Saturday 6 May 1989

FREDDY SUNDER (English version)

The following article is an overview of the career of Belgian guitarist, singer, arranger, and band leader Freddy Sunder (pseudonym of Fritz Sundermann). The main source of information is an interview with Mr Sundermann, conducted by Bas Tukker in July 2009. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Freddy Sunder’s Eurovision involvement (part 4).

Een Nederlandse versie van dit artikel is ook beschikbaar op deze website via deze link.

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2009 & 2023

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Freddy Sunder
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: June 4th, 1931, Antwerp (Belgium)
Died: August 5th, 2016, Antwerp (Belgium)
Nationality: Belgian


Conductor of the big band of Flemish broadcaster BRT between 1981 and 1991, Freddy Sunder was commissioned by his employer to lead the orchestra for Belgium’s Eurovision entries in 1983, 1987, and 1989, accompanying Pas De Deux in Munich, Liliane Saint-Pierre in Brussels, and Ingeborg in Lausanne. 


Fritz Sundermann, the future Freddy Sunder, was born in 1931 in the Antwerp working-class district of Seefhoek, the eldest of four children in a working-class family. There was no money for a radio; nevertheless, music was an integral part of Freddy’s childhood. “When I was four years old, I was already fascinated by music scores. Long before I learned how to decipher words, I could read music fluently. My father was a dock worker and I grew up in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Antwerp, but still I was surrounded by music every day. We often sat together to sing with the whole family. I had an uncle who appreciated my fledgling interest in music and invested all his free time in giving me guitar lessons.” As such, music quickly became an obsession, because, “Those black balls, I wanted to know everything about them, I dreamed about them as a four-year-old. If uncle couldn’t come, I would be crying.”

Although no guitar course was available at the time, Fritz still chose to go to Antwerp’s music school at the age of eight to study the violin, but then German forces invaded Belgium, which as Freddy put it, “really messed up my studies.” The music school closed its doors; he continued his studies at home as best he could, but the war left indelible scars in his heart and mind. “I lived at Stuivenbergplein in Antwerp; those flying bombs (German V-1s – BT)… I really lost a lot of friends. You’ll never get rid of it, of that war, if only because you were a child growing up in a big city, with not enough food being available and people starving as a result.”

Liberation followed in the autumn of 1944. This did not mean the end of economic poverty, but it did usher in a period of musical wealth which felt like a warm bath after the dreary occupation years. “Antwerp was a real music metropolis,” Freddy pointed out. “In every neighbourhood, you would find one pub after another with a jukebox, packed with records that sailors had brought with them from across the sea, often on orders from local pub owners. After the liberation, Antwerp became the Allies’ main transit port. Tanks and trucks arrived there. The streets were swarming with American soldiers looking for two things: fresh food and music. They mainly went dancing in Club 21. When they left in the early 1950s, they left behind a rich musical legacy. Many of my friends started working at fourteen, but my father (…) insisted that I get a degree in electronics; much against my will, of course, because my mind was set on just one thing; becoming a music professional.”

“As much as my father and mother loved music, they still thought it would be better if I did not become a musician. They sent me to technical school to learn to be an electrician. ‘Keep the music as a hobby,’ they said, ‘because, in the end, a professional musician is nothing but a pauper.’ How I ultimately obtained that electrician’s diploma is still a mystery to me, because the subject didn’t interest me in the slightest.”

The setting of Fritz ‘Freddy’ Sundermann's youth, war-affected Antwerp; in this photo – destruction caused by a German V-1 bomb at Tuinbouwstraat on October 26, 1944

“When I was fifteen, I went with my parents to the Magic Palace, a dance hall, where Leo Kiebooms’ orchestra was playing. Because mother knew I had a good voice, she encouraged me to ask if I could sing a song. Gathering my courage, I walked up to the stage and was given permission to stand up at the microphone. Kiebooms was impressed, but because I no longer played the guitar, he couldn’t offer me a place in his band. When I was sixteen, my father finally gave me a guitar. He bought it from a friend of his. I started practising chords from a book of South African songs by Bob Davidse like a madman. As soon as I had mastered the technique sufficiently, I started performing and singing with almost all the well-known dance orchestras in Antwerp.”

By now, Fritz had put an end to his violin studies. Instead, he was taking guitar lessons with Marcel Bossu in his hometown of Antwerp and also in Amsterdam with Dutchman Jan Blok. In the meantime, he was performing just about everywhere; as a singer and guitarist, he found employment with the bands of Bob Albert, Johnny Van Dyck, and ultimately also with Leo Kiebooms. He also performed as a singer with The Skyliners. Furthermore, the electrician student and two of his friends also earned some extra money as street musicians.

“I sang songs using a copper horn, Jos Baert took care of the percussion with a set of spoons, wearing a Russian hat; and François Meuten played the accordion. On Tuesdays, I skipped school to perform at fairs in villages around Antwerp; backwaters like Kapellen, Ekeren, Hoevenen. In order to collect the money the audience gave us in appreciation of our performance, I brought a brightly varnished coal shovel. Çois had a car ready in case the coppers showed up, because neither of us possessed a work permit. We were never caught, however; I suspect authorities turned a blind eye to us. I also sang with all kinds of big bands. After a late-night performance, I would go straight to school still wearing a tuxedo. Now it seems strange to go about that way, but you should bear in mind that I didn’t own a car – so I had to wait for the early-morning train or tram to take me back into the city. The only other option to arrive at school on time would have been to travel on horseback!”

Generally perceived as the best big band in Antwerp in those years, Jack Sels’ orchestra was founded in 1948. In 1950, Fritz was allowed to audition, but the evening seemed to end in disillusionment. “After two songs [Sels] told me dryly, ‘Young man, why don’t you go home and eat some sandwiches, study a little more, and come back in a year or so?’ I was pretty disappointed, but to my surprise that same Jack Sels showed up at my door at Stuivenbergplein a couple of days later. ‘Young man, why don't you join my orchestra?’ That's how Jack was. First he bashed you, but then he wanted you to come and learn from him! Jack was undoubtedly the father of modern Belgian jazz after the Second World War. A key figure if ever there was one. In addition – and not many people are aware of this – he was an excellent pedagogue. In the field of jazz music, he was one of my best teachers.”

After completing his two-year training as an electrician, Sundermann was employed by the City of Antwerp’s Public Assistance Commission – but not for very long, because he was called up for military service in 1950, having to stay with the Transmission Regiment in Filford (Vilvoorde in Dutch – BT) for two full years. During his military service, in 1952, a friend entered him for the preliminary rounds of a talent show for amateur singers. Although Fritz had not been asked if he agreed, he decided to take up the challenge and practised singing some popular songs of the day while accompanying himself on the guitar.

The ‘American’ star artist of the Ronnex label (1953)

“I won [that preliminary round] hands down. In the final, held in Brussels, I performed Frankie Lane’s ‘Jezebel’; and I was declared the winner there as well. [Record boss] Jacques Kluger, who had launched the career of Bobbejaan Schoepen and later also took Will Tura under his wing, said he was interested in signing me. In an audition, I sang ‘Lady Be Good’ by Ella Fitzgerald, but afterwards he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Boy, teach yourself to be a good musician and a good orchestral singer, because I can't do anything with you as a solo artist.’ That was a blow.”

A year later, in 1953, young Fritz was signed by another record company. “One day, in Antwerp, I happened to meet a famous drummer called Tony Dynamite. He was a man with an open eye to promising young musicians; and he invited me to join a jam session at Billard Palace. Well, that was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss out on! Unbeknownst to me, though, Albert and René Van Hoogten were in the audience. They ran the René record store [in Antwerp] and also had their own label, Ronnex Records. They came up to me, explaining that they wanted to record a single, but I frankly didn’t believe them. I didn't hear from them for a long time, until, one day, a man showed up at Stuivenbergplein asking passers-by about ‘that little bespectacled guy who was always sitting in front of his window playing the guitar.’ Everyone in the neighbourhood knew me, and that’s how this representative of the Van Hoogten brothers found me. The next day, on a Sunday morning, I was invited to the premises of Ronnex Records at Van Wesenbekestraat.”

“Albert Van Hoogten was waiting for me, together with trumpeter and arranger Charlie Knegtel, the label's house producer. Albert claimed he had a song for me which fitted me like a glove, a tune by Hank Williams called ‘Kaw-Liga’, which had been a hit in America for Champ Butler. Albert was really convinced of the quality of that song, because he had simply bought up all the singles that had been released in Belgium, so that my version wouldn’t have any competition. Pretty crazy, don’t you think? They let me hear that record, but I didn't like it one bit. ‘That song, never in my life,’ I said. Van Hoogten was livid and walked out of the room, leaving me behind with Knegtel. Now, Charlie was a friend, and we decided to get together again a few days later to see if we couldn’t turn the song into something we were happy with. I brought my guitar and we tried out a few things, improvising to the melody. The final version which was released was a combination of my vocal abilities at the time and my sheer stubbornness. It wasn’t real boogie-woogie, but I would say it was pretty close to it stylistically.”

“The recording session of ‘Kaw-Liga Boogie’ was a pretty complicated affair. It took place in the Olympia Studios in Brussels. I was in the same room with the session musicians and had to position myself behind a desk. All the music as well as my singing had to be recorded simultaneously. With all of those musicians behind me, I could hardly hear myself singing. Of course things kept going wrong. After all, the sound balance was determined by the distance between the microphones and the instruments. At one point we even moved the piano, because we couldn’t get the sound right. That’s how we went about things in those days!”

In spite of the difficulties encountered in the studio, ‘Kaw-Liga Boogie’ was a huge hit in Belgium. Before anyone had heard of Bill Haley or Elvis Presley, Fritz Sundermann was already singing what could be dubbed proto-rock-‘n’-roll... although even in his immediate circle hardly anyone knew that he was the singer of the chart success.

“The record company was adamant to make audiences believe that I was an American artist. Albert Van Hoogten then came up with the English-sounding stage name Freddy Sunder. ‘Not a word to anyone!’ said the producer. Soon I couldn't walk into a café in Antwerp without hearing my own records being played, without anyone knowing that Freddy Sunder was actually an ordinary Antwerp boy who went by the name Fritz Sundermann. In 1953, more successful songs were released, such as ‘Rio Rita Boogie’ and ‘Calling Car Boogie’. We recorded the intro to the latter song early on a Sunday morning in the streets of Antwerp’s city centre with a hell of a lot of noise going on behind us. At that time, there were no advanced recording techniques, so we had to take care of the sounds of car engines being started and blaring horns ourselves. You can imagine what pandemonium ensued.”

After about a year, and three successful 78 rpm records, the marketing trick of Ronnex Records came to light. It was inevitable, Freddy claims, “Oh, the secrecy was unsustainable. At the Sinksenfoor [the annual big fair] in Antwerp, where ‘Kaw Liga Boogie’ and ‘Calling Car Boogie’ were being played all the time, I finally revealed to people that I was the real Freddy Sunder. Initially, those around me had a good laugh, but when it came about that Freddy Sunder wasn’t an American, it was all over. From one day to the other, record sales plummeted.”

