Inge Brandenburg was born in Leipzig on 18 February 1929 and was brought up in poverty. Arguments, acts of arbitrary violence and alcohol were a regular feature of her everyday life. She never knew parental love.
“When Daddy came home drunk, he would hit Mummy. But they also fought when Daddy was sober. It was terrible. And I never knew who I should be more frightened for or who I should side with.”
Inge’s father was a Communist and a conscientious objector, which meant that in the eyes of the Nazis he was a parasite and a social misfit. Inge watched him being beaten up by the Gestapo, and then dragged away and interned. According to a dubious entry in the death register of the Mauthausen concentration camp, he committed suicide in 1941 by throwing himself against the electrified barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp.
“My mother was working very hard at this time, and I had to take charge of my two little sisters. My mother was working for a coal dealer at this time. She drove the coal wagon and carried the heavy sacks of coal down into people’s cellars, where she also piled up the coal. I felt terribly ashamed in the presence of my classmates as my mother was doing such dirty work. Sometimes when I was returning home from school, she would meet me with her horse-drawn cart and nod at me with her blackened face. If other children from the school were around, I would turn away quickly as I was afraid they would tease me about her. At home I sometimes used to cry because she had to work so hard.”
Inge’s mother was likewise arrested for making “anti-government remarks” and died in unexplained circumstances while being transported to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The five brothers and sisters were separated and taken to what were called “homes for maladjusted children”, where compulsory sterilization was routinely carried out. The children were seen as “degenerate”, and doctors were of the opinion that criminality was hereditary, with the result that it had to be “eradicated”.
“In 1941 I was sent to a secure unit in Bernburg. At first I tried to escape, but after a few attempts I gave up. Each time you committed some minor offence at the home, they’d say you were the children of criminals, or ‘Nothing will ever come of you!’ Or: ‘It’s no wonder with parents like yours!’ I often withdrew into a corner and read or crept off to the playground, where there were swallows’ nests. I wanted to stroke the young swallows. When they flew off from their nests, I was really miserable. I just wanted to show them some tenderness. Then there was the affair with the apples. For weeks they thrashed me until I admitted to having stolen them even though I hadn’t. I never got over that. Even today I feel unsure of myself whenever I have the impression that people don’t believe me. The only love that I received during my youth was the cooling hand of a nun who stroked me when I fell ill with diphtheria.”
Immediately after the war, in a dangerous cloak-and-dagger operation, Inge managed to escape to the American sector. She was picked up by the police in Hof, half naked, her floral confirmation dress missing. Drunken GIs had torn it from her back and raped her. She had no papers, and so she was locked up for six months for vagrancy. After that, her journey took her to Augsburg.
“I then worked in a bakery for twenty-five marks a month. And I was also allowed to use the family piano. The baker and his wife were musical, and they even put me in touch with a piano teacher. Out of my twenty-five marks, I had to pay him twenty for his lessons. But I became a different person. Finally I had a goal in front of me.”
Her great love had always been music. Her favourite station was the American Forces Network, AFN, and the performers she most enjoyed listening to were Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. One day she saw an advertisement in the Augsburg daily paper announcing that a local dance orchestra was looking for a good-looking singer with a low voice, and so she applied. From February 1950 onwards she appeared in German night clubs for 170 marks a month. Whether it was swing, cool jazz, blues, hillbilly or popular hits of the period, Inge Brandenburg sang her way through the 1950s but without coming to the attention of a wider public.
The turning point in her career came when she was invited to appear in Sweden. An agent who had heard about her signed her up for a four-week engagement, and she proved so successful that others followed, so that what had originally been intended to be four weeks became eight months. During this time she worked with some of the great names in Swedish jazz. In the 1950s Scandinavia and France were seen as the main centres of jazz in Europe. It was with her self-confidence boosted but with mixed feelings that she returned to Frankfurt in the spring of 1958.
“The idea of returning home after my success in Sweden and living in anonymity was one that I found terrible and it drove me almost to the verge of despair. And so it came about that I found myself sitting in Carlo Bohländer’s legendary Domicile du Jazz in Frankfurt and had had rather too much to drink. That gave me the courage to say to a pianist: ‘Come on, just play for me and I’ll prove I can sing.’ Some people began to giggle but as soon as I’d sung a few bars, they all fell silent. Two days later they told me I’d be appearing at the jazz festival. Now there was no going back.”
This appearance turned Inge Brandenburg into an overnight star and led to her being named Germany’s leading jazz singer. Audiences, too, were impressed by her ability to turn ballads such as “Lover Man” into intensely moving numbers. The critics had nothing but praise for her singing, and Germany’s leading jazz writer Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote that “She sings with incredible feeling. Her singing has an intensity in which a whole world seems to vibrate. Above all, she doesn’t sing like June Christy but like Inge Brandenburg. German jazz finally has a voice!”
