About The Artist
Accordionist Olaf Sveen was born in Surnadal Norway. He immigrated to Radway, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1949.
Bob Gilmour told readers he stepped off the boat from Norway in 1949 with nothing but ten dollars in his pocket and his $45 accordion.
Seemingly he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an unknown musician. He played not North American style music but his native Scandinavian music. Even more, the accordion was not the most popular instrument around.
In 1975, he was teaching students how to play the accordion from the basement of his home in northeast Edmonton. He played gigs in city hotels, banquets and community halls. Backing him up were two sons, Ed who played electric guitar and Paul played drums.
His grandfather was a professional accordion player. His father played accordion too. But Olaf did not take up the accordion until he was 11 or 12 years old. But his inspiration came from a Norwegian professional accordion player, Tore Aunebakk. Tore later helped and coached him.
What took him to Saskatchewan in 1949? He was going to help his brother farm on some rented land. But the music was something that still lived inside of him. He became a member of a band. He joined Eddie Mehler and his Southern Playboys in the early fifties.
While with Mehler in 1950, the band recorded some 30 to 60 minute programs for radio station CKRM in Regina, Saskatchewan. Playboys? Hardly. They were living in an attic they rented for $20 a month. That attic was home for the five members of the band - sharing two beds. Their diet consisted of mainly wieners and beans. The band was new and during their travels for two or three years playing dances around Saskatchewan, they learned about the province and western music. Sometimes they drove home in driving blizzards. Yes, they encountered (and ducked) the "flying fists" in rowdy dance halls.
Olaf recounts some memories to columnist Ted Ferguson in 1978:
"Most of our audiences were nice, quiet country folks. But sometimes a fight would break out. One night at the Legion in Estevan, the whole dance floor exploded in a brawl. I avoided a couple of punches and continued playing. Before the brawl ended, there were more Mounties in the place than patrons."
The band split up eventually. Olaf was newly married at that time and supporting a family that grew to include three children. He continued his work on the farm. And continued to play at dances in the surrounding area. His desire was such that he would sometimes arrive at home in 4am, driving through blizzards. Olaf's wife, Eva, was a telephone operator in Lampman, Saskatchewan. After they got married, she quit her job and moved to a farm owned by Olaf's brother. It would be their home base during the times when he was not on the road. Their first child, Marilyn, was born there.
In 1994, the Canadian Folk Music Bulletin published an interview with Olaf entitled "I'm Olle Myself." In that interview, he spoke of when he first joined Eddie's group, how it got its name and his experience with this "country music."
I started to play for dances in Saskatchewan. I played for dances. Can't get away from it. Always somebody phoning up. And then I joined Eddie Mehler and his Southern Playboys. Eddie Mehler's still around; he just turned 65 now, in July. He's in Estevan, Saskatchewan. Mehler is my wife's second cousin, something like that.
In the Canadian Folk Music Bulletin of Olaf's interview, he touched upon how he got into recording and learning the ropes to get records sold.
Eddie Mehler had gone to Montreal around 1952 or 1953 to make a record. Olaf said he couldn't go, he was recently married. He knew Al Reutsch had a record label, Aragon, in Vancouver, BC. Olaf thought, "If [Eddie] could make a record, I can make a record." Olaf had a dance band at the time and he wrote to Aragon.
He wanted to make a record, and make a hundred copies. He would pay for it. Olaf sent the tape and the money and later, four packages arrived in the mail. He had to drive some bad roads in November, covered with snow, to the railroad station where he picked up the packages.
Olaf had his first hard-knock experience. He tried to sell a record to a neighbor. He wasn't interested. Olaf thought here he had a 100 records and couldn't even sell one. So, he got together with his band, Joe Fieber, his banjo player and the guitar players. He split up the copies and they were to try and sell them. He found it was not difficult selling those records. Then Olaf sent them to radio stations. It was being heard on all of them. His sister-in-law said she had heard the record on seven different radio stations in one day! It seemed it was popular, but Olaf felt something was not right. He needed a businessman or promoter behind the record to generate publicity.
What he found was that people went to the stores asking for "Olle's Waltz" but the stores would tell them - never heard of it. They'd ask, what label? When they said "Aragon" - same response - never heard of it.
In a 1978 interview with Ted Ferguson, Olaf said:
"I just couldn't quit the business. Not even when I was living hand-to-mouth. I'd go into a town, hungry and tired, but when I saw all those people, smiling and dancing, I'd feel happy, too."
In 1954, Olaf formed his own band: Olle and his Playmates from 1955 to 1960. They recorded a 78 that included a song that Olaf had written on one side, "Ole's Waltz." He would later record a couple more 45rpm records. That led to recording long play albums - his band changed.