After that one strange year of 1953, in which he was even contractually obliged by his company to stop gigging in order to maintain the illusion of the American singer, Fritz Sundermann returned to relative anonymity – although the stage name stuck to him for the rest of his life. The sales figures of those three successful singles, together about a million copies, did not make him a rich man; all he got was about 12,000 Belgian francs, the rest of the proceeds were monopolised by the record company. Several new attempts were made by Freddy in the following years, including a ‘Kaw-Liga Rock’ in 1956, but none of those recordings even remotely matched the previous success. However, Freddy was not the man to sit around and give up. “Nothing could be done about it! And then I made a very wise decision. ‘Done with singing,’ I told myself, ‘but now I will make sure I become a very good musician’.”

Freddy in 1955

In the following years, Freddy Sunder played as a guitarist and singer with various ensembles, such as Al Van Dam’s orchestra, with which he accompanied the Flemish songstress La Esterella. In 1954, when Frank Sinatra did a one-off performance in Belgium, Sunder was one of the select group of musicians who provided the back-up. Subsequently, he toured West Germany with Walter Byr’s jazz group for the best part of a year. This was followed by a two-month tour with Flemish singers Maurice Dean and Anni Andersen in France, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Between 1954 and 1957, Sunder also gigged regularly with Willy Rockin’s renowned dance orchestra.

In those years, although his name was largely forgotten about, Sunder built up a reputation as one of Belgium’s best and most versatile freelance musicians. This was clearly demonstrated when he was invited to join Francis Bay’s radio big band as a vocalist at the 1957 Golden Gondola Festival in Venice. In Italy, the Belgian team had to leave first place to Dutch orchestra De Zaaiers with their conductor Jos Cleber, but, for Freddy Sunder personally, the festival heralded a career change. A few months later, he succeeded Gaston Nuyts as the guitarist in Bay’s orchestra.

“In Venice, I was one of the singers in a double vocal quartet, two men and two women,” Sunder explained. “Our repertoire was written by Bert Paige. While still in Belgium, we gave a performance in Middelkerke’s casino, which also was our rehearsal for the festival in Venice. Francis Bay was also present. (…) Afterwards, he asked me to play a couple of tunes on my guitar. A few other musicians were present as well. Bay was impressed by what he heard. ‘You can do everything, can’t you,’ he said, ‘you’ve played in big bands and you’ve been a singer.’ Then he added, ‘If I ever need a new guitarist, you’re my man’.”

“[A few months later], in late December 1957, I was in Roeselare for a singing gig. It was just past midnight and I was having an argument with the owner of the dance hall where I was performing, because he was adamant that I continue playing, even though the contract was only valid for that one day – and so I was within my rights to stop at midnight. He refused to pay an extra amount, so that was the end of the discussion for me. Anyway, right at that moment I was called to the phone. From the other end of the line, I heard, ‘Hello, am I speaking to Freddy Sunder? This is Francis Bay speaking. You will start with me next January 2 at 8.30 am in NIR Studio 1.’ Not a word more. He didn’t inquire if I was free. He didn’t wait for my response either, but simply hung up the phone and that was that.”

Freddy Sunder, Jo Leemans, and Francis Bay together on a promotional photo pressed by record company Philips (c. 1960)

“On January 2, I was at broadcasting house in Brussels for the first rehearsals. Francis put me on trial that day. Later, I was told he had the same habit with all new musicians. When I had taken my seat in the orchestra, with my score in front of me, Francis approached me and said, ‘Mr Sunder, can I call you Freddy? After all, we’re colleagues now, aren’t we? Please give me your guitar and I’ll show you how to play your part.’ Now you have to know that Francis was a brilliant musician who didn’t just play the trombone and was able to conduct an orchestra, but he was an adept clarinet player, guitarist, and vocalist as well. He played on my guitar, but his style was really old-fashioned – the way guitarists used to play before World War II. When he was done, I gave him the best possible answer – even Francis himself later admitted as much, ‘Mr Bay, can I call you Francis? After all, we’re colleagues now, aren’t we? Damn, Francis, please don’t tell me you want me to play cowboy guitar for you?’ In the following weeks and months, we developed an excellent working relationship!”

When asked why he gave up his career as a freelancer in jazz for a fixed job with a broadcast orchestra, Sunder replied, “At that point I had already left the well-trodden path of jazz music just a little bit; I felt I should somewhat broaden my scope. Meetings and conversations with jazz greats made me realise that such a life wasn’t for me. Alcohol, women, no real friends, being away from home all the time, and usually being very lonely.”

In his first year with Francis Bay and his orchestra, Sunder was given the opportunity to play in countless programmes staged in the context of the 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels, the Expo. “That was in Palace 10,” he recalled years later. “These shows were broadcast live on TV with all the technical problems which came with it. Yes, those were the days.” Bay demanded a high standard from his men and was not easily satisfied. Although Sunder had been a professional guitarist for years, he felt his playing level improved by leaps and bounds during this period, “That’s when I learned to play accurately and precisely.” Shortly after the Expo, the orchestra spent months in the old Decca studios in Brussels recording no fewer than 22 albums of instrumental music for the American market.

Conductor and guitarist never really became close, because, as Sunder stated, “[Francis] was not easy to get along with; his motto was, ‘I don’t have friends, I only have colleagues.’ No matter how brilliant he was as a musician, he often fell short as a human being. Soon after I joined the orchestra, Frans asked me to come up with an arrangement. Of course, he didn’t have time to write all the charts himself, so he regularly called on his musicians to take on some of the workload. The song he asked me to take care of was ‘Tua’ from the San Remo Festival [in 1959]. I put in a lot of effort, writing out the complete parts for all fifteen instruments. I waited anxiously for the next rehearsal. Francis sat down and let the orchestra play my arrangement… but almost immediately he put both hands over his ears and shouted at me, ‘This is bloody awful! Remove all the sheets from the desks immediately and bring them to me.’ He then tore them to shreds before my eyes. Only my fifth arrangement of the song was met with his approval! Well, these wouldn’t be my methods, but such things are sometimes part of the music business.”

Freddy Sunder (far left) with singer Jo Leemans, conductor Francis Bay (with baton) and two other musicians from the radio big band – saxophonist Benny Couroyer (far right) and possibly fellow saxophonist François Daneels (next to Freddy) (c. 1961)

“Every now and then he actually crossed the line; one time he walked into the rehearsal room in the morning and the first thing he said was, ‘I’m so glad she’s dead!’ ‘Who died, Frans?’, we asked in surprise. It turned out he was speaking about his mother... Francis was a very distant man who never consulted his musicians. I did this completely differently later (when Sunder became Bay's successor – BT). But I learned a lot from him and we had a good relationship.”

Proof that these were not just empty words can be found in a report about the orchestra in a Flemish magazine from 1961. In those years, Bay’s orchestra was also regularly invited to perform in Wallonia. One time, they were contracted to play in Leuze, but while the orchestra members drove to Leuze-en-Hainaut, Bay, who always preferred travelling alone, headed for the tiny village of Leuze in Namur. When the conversation came to this subject, Sunder, apparently in a teasing mood, said, “Something like that could happen to anyone”. “But sooner to stupid people than to others,” Francis Bay replied. So, as it turns out, there was room for a little joke now and again, even in an orchestra led by such a distant conductor.

Being an employee of national radio did not mean Freddy Sunder had to give up gigging altogether. On the contrary, his energy seemed to have no bounds in those years, as he accepted one freelance assignment after the other at times when he was not expected at NIR’s studios in Brussels. It was on one of those occasions that he met his wife Jeanine, accompanying a ballet performance as a musician at the Billiard Palace in Antwerp, in which she was one of the dancers. Sunder played in different bands and one-off ensembles with which he performed across Belgium.

He was also a sought-after session musician. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was one of the regular group of musicians who recorded singles with covers of international hits on the Expo label, which were sold in supermarkets. Most of the sessions for Expo were overseen by arranger Jacques Ysaye, better known by his pseudonym Jack Say. “For me he was a very good guitarist and also a very good singer,” Ysaye said. “For those Expo records, I always asked him as a singer if we had to do rock songs. He sang those better than anybody else. Freddy was a good friend. We were also on stage together regularly on the freelance circuit.”

Will Tura’s monster hit in Flanders in 1962, ‘Eenzaam zonder jou’, with the emblematic guitar parts taken care of by Freddy Sunder

Furthermore, some classic Belgian hits from the 60s would have sounded very differently without Freddy Sunder’s contribution. For example, he played the important guitar parts on Will Tura's hit ‘Eenzaam zonder jou’ (1962) and Adamo's ‘Sans toi mamie’ (1963). “I am particularly proud of that solo [for Will Tura],” Sunder said almost fifty years later. Another tune he was involved in was 'Kili Watch' by The Cousins. Once in the studio, it turned out that this teenage group did not have the required technical skills to play the piece themselves. Music publisher Jacques Kluger, who had purchased the song from an American company, then called on the help of Sunder and three other experienced studio musicians: Jo Van Wetter, Jo De Muynck, and René Goldstein. They were not told prior to the session what the recording was for. “That was none of our business!” Sunder later stated, laconically. Afterwards, the quartet was paid in cash and that was the end of the story for them. After The Cousins scored a big hit with this tune in Belgium and the Netherlands in 1960-61, the song was covered by Johnny Hallyday. His version reached number 1 in France.

In 1961, Freddy Sunder’s life momentarily came to a standstill. On the way from Antwerp to Brussels, he had a serious traffic accident. With a compressed chest and concussion, he was taken to hospital. “While driving, I had fallen asleep due to fatigue – in broad daylight! But believe it or not, three days later I was carried out of the hospital on a chair, completely covered in plaster, into a van, and taken to the studio, because there were recordings scheduled that couldn’t wait.” However incredible the anecdote may sound, conductor Francis Bay demanded full dedication of his men. Following the accident, Sunder decided to move his family from Antwerp to Filford, on the northern outskirts of Brussels. This allowed him to drastically reduce the number of kilometres on the road – at that time around 60,000 annually.

In the same year, 1961, Sunder formed his own jazz trio, The Clouds, in which he was joined by two colleagues from Bay’s big band, bass player Clement De Maeyer and drummer Armand Van de Walle. Bay was beside himself with anger, because he now had to go looking for replacement musicians for radio or TV shows regularly when the trio was not available due to some freelance gig. The Clouds also accompanied artists regularly for performances on BRT Television (the Flemish department of the NIR had been renamed BRT in 1960).

When asked about the foundation of The Clouds, Sunder later explained, “That actually brought me back to jazz. Although it should be pointed out that The Clouds didn’t have the exuberance which characterises part of jazz music. On the other hand, in addition to our recordings for BRT [with Francis Bay’s orchestra], we got to work with countless jazz giants and soloists. Elias Gistelinck, BRT’s jazz producer at the time, always thought of something. By the way, did you know that the very first version of Toots’ famous ‘Bluesette’ was performed in 1963 in Sopot, Poland, sung [by Toots himself] and with me providing the guitar accompaniment? The first session recording, on the other hand, was done at Decca Studios with Toots Thielemans on guitar and The Clouds as accompanists!”

