Music Features

Arizona's Troubadour Hans Olson Reflects on 50 Years

Hans Olson
Hans Olson Benjamin Leatherman

Hans Olson's blues harp and no-nonsense gutbucket songwriting unquestionably have been a fixture of our local music scene a long time, but for half a century?

Yep, that's how long he's been performing professionally in Arizona. He's commemorating the milestone on Sunday, August 11, with a concert at the MIM Music Theater, sharing an already crowded anniversary year with the first moon landing and Woodstock.

"I had just moved here in August '69, I didn't plan on staying," Olson says at the top of our conversation at Echo Coffee, a java house on the corner of 68th Street and Thomas Road. This is the same corner where two weeks into his Arizona arrival from California, he got a job pumping gas. The same job site where he saw an AWOL Vietnam vet shoot himself dead in the heart with his Army rifle because his dad had turned him away.

The Earl Grey tea hasn't been sufficiently steeped, and we're wall to wall with amazing '60s anecdotes (he is planning on writing a tome about his life, so the Book Digest version is all you'll get here). He'd come here to escape a paternity suit and a crazy street gang thug who wanted to kill him, but the two incidents are unrelated.

"The gang guy just didn't like me because I was friendly with Hells Angels," he says. Olson later distanced himself from his friendship with the biker gang just before their poor display of crowd control at the notorious Altamont Free Concert in December. "When they punched out Marty Balin (of the Jefferson Airplane) at Altamont, I thought, 'I gotta pick a side. Are you a musician or a biker?'"

By his account, the night he arrived in Phoenix was pretty magical.

"It was 113 degrees and it was at midnight," he marvels. "Then I turned on the AM radio and I heard the long version of ‘Bluebird' by Buffalo Springfield. And I’d never heard it on the radio. I knew there was a long version, and when it came the point where it was supposed to stop, it kept going. That was so hip, and the next thing I heard was 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' by Isaac Hayes, the 18-minute version. It was KRUX Underground with 'Little Willie Sunshine.' That was Bill Compton, who did a free-form show from midnight to 4 AM.

"I auditioned for Compton because he was putting local guys on Friday afternoons at drive time. He actually did radio spots for it: 'Hans Olson, one hour of uninterrupted music.' And no one had ever even heard of me. The next week, no matter where I went they'd say, 'Oh, I heard of you.' That could never happen today because everyone was tuned into one station. It made me famous in a month."

Olson played the folk clubs, but also maintained a connection with the biker community here (the Dirty Dozen) once he started playing live gigs.

"I immediately went to the biker bars, and they would pay a lot more money because people were afraid to play there," he recalls. "But I wasn't."

Nor was he afraid of opening for big headliners like The Allman Brothers (22,000 people – his biggest audience), or glam rockers like Mott the Hoople (he got booed in the round at the Celebrity), or Dave Mason (whose patronage of booking an unknown like Olson to open instead of a struggling label mate got him dropped from Columbia Records).

And when Olson opened for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he impressed their manager, William E. McEuen, who produced and managed Steve Martin for most of his albums and early movies. That proved to be Olson's closest call. McEuen flew him out to Aspen, Colorado, to record a five-song demo. It got him a deal with Warner Brothers Records, a deal that petered out after Warner Brothers fired its president.

The resulting Aspen recordings are just part of the entire catalog Olson has licensed to Fervor Records, who specialize in song placement in television and movies.

"They only put me in two movies, but 40 TV shows," says Olson, who stopped touring 10 years ago. "I always heard you make more from movies, but I don’t think that’s true today. The first movie song was 'You Wish,' one of the Aspen recordings. Sonically, it blows my mind that sounds that good and they placed that in a movie, Freeheld, with Steve Carell and Julianne Moore. It's a story about a lesbian cop and she’s dying of cancer who wants her live-in girlfriend to get her benefits.

"I take my wife, go to the theater, watch the whole movie, and the song doesn't play, although I did get credit. And the other song, 'Something Bad,' is my least favorite thing I've ever done. It landed in Rock the Casbah with Bill Murray and Bruce Willis and sure enough, it's used early and extensively in the scene.

"If it weren't for Fervor, who place 50, 60 songs a month, I’d be out of music, looking for other work. There’s never been anything like this. They own the history of Arizona music."

So, you might say, does Olson.

Hans Olson: The 50th Anniversary Show. 3 p.m. Sunday, August 11, at MIM Music Theater, 4750 East Mayo Boulevard; are $29.50 via their website.
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic