Karel Hála & TOČR – Vopravdu sám (Sixteen Tons)
from SP “Patří ti velikej dík”, 1970, Supraphon 0430890
conducted by Josef Vobruba, produced by Zdeněk Borovec
Josef Laufer & the Bohuslav Myslík Orchestra – Šestnáct tun (Sixteen Tons)
from album “74”, 1974, Panton 110431
conducted by Zdeněk Marat, produced by Vítek Haderka
original generic Karel Hála 7 inch sleeve, original Josef Laufer album sleeve
You write a blog entry and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt! But also another double feature for you folks under the Cover Czech-In label: here are sixteen tons of Mr. Swing alias Karel Hála as well as yet another heavy load, Mr. Controversial, known as Josef Laufer. Both gentlemen are bringing to you the same song with different Czech lyrics, Sixteen Tons. The original tune dates back to 1946 when it was written and recorded by American country singer/hitmaker Merle Travis as a fake coal miner worker song. The ultimate version, however, belongs to Tennessee Ernie Ford. His cool and swinging rendition hit the U.S. charts in 1955 and seemingly became the most successful single ever released. (Check out ernieford.com/SixteenTons.htm for the whole story.)
Karel Hála (1933, no relation with Kamil and Vlastimil Hála of the JOČR fame) with his dark voice is one of the true veterans of Czechoslovak popular music. After he finished the Prague Conservatory in 1954 he began to work as a choir singer, from the Army Opera choir to the Karel Vlach Orchestra. In 1957 he was discovered by Karel Krautgartner who hired him as a soloist for his short-lived jazz combo. Since the late 1950s Hála toured with various dance orchestras again, this time as a bass player and later as a lead singer. His career finally began to take off in 1965 with his engagement in the Apollo Theatre (the one in Prague, of course) alongside Karel Gott and other Czech pop stars. But despite several hit songs and praises from the critics he had to wait until 1973 to finally record his first solo album called simply Swing. One reason for that might have been his progressive “skinhead” haircut – which supposedly was almost considered an opposite extreme to the long-haired freaks from the sixties’ beat scene. Another obstruction probably was his inconsistent repertoire: Hála had to sing a lot of Soviet “muzak” or schlagers, too, because singing too much jazz used to be considered too “imperialistic” by the responsible communist authorities. Nevertheless he recorded several good single sides for Supraphon in the sixties which are worth checking out, like Tak rychle jako čas, Růžová nálada or Budu hledat dál. Some are closer to jazz, others may even sound quite soulful.
Vopravdu sám (Definitely Alone) is sort of a hybrid of both genres, where a cool rhythm’n’blues double bass verse à la Fever alternates with a driving chorus accompanied by a powerful big band arrangement. However, except for the overall impression, not much has been left from the original Sixteen Tons tune, not even Jiří Štědroň’s lyrics hint at the origin. Their message is pure blues though. And that’s where Hála definitely feels at home. As such, this rendition might be one of the “blackest” versions ever recorded. The production doesn’t even sound much like “1970”, the TOČR/JOČR rhythm section still gives the song lots of the early 1960s feeling. The a-side of the single is an original blues/gospel ballad in 12/8, Patří ti velikej dík (A Big Thanks Belongs To You), with a wild Hammond organ and a strangely wicked rhythm guitar. Unfortunately, that otherwise interesting song flips to the cheese side of the universe as soon as a pathetically arranged choir drops in.
Hála has been still sporadically performing with various Czech big bands in the recent years. The original recording of Vopravdu sám is available on a “best of Karel Hála” CD compilation.
Josef Laufer was born 1939 in France to a Czech doctor and a Spanish nurse. The family spent the war in England and in 1947 they moved to Czechoslovakia. Laufer’s artistic path began as an actor during his military service and he finished the Theatre Academy in Prague in 1965. Being fluent in several languages, in the late 1960s he launched a promising international career as a pop singer when he toured and recorded in Western Europe and in the U.S. However, the Iron Curtain closed for him for some time after his brother emigrated in 1968.
Many of Laufer’s tracks from the sixties are close to “cheasy” listening or schlager, but he’s also featured on a couple of solid beat and R&B single sides with the Karel Duba combo. Then there’s the Panton album V roce 1969 (In The Year 1969). Unlike most of his other vinyl output at that time, the said LP was recorded with his live backing band Their Majesties. In my opinion it belongs to the best Czech beat albums of the decade; that said, keep in mind that there weren’t many Czechoslovak beat albums in the first place, thus take my statement with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it’s also worth checking out because of the beautiful sleeve, designed by Laufer’s wife Irena Greifová. (A blog post about this record is available on a Dutch site where you can look at the cover artwork and listen to its best song. You may want to ignore the article as such though, because the writer doesn’t seem to have much clue about the matter…)
Laufer belonged to the most popular Czech singers in the 1970s. But his star began to sink after 1976 when he recorded one of the most stupid pop songs in the history of mankind: Dopis Svobodné Evropě (A Letter to Radio Free Europe). It praises the Czech communist spy Cpt. Minařík who had been planning a terror attack on the Radio Free Europe building in Munich, West Germany. The lyrics are so full of communist propaganda and “anti-imperialistic” hatred that it makes you want to puke when you listen [external audio link] to it 30 years later. Today, out of context, one might want to believe that it was irony, but it wasn’t. Sorry, Mr. Laufer, all credit lost…
But let’s ignore it for now, because not all of Laufer’s 1970s’ records were all that bad, at least musically. Usually he was backed by a solid group which evolved from the original Their Majesties and eventually became known as Golem. Laufer’s Spanish origin manifested in several latino influenced tunes for example, some of them sung in Spanish. After all, he used to perform in Cuba quite often at that time. And during the disco era he was the logical choice for a Czech rendition of Boney M’s classic Daddy Cool alias Tak už jsem boty zul. In the 1990s Laufer launched a comeback as a singer and actor in various Czech musicals.
Besides 16 tun (Sixteen Tons), the album ’74 contains a bunch of other quite tasteful covers like Stephen Stills’ Ecology Song (Rád vás tu mám), a driving Les Humphries medley or a medley of traditional Czech folk songs in a surprisingly juicy arrangement. Some of Laufer/Myslík’s original compositions even come sort of funky. The orchestra line-up: Bohuslav Myslík (keys), ex-Atlantis Vladimír Grunt (dr), the last original Their Majesties member Ladislav Chvalkovský (b), Pavel Růžička (g) whom you already met as a half ORM, Jan Václavík (saxes), Radoslav Pobořil (tp), Jiří Doubrava (tb) and last but not least the background singers Vlasta Kahovcová, Jarmila Gerlová and Jana Löfflerová.