Solo release by Freddy Sunder (1964)

In 1966, The Clouds released an album of Flemish folk songs, featuring the Bob Boon Singers. In a period of resurgent Flemish nationalism, the record was in great demand, but at the same time it seemed to usher in a break from the type of jazz music with which The Clouds had built up a reputation in previous years. Sunder, commenting, “The idea of incorporating Flemish folk music into our repertoire and improvising on it was given to us by Bob Boon, a popular BRT programmer and presenter at the time. Bob was the driving force behind the Bob Boon Singers and, in addition to being fond of jazz, he was a true promoter of Flemish folk. The Clouds were always a subtle trio, no sweat, no loud fuss. However, with those folk tunes we inevitably evolved into a kind of chamber music ensemble, which is what (…) many jazz fans held against us. I’ve already said it; our music developed into something which was a bit too tame – well-performed ballroom jazz.” In the years that followed, the Clouds project gradually petered out.

Thanks to his fame as one of the best guitarists in the country, Freddy Sunder was regularly commissioned to team up with American jazz soloists who came to Belgium for performances in the 1960s. He took to the stage with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald at Brussels’ Amerikaans Theater, while also sharing the stage with Wes Montgomery, Slide Hampton, and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. Moreover, internationally acclaimed entertainment music stars such as Peggy Lee, Gilbert Bécaud, Nathalie Cole, and Shirley Bassey had in common that they were all accompanied by Freddy Sunder at some point in their careers.

Internationally, Sunder worked with Toots Thielemans on countless occasions, performing at jazz festivals in Northern Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries. He was also invited by the French orchestra leader Caravelli to join him as a guitarist on four extensive tours in Japan, where the French orchestra leader enjoyed immense popularity. The last of these tours, which Sunder described in one word as “fantastic”, was in 1973.

In the meantime, a lot had changed at BRT’s music department. In the course of the 1960s, Paul Van Dessel, BRT’s Head of Television, managed to completely rearrange this system, according to insiders, mainly to thwart Francis Bay, with whom he got along badly. In 1963, Van Dessel merged Jef Verelst’s mainly classically oriented Omroeporkest and Francis Bay’s big band into the Variété- en Festivalorkest, a monster line-up of about eighty musicians, of which Fernand Terby became the chief conductor. For the time being, the big band was still maintained as a separate entity for certain programmes, but Bay himself was increasingly sidelined, while his musicians – including Freddy Sunder – played in grand radio concerts under Terby's baton with arrangements in Nelson Riddle’s style.

The freelance ensemble of Bruxellois multi-instrumentalist and arranger Jack Say (Jacques Ysaye); back row, from left - Gus Decock (piano), Frankie Theunen (drums), and a trumpet player (name unknown); front row, from left - Dany Bernard (vocals, bass), Jack Say (sax, clarinet, mouth organ), and Freddy Sunder (vocals, guitar) (c. 1966)

In 1965, when the French-language broadcasting service RTB disbanded Henri Segers’ big band, Van Dessel went one step further. He succeeded in luring the best musicians from this ensemble, many of them Flemish – including trombone player Frans Van Dyck – to a radio big band founded by him, the Jazzorkest, which was supplemented with players from Francis Bay’s orchestra. However, Van Dessel did not appoint Francis Bay as conductor of the new ensemble. “At the same time, the musicians from that new big band were also included in the Festivalorkest,” as BRT presenter and producer Jan Schoukens explains. “Their conductor was to be Etienne Verschueren, who was very jazz-minded and, to Van Dessel’s mind, more contemporary in his approach to music than Bay. This is how Paul Van Dessel managed to completely sideline Francis Bay from the radio service.”

In spite of all this, Bay remained a BRT employee; he was commissioned to gather a new group of musicians for an entertainment orchestra, which from now on would only be used for TV broadcasts only – and given the rather prosaic name BRT-Televisieorkest. It consisted of the remaining members of Henri Segers’ band, supplemented with freelancers such as pianist Paul Quintens. This heralded the end of the collaboration between Francis Bay and Freddy Sunder, as it goes without saying that Paul Van Dessel assigned Sunder to Etienne Verschueren’s new jazz formation. Over the years, Verschueren, originally a pianist and saxophonist, had developed into a composer and arranger of considerable reputation. He was a contemporary of Freddy Sunder. The two got along very well. Sunder looked back on his sixteen years with Verschueren (1965-81) – who he felt was a music genius – as the best period of his professional life.

“I owe everything to Etienne Verschueren with his indescribable musical talent,” he once stated, hyperbolically. “I consider myself his student.” Sunder continued feeling impressed by Verschueren's theoretical background, “People tend to forget that he is a fully trained musician. He studied at the music academy, but was excluded from the final exams just because he played jazz!”

Above all, Verschueren stimulated his guitarist’s curiosity with discourses about their profession. The two used to extend their talk deep into the night, while enjoying a cigarette and a drink. “Verschueren was a bad teacher, but I learned a lot from him,” Sunder once said, laughing. Then, when asked to explain this paradox, “He’s a great musician. This was the time when I wrote all my notes on beer cards, a stack of beer cards which was several metres high… that was Verschueren’s jazz course. He always taught his lessons in cafés. Musicians like hanging about in a pub or in hotel bars, you know; that’s part of our lives.”

Close-up, c. 1969

At home, Sunder kept his beer cards in a large folder, in which he also collected notes which he had written down in conversations with other jazz musicians from Belgium and abroad. His thirst for theoretical knowledge was insatiable. Finally, Sunder decided to return to school in 1967. Over the next few years, he perfected his musical knowledge by studying harmony with Hugo Michielsen, while also mastering jazz technique and arranging by means of a correspondence course at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. And there was more, because he also carved out the time to delve into serial music and avant-garde composition under the auspices of Belgian classical composer André Laporte and English musicians Leslie Bridgewater and John Scott.

There was no subject about which Sunder would speak with more passion than his music studies. Modestly, he spoke about himself as a self-made man, but after all those years of studying he was second to none in the field of music theory. “I also studied avant-garde music, because no genre should be left untouched. Mind you, I mainly work on jazz music, but at home I also like to listen to Debussy, Mahler, Bartok, Britten, because those timbres teach me so much and fascinate me endlessly (...). I have gone through the entire cycle: music structures follow a natural evolution and you shouldn’t skip a single stage. Without talking about it too much, I’m someone who has always studied in silence.”

For Sunder, there were plenty of opportunities to put the acquired knowledge into practice. In the recording studio, he evolved from being just a singer and guitarist into mainly working as an arranger and conductor in the second half of the 1960s, recording his arrangements for singers Jacques Raymond and Hugo Dellas. Later, in the 1970s, he also wrote orchestrations for the likes of Lize Marke and Jan Theys. Furthermore, as a member of the BRT Jazz Orchestra, he had the opportunity to try his hand at composing and arranging for radio and TV. In collaboration with Jean Evans, the pianist of Verschueren’s orchestra, Sunder composed the music to the TV film ‘Mijn geweten en ik’, while also becoming one of the main arrangers of the orchestras of Etienne Verschueren and – yes, even – Francis Bay. In the 1970s, the generous Verschueren also regularly ceded his place in front of the orchestra to Sunder, who thus had ample opportunity to gain experience as a conductor.

Looking back on his years with Etienne Verschueren's orchestra, Sunder explained that “[this was] mainly a time of lots of recording sessions at BRT’s studios. Almost every week, we were expected to record two 55-minute sessions of music for a Saturday evening show programme. Apart from that, we also performed in many concerts. With Verschueren, we went just about everywhere, even to the Soviet Union and Zaire. We mainly stuck to jazz repertoire, but not exclusively.” In addition to the travel destinations mentioned by Freddy Sunder himself, he followed the BRT Jazz Orchestra to other exotic countries, such as Tunisia and Senegal. Closer to home, as a member of the Verschueren band, Sunder was at the founding of the summer festival Jazz Middelheim in Antwerp, first held in 1969 at the instigation of BRT producer Elias Gistelinck. The BRT Jazz Orchestra was a regular contributor to the first editions of the festival.

Etienne Verschueren’s BRT Jazz Orchestra in the mid-1970s; standing, from left – Etienne Verschueren (bandleader), Nicolas ‘Nick’ Kletchkovsky (b), Paul Boudiaudhy (trb), M. Mereine (trb), Guy Dossche (sax, cl), José Paessens (sax, cl), Victor ‘Vic’ Ingeveldt (sax, cl), Eddy De Vos (sax, cl), Jeannot Morales (trp), Edmond Harnie (trp), Nicolas ‘Nic’ Fissette (trp), Frans Van Dyck (trb), and Freddy Sunder (guit) / seated, from left – Sadi Lallemand (vib), Armand Van de Walle (dr, perc), Bruno Castellucci (dr, perc), Tony Bauwens (p), and Bob Porter (fl, vib, Fender)

On three occasions, Freddy Sunder was involved representing Belgium in another jazz event, the international radio festival Nordring, which was held annually from 1973 to 1983 in late summer in a different country. In 1979, when the event took place in Dublin, he took part as an arranger and guitarist for BRT’s entry ‘Folkring’, sung by Louis Neefs and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra being conducted by Francis Bay. Two years later, in 1981, when the festival was held in Jersey, Channel Islands, Sunder had to dust off his singing skills as one of the vocalists of the Belgian entry ‘Just Listen… And Relax’, arranged by Willy Albimoor and performed with Etienne Verschueren as conductor and a true star cast of Belgian jazz soloists, including Bob Porter, Marc Mercini, and Sadi Lallemand. Finally, in 1983, when the last edition of the festival was staged in the Flemish coastal town of Blankenberghe, Sunder was back as the arranger of the home side’s contribution, a composition by Claude Lombard, ‘Claude cum laude’, interpreted by Lombard herself with Etienne Verschueren leading his own BRT Jazz Orchestra.”

Now in his forties, Freddy Sunder was also someone whom younger musicians were looking up to. One of them was Rony Brack, who worked as a copyist for the orchestras of Verschueren and Bay from the mid-1970s. At the time, Brack was an aspiring pop musician with, as he puts it himself, “little background in music theory”.

“At a certain point, Willy Heynen, who wrote a lot of arrangements for Etienne Verschueren’s BRT Jazz Orchestra and Francis Bay’s TV Orchestra, asked me to become his copyist,” Brack recallsThat was a generous offer, given that I had no experience in that field whatsoever. Willy sent me his arrangements, which I copied over to individual parts for each instrument. Mostly, I did this writing overnight – and in the morning, I dropped the parts off at Willy’s. Heynen got me in touch with Freddy Sunder, another experienced arranger for radio and television – and I started doing the same job for Freddy. Usually, when bringing them the parts, I stuck around for a bit. Willy and Freddy gave me lots of pointers… textbooks about harmony and tonal music, for example. I spent hours and hours with them, picking their brains about any given type of music. Both of them were seasoned musicians who knew their trade. Freddy Sunder was a very nice bloke. He liked his alcohol quite a bit… and so did I at that time. Sometimes, we spent hours and hours with a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes on the table, talking about music or life in general.”

“I continued working for Freddy and Willy for some three years. I was especially close with Freddy. I wouldn’t call myself his adopted son, but we saw each other a lot in those years. Whenever I had the opportunity, I called at his house – and he always took all the time in the world for me. Copying their arrangements never really progressed into writing arrangements for the BRT orchestras myself. All the same, though, Sunder and Heynen are among a variety of musicians from different corners of the industry who helped me obtain the information I needed to become an all-round music professional.”

