Ben Berlin - a famous but forgotten Estonian-born musician

  • Valdo Praust
  • 103 videos
  • Last updated on Dec 15, 2018
Ben Berlin (real name Hermann Biek, sometimes also called Bick, Bik or Byk, 1896-1944) was probably the most world-famous pop-musician born in Estonia. However, he made his main career not in Estonia but in Germany.

Hermann Biek was born in German-speaking jew family in Tallinn (Reval), nowadays capital of Estonia, in September 23th, 1896. He was the first son of the merchant Leopold (Leib) Biek and his wife Marie (born as Marie Fleischacker). Hermann's parents adopted the Lutherian faith, Hermann was baptized in St Nicholas (Niguliste) church in Tallinn.

Hermann Biek went in 1913 to St. Petersburg Conservatory (capital of these-times Russia) and finished it 1919 as a classical pianist and a composer. He stayed to the conservatory and married there with Vera Vinogradova. Before ther first son Leo was born, they went 1921 back to Estonia (Hermann with his wife and a famous singer Zinaida Jurjevskaja). In Estonia Hermann worked as a musician but a young and small Estonia was too limited for his great talent. He left Estonia in 1926 and found a new work in Germany, Berlin, under the VOX record company as a musical director and arranger. In these times a Weimar-era Berlin was a cultural centre of the whole continental Europe being also a very cosmopolitan city.

His profession was a classical pianist and additionaly he gave musical lessons (as his wife Vera). But the world-wide fame he achieved through the jazzy (dance) music and through a dozens excellent jazz-like records he made. His "golden era" in Berlin started in 1928 when he formed its own band, a jazzy Ben Berlin Dance Orchestra. He took his artist name probably by a Ben Bernie and Ben Selvin - both of them were famous musicians and bandleaders in U.S. during late 1920s.

With his band he achieved a quick worldwide fame because he had a strong personal rhythmical style. He made for his band a lot of masterful and colourful jazz- and swing-like arrangements. He was sometimes also called as a "musical ambassador" of the U.S. in continental Europe. His band's records were issued in German, English and French languages and spread in all around the world including South-America, Japan etc. It is also known that he has recorded with his band special records for Brasilian, Greece, Japanese, Spanian and other markets.

He collaborated in his orchestra with a dozens of world-famous pop-musicians such as Billy Barton, Louis de Vries, Danny Polo, Ren T. Weiss, Philippe Brun etc. There was also a fruitful and dense collaboration with the Leo Monosson, one of the best-known pop singer in Germany in these times as well as the collaboration with the Hungarian "Two Jazzers", "Four Admirals" from U.S etc.. Today most of lexikons of European early jazz, swing and German Weimar-time pop music point to Ben Berlin and his recordings.

His fame and worldwide success lasted only some years. In 1933, when nazis seized the power in Germany, he emigrated to Paris, later (probably in 1934) further to London. In September-October 1934 he also visited (after eight years) his previous homeland Estonia performing some classical music concerts in Tallinn and Tartu. I found corresponding articles in old Estonian newspapers. Surprisingly these articles only mentioned him (Hermann Biek) as a professional pianist but didn't mentioned his great career in the field of jazz and pop music and also didn't mentioned his artist name Ben Berlin.

Ben Berlin worked in London also at BBC leading there some musical broadcasts. However, during the Britain period he never gained his previous popularity. He passed away in England in 1944 when he was only 48 years old.

Today he is almost forgotten, especially forgotten in Estonia. His records are very much appreciated by the collectors in all around the world but they rather know more about him beside the artist name. Therefore, there is also very less known about his life and career. All the information I presented here, I have collected from a hundreds of small fragments during a couple of years. A lot of facts are still remained unknown.

I linked here all recordings of Ben Berlin Orchestra that are made available in YouTube by the several collectioneers in all around the world since 2007. I personally have about more than 40 of his original records - I hope to get more of them and also hope to digitize all of records as soon as possible. I'm not aware of the presence of any discography Ben Berlin orchestra. I can roughly estimate that between 1928 and 1930(?) there were probably issued more than 60-80 records under the Polydor and Deutsche Grammophon which were all spread worldwide (and additionally some Derby-produced anonymous records).

If you know some new facts about Ben Berlin (Hermann Biek) which are not mentioned here or you have new records which are not listed here, please let me know.

Valdo Praust (mois@mois.ee)

All material is presented here for educational purposes
Ben Berlin (real name Hermann Biek, sometimes also called Bick, Bik or Byk, 1896-1944) was probably the most world-famous pop-musician born in Estonia. However, he made his main career not in Estonia but in Germany.

Hermann Biek was born in Ger...
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