, Bad Homburg. Naturally, Willy Berking was the musical director. Among the thirteen participating artists were Christa Williams, who had been the Swiss representative in 1959, and Dieter Thomas Heck. The show was won by Lale Andersen – the original singer of ‘Lili Marlene’ – with a song called ‘Einmal sehen wir uns wieder’. For reasons unclear, Willy Berking did not accompany Andersen to Cannes for the international Eurovision final. What is known, though, is that the singer arrived in Cannes on the day of the broadcast and performed her song without having rehearsed at all. This West German entry, conducted by the French home conductor Franck Pourcel, finished near the bottom of the table.

Lale Andersen performing in the 1961 West German heats in Bad Homburg. In the background, Willy Berking can be seen conducting his orchestra

Two years later (1963), once again Willy Berking’s orchestra accompanied a West German ‘Vorentscheid’, this time from the HR studios in Frankfurt. Margot Eskens, who replaced the already chosen candidate Heidi Brühl – Brühl was ill at that time – sang five songs, from which viewers chose a jolly melody called ‘Marcel’, which had been brilliantly arranged by Heinz Alisch. Berking travelled to London with a now convalesced Heidi Brühl. With enthusiasm clearly visible on his face, he indicated the first notes to the BBC Orchestra. Brühl and Berking secured a modest ninth position for their performance.

One year later, in 1964, Berking returned as the musical director of the West German preselection, in which five contestants competed for first prize. Winner was a Bulgarian singer, Nora Nova, who sang ‘Man gewöhnt sich so schnell an das Schöne’. The orchestration of this upbeat song, with a dominant brass party, was written by bandleader Friedel Berlipp and must rank as one of the most spectacular ever to have been heard in a Eurovision Song Contest. For the second year in a row, Willy Berking conducted the German entry in the international festival, which, that year, was held in Copenhagen. The international juries remained unimpressed and did not award Nora Nova a single point, resulting in a joint-last position.

It was in 1966 that Willy Berking was involved in the international edition of the Eurovision Song Contest for the last time. He joined Margot Eskens to the Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg, after an internal jury had chosen a suitable entry for West Germany, ‘Die Zeiger der Uhr’. This ballad, arranged by Werner Last – brother of James – was brilliantly performed by Eskens, but did not do very well with the international jurors, finishing tenth.

Before Berking’s forced retirement as leader of the HR Orchestra (1972), he conducted two more West German Eurovision preselections organized by HR, in 1970 and in 1971, both of which were won by Katja Ebstein. During the Eurovision finals, however, her songs, ‘Wunder gibt es immer wieder’ and ‘Diese Welt’, were conducted by the respective composers, Christian Bruhn and Dieter Zimmermann.

Other artists on Willy Berking
Kurt Bong became the percussionist of Berking’s HR Tanzorchester in 1969 and worked with Berking for three years. Between 1989 and 2000, Bong was chief conductor of the ensemble, renamed the HR Big Band: “In 1969, I was percussionist of the Max Greger Orchestra. After an entertainment broadcast on nationwide TV in 1969, Berking called me because he wanted me to audition for his Tanzorchester. This was the start of my thirty-year-stay at HR. Until 1972, I had the pleasure to work with him as my chef. I got along with him very well – which, admittedly, could not be said of all of my colleagues. Often, he tried to impose his authority quite rigidly, while, in reality, he was a gentle and understanding man. To my mind, he was a bit late in recognizing that pop music had changed in the course of the 1960s and that, as a consequence, he needed to substitute some of his older musicians. All in all, however, Willy Berking possessed a band leader’s most important quality: he was good at working with vocalists; they felt very much at ease in his vicinity.”

One of the contestants of the 1957 contest in Frankfurt, Patricia Bredin from the UK, recalled how she liked singing with the HR Orchestra: “I had one band-call. I think the orchestra sounded like it was 180 strong… Oh, oh, oh, it was wonderful, like singing on clouds. After I sang my song at rehearsal, the orchestra applauded me… and being inexperienced, I didn’t know what to do, as tears of delight flowed down my face. I just loved singing with such a glorious orchestra… that was the most important thing for me”. (1997)

Links & sources
  • Many thanks to Kurt Bong for providing a lot of information on Willy Berking, as well as his personal memories of him.
  • The Big Bands Database at nfo.net contains instructive biographical data of Berking, concentrating on the part of his career before and during World War II.
  • A short history of the Tanzorchester des Hessischen Rundfunks can be found at the HR website, www.hr-online.de.
  • The history section of www.eurovision.ndr.de.
  • An interview with the 1957 UK contestant Patricia Bredin, which was published in EuroSong News no. 59 (1997).
  • Quite a few of Berking’s early recordings from the 1930s and 1940s can be found at www.youtube.com.
  • Pictures courtesy of HR and Kurt Bong.
  • Unfortunately, no website on Willy Berking exists.


Songs conducted
1957: Straatdeuntje
1957: Tant de peine
1957: Telefon, Telefon
1957: L'enfant que j'étais
1963: Marcel
1964: Man gewöhnt sich so schnell an das Schöne
1966: Die Zeiger der Uhr

Musical director
1957: Frankfurt am Main