With a guitar and a huge moustache (1970s)

Whereas Sunder got along wonderfully well with young musicians who were eager to learn, he couldn’t help feeling frustrated how some fellow music professionals had hardly studied any music theory at all. In this respect, he was mainly thinking of light-entertainment singers – with crooner Louis Neefs being one. Sunder, dwelling on this subject, “Musicians, professionals, cannot understand why the vast majority of our singers cannot read music. They shouldn’t be proficient, but would it tax them too much to study enough music in order to be able to read their own scores? Two years of evening courses, two hours a week, will enable you to decipher two keys… is that too much effort? Jo Leemans, Maurice Dean, Jacques Raymond can do it, why did Louis Neefs refuse? This inevitably leads to misunderstandings. If they sing their intro a little lower than expected, we all find ourselves in trouble.”

In the meantime, at the BRT Television Orchestra, Francis Bay was approaching the retirement age, although anyone bringing up the subject in the presence of the conductor was given hell by him personally. Nonetheless, in 1979, the BRT organised a practical exam with various candidate successors, but all the applicants failed the test. Following that, it was decided upon to grant Bay a one-year dispensation, taking the shape of a contract extension until the end of 1980. A new exam was organised in December of that year, for which Freddy Sunder also put forward his name. “It was a great opportunity for me, because I had just had a falling out with Etienne Verschueren and no longer wanted to work for him,” Sunder confessed in an interview years later.

Nine candidates presented themselves at this second exam, held at the BRT offices, with four of them four progressing to the final at the behest of a jury. Among the finalists were Freddy Sunder and a surprising name; Rob van der Linden, a Dutch pianist and arranger regularly working in Belgium in those years – moreover being the younger brother of Dolf van der Linden, chief conductor of the Metropole Orchestra in Hilversum for many years.

“The exam consisted of three parts,” Sunder later recalled. “For the first test, you had to write an arrangement of a given theme without a piano. For the second test, you were allowed to rehearse an arrangement for an hour and a half, upon which you had conduct it. You also had to conduct another piece on the spot, without any preparation. Then, one of the few times in my career, I was caught by stage fright. The third test consisted of a tape of fifteen different recordings, the assignment being to give as much information as possible to the jury committee in front of you.”

Freddy Sunder conducting the BRT Big Band (early 1980s)

Furthermore, the four remaining candidates were required to give a theoretical treatise on a theme of their choice. Freddy Sunder naturally picked the development of modern jazz as his subject. When all jury points were added together, Freddy Sunder turned out to have achieved the highest score: 92 out of 120 points. This earned him a contract as chief conductor of the TV orchestra, meanwhile renamed BRT Big Band, from January 1981.

For Francis Bay, the outcome of the exam, which he compiled himself at the request of the broadcasting authorities, was the worst imaginable. Not only did he undoubtedly cherish the hope that all candidates would be rejected by the jury again, in particular he wanted to prevent his being succeeded by Freddy Sunder at all costs. Initially, he had even included a provision in the exam that none of the candidates could be older than 48 years – as Sunder was 49 at the time. It was all in vain. Why Bay’s obsession with Sunder? Francis Bay’s son, Leo Bayezt, knows the answer. “My father knew that Freddy Sunder had the ambition to take over as conductor, but he felt that this should not happen. This was not because he had any criticism of his musical qualities, but he still resented him for having abandoned his orchestra to start his own combo (The Clouds – BT).”

Unwisely enough, BRT’s board of directors decided to organise a festive farewell in honour of Francis Bay. Apparently, they underestimated how hurt he really was. “At the reception organised by the BRT, he threw the cake on the floor,” Freddy Sunder recalled. “Then, he angrily left the building. He never spoke to anybody from that day onwards. It was so typical of him!”

Mildly put, this was not a cheerful start to Sunder’s chief conductorship. When asked shortly after taking office whether he would play a different repertoire with the orchestra than Bay, he modestly stated, “The repertoire is determined by a production team. The conductor has the right to refuse or change certain charts. I have to make sure the music is good and I obviously have my own ideas. We are committed to playing light-entertainment music, but I can now start putting my stamp on the timbre. We also have to accompany lots of singers and I will ensure that the orchestra plays a supportive role. Not too loud, just orchestrations that serve the singer. I may be a little more sensitive about that than Francis.”

Portrait photo taken from the programme booklet of the 1981 Nordring Radio Prize, held in St Helier, Jersey

Francis Bay had a personality of his own,” Freddy Sunder acknowledged to another interviewer. “I’m a little different and I will approach things differently. So there will be a new sound, a bit less bravura in the brass section, a little warmer, a more modern timbre that differs from that of the traditional big band which we have been used to for so long.” While Sunder was still being a little tight-lipped to this journalist, he was more outspoken a few years later about the shrill wind arrangements that had always been Francis Bay’s trademark, “Rewriting the existing scores in lower keys is the first thing I did with the BRT orchestra. All of them, lower! I don't like those virtuoso stratospheric situations in the trumpet section and elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is a trend, a bit of a disease. All those loud, super high notes are rarely necessary. Nowadays you have to be able to produce a super G as the fourth trumpet or you won’t find a job.”

As he declared when he took over the big band, Sunder started his assignment “with great courage and enthusiasm.” “For me, good human relations are of the utmost importance,” he claimed, making it clear that he would be a more approachable figure than Francis Bay had been. “I will always take into account initiatives from the musicians, giving them the opportunity to step up and play attractive solos.”

As it turned out soon, the goal he had set himself was a bit harder to achieve than he had imagined. He inherited from Francis Bay a technically excellent group of musicians, but this also was an ageing ensemble. Moreover, the work ethic in the orchestra was mediocre, although the conductor kept quiet about this at the time. In an interview in 2009, years after his departure from the BRT, he no longer had those inhibitions, “Some musicians who had worked under Francis for a long time had difficulty accepting the fact that I was now their chief. The broadcasting service suggested that I throw out the entire orchestra and put together a completely new group, but I didn’t have the heart to do so. That was the biggest stupidity of my life. I should have done it.”

The ‘reinforced’ BRT orchestra – i.e. the BRT Big Band with a string group – performing at the Knokke Cup, probably the 1984 edition

One of the important appointments in the big band’s agenda in the early 1980s was the so-called Knokke Cup, the revived version of the Knokke Song Festival, which had last taken place in 1973. Under the name Knokke Cup, the competition was held in 1980 and 1981, and then three more times between 1984 and 1986. In this international competition of song, Sunder’s big band, reinforced with a string group, accompanied artists from various European countries, often young and unknown – and, unlike vocalists of previous generations, usually inexperienced at working with a real orchestra. It was a tough job for the conductor, in part also because of the large amount of repertoire that had to be rehearsed.

“Working on the Knokke Cup is sheer folly,” Sunder exclaimed during the rehearsals of the 1984 event. “Each singer brings four songs and my musicians have to rehearse twelve pieces per team of three artists. For me as a conductor this means having to go through twenty times twelve music scores… per team that is. Since last year, I have happily given up my exclusivity as conductor. If some teams bring their own conductor, I don’t object. Not that I’m off to grab a pint in the meantime. No, even if my big band is put under the baton of someone else, I’ll keep a close watch. After all, these are my musicians. I have to watch over them. A bandleader must exert his authority. If I say ‘no!’, that is the last word. There is to be no laughing behind singers’ backs either – I would kill anyone who still dares to do so.”

Obviously, not all players in the orchestra were impressed by the standard of artists taking part in the competition. Apart from the Knokke Cup, the BRT Big Band was also called upon to provide to accompaniment to the Belgian Eurovision preliminaries in 1983, 1987, and 1989, as well as playing the accompanying music for many television programmes. In this respect, the numerous soundtracks for series, documentaries, and TV films penned by BRT resident composer Pieter Verlinden deserve special mention, as Freddy Sunder often arranged and conducted those works himself. While working with his own orchestra, Sunder also continued to carve out the time to write arrangements for the broadcaster’s radio jazz orchestra led by Etienne Verschueren; thankfully, after a short spell of estrangement, the old friendship between Verschueren and Sunder had been restored.

At a freelance gig (c. 1986)

In 1985, the big band exceptionally received permission from the BRT to record an LP, ‘She’s Got Style’, with surprisingly modern jazz and funk arrangements of old and new material. The title piece was composed by the youngest of Freddy’s two sons, who, like him, bears the name Fritz Sundermann and who, like his father, became a professional guitarist. Remarkably, Freddy Sunder himself recorded all the guitar parts for this special album, while sharing the arrangements with Gyuri Spies, Ghislain Slingeneyer, and Peter Laine.

Sunder thoroughly enjoyed working on this LP and other jazz projects. There was most certainly more than doom and gloom to his spell as chief conductor of the big band. In 1986, he told a journalist, “With the big band, the real work is done in rehearsals. As a conductor, you see all those music notes passing in front of your eyes, with the assignment being to turn them into real music. In terms of music, you’re constantly witnessing new births, which is a great feeling. While being on stage with the band, I often find myself listening to my own big band and enjoying the music greatly. As a result, I sometimes forget to conduct. I’ve already made a mistake or two, but the musicians always know what to do. In such cases, they could derail the performance just to make me feel that I screwed up, but they’ll never do that. There is mutual trust.”

In the meantime, however, the big band work was rapidly drying up as audiences’ music tastes were changing. Generally speaking, the younger public tuning in to television or radio were no longer interested in popular music with orchestral accompaniment. For that reason, programme makers increasingly ignored the orchestra. One of the few exceptions was a TV production called Mona Lisa, in which the ensemble, reinforced by strings and a vocal quartet, performed evergreens.

On stage with the BRT Big Band (c. 1987)

“Now there we finally had a TV programme in which the big band took centre-stage,” Sunder told a journalist some time after the programme had ended. “But its existence was short. A member of BRT’s board lied straight-faced to me when he told me that Mona Lisa only drew an audience of 50,000 viewers. We now know from viewing figures that there were 500,000, which isn’t bad, is it? There is still an audience for big band music, but too often the genre is dismissed as somewhat old-fashioned. I can understand that it does not really appeal to the very youngest. But radio should realise that there are also listeners other than just the fifteen to thirty-year-olds.”

Sadly, Sunder’s colleague from the Jazz Orchestra, Etienne Verschueren, had to give up working in 1987 due to serious back problems. As a temporary solution, one of the musicians of the radio orchestra, flautist and keyboardist Bob Porter, was appointed as his successor; however, one year later, when a large number of musicians from the Jazz Orchestra as well as the Big Band reached retirement age simultaneously, the BRT management – in the process of bringing about a major budget cut – turned a necessity into a virtue by having the remaining players of the Jazz Orchestra, including vibraphonist Sadi Lallemand and saxophonist Guy Dossche, join Sunder’s orchestra. The immediate consequence was a souring of relations between Sunder and Bob Porter, who lost his job as the Jazz Orchestra was abolished. Tragically, the rift between the two men, both consummate professionals, would never be healed.

