In A Nutshell
The Nazis weren’t exactly what you would call hepcats. During the 1930s and ’40s, they did their best to outlaw jazz music across the Third Reich . . . well, with exception of Charlie and His Orchestra. This English-speaking band covered popular jazz tunes of the day, only they turned hit songs into anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi propaganda meant to demoralize Allied troops.
The Whole Bushel
Not only were the Nazis a bunch of genocidal maniacs, they were also major killjoys. While the rest of the world was listening to cool tunes by artists like Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie, the Germans were forced to listen to Wagner. Due to its African-American roots, the Nazis banned jazz when Hitler came to power, and a bunch of stick-in-the-mud officials started busting up dance clubs left and right.
In fact, Nazi officers in Czechoslovakia even drew up a long list of rules listing what musicians could and couldn’t do. For example, plucking strings and playing saxophones were “verboten,” and musicians were “forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat).” Instruments like cowbells, flexatones, and brushes were considered “alien to the German spirit,” and no one was allowed to play “the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people.”
Yeah, the Nazis were always racist jerks.
But even though they were a bunch of boring squares, the Nazis knew music was a powerful tool. So that’s why in 1940, Joseph Goebbels formed the first (and last) English-speaking Nazi jazz band. The idea was to demoralize Allied troops with propaganda you could dance to. Formed by saxophonist Lutz Templin, the band was called Charlie and His Orchestra and featured Karl “Charlie” Schwedler as the lead singer. As for the other musicians, they were all inducted from conquered countries like Belgium and Holland—probably because most of the famous German jazz artists were Jews who took off when Hitler showed up.
Life was pretty sweet for Charlie and His Orchestra. They didn’t have to join the Army, and they made a nice chunk of change each day. Plus, they were famous! Well, famous for singing really strange songs. Instead of composing their own material, Charlie and His Orchestra covered some of the most famous jazz songs of the day, with an odd Aryan twist.
For example, let’s take a look at the hit song “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” a popular number covered by famous figures like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday. Originally, the lyrics went:
How true were the friends who were near me,
To cheer me, believe me, they knew.
But you, you were the kind who would hurt me,
Desert me when I needed you.
But when Charlie got his grubby hands on the song, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” became an anti-Semitic screed that went a little something like this:
The Jews are the friends who are near me,
To cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind who will hurt me,
Desert me, and laugh at me too.
The popular “So You Left Me for the Leader of a Swing Band” was transformed into “So You Left Me for the Leader of the Soviets.” A cover of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” included catchy lyrics like, “I hate to see this evening sun go down because the Germans, they done bombed this town!” And Charlie was known far and wide for his musical impersonations of Winston Churchill, portraying the British Bulldog as a monstrous warmonger who “can’t be happy” until he gets “the Americans in this war too.”
It wasn’t exactly Charlie’s finest hour.
Despite Hitler’s approval, Charlie and His Orchestra weren’t exactly the most effective propaganda tools in the Nazi arsenal, and their songs didn’t really demoralize any Allied troops. Their songs weren’t even that popular with the German people. In fact, high-ranking members of the Luftwaffe preferred listening to American band leader Glenn Miller and his Allied Air Force Orchestra. In other words, the Charlie and His Orchestra were complete failures, and just like the Third Reich, the band eventually fell apart.
But you can still hear their stuff on YouTube. Have fun.