Awesome Men Throughout History: Crazy Otto
More than any other era, the 1950s was full of novelty music. That’s not to say that other eras didn’t have their share of strange one-hit-wonders and songs that were popular because they were momentarily amusing, rather than good; hell, we still have them today (William Hung, the Insane Clown Posse, etc.). But the music industry in the 1950s was really, truly blatant about marketing novelty pop songs, leading to the release, and subsequent cult popularity, of some very puzzling records.
This is all ramping up to the introduction of this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, German composer/pianist Fritz “Crazy Otto” Schulz-Reichel.
Born in 1912, Otto’s dad was a classical musician, and Otto quickly followed his dad’s footsteps, taking up the piano at age six. He developed a unique way of playing—his left hand worked melody while his right hand maintained the rhythm—and was well on his way to becoming a concert pianist by the time he hit puberty, but he found himself irresistibly attracted to popular music.
I wonder if students at Juilliard or the Peabody Conservatory still go through stuff like this.
Anyway, he became a light jazz performer and composer known for improvising based on popular melodies, and performed in jazz clubs in hotbeds like Berlin and Paris (where he was inducted into the Hot Club for his improvisational prowess). Given Europe’s scholarly obsession with jazz at that time, building a career off that instead of classical music was a pretty good idea.
He adopted the name Crazy Otto in 1953, and released records of original songs and his pop-influenced improvisations, which could be compared to Weird Al’s pop music polka medleys. A lot of his releases were solo records, but he recorded with a band sometimes, too.
Otto became a smash hit in Germany, France, and England, and that popularity carried over to the US, albeit in lesser amounts, where his records were put out by Decca and MGM. Let’s listen to “If You Knew Susie,” released in 1955.
You may notice that it sounds like he’s playing a saloon piano from one of John Wayne’s westerns. That’s not an accident; Otto is credited with inventing the Tipsy Wire Box, a device that could make any piano, no matter how finely tuned, sound like something you’d hear in a beer hall. He used it a lot, for reasons only he really understood.
Crazy Otto died in 1990, but he’s still remembered warmly by European jazz fans, and you can still find his 7” records on eBay from time to time. His appeal is definitely a product of the times he lived in, but it’s such a departure from what’s popular now that listening to it is almost transgressive. I’m cool with that if you are.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.