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Jan August

It is well-documented that surf guitarist Dick Dale's career was revitalized by the inclusion of his 1962 recording of "Misirlou" in Quentin Tarantino's blockbuster film Pulp Fiction; what is less known is that the song was originally a major hit for a slender, elegant pianist from New York, who was paid less than $40 for the million copies of his version that made the song a fixture in American pop history. Pianist Jan Augustoff was born on September 24, 1904, the fifth and final child of middle-class immigrants in New York City. His siblings -- three sisters and a brother -- had all received music lessons while growing up, to dismal results; so when it came time for Jan to study, his parents decided he probably would be as incapable, and his music study was dropped. The youngster, however, had a natural inclination toward music -- he became fascinated with the player pianos at the local movie houses, and would come home and pick out the melodies on the family piano. He had a distaste for mathematics that gave him trouble in school, causing him to finally flunk his courses and drop out; with some natural talent as a cartoonist, he got a job working for Bud Fisher, the creator of the popular Mutt & Jeff series. Still, it was music that kept his attention -- his brother taught him a simple left-hand chord on the piano and he taught himself the rest, additionally learning to play saxophone, vibraphone, and xylophone. He began getting small jobs in Greenwich Village nightclubs under his shortened name, Jan August, and eventually was recruited into Paul Specht's band. In the '30s he was invited to play in the highly popular orchestra of Paul Whiteman, "the King of Jazz," which he did for some years; he played occasionally with the young Ferde Grofé as well. By the 1940s popular music taste had shifted to swing, and August -- an out-of-fashion "sweet" player -- had returned to performing as a solo club pianist. His odd way of playing some songs on the high notes attracted the attention of Irving Gwirtz of Diamond Records in 1947, who hired him to make a record; in one night he performed "Bob-A-Loo" and "Misirlou," and was paid union scale for the recording, about $35. The record went on to become a Top Ten hit, selling three-million records and launching Jan August into the public view. He was given his own 15-minute broadcast on the Mutual Radio Network, and through 1947 and 1948 became well-known to the American public. His popularity coincided with the rise of television as a medium, where his elegant good looks and mannered style made him a natural. He appeared on The Toast of the Town (predecessor of The Ed Sullivan Show) in 1948 and again in 1950, and from 1949 to 1951 accompanied singer Roberta Quinlan on her NBC variety show, recording several hits with her, most notably "Buffalo Billy." After finishing the Roberta Quinlan show, he hosted Jan August's Revere Camera Show with singer Monica Lewis for several seasons. His public popularity was strong enough that he was the subject of a film short in 1949, entitled Audition for August -- Kitty Kallen threatens to quit her nightclub job unless the owner provides her with a proper piano accompanist. Enter August, who plays "Besame Mucho" and "Jan's Boogie" to Kallen's great delight; they perform together on "Stardust" to end the nine-minute film. In 1950 he also recorded often with Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, and they had a big national hit with "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from the hit Broadway show Pal Joey. August then signed a long-term contract with Mercury Records and began releasing albums of piano instrumentals, the most popular of which merged Latin rhythms with light classical styles, which launched such minor hits as "Malaguena," "My Shawl," "Oye Negra," and a re-recording of "Misirlou." He was able to successfully put together his own orchestra and tour in Canada and the U.S., endearing himself by dropping in and playing unannounced sets with local bands. August's final hit was with orchestrator/arranger Richard Hayman on "A Theme from the Threepenny Opera (Moritat)," which reached number 87 on Billboard in 1956. He continued to be an active performer into the 1960s, then quietly retired, passing away in his sleep in 1976. Credited by Peter Nero as an inspiration, his work languished largely unnoticed until the lounge music fad of the 1990s, when it had a brief resurgence. A small number of CD titles have been reissued, and some of his big hits appear on compilations; fans who want a better idea of his work will have to find the original Mercury titles, many only available in the Mercury 25000 series 10" vinyl format, to experience the light piano artistry of Jan August.
© Laurie Mercer /TiVo

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