Pop violinist Florian ZaBach was a musical genius

By Bill Bronk

How did a classically trained violin virtuoso become one of the most popular and sought after entertainers of his day? The only good answer? Because he was Florian ZaBach… a one-of-a-kind music phenomenon who had a burning desire to popularize the violin…while having a lot of fun doing it. He succeeded. He became world-renown in the process and among his many achievements has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While it may have taken him awhile to get to where he wanted to go, he had the necessary “fire-in-the belly” that drives a man forward through the known and the unknown. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. His name is Florian, a gypsy name which means “God of Fire”. How fitting is that!

florian-zaBachZaBach was known as…the “King of the Violin”, “America’s Foremost Violin Personality”, ”the Poet of the Violin”, and because of the uniqueness and diversity of his work, the “World‘s Most Versatile Violinist“. His recording of “The Hot Canary” (Decca single 27509) in 1951 charted at number 13 and sold a million copies…an unusual occurrence for someone who plays a “fiddle”. But one novelty record does not define Florian ZaBach. He was not a “one-hit-wonder” who faded into obscurity after hitting the big time. He recorded 10 long-play albums for Decca, Mercury and Swampfire…and another 14 singles were released — including one from Cadence Records (45-1406 – Oceans of Love) . ZaBach’s albums are masterpieces.

Many of the songs on ZaBach’s first LP, “The Hot Canary” (Decca DL-4425) , were initially issued as singles…and include some of ZaBach’s best and most inventive novelty numbers. Buckle up your seat belt and hang on for “The Gypsy Fiddler,“ a thrilling example of the speed he was noted for. “Running Off The Rails” is a marvelous piece which will take you back to the days of the steam locomotive…pulled along the track by the chugging train sounds he makes with his violin. Other exceptional pieces include, “Red Wing”, “The Funny Fiddle”, and “The Waltzing Cat”. With these three tunes the violin serves up laughter, a purring cat and the sadness of a young Indian maiden who has lost her brave to a far off battle.

Exciting numbers like those above are an important part of ZaBach’s recordings. But equally as important are his albums focusing on love and romance, such as Decca’s “Heart Strings” (DL-5507) and “Dream of Romance” (DL-8158) and Mercury‘s “Till The End of Time” (MG-20305). On songs such as “You Are Too Beautiful”, “The Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture” and “Anniversary Waltz“, ZaBach plays his violin as smoothly and lovingly as Der Bingle can croon a love tune. On his Swampfire LP (SF-205), “Florian ZaBach with the Nashville Country Strings”, ZaBach plays well-known pop and country songs such as “Hey Jude”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Classical Gas“. His take on the latter is a real gas! (I couldn’t resist).

And yet…with all those recordings to his credit…there has never been a CD retrospective issued on his body of work—-either here in the U.S. or abroad. Companies like Jasmine, Varese Vintage and Vocalion, who specialize in re-issues, are missing the boat. His beautifully crafted, stunningly performed pop oriented violin music is timeless and deserves to be heard and enjoyed in the digital age….not remain buried in the age of vinyl where too much great music still resides.

Much of the vinyl mentioned above is available on eBay, Music Stack and GEMM, three of the web’s major vinyl sellers. Most singles range in price from $5-15 and the LPs range from $5-25 depending on condition. However, one seller had “Florian ZaBach with the Nashville Strings” listed at $38. One European seller listed the Mercury label‘s “It’s Easy To Dance with Florian ZaBach” LP (SR-60107) at $328 and another listed Decca’s “HiFi Fiddle” LP (DL-8239) at $248. Both high priced LPs were European versions of the same titles issued in the U.S…that are within the $5-25 range here.

My appreciation of Florian ZaBach and his music goes all the way back to the mid-fifties…when I first saw him perform on television, whether it was on his own “The Florian ZaBach Show”- or when he was a guest performing on shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Red Skelton, Steve Allen and Milton Berle. Here I was, a teenager, already rockin’ and rollin’ to cats like Elvis, Fats, Chuck and Jerry Lee, but absolutely enthralled by a guy playing the violin on TV. Go figure! But as Jerry Lee Lewis has been known to say, “goodness gracious, great balls of fire“, this guy was something else! My big question then, and still is, how in the world could anyone play a violin like that, to make it sound the way he did? To make such beautiful, lush, romantic music on one hand, and such exciting, outrageous, and fun-filled music on the other. The answer lies below.

Zabach was born on 15 Aug 1918 in Pana, Il, about 225 miles from Chicago, where he moved with his parents when he was 3 months old. There is no doubt that ZaBach was a prodigy. At the age of 8, under the tutelage of his father, Florian ZaBach, Sr. (an accomplished symphony clarinetist in Vienna, Austria) Florian showed an extraordinary talent for playing the violin. His father was a taskmaster who had his young son practice from 6pm to 8pm every night. To further nurture his gift, Florian attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music.

When he was 12 he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto at Chicago’s Auditorium Concert Hall. At the age of 15, he was a guest performer at the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago. In 1935 he performed at Kimball Hall on the campus of Chicago’s DePaul University. When he was 18, he performed the Mozart Concerto as a guest soloist at 30 recitals in such European music centers as Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome and Prague. He stayed on in Prague to further his studies at the Prague Conservatory of Music.

