Hans Olson has been typecast as a bluesman in his 30 years on the Valley scene, and he wants everyone to know that's not his role. "A bluesman is a guy who lives the blues. I don't live the blues. It's just my favorite kind of music."
Despite the disclaimer, Olson's life story is replete with the kind of tragedy and struggles worthy of the most strident blues song. His father died when he was just 5 years old, and Olson lost his right eye that same year to a cousin's errant arrow. (Now, the sight in his left eye is deteriorating, and the right eye socket needs surgical repair.) One of his stepfathers was an alcoholic. The young Olson escaped the house by getting paying gigs when he was 13. He's had his own bouts with the bottle and has suffered through bad business deals and bankruptcy. He's played dangerous bars where he took to carrying a sidearm, and part of the reason he came to Phoenix in 1969 was to get away from biker-gang rivalries in his native San Bernardino, California.
Olson's voice -- equal parts whiskey and gravel -- is the perfect instrument to express the depths of universal suffering that his brand of blues captures so perfectly. Best known for working as a solo act, accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar, Olson has become an avatar of the Valley's music scene -- so much so that KZON, in a bid for instant local credibility, used his song "You Wish" to launch its programming in 1992.
Olson came to Arizona just as KDKB radio and concert promoter Dan Zelisko began to enjoy success by serving and building an audience for what was then "underground" music, and both played a part in Olson's success here. Filtering blues, rock, country and folk through his personal lens, Olson created a brand of music ideally suited to a scene just beginning to find its own identity.
"It was a magic time, I thought, to come here because California turned so negative," Olson says while puffing on an organically grown cigarette. "California had been so positive since back before the Beach Boys. Everything about California was light and beautiful, the center of the universe. Then Altamont and Charlie Manson changed that."
In 1969, Phoenix's music scene was in a state of transition. The city's top acts -- the Beans (soon to become the Tubes), Alice Cooper and Goose Creek Symphony -- had gone on to take their best shots at the pop charts in larger music centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco. The field was wide open for a young Turk. Unlike many new acts, Olson faced no problems playing his original tunes among a mix of covers. "I was playing biker bars, and they were just happy to get anybody who'd be brave enough to play there, so it didn't matter what you played," recalls Olson.
Sporting a patch over his right eye and a monocle on the other, he cut a curious and imposing figure in the conservative desert landscape. (Later, he dropped both in favor of sunglasses because he decided the look was too gimmicky.)
Olson built a strong following, his records got local airplay, and his third album, Hans Olson Sings the Blues, reached No. 3 on the local Tower Records sales chart, competing with the likes of Bob Dylan. He played such long-dead venues as the original Chuy's, the LP Club, Balcony Hall, Dooley's and Feyline Fields. He sold 1,400 tickets to his 1983 headlining gig at the Celebrity Theatre and opened for such visiting acts as the Allman Brothers, Muddy Waters and Peter Tosh. Olson would also go on to tour internationally with performers including Brownie McGhee and Michelle Shocked. He even mounted his own European tour in 1992 after a record release in France. A dedicated musical and political preservationist, Olson was instrumental in forming the Phoenix Blues Society, the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, and the Arizona Green Party.
In addition to performing, Olson worked behind the scenes producing shows, a sideline that led him to establishing the famed Sun Club in the late 1980s. The Sun Club, since torn down, was a sparkplug for the early Tempe music scene that spawned such acts as the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop. However, the venture ultimately bankrupted Olson.
When he first arrived in town, the building at 1001 East Eighth Street in Tempe (originally a way station for travelers back in the 19th century) was a bar known as The Library, which thrived on the business of ASU students. Olson played there early on ("It was my first big break"), and its owner even became his manager. By the late '80s, the club had become Freddy's Down the Road and had fallen on hard times. However, Olson saw the potential in the venue and thought it could be a success once again.
Coincidentally, Tom Levy, owner of the LP Club, which Olson describes as "the coolest club ever," had just lost his building. So Olson proposed a partnership to buy Freddy's -- he would be the production manager and put on the shows, if Levy, who had a liquor license and bar equipment, would bankroll the club and run the front office.
Soon after, the relationship collapsed, and Olson was on the hook because he had signed all the papers to buy the club. "I said, 'Well, I have no choice here but to make this thing roll and then sell it,'" Olson says. "It took a year and a half for me to get it worth what we paid for it, and then I sold it." However, the sale failed to retire the $48,000 debt he'd run up trying to improve the club. He could not afford the payments and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1989.
The Sun Club fiasco prompted Olson to opt for a new start in San Francisco, a city where he'd always done well during previous visits. Just before he left, though, a number of Valley clubs began booking him. Olson ended up commuting regularly from San Francisco to Phoenix, and many people never realized he'd moved. Olson says he hadn't planned to come back permanently. "I was determined to make it up there, and I was doing really well. And to do really well in a town like that is better than doing really well in a town like this."
Olson did return in 1990, because fellow Valley music veteran Andy Gonzales had lined up a deal to have Olson record a new album. By the time he moved back, the project had fallen through.
Even with the success he enjoyed throughout the '70s and '80s, Olson's periodic moves away from the Valley were motivated in part by career and financial considerations. Olson's one consistent gripe with Phoenix is that most of the city's club owners haven't kept up with the times. "They're paying the same money they were paying 20 years ago. It really is weird," says Olson. "Every other city I've been to, it's sort of kept up with inflation. They pay less here than any town I know.
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"I go up to Flagstaff and make three times the money I can make here. That's how I've made my living all this time. Going out of town on the weekends and making real money."
Another reason for Olson's big-city sojourns was his desire to gain a major record deal. Although his dreams of success have not completely faded, Olson says he's more content with his role as a local hero. "I gave up on the paper chase," he says. "Getting a record deal doesn't have the same appeal anymore."
Since marrying his wife, Gina, in 1991 and settling into a modest Scottsdale home, Olson is more inclined to simply enjoy the fact that he makes a good living doing what he loves. And whenever he really starts to feel the blues, Olson can usually comfort himself with the knowledge that, as he says, "In a few hours, I'll be playing music."
Hans Olson's 30th Anniversary party, featuring a host of performers and local personalities, is scheduled for Sunday, September 5, at the Arizona Roadhouse and Brewery in Tempe. Showtime is 7 p.m.