Freddy SunderBorn: June 4th, 1931, Antwerp (Belgium)
Died: August 5th, 2016, Antwerp (Belgium)
In 1952, while Sundermann was performing his army-service, he took part in a talent show as a singer-guitarist, winning first prize. This feat earned him a record deal with the Ronnex label of the Van Hoogten brothers. Albert Van Hoogten came up with the idea to launch him as an American, under the English-sounding name ‘Freddy Sunder’. Little did Fritz/Freddy know that this name was to stick to him for the rest of his life. In 1953, ‘Sunder’ recorded his first song, ‘Kaw Liga Boogie’, a Hank Williams cover. Van Hoogten wanted to create a unique sound with his new protégé and called it ‘boogie’, whereas, in fact, it can with some justification be called rock-‘n-roll, although, at that time, neither Bill Haley nor Elvis Presley had had any success even in the USA.
In Belgium, ‘Kaw Liga Boogie’ caught on immediately, followed by equally successful records such as ‘Rio Rita Boogie’ and ‘Calling Car Boogie’, the latter of which contained real car sounds recorded on the streets of Antwerp. After about a year, Sunder decided he had had enough of all secrecy and made it known that the super star was no American, but simply a guy from Antwerp. The result was that from that moment on, he hardly sold any records; his success had been meteoric, yet short-lived.
In the years after, Sunder returned to the relative anonymity of being a guitarist and singer in various jazz ensembles, the most important of those being the orchestra of Willy Rockin in Belgium, and the jazz band of Walter Byr in West Germany. He was part of the band that accompanied Frank Sinatra during a concert in Belgium in 1954. In 1957, Sunder was part of the group of singers that represented Belgium in the Golden Gondola, a music festival held in Venice, Italy. During the preceding rehearsals in Belgium, he impressed Francis Bay, the eccentric conductor of the big band of NIR, the Belgian broadcaster, not least because he was one of the few singers around able to (sight-)read music. As a result of that, in 1958, Bay invited Sunder to join his orchestra as a guitarist and vocalist. The orchestra did not only perform in radio and TV shows such as Canzonissima, the Belgian Eurovision heats, but also made many studio recordings as well as performing in Belgium and abroad. Under the tutelage of Bay, Sunder wrote his first arrangements. He occasionally entered the recording studios too; for example, he played the guitar solo on ‘Eenzaam zonder jou’ by Will Tura (1962), an all-time classic in Flanders.
In a 1965 reorganisation, Francis Bay was commissioned to hand-pick an entirely new orchestra, from that point on specifically intended to do TV shows. The musicians of his original band, including Sunder, were all transferred to the newly founded BRT Jazz Orchestra, which, under the musical directorship of Etienne Verschueren, mainly worked for Flemish radio, but also did concerts once in a while, amongst which the annual Jazz Middelheim festival in Antwerp. Sunder remained in Verschueren’s orchestra for sixteen year, performing in countries as far away as the Soviet Union and Zaire. He penned many arrangements for the orchestra, as well as to the Belgian contributions for Nordring, an international radio festival. Meanwhile, he worked on a freelance basis as a guitarist accompanying a host of different Flemish singers during concerts. In the 1970s, Freddy Sunder studied avant-garde music with Belgian classical composer André Laporte. From 1979 onwards, he taught jazz arranging at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent, a job he would continue doing for fifteen years.
In 1981, after a thorough exam with several candidates, Freddy Sunder was appointed chief conductor of the BRT Big Band, thereby becoming the successor of his former tutor Francis Bay. With the band, Sunder played at the Knokke Cup, an annual international music festival held in Belgium, and accompanied all artists in the Belgian Eurovision preliminaries of 1983, 1987, and 1989. Nevertheless, this was not the easiest period of his career, as some of his musicians, out of loyalty towards Francis Bay who had left the BRT involuntarily, were reluctant to accept his authority. All of this did not impede Sunder to modernize both the sound and the repertoire of the orchestra considerably. In 1991, in an effort to curtail expenses, the Flemish broadcaster decided to end the existence of its Big Band; Freddy Sunder and all of his musicians lost their jobs.
Sunder retired from his teaching job at the conservatory in Ghent three years later. After that, he continued playing as a guitarist; as such, he accompanied actress / singer Ann Nelissen during her theatre tour in 2005, which, according to Sunder, was one of the highlights of his career. A couple of times, he was asked by his son – also called Fritz Sundermann and a guitarist and music producer by profession – to play the guitar during recording sessions. In 2001, Freddy Sunder was invited to become the conductor of a big band consisting of amateur musicians all hailing from the Antwerp region, since known simply as the Freddy Sunder Big Band. He learnt this ensemble to play music of many different styles, ranging from the classic American Songbook repertoire to jazz, swing and Latin music. The orchestra accompanied well-known Flemish artists, amongst whom Jo Leemans, Raymond van het Groenewoud, Sofie, and Günther Neefs.
