|Birth name||Modest Schoepen|
|Born||16 May 1925|
|Origin||Boom, Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium|
|Labels||Decca Records, Sony BMG, EMI, PIAS, Bobbejaan Records|
|Website||Bobbejaan Schoepen website|
Bobbejaan Schoepen is a pseudonym of Modest Schoepen (born 16 May 1925), a Flemish pioneer in Belgian pop music, vaudeville and in European country music. Bobbejaan can be characterized as a "total performer" and entrepreneur: he is singer-songwriter, guitarist, comedian, a former actor and professional whistler, as well as the founder and former director of the amusement park, Bobbejaanland. His musical career flourished from 1948 to the first half of the 1970s. He sold more than five million copies from his repertoire of nearly 600 songs, which extended from Twang, cabaret, instrumental film music, chansons, country, to folk and vocal music. Born in Boom, Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium, he worked his way up from a working-class environment to become one of the 200 richest people in Belgium.
Bobbejaan Schoepen married the Dutch former opera singer and photo model Josephina (Josée) Jongen on 18 May 1961. They have five children: Robert (“Bob Jr.”, 1962), Myriam (1963), Jacky (1964), Peggy (1968) and Tom (1970). His son Tom would become his manager in Belgium.
Modest Schoepen grew up in a smithy in Boom, Antwerp. His career started in the late thirties when he and his sister Liesje performed vaudeville shows in the surrounding villages, going around with the hat collecting money afterwards. He had his first audition in 1944 for the radio in Brussels. In 1943 he followed classical guitar instruction with guitarist Frans De Groodt (1892-1990). That same year he had a memorable debut performance in the Ancienne Belgique of Antwerp. In front of a full house he sang the South-African song, “Mama, ‘k wil ‘n man hé. Neen mamma, nee, ‘n Duitseman, die wil ek nie. Want Schweinefleisch dat lus ek nie” (“Mommy, I want a husband. No mommy no, I don’t want a German ‘cause I don’t like pig meat.”) The song was perceived as being anti-German, provoking a few Nazis who were present at the show to take him away. The Ancienne Belgique was closed for three weeks. Shortly thereafter he was forced to go work in Germany. As an alternative he chose to sing for the Flemish workers doing compulsory labor. For this he was locked up for three months in the Dossin barracks in Mechelen from October, 1944, without a hearing or a trial.
In 1945 he formed a duet with Kees Brug, a young man from his own village, by the name of “Two Boys and Two Guitars”. They performed impersonations, poetry, South-African songs and country music from Calais to Amsterdam, all with plenty of room for improvisation and adventure. The name “Bobbejaan” comes from the South-African song, “Bobbejaan klim die berg” (“Baboon Climb that Mountain”). Schoepen took it as his artist’s name in 1945.
In 1947 he came into contact with Jacques Kluger. Kluger asked Schoepen to entertain the American and Canadian troops during the Nuremberg Trials, and in Frankfurt and Berlin. Kluger was pleased to receive an unexpected, flattering letter from Major Mearker, and contracted Schoepen to go on tour in Germany for several months. In Berlin, which was still partly in ruins, his floor shows were also attended by the American general and military governor Lucius D. Clay, who asked him for two additional performances. These tours would further stimulate his country music tendencies.
In between these shows, Schoepen also gave occasional performances in his own country. While he initially did not wish to sing in Dutch, Kluger convinced him to record ‘a Flemish record’. The first recordings followed, and “De Jodelende Fluiter” (“The Yodeling Whistler”) became Schoepen’s first hit (1948). His breakthrough in the Netherlands also happened that year. Among his many performances, he was frequently asked to guest-star in Holland. Bobbejaan soon became the right man to work for Dutch Welfare. In 1949 he went on tour for the Dutch troops in Indonesia, performing 127 shows over the course of three months. He was decorated for courage and self-sacrifice by the Dutch government because he also went and performed for troops near the front lines. Five days after returning home he began a 220-day tour through Belgium. Playing nostalgic songs such as the tried and true “De lichtjes van de Schelde” (“The Lights of the Scheldt”) (1952), which is still an evergreen in Belgium today, Bobbejaan Schoepen quickly became one of the most popular artists in Flanders.
Schoepen toured in at least twenty different countries, together with artists such as Josephine Baker, Caterina Valente, (once) Gilbert Bécaud, and Toots Thielemans (who was a guitarist in his band in 1951). He is one of the first Europeans (not including Great Britain) to have appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, one of the most important centers of country music in the US. In 1953 he played there three times with Roy Acuff (1903-1992). There's also knowledge of one performance with the country singer Red Foley (1910-1968) in Springfield, Missouri. The American country singer, Tex Williams, founder of swing country, would later release a cover of his “Fire and Blisters” in the US (1974).
