When The Saints Go Marching In

SEPTEMBER 7, 2010  


When I went to meet Boogie Boy, a phenomenon in the current music world, I wasn’t prepared to receive a crash course in Jewish history. In half an hour, I learned all about Ashkenazim (Jews originating from Eastern Europe), Sephardim (with customs and traditions originating in the Iberian Peninsula) and Klezmer, the musical tradition of the Ashkenazim as played by professional musicians at weddings and celebrations. Boogie Boy, also known as Paul Ambach, talks about his Jewish roots (he is the proud son of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic mother) with the same passion as he does about blues, gospel, and soul.

Before World War II, his father, Jozef Ambach, (the son of a Polish Klezmer musician) was a gifted opera and bel canto singer often compared to the legendary Jewish tenor, Josef Schmidt. When the Nazis invaded Belgium, he fled with his family, attempting to reach Switzerland. Fate would see to it that he didn’t have to go that far. In France, he ran into André Cluytens, the Antwerp-born conductor of the Lyons Opera. Knowing Ambach’s merits and his situation, he hired him under an alias, Jozef Peeters. Once the war ended, Jozef returned to Antwerp, where in 1948 his son Paul was born. I can easily imagine him as a baby (a very lively one), as he still has that darling baby face.

Education being highly prized in the Ambach family, Paul went to the University to study Russian, the language most in demand in those days. Was he a good student? According to his professors, “he had the temperament but not the technique.” Along the way, he discovered a talent for organizing parties. The word was that he was crazy, but good at what he was doing. He made things happen, and people trusted him. At 22 he was ready for the big time and organized his first concert, with James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, no less.

No need to ask Paul if James Brown influenced him. Brown had an influence on anybody who had soul in him, as Paul did (a treasure seldom found in a white man). He was classically trained but ready for rhythm and blues. It became a calling, more than a job. Apart from putting on shows, he himself performed at venues big and small. Before long everybody knew that where Boogie Boy was there was ambiance and a lot of fun. Inspired also by Ray Charles, whom he had met several times and with whom he felt a close bond, he whipped audiences into a frenzy with his swinging performances, not only in Belgium but around the world. After an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Café, a Swiss newspaper wrote: “A real Belgian product, Boogie Boy and The Woogies go down your throat like a good Trappist beer; it is strong, it makes you drunk, and one feels like keeping on drinking for the rest of the night. It is very greasy, it is very hot, and so damned good!”

Nowadays, Ambach is known worldwide as both a musician and a concert promoter. Many great names (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, etc.) have appeared on Belgian stages thanks to Paul Ambach, the businessman who made it happen. But once he is on stage, Boogie Boy, the party animal, takes over. In 1997 he was named a Cultural Ambassador for Flanders.

Paul’s son Nathan is also a very talented singer. Not that long ago when father and son were performing together at the New York Sugar Bar – a hot spot for celebrities like Stevie Wonder, Whoopie Goldberg, Michael Douglas, Eddy Murphy, and many others – they were accosted by a woman who worked for the TV show, “America’s Got Talent.” Even to Paul, used to success by now, it came as a surprise. “This is my son,” he kept saying, pointing to Nathan with pure delight. “We expect you in four days from now,” the lady said. Paul hesitated before he objected: “In four days, we have to be in Belgium.” “What do you have to go to Belgium for?” she asked. “We live there!” Paul answered. “You mean you’re not Americans?” The woman insisted they audition anyway, which they did and – surprise, surprise – father and son were selected for the second round as favorites of the jury! Meanwhile Paul is on a sabbatical from his concert promoting business, taking things as they come. And come they do, that much is clear. Even when he’s not seeking them out, people stand in line for this man who makes them swing and feel good. In his own words: Boogie Boy is the name, music is the game! www.boogieboy.be. (Gazette van Detroit of June 24, 2010)