Freddy Sunder in the Eurovision Song Contest
However, his band did play in the 1983 Flemish heats, with participants such as Bart Kaëll, Sofie, and Wim De Craene. Surprisingly, however, a trio called Pas de Deux were the winners, singing ‘Rendez-vous’, a quite avant-garde effort which had been composed by Walter Verdin. The lyrics consist of eleven words only, which are repeated again and again, alternated by trombone-dominated instrumental breaks. At the request of the BRT president, after the Belgian final, Sunder enriched the orchestration with a string arrangement that could be played by the NRW Big Band, the orchestra accompanying the 1983 Eurovision Song Contest staged in Munich, West Germany.
Sunder fondly remembers the 1983 festival, although the Belgian entry came second-last: “During the first rehearsal, it turned out that the musicians of the orchestra refused to play our entry. ‘Die Belgische Delegation… das spielen wir nicht!’, their conductor haughtily remarked to the vocalists. Then, he turned around to me. The expression of his face changed immediately, because he recognized me. It turned out the man was none other than Dieter Reith, with whom, during the 1950s, I had performed in jazz clubs in Düsseldorf for months on end. He greeted me enthusiastically and then turned to his musicians again: ‘You have to play this song! This man is called Freddy Sunder and he is far too accomplished a musician not to play it!’ They had really underestimated ‘Rendez-vous’, because, when for the dress rehearsal the hall was predominantly crowded with teenagers, the Belgian entry received most applause. Personally, I liked the song a lot – a stroke of genius by a brilliant composer, Walter Verdin. It was a joy accompanying Pas de Deux.”
In 1986, Belgium won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time, with an entry by the Walloon RTBF: Sandra Kim and ‘J’aime la vie’. Freddy Sunder co-wrote the orchestration: “The song’s arranger was a young guy by the name of Jean-Paul Lebens. He encountered insurmountable difficulties writing a good score for the string section. I presume Jo Carlier, the Walloon conductor, sent him to me for help. I was known for being good at string arrangements. This guy Lebens visited me at home and I wrote the strings for him, while he looked on. I really liked helping him out.”
In 1987, thanks to Sandra Kim’s victory, the Eurovision Song Contest was organized in Brussels, Belgium. The Flemish-Belgian preliminary selection was won by Liliane Saint-Pierre singing ‘Soldiers of love’, an up-tempo effort containing a message of peace. This entry, conducted by Freddy Sunder, came eleventh. His recollections: “It was great to work with Jo Carlier, who was the musical director of the show. I had often been the guitarist in his orchestra during the Spa Festival. I had a marvellous time at the 1987 contest, especially because of the presence of Ronnie Hazlehurst and Noel Kelehan, the conductors for the UK and Ireland. We had met before in the Nordring Festival and the song contest in Knokke and had become good friends. We met every night to have a chat and a drink. I do not imply that we were not interested in the musical part of the song contest, far from that – we used to visit many rehearsals, because we were curious as to what other countries came up with. Those rehearsals were quite stressful for Liliane Saint-Pierre, as she lost her voice a couple of days before the broadcast. Luckily, in the end, everything turned out right. During the rehearsals, I also conducted the Dutch entry. Their conductor, Rogier van Otterloo, was gravely ill at that time and was forced to stay behind in the hotel for most of the week. At the request of the Dutch head of delegation, Willem van Beusekom, I stepped in for him. A couple of months after the contest, Rogier died.”
In 1989, Freddy Sunder was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest for the last time. He conducted the Belgian heats, in which the hot favourites Clouseau were beaten by Ingeborg and her sweet and well-arranged ballad ‘Door de wind’, composed by Stef Bos. Freddy Sunder conducted the entry in the contest which, that year, was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. ‘Door de wind’ was undeservedly relegated to a place near the bottom of the scoreboard, finishing 19th in a field of 22 participating countries.
Sunder tries to explain where things went wrong: “I liked the song a lot, but I considered it unsuitable for an international stage. Moreover, at that time, Ingeborg was too young, too fragile, and too shy to conquer an audience. In the years after, she became a much better artist and luckily the contest did not ruin her career. On a different note, I was reprimanded by the Belgian head of delegation after it became known I had signed a petition supported by all conductors claiming that all music should be played live again. Two countries, Austria and West Germany, came up with a song without any orchestral accompaniment and we thought that was outrageous. The delegation leader claimed I should have consulted him first."
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Stef Bos composed ‘Door de wind’, Belgium’s 1989 Eurovision entry, conducted by Freddy Sunder. Bos also performed as a backing vocalist behind Ingeborg: “The 1989 contest was the only time I worked with him, but to me it was important nonetheless. He was a very nice character and an accomplished conductor, who, on top of that, knew what it meant to be a singer. After all, he had been one himself. It was not until much later that I heard some of his songs from the 1950s; impressive stuff! All in all: a great and honest professional.” (2009)