The Life Story of Inge Brandenburg

Inge BrandenburgIt was a life full of passed-up opportunities and unhappy coincidences. And it started that way, too. Born in Leipzig, Germany on February 18, 1929, Inge Brandenburg spent her youth in homes in Dessau and Bernburg. Her father was a communist and was beaten, deported and confined before his children’s eyes by Nazi henchmen. In 1941 her father committed suicide by running into an electrified barbed wire fence at the Mauthausen concentration camp. Her mother, who lost her right to raise her five children after her husband was deported and had to look on as her children suffered at homes was arrested for making “subversive remarks” and died under unspecified circumstances during deportation to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

And so, though it was true that at the end of the Second World War the young woman was liberated, yet she was without her parents with no one to turn to. Due to the war and relocating between various homes, she lost track of her siblings and was unable to find them for years afterwards. Inge first worked in the Soviet zone and, fleeing across the “Grüne Grenze” (green border) in 1949 in a dangerous night-time escape to Hof, Bavaria in the American-controlled sector. Her escape led her on to Augsburg where she found work as a house maid. She enjoyed going to bars frequented by soldiers in order to take in the music and its swinging rhythms. One night she is picked up by the police, half undressed, her floral confirmation dress unaccounted for. Drunk GIs had torn it off her body. Because she had no documentation, she was put in jail for six months for vagrancy. Her cell mates were streetwalkers and thieves.


Inge Brandenburg




After her release, she ended up at a farm in a small village near Augsburg wearing only her torn prison clothing. The farmer’s wife sewed a new dress for her from her curtains. She still did not have formal identification papers. Finally, she managed to obtain a residency permit from the local job office and thus improved her social standing. She regained contact with her family and years later had a home of her own. The family even had a piano. "I worked for 25 Deutschmarks a month at a bakery, and was allowed to use the family piano." The musical baker’s family even found her a piano teacher. She had to give him 20 out of her 25 German marks for piano lessons. "But I turned into a different person. I finally had a goal to work towards." 

She had always felt a special love for music. Her favorite radio station was AFN (Armed Forces Network) and her favorite recording artists were Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. One day, after reading an ad in the Augsburg daily newspaper that a dance orchestra was looking for an attractive singer with a low voice, Inge Brandenburg screwed up her courage and applied for the job. In the winter of 1949 the band leader Eugen Weigele took the talented young lady to the American Crossroads Club and had her sing. The thrilled soldiers got her a job by the power of their applause. From then on she toured with a broad ranging repertoire for the grand sum of 170 German marks a month to German nightclubs, acquired a huge repertoire of approximately 2,500 hit music tunes, standards and evergreens. She sang with innumerable dance bands. The constant experience performing allowed her to refine her musical talent and professionalism. The self-taught performer became a favorite act at GI night clubs, whose audiences cheered her on with the name "Brandy." Whether she performed swing, cool jazz, blues, hillbilly or hit music – Inge Brandenburg sang her way through the Fifties without a wider audience taking note. Only among musicians did news spread about the phenomenal singer. In 1957 she moved to Frankfurt because she hoped the Frankfurt music scene would give her new impetus for her professional career.Inge BrandenburgThe turning point in her career turned out to be an invitation to perform in Sweden the same year. Inge Brandenburg had come to the attention of an agent who engaged her for four weeks of concerts. Inge Brandenburg was such a hit that more engagements followed, and the four weeks originally planned became eight successful months. In this time she worked with the greats of the Swedish jazz scene. In the 1950s, alongside France, this Scandinavian country was considered a hotbed of European jazz. With more self-confidence from the experience, she returned to Frankfurt in the spring of 1958. Late one evening in Carlo Bohländer’s legendary Domicile, Inge Brandenburg went on stage and showed just how her singing had developed while in Sweden. Her musical colleagues were so impressed that they persuaded the festival director to include Inge Brandenburg in the program of the 1958 German Jazz Festival at the last moment. By the time she heard about it, the advertising posters had already been printed. There was no going back.

Inge Brandenburg’s performance burst on the scene like a bombshell and made her a star over night. The public were captivated by her ability to generate gripping, emotionally-charged moments from ballads like “Lover Man.” Reviews compared her with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and outdid themselves in praising her with headlines such as “German jazz has found its voice at last!” Her voice ranged from an expressively harsh edge to soft tenderness; a “mature” voice, an expression of the experiences that molded this singer. Overnight, Inge Brandenburg became Germany’s No. 1 female singer and a great career seemed to be under way. But the sudden change from nobody to star brought its problem, although initially the wave of success continued.