In 1954 there followed a European tour of three months through Germany, Iceland and Denmark, which traditionally concluded with a few months of performances in the Folies Bergère in Brussels. Syd Fox was Schoepen's manager in Iceland and Denmark. When Jacques Brel took care of the opening act in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels in January 1955, Schoepen already had the status of an international vedette in his own country. He was chosen as the best Flemish singer by the broadcasting company NIR (former VRT), for which he received the “Grand Prize for Flemish Gramophone Recording.”
That autumn he toured with his show for a month through Germany and three months through Congo. But in 1957 he again went to New York where he was asked to make a guest-appearance on the famous Ed Sullivan (TV) Show. He recorded albums at RCA Records with the producer Steve Sholes. Sholes offered him a contract to promote his record by visiting all the radio stations in the US for three months, under the name “Bobby John”. This tour was intended to promote his recent releases, and in the meantime he was to regularly produce new songs. But Schoepen, who had already been on tour almost constantly for ten years and had contractual obligations in Europe, was increasingly looking for a place to settle down (which would become Bobbejaanland). He decided to no longer pursue his success in the US.
That same month he became the last-minute Belgian representative at the second Eurovision Song Contest 1957. He was rushed by his manager Jacques Kluger from the US to Germany in order to take part in the event. The performance is memorable in featuring a whistling solo. Schoepen is also rumoured not to have known which song he was to perform at the Contest until he arrived, only rehearsing his entry a few days before performance. The song that was finally chosen was the (too) lightly poetic “Straatdeuntje” ('Street Tune'). Belgium ended up tying for eighth place with the Swiss entry.
A year later (1958), Kluger secured Schoepen a place in the “Royal Variety Show” in England, a yearly gala for the Queen Mother (Elizabeth Bowers-Lyon). After the show his local manager, Jack Heath, let him hear the first golden Australian hit in the US, “A Pub with no Beer” by Slim Dusty, and Schoepen decided to make a Dutch, German and English cover of it. In 1960, “Ich steh an der Bar und ich habe kein Geld” stayed on the hit lists for thirty weeks in Germany; it also became a number-one hit in Austria. The Flemish version, “Café zonder bier” dates from 1959, and that year it stood for five months number one in the hit parade. It later became a golden oldie.
His German versions of “Een hutje op de Heide” (“Little hut on the Heide”) and “Kili Watch” (originally by The Cousins) also did very well (among other reasons because of the German film, Devon träumen alle Mädchen, 1961). Schoepen toured frequently in Germany and Austria with Caterina Valente (1955) and Dalida (1961), among others. This earned him many new, interesting contracts. In 1961 he became one of the top musical acts at the Berlin Film Festival, where he brought down the house at the Deutschlandhalle with his crazy whistling acts. During the 1960’s, Camillo Felgen, Heino and James Last, among others, would catapult his evergreen “Ik heb eerbied voor jouw grijze haren” (“I Respect Your Grey Hair”) into a huge European hit which has sold more than three million copies. In 1961, Caterina Valente also released a version of “In de schaduw van de mijn” (“In the Shadow of the Goldmine”) in Italy under the title “Amice Miei”, and in 1965 Richard Anthony sang a French and Spanish version “Ik heb me dikwijls afgevraagd” (Je me suis souvent demandé) into the international charts. In 1965 it earned Schoepen, who wrote the music, an artistic distinction in Paris.
In 1967, ZDF-Germany decided to produce a musical television film around Bobbejaan Schoepen in which he plays a series of his hits. The film was partially recorded in the Barrandov studios in Prague, in the Kempen and in Bobbejaanland, which at the time was still without attractions.
During the sixties and seventies he was a regular visitor of the United States, where he took up with actor Roy Rogers, Nudie Cohn (the fashion designer of Elvis, Johnny Cash et al.), and with Tex Williams, the founding father of swing country. The foursome occasionally performed together in local clubs.
1958 is the year that Bobbejaan Schoepen purchased a big circus tent to be able to tour more efficiently in his own country. Doing so freed him from having to deal with music venue owners who were asking for ever-increasing rental prices and did not always have appropriate space for his program. He took over the two-master circus tent from the family Tondeur, who were finding it difficult to keep its performances profitable. Schoepen was handed the organizational reins and the circus again began to flourish. The day before a show he would promote the show himself at the designated location, sometimes in his own bizarre manner.
An American circus stunt team came to Brussels on the occasion of the world exhibition, Expo 58; it was a private endeavor led by Casey Tibbs. But because of the excessively long distance to the actual Expo events and the persistent bad weather, they went bankrupt. They could no longer afford to care for their fifty horses and so the team had to head back to the US. Tibbs had no choice but to give away some of the equipment and among other things he sold Zorro’s horse—named Midnight, from the Zorro television series—to Bobbejaan Schoepen. He used the horse for many years for stunts in his shows and as an attraction during his cavalcades, but the horse stepped on an exposed electricity cable and died.
