A star yet on the rise

Meet Stuart Olsberg, a one-time pop musician who wants to pick up the tempo

stuart olsberg 88 298 (photo credit: )
stuart olsberg 88 298
(photo credit: )
'When the Beatles came home from their second American tour, there was a big welcome home party, and we were the band; it was all just part of our everyday work' Lurking behind the face of every Israeli is usually an interesting life story. Sometimes - as with many organized crime figures, for example - the story seems to go with the face; at other times, as with former motorcycle gang members who are now haredim, it does not. Behind Stuart Olsberg's handsome face is a fascinating story that seems to go perfectly with the face's hipster look and knowing smile. Now 62 and the grandfather of three, the soft-spoken Olsberg quietly tosses off stories in his Manchester accent of personal acquaintances with British superstar bands like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones, as well as such second-tier acts as The Moody Blues, Freddy and the Dreamers, and Lulu, whose songs virtually cluttered the Top 40 charts on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s. For six halcyon years of that decade, 1963-1969, Olsberg was a saxophone-playing member of a Manchester-based band that shared concert stages with practically all the super groups and, in the process, almost "made it big." In Israel for 25 years, Olsberg had managed to put those memories far behind him, content to live quietly in Pardessiya, self-employed as a musician and music teacher offering private lessons in saxophone, clarinet and flute. That, he says, was until seven months ago. "I was sitting at home, watching a Blues Brothers movie on TV. They were playing all the old Motown hits my band used to play. I got so nostalgic that I went to my computer, did a search for 'music group: Powerhouse' - which was the name of the band I was in - and in about two seconds was looking at a picture of me." Delighted at the sheer volume of information he saw about the group, which consisted of two saxophones, guitar, drums, bass, organ and a singer, Olsberg immediately went to work tracking down the other band members, now dispersed all over the world. This led to a reunion gig in England a little over a month ago. "Apart from the thrill of playing together again after 40 years, it was like going back 40 years. From the stage, I was facing a sea of photographers, press people, TV people. That was the most fun part of the reunion." Olsberg joined Powerhouse at age 19, replacing a departing saxophone player. "The group was all Manchester guys, and I was the only Jewish member," he says. Not long after Olsberg's arrival, the group, which had been semi-professional, evolved into a professional act and became the resident house band of a London nightclub called the Scotch of St. James. Not open to the general public, the club was exclusively for show business celebrities such as actors and pop stars. "After their shows, they'd go to this club where they could be left alone and not have people bothering them for things like autographs. Everybody there was a 'somebody.' We used to say that the only 'nobodies' in the place were us, up on stage!" Olsberg recalls with a laugh. Every night, one or another member of the club's all-star audience would come up on stage and sit in with the band. "So we worked with people like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Wilson Pickett came and sang with us on stage one night and wanted to take us to the States to be his back-up band. It didn't happen because he already had a contract with another band. Another night we were playing and someone came on stage and asked if this blind fellow could come up and sit in with us. We said okay, but we each were saying to ourselves, 'I hope to God he can play.' It turned out to be Jos Feliciano, right before he recorded "Light My Fire," his first big hit." Olsberg recalls nights when members of the Beatles, The Who and The Kinks were in the audience, along with actors like Marlon Brando and notables like Princess Margaret. "John Lennon told us we were a "f*****g great band," Olsberg relates with a flawless Lennon impersonation. Paul McCartney approached them one night and invited them to sign a recording contract with the Beatles's recording label, Apple. That, too, didn't happen because Powerhouse had already signed a contract with Decca, with whom they eventually made two records. Individually, Olsberg was also offered recording contracts as a session player by Decca and The Who. In addition to the band's regular gig at the Scotch of St. James, Olsberg and Powerhouse served as the opening act for stars such as Jimi Hendrix and backed up other groups like The Drifters. A bit of session work with a performer known as Napoleon the 14th, producer of the legendary No.1 hit "They're Coming to Take Me Away," landed the band on the cover of Melody Maker, Britain's leading pop music magazine. Olsberg notes that the heavy volume of concert gigs and recording sessions never added up to much money, nor did any of the band members develop a star mentality. "I made a living," he says simply. "Looking back on it now, we realize what we did. For example, when the Beatles came home from their second American tour, there was a big welcome home party at the Scotch of St. James. And we were the band. At the time, though, it was work. It was all just part of our everyday work." Unusual among pop musicians of the period, Powerhouse had no use for drugs. Olsberg's voice becomes loud and adamant as he says, "No drugs, period. It was always around us. We'd play in places where we'd hear a knock on our dressing room door, and there would be someone standing there with a huge tray of stuff, saying 'Compliments of the management.' But we just saw too much of what drugs were doing to people - ruining them, even killing them eventually, like The Who's Keith Moon." Drugs aside, did the band have groupies? Olsberg flashes a quick smile and says quietly, "Of course there were groupies." By the end of the 1960s it was all over. The band simply dissolved. Olsberg explains the band's near miss at stardom with a story of missed opportunities that almost mirrors that of the fictional band in the Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do! "We had been discovered by a recording company talent scout. In those days, unless you were a big star already, you couldn't record what you wanted to record. You recorded stuff that the record company wanted you to do. They gave us two records to do - four sides - with stuff that wasn't our style at all." Another song that the band thought was terrible and refused to record, "I Put a Spell on You," was instead recorded by singer Alan Price and rocketed to No.1 on the British pop charts. "Also, in order to make it back then, you had to sell a million records, get on TV and then get your song on the radio. How was an unknown band supposed to accomplish that? You had to pay. You had to pay to get your record into the top 10. But our management said, 'No, you fellows are good enough to do it the straight way. So…" Olsberg trails off, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. These days, the major question is how we are going to keep Olsberg down on the proverbial farm after the heady, heart-pounding success of his reunion gig in England a month ago. "We played to a huge adoring audience and a sea of photographers and media people. One man actually kissed my hand as I was walking off stage. It was the same adulation, the same idolatry, we had got from audiences before. It was how it used to be. I got home and said to my wife, 'You know what? I've been here 25 years and no one here knows who the f*** I am,'" he says with a loud laugh. That was when Olsberg realized that giving private music lessons, while pleasurable, will never deliver the same kick as a huge hall full of screaming fans. So what's in the future for him? Will Powerhouse return for another shot at stardom? Says Olsberg, "All right, the band that I had can't be. Everybody's spread out all over the world. I would love to have a band here in Israel, playing the same kind of music with a bunch of guys my age who know the music. And we'd need a singer with a 'Black voice,' like we had in Powerhouse. Putting something like this together in the States isn't a problem. Here, it's not so easy." Nonetheless, Olsberg is taking a few well-placed first steps. In addition to giving music lessons, he plays with the Dixieland band the Stompers and does one-man gigs on the saxophone, clarinet and flute, backed up with recorded accompaniment. Powerhouse may be long gone, but Stuart Olsberg is on his way back.