In practice, the decision to merge both orchestras presented Sunder with immediate problems, because he now found himself with an unusual formation of twenty musicians. In the press, he wisely kept a low profile, “I am happy that we can implement the reorganisation without having to lay off any musicians with a fixed contract. However, it is a pity that the temporary guys, the replacement musicians, are left without work now. Personally, I will now have to figure out how to work with a double rhythm section. Musically speaking, with this enlarged big band we’ll also have to go looking for a new sound.”

Rehearsing with the BRT Big Band and singer Will Tura (1987)

To solve the problem of the surplus of rhythm players, a group of musicians was temporarily detached from the orchestra, the so-called BRT Combo led by pianist Tony Bauwens. In spite of this, the chemistry in this new-style big band was never really found, mostly due to the unprecedented set-up. “This led to crazy situations,” Sunder later recalled. “There I was with seven saxophonists! There was no way to deal with the situation properly. At some point, I received an offer from the Ghent Conservatoire, where I had already been working for several years. They wanted to appoint me as full professor. Perhaps, the management in Ghent knew about the unpleasant situation in my orchestra, but I didn’t want to abandon my big band. I regretted that decision later on.”

Having made attempts to improve the work ethic of his musicians in the months and years after taking office, Sunder had long given up doing so by the end of the 1980s. This led to peculiar situations, as is demonstrated by an anecdote as remembered by Stef Bos, composer of the winning entry in the 1989 Belgian Eurovision pre-selection. Bos, 27 years old at the time, recalls how a rehearsal was suddenly interrupted. “In the middle of playing our song, the orchestra rose as one man to have the break to which they were entitled. All of this had been negotiated on their behalf by the trade unions – and they stuck to it with a painstaking precision, really to the minute. That was what working at the BRT was like at the time. At that point, the whole herd started moving. On the one hand, it was a fun moment, but I was astonished at the same time. I was an idealistic youngster and I had never seen anything like it. Freddy couldn’t do anything about it, because he had certainly sprung from a different well than the majority of his musicians.”

In the summer of 1990, dark clouds gathered over Sunder and his men. In a new wave of cutbacks, the BRT’s management curtly took the decision to disband the big band by sacking all of its musicians. Because one of the unions intervened, an immediate dismissal was averted. Cas Goossens, Administrator General of the broadcasting service, agreed to the unions’ demand to draw up a white paper about the big band. This meant that the final decision was postponed by one month.

Focusing on the amplification of his guitar (c. 1988)

With the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, the conductor went looking for media attention. “In a media company with 2,000 employees, there should be room for a group of twenty musicians. If that is no longer possible… poor Flanders,” he told a journalist. When it was then put to him that the perception of many was that the orchestra members were handsomely paid while hardly ever being heard on radio or TV anymore, he reacted strongly. “The BRT does not use its big band properly. The best way to ‘prove’ the superfluousness of this orchestra is by depriving it of all its broadcasts. That is what has happened here in recent years. Anyone citing a loss of quality for our so-called redundancy does not know anything about music. Take it from me. Do you know when a loss of quality occurs? By working with makeshift orchestras, consisting of musicians called upon whenever the need is there. A freelance orchestra, you know what I mean? If that happens, there is of course a good chance that you will see former BRT Big Band musicians appearing on your screen again, but rest assured… the artistic level will never be the same.”

His efforts notwithstanding, the final word in September 1990 was as clear as it was disappointing – the orchestra would be disbanded; the only concession made by the broadcaster’s management was to delay the collective dismissal until the spring of 1991. In the intervening months, the orchestra continued rehearsing, but was hardly ever called upon to work on programmes. BRT authorities were even as petty as not to allow the orchestra and its conductor to leave with dignity, denying it a farewell show of some sort.

During this surreal period, a magazine reporter paid a visit to the orchestra in their rehearsal rooms at the broadcasting service in Brussels. When asked, conductor Sunder poured praise on his men for their continued commitment. “Of course you become despondent,” he acknowledged, “but once we get to work, we give it everything we have, forgetting about the situation we find ourselves in. I think it’s a shame for the talented young musicians who cherished the ambition to find a job with the big band. They were given the opportunity to learn their trade here in fairly benign conditions. Let me put it bluntly; in-house talent is blatantly being ignored here. These days, I often listen to recordings commissioned by BRT being played by freelance musicians at commercial studios – and the results are frankly much worse than what we would have made of it. It’s a disgrace.”

Immersed in a music score (1989)

After leaving the BRT, Freddy Sunder continued his work at the Ghent Conservatoire until his retirement in 1994. At that point, he had been teaching his self-written jazz arranging course at this music academy for fifteen years. In those years, he trained a new generation of jazz musicians, including the likes of Robert Verhelst and Peter Verhaeghen. In the early 1980s, he also became one of the founders of the short-lived Antwerp Big Band & Jazz Academy. During his years as a pedagogue, Freddy Sunder developed a true passion for teaching.

“In terms of jazz education, Belgium is still in its infancy,” he claimed in 1989. “Despite favourable conditions, opportunities to educate yourself in the subject are limited. Listen, music is a language and every language has a vocabulary of its own; and in this country, there is a lack of people able to express themselves in the jazz vocabulary. We are doing something about that! (…) Teaching is hard work. Financially speaking, the rewards are meagre, but it’s a job which gives great satisfaction. There comes a time in your life when you have to pass on the knowledge you have acquired.”

After retiring, Freddy Sunder occasionally performed as a guitarist in jazz clubs, especially in his beloved Antwerp; either solo or with a combo. In his free hours, he now devoted himself to his great hobby, reading books about the two world wars. Occasionally, at the request of his son Fritz, he also showed his face in the recording studio again, as he told in 2009. “[I am] regularly called upon by my son, who is a record producer and wonderful guitarist in his own right, to come and play the guitar parts for his studio recordings. Once it gets a little jazzy, he prefers me to take over from him. He only asks me when things get tough, you see!”

Around the time of his retirement in 1994

In 1997, Freddy Sunder was asked if he was interested in taking over the baton of a big band of amateur musicians from the Rijkevorsel region, in the north of the province of Antwerp. The band, which was founded one year previously, was left without a musical director. Sunder did not immediately jump at the opportunity, as he later admitted. “After my experiences at the BRT, I had promised myself never to lead an orchestra again in my life. But I decided to visit one of their rehearsals... and that made me change my mind immediately. They are a great bunch! Over the years, I have worked very hard on improving the sound of the band. The musicians accept that I treat them as professionals. Of course I am a bit more patient with them than with real professionals, that goes without saying. We perform irregularly, about five times a year. We play what our audience wants to hear; mainly repertoire from the American Songbook. It’s a wonderful feeling to enter the rehearsal room and see my boys sitting there... it’s unbelievable how much satisfaction I get from working with them.”

Partly thanks to Sunder’s reputation and his connections in the music world, many well-known artists accepted an invitation to perform with the Freddy Sunder Big Band, as the ensemble was renamed. Raymond van het Groenewoud, Connie Neefs, Gunther Neefs, and Freddy Bierset were among the singing soloists sharing the stage with the orchestra.

To the surprise of many, Freddy Sunder returned to the world of theatre as a guitarist-accompanist in 2005 after an absence of many years. He was one of two musicians accompanying actress Ann Nelissen on her theatre tour dedicated to the menopause, provocatively entitled Fuck You. For a man of Freddy’s age, it was quite a task to have to perform night after night. It required discipline, but performing also gave him satisfaction, as he explained. “Together we did 180 concerts. The bass player and I gradually turned an actress who couldn’t sing into a capable singer. Every night we adjusted some chords so that it harmonised better with her voice. It kept getting better as we went along. I look back on that collaboration with great pleasure.”

An emotional Freddy Sunder at the surprise concert on the occasion of his 75th birthday, listening to Toots Thielemans playing the mouth organ (2006)

Among the songs performed by Nelissen under the guidance of Sunder are sixties hits ‘As Tears Go By’ and ‘My Generation’. The piece, directed by Peter Perceval, was a theatre hit. After the tour, Ann Nelissen spoke enthusiastically about her collaboration with Freddy Sunder. “Fred is music. Fred is also a father and grandfather, but ultimately Fred, as short as he is, is all about music. And what has particularly charmed me over the past two years is that a man of his calibre, a great music connoisseur, continues to learn in spite of his 75 years. He’s just a great guy.”

Although Sunder himself had enjoyed the theatre adventure immensely, he also knew that he wouldn’t want to do something similar again. Over time, old age started to play tricks on him. “You lose the speed of mind to do an improvisation, the physical difficulty to stay upright, because you have to remember; a musician doesn't work. A musician plays! But besides playing, musicians have to work – and by that I mean travelling from A to B, doing a concert and getting back home. That is what work looks like for us… and you can’t help but feel that the energy taken up by all of that is too much to put up with physically.” About that same subject, he candidly admitted in 2009, “I am 78 now and my health leaves something to be desired. There comes a time when you’re at the end of your career. I have a hard time having to come to terms with that, because musicians don’t retire. They keep going. As a musician, I have worked at a high level for decades and it is difficult to say goodbye to that.”

Fortunately, he still had his Freddy Sunder Big Band. In 2006, the orchestra played a surprise concert for its conductor on the occasion of his 75th birthday. In Antwerp’s Cultuurcentrum Luchtbal, Jo Leemans and Toots Thielemans were among the artists performing with the band to honour Sunder. Antwerp’s mayor Patrick Janssens also showed up, taking Sunder with him to the city hall later that same day to allow him to sign the Golden Book of the City of Antwerp. BRT’s TV cameras were there to record the occasion. When asked by a reporter what music meant to him, he answered without any hesitation, “My whole life… sometimes to the detriment of my wife and children, and that is my one and only regret.”

Singing one of his 1950s hits at his 80th birthday concert with the Freddy Sunder Big Band (2011)

Ultimately, Sunder remained at the helm of the big band until his 80th birthday in 2011, when he was honoured with a second surprise concert. After his departure and the appointment of Erik Buyle as his successor, the musicians insisted on leaving the name of their orchestra unchanged as a token of appreciation for their former musical director.

By that time, Freddy Sunder had also cut short his performances in jazz clubs in Antwerp, doing so at the insistence of his wife Jeanine, as son Fritz told. “My mother wasn’t the kind of person to mince her words. It wasn’t that bad, but of course she was used to him playing better. We were all used to him playing better, but for someone aged eighty I thought he was still rather good, but one day she told my father very bluntly, ‘It’s time for you to stop, little boy, because if you can’t do any better than that…’ He decided to heed her words, saying simply, ‘Enough is enough’.”

The Sundermanns spent their twilight years on the tenth floor of an apartment building in the Antwerp suburb of Deurne, with a beautiful view of Antwerp’s Sportpaleis and the contours of the city centre. In the summer of 2016, Fritz Sundermann-Freddy Sunder passed away, just under a year after his wife Jeanine, at the age of 85.


During his spell as chief of the BRT Big Band (1981-91), Freddy Sunder was involved as the musical director of the preliminary round organised by the Flemish broadcaster and conductor of the Belgian Eurovision entry on three occasions. However, at an earlier stage of his career he had already taken part in the competition as a singer and songwriter.