A few months later Inge Brandenburg won the title of “best European female jazz singer” at the Juan-les- Pins festival in southern France. Weeks later, at the festival in Knokke in Belgium she led the German team, which included the young Udo Jürgens, to victory, and in doing so outscored Whitney Houston’s aunt, the favored Donna Hightower.

EdelhagenSuccessful guest appearances followed at festivals, on radio and on television both at home and abroad. There was not a single well-known European jazz group that had not worked with Inge Brandenburg. Until the end of the 1960s she toured extensively – from Bulgaria to Morocco, all the way to Lapland – with top jazz groups such as Albert Mangelsdorff, Kurt Edelhagen, Klaus Doldinger, Werner Müller, and Max Greger, and one of her young musical companions, the drummer Udo Lindenberg.

In 1960 the recording industry indicated interest in her. Teldec took Inge Brandenburg under contract. Initially, all was going well. It was her explicit wish to record both jazz and chansons. Ultimately she achieved a compromise that included this in her contract. However, in return she had to be prepared to record hit songs. The recording companies interpreted the terms of the contracts one-sidedly. Apart from hit music, Inge was allowed to record one or two jazz tunes, if at all. Whereas Polydor later ignored the agreements and CBS observed them only because it had to, the people in charge at Teldec deferred to the only too justified ambitions of the singer. In Werner Müller and Sigrid Volkmann she had two people assigned to work with her who were aware of the quality of the singer and took pains to find appropriate songs for her. While Werner Müller looked after swing numbers, among other things German versions of various hits by Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, producer Sigrid Volkmann kept an eye out for appropriate hit songs. The highpoint of her year with Teldec, which produced the best recordings of Inge Brandenburg’s recording career, were the four jazz tunes recorded in November 1960 that appeared as the EP album “Herzlichst Inge” [“With love from Inge”]. On this EP are to be heard, among others: “All of Me,” “Lover Man,” “Don’t Take Our Love,” “There’ll Never Be Another You,” “Pennies From Heaven.”{mospagebreak}

Inge Brandenburg Chet BakerAlthough Inge Brandenburg was given an option to extend her contract and continue working with Teldec, after lengthy wrangling the contract was not renewed. Her subsequent recording career developed into years of frustration. She could not accept that she had come to be regarded as merely a pop singer. Although she signed with Polydor in 1961, after three hit singles and no jazz recording the contract ended after court proceedings in which Inge tried to enforce her rights through the courts. All of that was anything but helpful for her future in the record business. In the middle of the 1960s Bernhard Mikulski of CBS signed her to a contract, but instead of giving her renewed impetus, the time at CBS signaled the end of her recording career. Inge Brandenburg was, however, able to carry out one final project, an LP recording devoted entirely to jazz, which as a rarity fetches a very high price today but at that time satisfied neither the critics nor Inge Brandenburg.

In the years that followed, Inge Brandenburg started a new career as an actress on the German stage and on television. She appeared in various musicals, also played the first witch in Macbeth at Berlin’s Schillertheater; however she was unable to repeat the success from earlier in her career. For time has changed dramatically. Juke boxes drove live music out of bars and clubs. Rock ’n’ Roll and beat drew audiences away from jazz clubs to large concert venues. Inge Brandenburg’s appearances singing in smaller concert halls and churches became fewer and far between. In 1974 she appeared one more time at a jazz festival in Würzburg, and performed at the Frankfurter Brotfabrik in 1985. After that she completely stopped her appearances. Alcohol problems, a lack of motivation and a complicated vocal chord operation accelerated her social decline. She lived off of welfare and walked dogs in her neighborhood for pocket money. In 1993 she made a courageous minor comeback, appearing on stage at Munich's Bayerischer Hof with a clear voice and a sparkle in her eyes. However, only a few of her old fans came to listen. Despite excellent reviews, her desperate attempt to regain public attention was limited to only a few appearances.

On February 23, 1999 Inge Brandenburg died at a hospital in Munich-Schwabing five days after her 70th birthday – only seven people came to mourn at her pauper’s burial.

Inge BrandenburgBy coincidence, a young man discovered old photo albums of a singer unknown to him at a Munich flea market. He was thrilled and did more research. He found the second-hand dealer who had wound up the deceased woman's apartment. There were more photo albums in his basement, but also sound recordings, including 27 jazz recordings that nobody had been willing to bring out in years past and represent a sensational find today. They will be heard for the first time in this documentation and are to be released on CD with the film. The recordings document that Inge Brandenburg was truly one of the few – if not the best – female singers ever brought forth by this country, who, however, never had a chance at a great career.

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