It was Olaf Sveen and his Accordion Orchestra and they were playing schottisches and old-time Canadian favorites. From that point forward, he recorded as a solo artist with musical accompaniment.
He gave up farming in 1962 and moved to Edmonton. He was going to make music his primary livelihood. He was an instructor at a downtown studio for five years. Then he played five years at the Hofbrauhaus. Olaf and his family moved to Edmonton into a home of their own.
He told Mr. Gilmour in that 1975 article, "My music is not real western music. It's continental music."
In a 1978 interview, Olaf told Mr. Ferguson that he thought his current music would be rejected in Norway. He explained, "I have a distinctly North American sound, very relaxed, very easy to listen to. Norwegians prefer a more rigid, traditional approach. If my records were put on sale in Norway, nobody would buy them."
He felt that "...accordion is best for old-time waltzes, schottisches, and happy easy-listening music." But Olaf also played hymns, polkas and even classical tunes by Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. His albums included 69 tunes that he wrote. He published three booklets that contained 50 original compositions.
His album covers would include pictures of his wife or six children.
But his choice of a musical career or odyssey was described by his wife as a "struggle." But things did start to get better. In the two years prior to 1975, he had sold 40,000 to 50,000 records a year across Canada, mostly in the western provinces. His record label, London, honored him with a plaque in appreciation for his work in 1973 selling over 30,000 records and tapes.
The guy that came from Norway in 1949 with just that $45 accordion now had 28 accordions worth $10,000 in 1975. He used three for himself; 25 were for teaching. He splurged for $3,500 on a custom-built Italian accordion.
In 1978, Ted Ferguson touched on Olaf's lifestyle from his musical choice of careers. He drove a Vega. His clothes were off the rack. The family lived in a comfortable furnished bungalow in the middle-class Belvedere.
"It's all I know — and I'm still learning." — Olaf Sveen (1975)
He told Mr. Gilmour that he wanted to do more promotion to reach larger markets in Canada and even the United States. His goal was to record an album with his oldest daughter who also played the accordion. Another record idea was one with his sons which would include waltzes, polkas and even some rock music.
A 1971 article dives into the type of music he was playing - Norwegian / Scandinavian and a bit of a description of what the listener was hearing. An unnamed author tells readers that Norwegians were great dancers, dances such as the hamvo and the schottish. But they were also great singers. In this way he prefaces Olaf the conductor of an "old-fashioned dance orchestra."
"Most of the songs are sentimental. Norwegian folk music is 90 per cent in the minor key. And this gives it a soft mellow tone. ... But Norwegian music, though very much like the Swedish, is quite unlike the Finnish and quite different again from the Danish. ... I wouldn't say that Norwegian songs are sad. Sentimental, sure. But there's not the sadness of other nations. But then Norway does not have as tragic a history as many other nations." — Olaf Sveen (1971)
The 1971 article went on to explain why immigrants from Norway to Canada would still sing traditional music many years after they left their homeland in Europe. Olaf had a simple answer.
"The same as all other nationalities that come to Canada. Any ethnic group likes to keep its heritage. Music, and especially singing, are large part of our heritage. And I don't think it will ever die. Though I wouldn't expect many people in Edmonton to know some of the rarer Norwegian bridal marches and folk songs. I do not play them in my orchestra for that reason."
In 1967, Barry Westgate informed readers of his column that Olaf had a new album, Scandinavian Carousel. Mr. Westgate told readers that Olaf was backed by Gaby Haas, Clarence Ploof and Johnny Mack. The album featured Olaf and the organ / accordion sound of the Cordovox.
Edmonton was blessed with two accordion legends. Gaby Haas, a popular Edmonton musician, and three partners opened the Hofbrauhaus restaurant in December 1967. Like, Olaf, Gaby was also an immigrant. He came to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1939. It was opened to be a dine-and-dance facility. Gaby already had a television show and operated the European Music Shop on 97th street in Edmonton. Other partners were Rudy Roch, who was raised in the restaurant and bakery business in Germany. He also ran the Victoria Cake and Coffee shop in Edmonton. Siegfried Biewald was the chef du cuisine; he had international experience. When the restaurant opened, it featured Olaf Sveen on the accordion on Monday evenings. Rolf Loth, a zither player, did the entertainment on Tuesday evenings. Wednesday evenings were for Olaf Sveen and his orchestra. Gay Hass and his Hofbrauhaus Gang handled the entertainment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The restaurant was at the corner of 97th Street and 102nd Avenue. The building no longer exists; modern urbanization has taken its place.
In this time he recorded: 78ís: The Kenosee Waltz, Moose Mountain Waltz, Olleís Polka and the Calgary Polka among others.
