Charlie Kunz – August 18th 1896 – March 17th 1958
Looking at the slim, quietly spoken, elegantly tail-suited man with the flower in his buttonhole and the ‘patent leather’ hair it is perhaps difficult to imagine that Charlie Kunz was one of the biggest stars of his time. According to some he was the highest paid pianist in the world, earning around £1,000 a week and although he died 56 years ago his records continue to sell.
There isn’t much straightforward instrumental music on the radio these days but in the 1940’s and 50’s it was everywhere – from “Music While You Work” and Max Jaffa’s ‘Palm Court Orchestra’ to the tinkling ivories of assorted ‘piano stylists’ like Semprini, Winifred Atwell from Trinidad, Reginald Dixon who played the mighty Wurlitzer organ at Blackpool Tower Ballroom and the incomparable Charlie Kunz. His music was and remains very distinctive: – strict tempo, unfussy and delicate with a subtle, metronomic beat from the left hand. A musicologist noted ‘a relaxed flowing interpretation played with subtle soft and loud accents.’ Charlie described his style as “melody and rhythm with expression”.
If you wanted non-stop piano music then Mr. K. was your man. Instead of bashing out a couple of choruses of ‘Lily of Laguna’, a quick ‘round-the-houses’ with ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’ and then catching the last bus home Charlie opened up with his theme tune, ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!’ and then treated his audiences to extended medleys of popular melodies, packing over 30 into a single ‘set’. He said that when he played in theatres the audience would sing along and they did the same when listening to his radio shows or recordings at home.
Charlie Kunz was born on August 18th 1896, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA, the son of a French horn playing master baker. Encouraged by his parents - “If I didn’t know my music lesson, mother always had a nice wee switch and I used to get it too, bless her!” – he became very proficient on piano, organ and the Eb alto saxophone which he played with the Allentown Brass Band. During the 1st World War Charlie worked in a munitions factory and in 1922 came to England with an orchestra of American musicians, playing at the Trocadero Restaurant in Piccadilly. When his colleagues returned home Charlie stayed on, playing piano at some of the smartest clubs and restaurants in London. In March 1933 he formed his own 9 piece orchestra and began recording for the Sterno label. In 1934, after a successful booking as a piano soloist at the Holborn Empire, Charlie recorded his first “Charlie Kunz Medley” – establishing a style that would serve him for the rest of his life.
He grew increasingly popular during the 2nd World War, appearing at variety theatres and military establishments all over the country and performing frequently on BBC radio. There was something reassuring about his relaxed ‘laid back’ style that had great appeal for wartime audiences. Such was his celebrity that the Nazis concocted some bizarre rumours about him – that he was in fact a German and fighting with the Wehrmacht against the Russians on the Eastern front – even though he was probably playing that night to packed audiences somewhere in the U.K or broadcasting live on the BBC. On one occasion, when Germany picked up one of his concerts being transmitted from Birmingham, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, claimed that it was an imposter sitting at the keyboard. Two other strange rumours ran alongside each other. Rumour 1: Charlie Kunz was sending encrypted morse code messages to the French Resistance hidden in his music. Rumour 2: Charlie Kunz was sending encrypted morse code messages to the Gestapo hidden in his music. As a result, the rumour said, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London (or hung or shot) along with popular comic Vic Oliver and theatrical producer C.B. Cochran! Such was the persuasive power of the rumour that some people in this country said that he should be imprisoned in the Tower of London (or hung or shot!)
Although his general popularity continued after War his health went into decline. In 1945 he contracted tuberculosis of the spine, lost a lung and had to spend a year in plaster. In 1953 he suffered Dupuytren’s Contracture which pulled the ligaments of his hands out of shape and prevented him playing. After several operations and endless practise he was able to play again but his career was largely over… and rock ‘n’ roll was lurking just over the horizon. Aggravated by bronchial asthma and breathing difficulties he died quietly on March 17th 1958, almost exactly 56 years ago this week.
During the 2nd World War, at the height of his popularity, Charlie Kunz played what have been described as “The Songs That Kept Us Going” – reassuring audiences with understated, precise, strict tempo renditions of melodies that everyone knew and loved. Perhaps the continuing sales of his records suggest a need for that kind of heart-easing music today. Listen to this clip and see what it does for your own troubled soul.
YouTube clip of Charlie Kunz playing in 1934
Goodbye Charlie…and thanks!
— from Martyn Day