1 February 2017
Charlie Kunz: a personal reflection
Charlie Kunz (1896-1958) was the greatest popular piano medley player of all time.
A taste for Charlie Kunz was one of the few things that my father (born 1908) and my maternal grandmother (born 1904) shared. And though as a child I professed to prefer pop music, I always hung around on the stairs to listen to Charlie’s medleys when they were played on the gramophone in the sitting-room.
Before the Second World War Kunz featured in several ball-room bands, but it was in the more egalitarian atmosphere of post-war Britain that Kunz rose to superstar status, apparently, being the first music performer to need police protection to keep him unmolested from his fans.
Anyone interested in hearing Kunz today only has to go to You Tube to get the flavour, but I will describe how his music seems to me. His piano playing has a light up-beat bounce and flow which is entirely distinctive to him; attempts to reproduce it have failed miserably.
Piano and light music, taken mostly from popular songs, musicals and operetta, acquired status for me in my childhood, precisely because such music was held up to be something meaningful by my parents and grandmother. In their view (or at least for my mother and grandmother), the music of Charlie Kunz represented the “old world” - an indeterminate past which ran from the the 1930s through war-time Britain before collapsing at the end of the 1950s. That world was held up in contrast to the “nowadays” of the 1970s when loud disrespectful drugged-up pop stars held sway.
Though I became attached to some 1970s pop music in my teenage years, and then became a follower of the pop charts, I never rejected the senior members of my family’s predilection for Kunz and his medleys. Too much of his influence was embedded in my life.
In the 1970s an odd feature of our family was that we did not have a television set. However, once a month there was a showing of old silent films in a scout hut at the other end of the town. My father, mother, sister and I walked there on winter evenings to meet up with the other ten to fifteen regulars to see the old films projected onto a screen. There was a small charge but money was also raised by a sales table and a raffle, which inevitably the same people always won.
The late middle-aged bachelor, Laurie, who organised the event with his spinster sister, also had an interest in Kunz, so invariably we would watch the old reels of film with a tape-recorder playing his medleys. Though Laurie possessed several cassettes, we tended to hear the same Kunz medleys over and over again. I began to anticipate the tunes.
In 1975 in the latter weeks of August my parents booked a week in a guest house in Bognor Regis, a seaside town on the southern English coast. My mother’s intention was that the whole family should spend the day together, almost irrespective of the weather, huddled up on the beach near a wave-breaker. As a thirteen-year-old boy I was keen to wander off and explore. One port of call in the later afternoon was the park where an organ player gave a rendition of Gershwin and other popular songs - not Kunz, but very much the same thing.
At university and in early adult life Charlie Kunz disappeared from my life. I never went out myself to purchase Kunz, but I did once in the 1980s pick up a second-hand cassette, which is still with me today. Then, with the advent of the net, I was able to re-discover him with a few clicks and could bring back the music of my childhood.
The ready availability of music on You Tube and elsewhere on the net has enabled me not just to re-acquaint myself with Kunz, but to hear him against the background of his contemporaries in Britain, the US and Germany. Though I am largely ignorant of music, the ability to follow links on You Tube has enriched my understanding and enjoyment of Kunz.
In 2009 my younger sister, aged forty-three, died of breast cancer. Some months before her death, I put together some scanned old photos of our family and set it to the music of Charlie Kunz. She could cope with the pictures and enjoyed them, but the Kunz’s music was too overwhelming for her. I switched it off.
I do not think Kunz is outdated in the way that Winifred Atwell’s or Mrs Mills’ honky-tonk knees-up piano certainly is; those popular pianists are firmly tied to an era of post-war Britain. Kunz’ music, by contrast, has a certain timeless gentle sophistication which will keep it going.