Olaf Sveen has recorded for Banff, Rodeo and London records. ( Olafís record sales are up in the quarter Million)
Olaf Sveen recorded 32 long playing records and several 45ís and 78ís.
Bob Gilmour wrote of Olaf in a 1975 column, leading off with some of Olaf's recording achievements. He told readers Olaf had sold over 200,000 records in the previous 21 years. He was releasing his 24th album in August 1975. His 20th album was still being sold in the North American market. A fan could still find twelve eight-track tapes and three cassette albums. The university library in Oslo, Norway had not only Olaf's recordings, but also his musical compositions.
But his fame as a leading accordion music composer and player seemed known only to those in Edmonton.
He had appearances on Radio, Television, internationally, and wrote for music magazines and published over 400 songs and wrote a book on music.
Olaf has received awards for record sales at London Records as well as awards for long service, 25 years volunteering for playing accordion in hospitals.
Olaf played at the Londonderry Hotel on the Fort Trail for several years and one of the traditions was entertaining mothers on Mother's Day. George Ward wrote in his column that Olaf played to a packed house in 1976 and sales in 1977 indicated another sell out.
In 1978, Ted Ferguson wrote a feature story on Olaf. He started off with an anecdote of the fans of Olaf's music. A lady named Rosalee was tired one Friday night, tired of being on her feet all day working in retail. Her husband was inclined to stay at home and just watch TV. But she wanted to go to Londonderry for dinner. Olaf was heading up the band.
"Isn't he good?" the stout, greying saleslady asks, nodding toward the accordionist fronting the band. "You should hear him do Red Sails In The Sunset. It perks me up, coming here. They call him the King, you know. The King of the Accordion."
Olaf was 58 at the time. Mr. Ferguson noted that Olaf drew fans to the hotel nightspot but seemed to be emerging as an 'underground recording success.' He had two recent LP's at the time (Evergreens and Sounds of Scandinavia) that were selling "extremely well" for the London record label. Even without any commercial radio air play or TV talk show appearances or any show business hype.
Olaf told Mr. Ferguson: "My fans belong to the Forgotten Generation. The over-50's who are fed up with rock 'n' roll. They want music they can hum or dance to. Waltzes, polkas, fox-trots, even hymns. Everything from Sail Along Silv'ry Moon to Amazing Grace."
Mr. Ferguson tells the readers of the rebirth of the accordion and its popularity in the Canadian West. He writes that in the "pre-Elvis 1950's, every Prairie neighborhood had at least one SAturday night party virtuoso; high schools gave accordion lessons and private studios had waiting lists of youngsters dreaming of playing Lady of Spain like the American rage, Dick Contino." But the rock revolution had its impact on the accordion as well as other types of music. It was seemingly discarded. But Olaf was seemingly leading the rediscovery of the accordion. They held an Old-Time Accordion Championship in July of 1977 in Kimberley, BC which had large crowds and contestants from Sweden, the United States and Canada. The winner was no surprise to Sveen — a Norwegian-born Canadian.
Olaf explained, "The Scandinavians are just about the best on earth. In Canada there is no real tradition of accordion playing. It goes back hundreds of years in Scandinavia. Walk into a music store in Norway, for instance, and you'll see the shelves crammed with accordions. It's almost a religion with them."
In the summer of 1981, Olaf attended the National Accordion Festival in Norway on a grant from Alberta Culture. The article also stated that Mr. Sveen had been playing three evenings a week at the Hotel Londonderry Dining Lounge for six years come September 1981.
Olaf's son, Paul, had a career that turned from music to the stage of comedy. A 2009 article indicated that Paul had been a full-time comedian for 25 years. Columnist Stephanie McKay told one of Paul's stories while on the road.
"One day I was driving across the Prairies in a rental vehicle with a comedian and he was listening to an alternative jazz station. This accordion player comes on and he's playing classical Russian songs on accordion but in a jazz style. I'm going, 'Wow, this guy's great.' and so is my friend. And all of a sudden they say, 'Olaf Sveen,' my dad. He recorded so many records I'd never heard that song before."
Olaf married his wife Eva Sveen on February 25, 1952. They had been married 55 years upon Olafís passing in November 30, 2007.
They had 6 children, Paul, Edward, Ingrid, Marilyn, Lillian, Astrid.
In 1978, Premier Peter Lougheed presented Olaf with the Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence in Music.
Ted Ferguson ended his 1978 feature story with a quote from Olaf:
"If I make a million, I won't change. I won't leave Edmonton either. My family's here and I'd be a fool to run off to Las Vegas or anywhere else, just for money to put in the bank. If I can make a good living here, doing what I love, what else can a man want?"
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