“It was in 1958 that I was ‘discovered’. People fêted me. And I thought: I hope those old women at the homes are still alive! I thought that my big moment had finally come, but I was to be proved wrong.”
A few months later Inge Brandenburg was named Europe’s Best Female Jazz Singer at the jazz festival in Juan-les-Pins in southern France. Shortly afterwards she and the German term triumphed at the Knokke Festival in Belgium. There followed successful appearances both at home and abroad as well as radio and television broadcasts. Between then and the late 1960s she undertook numerous tours of countries as far afield as Yugoslavia, Morocco, Libya and Lapland. She was accompanied by internationally acclaimed ensembles such as those of Albert Mangelsdorff, Kurt Edelhagen, Klaus Doldinger, Max Greger and Ted Heath.
Inge Brandenburg was first approached by the record industry in 1960. Teldec signed a contract with her. It was her express wish to record jazz titles and cabaret numbers, and she ensured that this was written into her contract. But at the same time she had to agree to be prepared to record hit singles as well. The high point of the year was a series of the best jazz recordings of her career: “All Of Me”, “Lover Man”, “Don’t Take Your Love”, “There’ll Never Be Another You” and “Pennies From Heaven”.
Time magazine hailed her as another Billie Holiday, and there was even talk of her appearing in North America. Teldec offered her a contract that was ready for signature, proposing further collaborations, but after hesitating for some time she decided not to sign it. Her recording career proved to be a source of annoyance stretching over many years as she refused to let the industry reduce her to the role of a singer of hit singles. She took the companies to court and tried to recover her rights, but in the process she merely made it impossible to continue working in the record industry. She was, however, able to realize one final project: her only jazz LP, “It’s Alright With Me”.
“A difficult time began for me now. People acclaimed me and placed me on a pedestal from which I wasn’t allowed to move. And from then on I was under constant pressure to achieve. I was permanently afraid of not being able to meet other people’s expectations or else of being exploited. I had been a loner since childhood, and now I was suddenly being invited to parties and being shown off. I was struck by the mendaciousness of society, and I said what I thought of people, especially when I’d had too much to drink. That made me very unpopular with many people. They wanted to sort me out and take me in directions that weren’t at all to my liking, with the result that my reactions, of course, were sometimes completely perverse. Whenever I was no longer able to express myself, I simply started to shout and became violent, although I’d describe myself essentially as a gentle soul. I enjoyed some major artistic successes, but I was never successful financially. Anyone who wants to stay in the business must act as if they’re ‘in’. There were times when I simply didn’t know where I was going to find the money to pay the rent.”
During the years that followed, Inge Brandenburg found a second string to her bow by working as an actress in German theatres and on television. She appeared in anti-war plays such as George Tabori’s Pinkville but also performed in Macbeth at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin. In spite of this, her earlier success eluded her. Times had changed. Jukeboxes were driving live music from clubs, while rock and roll and beat music were tempting audiences away from jazz clubs into much large venues. Inge Brandenburg’s musical appearances in smaller halls and churches became increasingly infrequent, while unflattering headlines about fights, excessive drinking and other embarrassing incidents grew more numerous. A violent confrontation accompanied by a tirade of verbal abuse finally resulted in her being led away in handcuffs. The public prosecutor’s office demanded a psychiatric report from a medical expert.
In 1976 Inge Brandenburg appeared once again at the Fifteenth German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt. “Glory Hallelujah” was to be her final television appearance as a jazz singer. She then retired completely from the jazz scene. Her alcohol problems, lack of motivation and a complicated operation on her vocal cords accelerated her fall from social grace. She ended up on welfare benefits and used to walk her neighbours’ dogs in order to earn a little extra cash. By the end of her life she had overcome her alcoholism and bouts of depression and was again full of hope. During this time she would talk all night on the telephone to her few remaining friends and former colleagues:
“I’m sad when I see – God damn it! – that I still have all my abilities; they simply haven’t been properly used. I always had the feeling, damn it, that there was still a lot more in me, it just needed to be brought out, I can’t do it on my own. And that sometimes made me very sad, even a little embittered.”
In 1995 a clear-voiced and bright-eyed Inge Brandenburg made a comeback on the stage of the Bayerischer Hof in Munich, but only a few of her old fans turned up. In spite of the outstanding notices that she received, her desperate attempt to reenter the public arena was limited to a mere handful of appearances.
“The years go by, and a young slip of a girl springs up, and another one and another one. And she reaches the top. But now it no longer saddens me. I say to myself: let them be, just as they’ve come, so they’ll disappear again. And I have time to wait and to mature. I know for sure that the best years of my life are still in the future. No one can stop that from happening.”
On 23 February 1999, five days after her seventieth birthday, Inge Brandenburg died in a clinic in Schwabing. She was buried in a pauper’s grave. Only seven mourners attended the service.