In 1963, when Sunder was the guitarist of Francis Bay’s Radio Big Band, he performed five songs in the preliminary rounds of Canzonissima, as the Belgian Eurovision heats were called that year. He composed one of those titles himself, ‘Ontrouw’, with the lyrics being penned by François Vermetten. However, none of these five songs reached the final, which was ultimately won by Jacques Raymond.

As a composer of songs for other artists, Sunder was equally unsuccessful. Of the three pieces written by him which participated in the Canzonissima semi-finals in 1967, none reached the final – not even ‘Alleen met z’n twee’, performed by Louis Neefs who later also did a studio recording of the song. Sunder’s last Eurovision attempt as a songwriter, ‘A Song Is Born’, performed by Nicole Josy & Hugo Sigal in 1971, was also eliminated in the preliminaries.

Sunder succeeded Francis Bay as the chief conductor of the BRT Big Band, the television orchestra of the Flemish broadcaster, in January 1981. A newspaper article reporting the news speculated, “His baptism of fire as the new chief of the big band could be the upcoming Eurovision heats, in which the Belgian entry for Dublin will be chosen, but that has not yet been determined.” It would not have come as a surprise, given that Francis Bay and his big band were involved in the biennial Flemish preliminary round almost without fail. Possibly, however, the preparations for the 1981 edition of Eurosong, as BRT’s final for the Eurovision Song Contest had meanwhile been renamed, were already at too advanced a stage, because there was no orchestra to be found at the three semi-finals or the final, all held at Brussels’ Amerikaans Theater.

Because Sunder had not been involved in the pre-selection in any way, he was not considered when a conductor had to be chosen for the song winning the selection, ‘Samson’, performed by Emly Starr. Instead of Sunder, the song’s co-composer and arranger, Pino Marchese, took to the stage as Belgium’s conductor at the 1981 contest in Dublin.

All participants in the 1983 Eurosong final – Wim De Craense, Yvette Ravell, Sofie Verbruggen, Venus, Marina Marcia, Espresso, Bart Kaëll, Pas De Deux, and Gene Summer

Two years later, in 1983, Sunder and his BRT Big Band were present in what would arguably turn into the most controversial Flemish festival heat ever. In the pre-selection, nine acts competed for the ticket to the international final in Munich. Audience favourites such as Wim De Craene, Sofie Verbruggen, and Bart Kaëll were ignored, because the expert jury almost unanimously awarded the maximum points to an experimental group from Louvain, Pas De Deux, consisting of composer Walter Verdin and two very young singers, Dett Peyskens and Hilde Van Roy. They performed ‘Rendez-vous’, a highly unusual tune – especially in the context of the Eurovision Song Contest. The lyrics consisted of just one line, which was repeated over and over (‘Rendez-vous, maar de maat is vol en mijn kop is toe’, or – as translated in the English version of the song, ‘Rendez-vous, better give it up, I don’t have a clue’), alternated with recurrent instrumental breaks in which a special role was reserved for trombones in the orchestra.

The group’s win was all the more remarkable because Pas De Deux had only been asked to take part in the festival at the very last minute, composer Walter Verdin reveals. “Around that time, our group had only existed for a year or so. We hadn’t yet received much airplay in Belgium. That’s why I dropped by at the BRT, where they knew me because I had had a hit as a solo artist a couple of years before. At the broadcasting offices, I showed a clip of one of our songs to Ward Bogaert. He was Head of Light Music at the time. After watching that clip, he brought up the subject of Eurosong. ‘Wouldn’t you feel like participating with those two girls? That would look good on TV.’ I suspect he fell for Dett and Hilde. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, because this was excellent promotion for our group; an opportunity to show our face on television, but I never imagined that we would win, being up against the likes of Wim De Craene and Sofie.”

“Each participating act was supposed to submit three songs,” Verdin continues. “We already had two pieces which were ready to be released – and I quickly wrote the third in one evening, the day before we had to hand it in at the BRT. That last song was ‘Rendez-vous’. I played the demo on a cheap synthesiser, a Casio. When we got to play it with Freddy Sunder’s big band, I added a horn arrangement. I’m not a trained musician, but my older brother Joris is. He gave me technical advice on how best to write those wind chords. Writing a trombone arrangement to this song was an idea which came to me out of the blue, something I had never even consciously thought about. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to have those trombones play the instrumental parts.”

Walter Verdin also remembers that the musicians of the BRT Big Band initially refused to play his song, “They had been complaining to Rudi Sillen, the director of the programme. With Freddy, Rudi then had to convince them that they should not look at it as traditional big band repertoire, but more in the line of contemporary minimalist music.”

When asked about the matter, director Rudi Sillen confirms Verdin’s story. “While preparing the show, Freddy told me that his musicians did not want to play ‘Rendez-vous’. In collusion with the producer, I made it clear to him that this was unacceptable. Then I decided to approach some musicians myself, whom I already knew from other programmes we had been working on together. They felt they were made a laughing stock, explaining that this was music that was below their level. We pointed out to them that wind patterns of the type heard in ‘Rendez-vous’ could also be found in jazz and classical music. After the broadcast and Pas De Deux’s win, they reluctantly admitted that it could be looked at as music which was somehow refreshing as well. All of this happened against the background of a situation in which more and more questions were being asked within the broadcasting company about the orchestra’s viability. Freddy had of course been a guitarist with Fernand Terby and in other orchestras; and, after he had taken over the conductorship of the big band, the musicians regularly made him feel that they didn’t accept his authority just like that. Their protest at this pre-selection show should also be seen in that light.”

Pas De Deux in 1983 – songwriter Walter Verdin flanked by Hilde Van Roy (left) and Dett Peyskens

The jury results hit the concert venue like a bombshell. Pas De Deux's win was booed by the audience. How could the win have gone to the big outsiders in the field? When asked, Freddy Sunder recalled in an interview in 2009 that the jury had received a piece of voting advice prior to the show. “I heard from the corridors that the broadcasting service had been so wise as to pass on all selected songs to Sabam, the Belgian association of composers, authors, and music publishers. They assessed all of them – and in that process, they found that Sofie’s song, which was the jury’s favourite, had too many similarities with an existing song title. Sabam then advised the BRT not to pick Sofie; the risk of a plagiarism charge was looming large. Then, the choice fell on Pas De Deux with ‘Rendez-vous’. The jurors wanted to go for something original; something that fell outside the pattern of an ordinary Eurovision song.”

“I never heard anything about that story,” says a surprised Walter Verdin. “I also have my doubts if it is true, but it could be a rumour that went around at the BRT at the time. It is certainly true, though, that Sofie’s song sounded a lot like ‘You Can't Hurry Love’ by Phil Collins. Yes, it was plagiarism. I do know something else about that jury vote; Sofie’s manager, Rik Vervecken, came down to the theatre with his car full of bottles of champagne for the jury. Besides Sofie, he had one or two more irons in the fire that evening, and he wanted to make sure that the jury would choose one of his artists. When he offered them the champagne, jury members were so offended that they made sure that none of Vervecken’s artists would win. He and his entourage were astonished when the vote came in. Fred Bekky, who had written Sofie’s song, was extremely angry with me. Incredible really! Actually, the most gracious of all other participants was Wim De Craene. He came over for a chat and congratulated us. A very nice guy.”

After the dust of the tumultuous preliminary round had settled, the decision was taken to adjust the score of ‘Rendez-vous’ for the international final in Munich, with strings being added to the arrangement. Freddy Sunder remembers it as follows, “At the request of the director of the BRT, I wrote a string arrangement for the song at the very last minute before we left for the international final in Munich. During the preliminary round in Belgium it was played in Walter Verdin’s version: that is, with just wind instruments. However, we did not want the string players of the German festival orchestra to be shown on camera sitting on their hands; that would have been a missed opportunity.”

Confronted with Freddy Sunder’s recollections, Walter Verdin explains that the adjustment of the arrangement was actually approached somewhat differently. “We probably had a conversation with Freddy after the preliminary round about expanding the score, but the strings of the version that were played in Munich weren’t written by Freddy, but by my brother Joris. I don’t blame Freddy at all for telling you that. As the years go by, your memory starts playing games on you – I notice the same happening to myself. As it is, Freddy ultimately made a small contribution to the orchestration. Once in Munich, he invited me to his hotel room. He opened the door dressed in blue-striped pyjamas. Seated at a little table, we went over the score together. Freddy suggested doubling the concert flute included on the backing track with a piccolo flute in the German orchestra. That was a good idea, which I immediately agreed to.”

Freddy Sunder sporting the bowler hat which he wasn’t allowed to wear at the international final in Munich 

In an interview he gave just before leaving for West Germany, Sunder revealed he planned to wear a bowler hat while conducting the orchestra in the international final. “For years, I had been looking for such a hat, until one of my musicians told me that his parents once had a hat factory where such hats were made. As it happened, he had eight old bowler hats left from this factory, of which I got one. I really like that hat. I absolutely love it. And because I am so proud of it, I will wear it in Munich. What’s more, it perfectly matches my black tuxedo, the same one I wore at the pre-selection in Brussels.”

Together with the other members of the Belgian delegation, Freddy Sunder travelled to the Eurovision Song Contest in Munich by train. The festival was held at the Rudi Sedlmeyer Hall in the centre of the Bavarian capital. When we asked Sunder what he remembered about his stay in Munich, he didn't have to think long. “Well, the draconian security measures. You have to remember that this was a time when Germany was living in the grip of fear of far-left terrorist groups. All week long, armed police stood a mile from the sports stadium where the festival took place, barring everyone who came close. That year they worked with accreditation passes in different colours. The colour of your accreditation told them whether you were allowed through or not at any given moment. As it happened, I had just agreed to do an interview with BRT radio in the hall, but these officers explained that I didn’t have the right colour to get in. It took a long time until someone from German television came down who finally got me through. Later, at the festivals in Brussels and Lausanne, security measures weren’t as strict as in Germany.”

In an older interview in which Freddy Sunder told the same anecdote, he could not hide his surprise at what had happened. “How on earth can you throw a nice party with such measures in place?” It is clear; for a gregarious creature like him, the Eurovision Song Contest was first and foremost an opportunity to meet colleagues in an informal setting. Although the circumstances in Munich did not give him the opportunity to fully relax, the rehearsal week did not completely pass without a chat and a drink, as we read in a Flemish magazine. “We met Freddy Sunder in the bar of the Hilton hotel in Munich, where he stayed for the Eurovision Song Contest. Sunder manifested himself as a heavy drinker and a good storyteller. A musical bohemian. “Deep in my heart I am too much of an artist to be an excellent conductor of the BRT Big Band,” Freddy said. “At the BRT, the musical work is suffocated by heaps of administration.”

His indiscretion was not appreciated by the broadcasting company, who was his employer. Sunder was even reprimanded for his comments. When a journalist reminded him of his statement about a year after the event, the conductor refused to repeat those words. “I love my job at the BRT,” he stated. “In fact, it’s so nice that I’m happy to take on that administration work as well.”

Freddy Sunder may have been the conductor of the BRT Big Band, but he had never conducted an orchestra abroad. A few years later, speaking about his experiences in Munich, he stated, “Abroad, such an orchestra sometimes wants to test you – and certainly during rehearsals. Sometimes, they even try to play a trick on you in the broadcast itself. That of course results in extra tension – and even without that, the Eurovision Song Contest could turn you into a nervous wreck. When I stood there, my pulse rate was between 120 and 140.”

