Musician István Bergendy and his Place in Hungarian pop Culture
Photo by Fortepan / Tamás Urbán
Oddly enough, the first Hungarian I knowingly ever met was a guy named Steve Bergendy, a popular bass player on Mallorca’s jazz scene. When my Hungarian partner saw him, she was surprised. “That’s István Bergendy’s son,” she told me.
At the time, I had no idea who István Bergendy was. I do now. He was perhaps Hungary’s best-loved popular musician, a clarinet player, band leader, songwriter and mentor to many of the country’s stars. It is claimed that his band was the longest-lived in Hungarian popular music.
Sadly, Bergendy passed away on December 14, 2020 aged 81, a victim of COVID-19.
To give you some idea of how fondly Bergendy is regarded by Hungarians of a certain age, a friend of mine in his mid-50s who left this country long ago told me Bergendy’s song “De Nehéz Az Iskolatáska”, roughly translated as “My Schoolbag is too Heavy,” is stuck in his brain forever.
I mentioned this to my partner and she immediately began singing the song. “Everyone knows that,” she said.
Long life in music
István Bergendy was born in 1939. He was taught classical music and learned to play accordion and clarinet. While at high school in Szolnok (11 km southeast of the capital, in the middle of the country), he fell in love with jazz.
In 1958 he founded the youth jazz ensemble of the Károly Marx University of Economics with his brother Péter who played tenor sax and flute. István gained a degree in clarinet from the Béla Bartók Conservatory, graduating in 1964.
From 1962, the Bergendy Ensemble was the permanent band at the Buda Youth Park playing jazz, Dixieland and traditional dance music. The band also accompanied many well-known Hungarian singers, including the great female singer Sarolta Zalatnay.
In 1964, Bergendy shifted styles to become part of the Hungarian beat boom and stayed with this until 1969 when he switched back to jazz. His place in the Hungarian heart was secured when, in 1970, his band performed on New Year’s Eve on the only TV channel at the time.
The last show before midnight ended three minutes early and the director told Bergendy to play something, anything. The band played “Always the Same,” which became a huge hit.
Throughout the 1970s, Bergendy and the band made a series of successful albums and singles, beginning with their second album, the eponymous “Bergendy,” regarded as among the best Hungarian albums ever.
The 1973 concept album “Monday” was the first ever Hungarian double album, and contains a song for every one of the 24 hours of Monday. As the 1970s progressed, Bergendy embraced jazz rock.
After 1977, István formed a band called New Bergendy which played everything from jazz to funk to pop. Around this time, he pioneered a tonsorial style that involved shaving the hair off one side of his face while sporting a full beard and hair on the other
The band also supplied the music for a number of children’s shows for Hungarian television. Of these, “Süsü the Dragon” was most popular and is still fondly remembered by my partner’s generation.
In 1982, Bergendy switched styles again with the Bergendy Salon Orchestra, returning to his pre-beat boom roots and throwing some Latin dance music and classical into the mix. The Bergendy Salon Orchestra was to continue through various lineup changes until 2017, making it the longest running Hungarian band ever, according to some.This longevity and Bergendy’s skill at picking musicians for his band will most likely be his legacy, according to László Kovács of Hungarian specialist reissue label Moiras Records.
“He was important both as a band leader and as a mentor. His taste in choosing music to play and musicians to work with was refined. Having such a long career, he had a huge and positive imprint on the music scene of Hungary,” Kovács says.
For me, Sarolta Zalatnay is the greatest of all the Hungarian singers who came of age in the 1960s. There’s a clip of her winning a TV talent show on YouTube (search for “Zalatnay Sarolta - Omega - Nem várok holnapig – 1967”) that I’ve watched over and over again.
“Nem Várok Holnapig,” the song’s title, translates as “I’m not Waiting Till Tomorrow.” Omega is the band backing Zalatnay, and went on to be the most successful rock band in Hungarian history.
Zalatnay is so popular she’s called out on stage to sing her song, a number with a Beatles-style guitar intro, three times. She’s taken aback by the audience’s response to her but overjoyed. Each time, her delivery becomes more powerful, her voice gets more of a rasp.
This voice sounded even more soulful after Zalatnay had vocal cord surgery, giving it a similar quality to that of Janis Joplin, who it’s said she saw in Europe in 1969.
On Bergendy’s passing, Zalatnay acknowledged him as her first real mentor, the man who encouraged her to enter the 1966 Hungarian Dance Festival TV show. She sang a song by Bergendy pianist Ede Edh.
Since then, Zalatnay has had a long career and is somewhat known in the West. Her cult 1973 album “Hadd Mondjam El” (“Let Me Tell You”) is a mix of psychedelic rock and jazz funk. Its intro was sampled by Portuguese star Gal Costa, making Zalatnay unknown in Portugal, but hugely popular.
I’ve yet to get my hands on Zalatnay’s autobiography “Nem Vagyok Én Apáca” (“I’m No Nun”). The friend of mine who told me about “My Schoolbag is too Heavy” says it’s rumored she had a fling with Jimi Hendrix while touring the United Kingdom in 1968/69. According to Wikipedia, she had a brief personal relationship with Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees on the same tour. It would appear “I’m No Nun” is a highly appropriate book title.
For the biographical detail of this article, I’m indebted to Zoltán Fehér’s superb account of Bergendy’s life at rockologia.blog.hu, the Chronicle of Hungarian Rock Music.
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 12, 2021.
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