After returning from Europe , ZaBach traveled with the Kryl Symphony Orchestra for about two years as a soloist, concert master and assistant to the conductor, while performing such pieces as Wagner‘s “Prelude to Die Meistersinger of Von Nurenberg”. During those formative years he studied hard and played serious music exclusively…but that would soon change…as he would take a couple of very sharp turns in a direction most violinists with his training and experience would not risk.

A musician has to go where his heart tells him. And ZaBach’s heart wasn’t in the world of “longhair” concert violin. In an interview with columnist George Forsythe of the Boston Traveler in May of 1957 he said “ I never took myself seriously, but I do believe classical music is a serious business. I still practice four to six hours a day”. With that said, however, he further explained that “most concert violinists act like it’s all a big mystery. They act too reverent about it. I like to jazz the stuff up”.

And that’s just what he did. Even before his induction into the U.S. Army at Camp Grant, Rockford, IL in 1941, while continuing his concert tours, he performed as a violin soloist with the Roy Shields and Percy Faith Orchestras on the NBC Radio network in Chicago. You might say this was his induction into the “popular” music field…which he greatly enjoyed. With this new-found and evolving versatility he became a master of swing music.

Elvis Presley was already an established star when he was inducted into the Army…and did not perform while in uniform. ZaBach was not… and took advantage of two opportunities that came his way. After winning a competition at Camp Grant he traveled to Cleveland, OH to appear on Tommy Dorsey’s “Star In Uniform” radio show…playing a medley of swing tunes. Also at Camp Grant in May of 1943 Corporal ZaBach led the orchestra and played his violin in the Camp Grant bond show, “We’re Tellin’ You”. In 1944 he was honorably discharged from the Army Medical Corps following a tour of duty in Alaska.

Returning to Chicago, ZaBach again played for network radio until forming his own society dance orchestra, “The Swinging Strings,” which played for several years in popular night clubs in the East and Midwest. It was a good living but he didn’t foresee it lasting so he disbanded his orchestra and moved to New York City in February of 1950—seeking greater opportunities as a solo artist. He found it almost immediately. Like manna from heaven, success on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” show was a spring-board to offers the like of which he could only dream.

Zabach accepted an engagement as a performer and master-of-ceremonies at the Strand Theatre on Broadway and stayed for a record 9 months. During this period he signed with Decca Records and had immediate success with “Hot Canary” and other recordings. While making five appearances a day at New York’s Roxy Theatre, he also appeared five days a week for 39 weeks on Steve Allen’s CBS TV show and later garnered an engagement on NBC TV’s “ Club Embassy “ variety show. Then Hollywood came calling. For syndication within the U.S. and around the world, Guild Films produced forty half-hour films of “The Florian ZaBach Show “.

Over the next 35 years, the world became his stage. With a unique blend of pop, jazz, classical and novelty pieces in his repertoire, ZaBach traveled continually throughout the U.S. and to such far-flung places as Portugal, Spain, South Africa, London, Paris, China, Vienna, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia. During his time in the limelight, on theatre stages, in night clubs, in ballrooms and in concert halls all over the U.S. and the world, music writers described ZaBach with glowing praise employing terms such as “prodigiously talented”; his mastery of the violin as “staggering musicianship” and if that wasn’t enough his performance style as “spectacular showmanship”. He pulled out all the stops while performing, using a number of attention grabbing techniques to add color and excitement to his appearances, captivating his audiences with violin wizardry that could make his violin cry, laugh, talk, sing like a bird, purr like a cat and sound like a train – all the while cracking jokes, playing a mean trumpet, dancing, whistling with gusto, playing the drums and inviting his audiences to join him in song.

Life wasn’t all “just a bowl of cherries“, however. Along the way ZaBach saw his share of mishaps and misfortune. At Chicago’s LaSalle Hotel in 1946, where his band was playing, there was a fire which killed 67 people. ZaBach suffered painful burns when he went into the hotel to get his Stradivarius violin. Most of his hair was gone, his eyebrows burned off and his hands were so badly burned he was in the hospital for several months. An avid fisherman and outdoorsman, he was injured by a wild wolf-dog on a Wisconsin hunting trip. The nerves in his wrist were badly damaged by the dog’s teeth–immobilizing his fingers. In an interview with Michael Drew of the Milwaukee Journal in March of 1973, it was reported that ZaBach’s career nearly ended in 1971-72. His neck was broken in an auto accident, which paralyzed his arms. He was in a body cast for 8 months and the hospital for a year. In 1976, ZaBach canceled a concert in Pointe Claire, a suburb of Montreal, Canada because his 244 year old de Gesu Guarnerius violin-his preferred instrument-was stolen from a hotel room. ZaBach appealed to the thief and received an anonymous phone call telling him the violin could be found in a green garbage can at the rear of the hotel.

Florian ZaBach had a long and distinguished career….extending well into his 70s. Whether conducting pops concerts with major symphony orchestras, entertaining a bunch of GIs at a bond drive during WWII or mesmerizing his TV audiences with a rollicking hoedown take of “Turkey in the Straw’, he did what he set out to do…as only Florian ZaBach could.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Florian ZaBach, never spoke to him on the telephone, never sent him a letter or an email…and, unfortunately, never saw him perform in person. None-the-less, there is a connection, a communication between us that lives to this day; he as an artist and performer, and me as an appreciative fan in awe of the man’s talent and showmanship. He passed away in February of 2006 at the age of 87. His musical legacy is etched in the annals of time and in the hearts and souls of those who were fortunate enough to be entertained by him—whether up front and personal, by his television appearances, or by his many wonderful recordings.

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