In a later interview, Sunder explained what had caused him such headaches in rehearsals in Munich; in fact, it was a repeat of what had happened in Brussels. “The orchestra musicians, led by the German chief conductor, turned their noses up at our song. ‘The Belgian Delegation… we don’t play that!”, the conductor said at the first rehearsal, in earshot of our performers. Then he turned around and saw me standing there. Suddenly, his face lit up, ‘Aber das ist der Freddy! Weißt du noch? Ich bin der Dieter!’ (‘But that is Freddy! Do you remember? I’m Dieter!’). This man turned out to be none other than Dieter Reith, with whom I had played in various jazz clubs in Düsseldorf for months on end back in the 1950s. Then he stood up in front of the orchestra and said, ‘You have to play this! This man here is Freddy Sunder and he’s far too good a musician not to play that song!’ And I can tell you, they had pretty much underestimated our song. At the dress rehearsal, when the hall was full of youngsters… who do you think received the loudest applause? Pas De Deux! That was a wonderful moment. I thought it was a great song. You must be a very smart ass to come up with that, this combination of trombones and vocals. Walter Verdin is a brilliant musician. I really enjoyed accompanying them and I also had good rapport with the group.”

“What Freddy says about that German orchestra is correct,” Walter Verdin confirms. “A considerable number of the musicians refused to play in the first two rehearsals. I was really panicking about that, but fortunately they played at full power during the dress rehearsal and on the evening itself; and they did a perfect job on it. Only afterwards did I hear that Freddy had really had to convince those guys to play our song, just like he had had to do with his own musicians back in Brussels.”

“It was pleasant to team up with Freddy in Munich,” Verdin concludes. “He was a warm personality; a very nice, open guy. I also looked up to him quite a bit. In Flanders, he was quite someone; the conductor of the BRT Big Band, and he was there for us at the Eurovision Song Contest! Of course, the reason he was there was the fact that he was an employee of the broadcasting service, but as I saw it, he really did his best in Munich to achieve the best possible result.”

Despite a strong performance and the sophisticated interaction between the band on stage and the German orchestra, the international juries hardly appreciated ‘Rendez-vous’. At the end of the evening, Pas De Deux had collected 13 points, meaning that the band finished third-last in the final ranking. The result did not come as a surprise to Freddy Sunder. “Beforehand, I had anticipated that the song would not get far, because it was such an unusual piece of music. In fact, afterwards [the group members] didn’t really care about their lack of success. To tell you the truth, I really had a great time over there.” And what about the bowler hat? “BRT officials told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear it. Apparently they felt it would have been inappropriate.”

Orchestral score of ‘Rendez-vous’, as played at the international Eurovision final in Munich in 1983

It would take four years before Freddy Sunder got the opportunity to conduct the Eurovision orchestra again – the reason being that the BRT did not organise a pre-selection in 1985. After a particularly complicated selection process, in which an avant-garde composition by Frederic Devreese with lyrics by Hugo Claus was rejected by the broadcaster, an in-house jury ultimately chose the rather underwhelming ‘Laat me nu gaan’, a song written by BRT’s resident composer Pieter Verlinden. Theatre singer Linda Lepomme was asked to perform it. Because the BRT Big Band had not been involved in the preliminary round, the broadcaster did not feel the need to set aside a budget to send Freddy Sunder along as conductor to the international final in Gothenburg, where only a very small Belgian delegation surrounded Linda Lepomme. In Sweden, the Belgian singer was the only artist who had to perform without her own conductor; at the request of the BRT, the festival’s chief conductor, Curt-Eric Holmquist, did the honours. After all that had happened, it should have come as a surprise to nobody that this Belgian entry finished dead-last.

The following year, it was the turn of the French-language broadcaster RTBF to select the Belgian entry; the choice fell on ‘J’aime la vie’, performed by thirteen-year-old Sandra Kim from Liège – and with that song, Belgium achieved its first (and so far only-ever) festival victory, earning most votes in the international final in Bergen, Norway. The album arrangement of the song was done by Walloon musician Jean-Paul Lebens – and because there had been no orchestra involved in the preliminary round, this arrangement, which was played entirely with synthesised instruments, had to be converted into a live orchestration which could be played by the festival orchestra in Norway. Following an intervention by RTBF’s conductor Jo Carlier, Lebens called on the help of Freddy Sunder.

“Jean-Paul Lebens was a young guy,” Sunder said. “For the live version of the Eurovision Song Contest, strings had to be written, but he couldn’t figure out how to do it. Jo Carlier then told him, ‘You’d better go to Freddy Sunder, he’s a quick guy.’ People often came to me for string arrangements in those days. That guy Lebens called at my place and then I wrote the strings for him while he watched on. It was a small effort. He was very grateful and, after that Eurovision win, he sent my wife a large bouquet of flowers.”

“I’m very proud to have been able to contribute to that Belgian victory. Many Flemish people do not rate our French-speaking compatriots, but I’m not among them. Throughout my career, I’ve had wonderful Walloon colleagues, all excellent musicians. If you’ve always worked with people from both sides of the language border, you can only feel disgust about those disputes between Flemish and Walloon politicians. I for one am a Belgian, with full conviction.”

Sandra Kim during her winning Eurovision performance in Bergen, Norway (1986)

After Sandra Kim's victory, discussions between the two main communities in Belgium were rampant; which of the two broadcasters should organise the festival, at which side of the language border should the festival be held and... which orchestra would provide the accompaniment? Because the French-speaking broadcaster no longer had its own orchestra since the dissolution of Jack Say’s television orchestra in 1978, the possibility of using Freddy Sunder's BRT Big Band as the core of the Eurovision orchestra was being considered, but Walloon pride stood in the way. In the end, the location chosen was the Centenary Palace at Brussels’ Heysel – although it was in a dilapidated condition. Flemish media and politicians heaped scorn on the decision, with several event halls in Flanders being available which would have met the requirements to host the festival without any problem.

Not unexpectedly given his political views, Freddy Sunder did not want to go along with this Flemish-nationalistic discourse. When asked, he told a journalist, “As a musician, I am concerned with the technical side of things, but I do not foresee any problems. If the RTBF manages to raise enough money, they will get even the Heysel in tip top condition. The political wrangling won’t impact on the quality of the programme, because those French-speaking technicians have a sense of professional pride like ours. Now that the collaboration between BRT and RTB has ended, they will probably choose to work with freelance musicians for the festival and not with our experienced orchestra. I’m disappointed that those Walloon-Flemish discussions have raised their head again. There are no misunderstandings between the BRT and the RTB. Only the Walloon federal government is responsible. The politicians forget that the European Broadcasting Union only know of one country, Belgium. And if we don’t start acting as one country now, the festival organisation might be taken away from us altogether.”

In the end, plans to host the contest in Brussels went ahead as planned, but as Sunder had foreseen, the BRT Big Band was sidelined at the first international Eurovision final on Belgian soil. Jo Carlier, appointed chief conductor by the RTBF, was commissioned to form a freelance orchestra especially for the event, composed of musicians from both sides of the language border. When asked about the orchestra, Sunder declared, “Jo has picked the best musicians, 57 in total, all of them top quality. The guest conductors will be satisfied.”

Sunder’s accreditation for the festival final at Brussels’ Centenary Palace

As had already emerged the year before, when Carlier had sent the arranger of ‘J’aime la vie’ to Freddy Sunder, the lines of communication between Sunder and the Liège trumpeter-bandleader were short. “I had known Jo for years before the contest and he was a good friend of mine,” Sunder confirms. “At the Spa festival, where entertainment music took centre-stage, I was often the guitarist in his orchestra. Jo was a very hot-tempered man, by the way... When things didn't go his way, he scolded musicians and singers alike. Prior to the Eurovision Song Contest in Brussels, I teamed up with Jo to conduct a little research. Hans Kusters, a music publisher, had been complaining that participating in the contest only cost money and that taking part in it was therefore not an attractive prospect to any artist. I just wanted to show to everyone that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And Jo liked the idea of proving him wrong! The result of our research was that even the song finishing last in the contest that year still earned ten million francs. The magazine Story published our findings.”

Although discussions were even raised as to which broadcaster would have the right to pick Belgium’s contestant, it was not the RTBF, but – as usual in odd years – the BRT which took upon itself to find a singer and a song. In the national final, accompanied by the ‘extended’ BRT orchestra – i.e. Freddy Sunder’s big band with an additional group of string players – experienced singer Liliane Saint-Pierre was chosen as the winner with the catchy ‘Soldiers Of Love’. Naturally, as musical director of the preliminary round, Freddy Sunder would also conduct the orchestra for this song at the international festival in Brussels. Liliane was happy to have him on her side, as she stated after winning the preliminary round, “[It is] good that Freddy will also be there for me on May 9. Hopefully he will bring me luck that evening as well.”

“Freddy performed his conducting job at the Eurovision Song Contest for me in a very stylish way,” she stated later. “The arrangement was not done by him, but by Gyuri Spies, who also co-wrote the song with me and Marc De Coen. I had known Freddy for much longer. From the early 1970s onwards, I regularly encountered him at television recordings and live performances, with him backing me up as a guitarist. Freddy deserves his reputation as a very talented musician. His know-how and passion for music are unparalleled. Moreover, he is a charming man with a unique vision of life. He has a broad interest, knows very well what he wants and does not allow others to boss him around – and that is a compliment in my book, because I am no stranger to being self-willed.”

Sunder backstage at the Eurovision Song Contest at Brussels’ Heysel with one of the barbers hired for the event by Belgian television

As in Munich, the festival in Brussels was not without stress and exciting moments for Freddy Sunder. “Liliane Saint-Pierre lost her voice for most of the week. She really was in trouble! So I stood up for her by turning to Jo Carlier and to the chief technical officer to ask permission to rehearse once or twice without Liliane having to sing. Permission was granted. In the end, in the concert, she had recovered and gave a flawless performance. In addition, I remember well that the Netherlands’ conductor Rogier van Otterloo was already seriously ill at the time. He died not long after the contest. He stayed in his hotel room most of the week. At the request of Willem van Beusekom (chief of the Dutch delegation in Brussels – BT), I replaced Rogier during rehearsals. Fortunately, he was able to conduct the orchestra himself in the concert.”

Yet even in these circumstances, there was room for relaxation, as Sunder recalled. “The festival was well organised and I had a very enjoyable week. During such a week, rarely spending my time with artists and producers, I preferred hanging out with musicians from the orchestra and other conductors. I spent a lot of time in particular with the BBC’s Ronnie Hazlehurst and Noel Kelehan from Ireland. Of course, I knew both of them from the Knokke Cup (an international music festival last held in 1986 in the West Flemish seaside resort of the same name – BT); and I had already met Noel regularly in the 1970s at various editions of the Nordring Festival. He was a superb jazz pianist and a wonderful guy! A few days after my appointment as conductor of the BRT band in 1981, he sent me a folder containing a big band arrangement of ‘What’s Another Year’ written by himself; really in the style of Count Basie, fantastic! That was his way of congratulating me.”

“When he did Eurovision, Noel was always in a good mood. We always arranged to meet after dinner; Noel, Ronnie and me, ‘Let’s have a drink tonight!’ Unless there were other obligations, we had a couple of glasses every night. That doesn't mean we didn't care about the Eurovision Song Contest! We even went to rehearsals of other countries taking part because we were curious what they would come up with.”

Liliane Saint-Pierre performing ‘Soldiers Of Love’ on the 1987 Eurovision stage in Brussels

Although hopes had been high for a good result, Liliane Saint-Pierre had to content herself with a mid-table position in Brussels. Two years later, it was the BRT’s turn again to find a Eurovision candidate. Among the twelve hopefuls who competed for the main prize in the familiar surroundings of the Amerikaans Theater were well-known names such as Margriet Hermans and Jimmy Frey, but also a young pop group called Clouseau, protégés of producer Roland Verlooven. Of course, Freddy Sunder was on duty again conducting the orchestra.

For Sunder it was an evening to forget for personal reasons. “In the week of the Belgian final for Eurosong, I suddenly became very ill. I had my worst and most painful crisis the day before the broadcast. I very seriously considered having myself replaced because I really had to drag myself to the Amerikaans Theater. Even on Saturday, I was still toying with the idea of quitting. I had to hold on to my conductor's table, as my legs were shaking. There was sweat on my forehead. During the performance of Will Tura and Adamo (who performed the interval act – BT), I could take no more and left. I had just enough energy left to come back on stage to conduct the winning entry.” 

“I was suffering from headaches, diarrhoea, horrible stomach cramps, fatigue, and a lack of appetite. Six days after the Eurosong final, I had a first light meal again. Now I’m back to feeling like my old self. I hope I never have to go through something like that again. My doctor said I had contracted a severe intestinal infection, but then he accidentally prescribed me the wrong medication, making matters even worse!” As to the cause of his poor condition in those days, Sunder, open-hearted as always, had no qualms about blaming himself. “A few days before the first rehearsals, I was invited to a party, where things got a bit out of hand. I overdid it with drinks and food. Moreover, I was already suffering from stress and fatigue. This combination of factors gave me intestinal inflammation. I’m no young man anymore, you know!”

Ingeborg with Stef Bos in 1989

For Sunder, who always preferred informal interaction with his colleagues, the setting of a Eurosong pre-selection always felt uneasy. “It wasn’t a pleasant week for me because I had to behave very distantly towards all candidates. After all, this was a competition and I didn’t want anyone to suspect me of favouring any given artist. So I couldn’t have a pint or chat with anyone. Even though I knew a lot of artists personally, everyone had to address me as Mr Sunder.”

To the surprise of many, first prize was awarded not to Clouseau and their upbeat pop song ‘Anne’, as most points went to a quiet, somewhat introverted melody written by Stef Bos, ‘Door de wind’. It was performed by a young female artist, Ingeborg. Freddy Sunder was among those who did not see this result coming. “Don’t get me wrong, ‘Door de wind’ is surely a nice song, but it’s unsuitable for an international stage like the Eurovision Song Contest,” he declared twenty years later. “Not only me, but my entire orchestra… we were surprised that Clouseau didn’t win. You have to bear in mind that musicians don’t pay so much attention to the lyrics of a song, but much more to things like harmonic turns. In that respect, ‘Anne’ had been put together very cleverly; and let’s not forget that it was performed convincingly as well!”

When we asked him about Freddy Sunder and his big band, Stef Bos, the then 27-year-old winning composer, immediately recalled an incident from the rehearsals. “In the middle of playing our song, the orchestra rose as one man to have the break to which they were entitled. All of this had been negotiated on their behalf by the trade unions – and they stuck to it with a pain-staking precision, really to the minute. That was what working at the BRT was like at the time. At that point, the whole herd started moving. On the one hand, it was a fun moment, but I was astonished at the same time. I was an idealistic youngster and I had never seen anything like it. Freddy couldn’t do anything about it, because he had certainly sprung from a different well than the majority of his musicians. He was a true, honest professional if ever there was one; a pleasant man and extremely skilled as a conductor. In addition, he was also able to put himself in the position of singers, songwriters, and musicians – logically so given his background as a performer. After the Eurovision Song Contest, I never met him again, but he was one of the guys of older generations who guided me in the world of music in those early years. That did me good and brought me down to earth.”

Accreditation of Freddy Sunder’s third and last Eurovision experience, in 1989 in Lausanne

The 1989 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Lausanne. Before leaving for Switzerland, Freddy was asked by a journalist whether he was looking forward to the event. Not very much, as it turned out, “I used to look forward to it in the past, but not anymore. The Eurovision Song Contest used to be one big party, but it was ruined as large-scale, totally overblown safety regulations were introduced. You should also bear in mind that 22 countries are taking part nowadays. That is too much and requires a herculean organisation, which means that there is not much contact between the various teams taking part. By the way, I’m convinced that allowing backing tracks has done more harm than good. As you know, six musicians are allowed on stage to mime to the music on the backing track. That rule really is a dead letter. I’m telling you, a lot of ‘musicians’ appearing on that stage cannot even play the instrument they are holding.”

Not wanting to leave the wrong impression, the conductor added that he did not feel reluctance to do the job either. “No, it’s not that bad. I still love my job as an orchestra leader and want to help Ingeborg as best as possible.” During our interview with Freddy, twenty years later, he still remembered how annoyed he was by the increasing use of pre-recorded tracks. In Switzerland, three countries – West Germany, Austria, and Iceland – even ignored the orchestra altogether.

“We as conductors were furious about that. All the conductors present then signed a manifesto stating that the use of backing tracks should be prohibited and that from now on all music should be played live again. We offered the petition to Frank Naef, who was the main organiser of the contest at the time. Unfortunately, our voices went unheard. Afterwards, the BRT reprimanded me for signing the letter without consulting them in advance. They felt I had exceeded my authority.”

Belgium’s Eurovision hopeful Ingeborg during rehearsals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne / photo taken by Rui dos Reis, pianist of the Swiss Eurovision orchestra

The voting did not go well for Ingeborg, who finished in nineteenth position. The result did not come as a surprise to Sunder. “Ingeborg – her real name is Mieke Sergeant, a real darling by the way – was too young, too fragile and too self-absorbed at the time to conquer a large audience. Without being properly prepared, she was thrown onto that stage in Lausanne. I don’t think she could handle that. If you hear her singing now, you will find that she has matured. Fortunately, she has had a fine career after the Eurovision Song Contest.”

The festival in Lausanne was the last time Freddy Sunder was involved in the song competition. In the first months of 1991, the BRT Big Band was disbanded, with all musicians as well as their conductor being given the sack. Sunder no longer had any involvement with the BRT entry that year, Clouseau’s ‘Geef het op’. When we asked him, looking back on his long career, if those three Eurovision participations take an important position in it – and whether he felt proud to have performed on that stage, he replied, “Not really proud, but I always enjoyed working on Eurovision and that week of rehearsals always was great fun. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if I was the right person for the Eurovision job. I’ve always felt at ease at a jazz concert, but such a contest was always very hectic. I play music to have fun. That is also what jazz music essentially comes down to; dancing and having fun. At the Eurovision Song Contest, the musical aspect sometimes faded into the background a bit due to everything going on around it.”

Still, Freddy Sunder had continued following the Eurovision Song Contest, as it turned out – because, when we interviewed him in the summer of 2009, he knew about the winning entries by Russia’s Dima Bilan (2008) and Alexander Rybak from Norway (2009). He was clearly more enthusiastic about the latter. “As a music professional, you’re obliged to watch Eurovision; at least, that’s how I feel about it. I must admit that I don’t always do so with much gusto. I usually record the programme on video to watch it the next day; this enables me to fast-forward whatever song I don’t like... What I really hated was that winning song from Russia last year, with that skater appearing on stage. Why do they do such things anyway? Watching concerts of Frank Sinatra or Sting, to name just two artists, I have never seen dancers or skaters coming onto the stage halfway through a song. Real artists don’t need such props. But then no-one does, actually… all you need is a microphone, a singer, and an orchestra! Fortunately, this year (i.e. Eurovision 2009 – BT) was much better. I was happy that, finally, the jury was back. Perhaps it was the jury which helped the Norwegians win it. I thought their song was very strong! In any case, the programme was much more entertaining than in previous years.”

Performing a duet with Liliane Saint-Pierre at a freelance gig (1989)


Various testimonies of other artists about Freddy Sunder have been included in the above.


Country – Belgium
Song title – “Rendez-vous”
Rendition – Pas De Deux (Dett Peyskens / Hilde Van Roy / Walter Verdin)
Lyrics – Paul Peyskens / Walter Verdin
Composition – Walter Verdin
Studio arrangement – Walter Verdin
Orchestration – Walter Verdin / Joris Verdin / Freddy Sunder
Conductor – Freddy Sunder
Score – 18th place (13 votes)

Country – Belgium
Song title – “J’aime la vie”
Rendition – Sandra Kim
Lyrics – Rosario Marino Atria
Composition – Angelo Crisci / Jean-Paul Furnémont
Studio arrangement – Jean-Paul Lebens
Orchestration – Jean-Paul Lebens / Freddy Sunder
Conductor – Jo Carlier
Score – 1st place (176 votes)

Country – Belgium
Song title – “Soldiers Of Love”
Rendition – Liliane Saint-Pierre
Lyrics – Liliane Keuninckx
Composition – Liliane Keuninckx / Marc De Coen / Gyuri Spies
Studio arrangement – Gyuri Spies
Orchestration – Gyuri Spies
Conductor – Freddy Sunder
Score – 11th place (56 votes)

Country – Belgium
Song title – “Door de wind”
Rendition – Ingeborg Sergeant
Lyrics – Stef Bos
Composition – Stef Bos
Studio arrangement – Roland Verlooven
Orchestration – Roland Verlooven
Conductor – Freddy Sunder
Score – 19th place (13 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed Freddy Sunder in Deurne, Antwerp, July 2009; this interview was previously published in EA-Nieuws (2009-2010, no. 1) under the title: “Belgien? Das spielen wir nicht”
  • A shorter interview with Freddy Sunder, conducted by Raymond Stroobant shortly before Sunder’s passing and available on the website of VRT Radio 1
  • Gerrit Six, “Het orkest hunner dromen”, in: Knack, January 2nd, 1991
  • Other quotes were taken from various interviews given by Freddy Sunder to newspapers and magazines in the years 1981-90 (exact dates unknown); all found in Freddy Sunder’s own archives
  • Thanks to Walter Verdin (2023), Rudi Sillen (2023), Liliane Saint-Pierre (2009), and Stef Bos (2009) for sharing with us their memories of working with Freddy Sunder as conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest
  • Further information was derived from various other interviews with Rony Brack, Jan Schoukens, Leo Bayezt, Jack Say (Jacques Ysaye), and Rob van der Linden
  • A playlist of Freddy Sunder’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link
  • Photos courtesy of Freddy Sunder, Leo Bayezt, Jack Say (Jacques Ysaye), Rui dos Reis, Walter Verdin, Ferry van der Zant, and the Freddy Sunder Big Band
  • Thanks to Mark Coupar for proofreading the manuscript of this article

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