In 1959 Schoepen bought a new circus tent. It had room for 900 people and could be expanded to accommodate a capacity of 1,200. These tours came to an end as soon as Bobbejaanland opened its doors in 1961. The idea for concert tours with a circus tent was very unique for its time.
Between 1950 and 1967 he acted (in total) in five (musical) film productions: two Belgian, two German and one German-Czech. In 1962 he played the leading role in the absurd comedy, At the Drop of a Head (alias ‘’De Ordannans’’), together with the top of the Flemish film scène e.g. Ann Peterson, Yvonne Lex, Denise Deweerdt, Nand Buyl and Tony Bell. The Dutch and English versions were recorded on the set at the same time. Schoepen was not pleased with this particular adventure into the world of film: “The takes were chaotic and they fired two different directors. Jef Bruyninckx (alias, De Witte) had to solve everything.” In 1999, the Belgian cult-rock band, Dead Man Ray, toured through Belgium and the Netherlands with the film. For Daan Stuyven (Daan) and Rudy Trouvé (ex-dEUS), it is also an ode to the (sometimes misunderstood) artistic versatility that characterized Schoepen the artist: ‘’A true professional who was able to turn his jazzy country-guitar playing, his deep, angelic voice and his wacky sense of humor into a trademark and later into an amusement park.’’
It was never Bobbejaan Schoepen’s intention to build an amusement park; the current park arose from his musical career. After nearly fifteen years of constant touring he began thinking about a place to settle down. In 1959 he bought a 30 hectare, marshy domain in Lichtaart-Kasterlee, called the Abroek. There he built a theatre with nearly 1000 seats and created a 2.2 kilometer beach. This was to become Bobbejaanland, the name of which was coined by his manager, Jacques Kluger. On 31 December 1961, Bobbejaanland was officially opened by Bobbejaan Schoepen and his wife Josée, with whom he developed the park into his life’s work. During the high season, Schoepen himself performed from two to five concerts per day. Additionally, artists primarily from the Belgian, Dutch and German cabaret-world performed there as well, albeit not in Schoepen’s own program.
Bobbejaanland evolved from 1975 onwards into a legitimate amusement park. Bobbejaan focused his attention solely on the business part of the park, slowly pushing Schoepen’s musical career into the background. The artist became rather a rarity, but in the 43 years of its existence, Bobbejaanland, which he ran together with his family, has developed into one of the top amusement parks in the Benelux region.
In the mid-80’s the shows became more streamlined and oriented toward a more international audience. In the meantime, the amusement park came to dominate the cabaret, and the entrepreneur the artist. He did continue singing, albeit with more streamlined shows which inevitably fell prey to the routine of the amusement park. The artist became a rarity. At a certain point my performances no longer had anything artistic about them. I received a phone call from my wife five minutes before I had to go on stage: ‘Two busses of Germans, one bus of Danes and three busses of Spaniards’. And then I adapted my show to suit them. There was no room for sentiment in Bobbejaanland. It was work, work and more work in order to keep the business profitable. Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. We employed four-hundred people who had to be paid every month.
Bobbejaan Schoepen’s life was not without its difficulties: he was thrown into prison twice during wartime, he lost his virtuoso whistling ability due to a surgical intervention, and in 1986 he underwent a serious heart operation. In 1999 he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, which gave rise to the idea to sell Bobbejaanland, his life’s work. However, refusing to stop means you have to continue, and in the winter of 2003 a major investment of nearly 12 million euros was made for a couple of unique rides ("Typhoon" and "Sledge Hammer"). That year, the Flemish consumer magazine Test-Aankoop conducted a comparative survey of 13 European amusement parks. Bobbejaanland emerged as the most highly esteemed park in Belgium on just about every level, and on the European stage it shared second place together with Disneyland and the Parc Astérix. (Test-Aankoop magazine 477, June 2004).
But in April 2004, after a preparatory period of more than three years, the decision was finally taken to sell the park. At that time Bobbejaanland employed 400 people and was taken over by Parques Reunidos, a Spanish-American amusement park group. All speculation aside, it remained uncertain until the very last minute whether the founder would put his signature on the deal. What was ultimately decisive was the uncertainty over the sense of continuity in the future of the world of amusement parks. The family Schoepen chose the more certain path, a choice that seemed the most evident to the founder. After the sale, when the news program Terzake on the Flemisch Broadcast VRT asked him if he had chosen to take the big money, Schoepen answered, staring ahead blankly, “What am I going to do with all that money; I can only eat twice a day.”
Bobbejaan Schoepen is considered as the artistic (and business oriented) attraction of the park, his wife Josée (the oldest of eighteen children) as a leading figure and commercial backbone, and her sister Louise (Wies) as the solid foundation with respect to accounting and finances. The key to the success of this family business is found in the loyalty within this triumvirate, as well as their work ethic, which was strengthened from the 90’s on by three of their five children. With the sale of the park, the last family business in the amusement park sector in Belgium disappeared. Bobbejaan Schoepen and his wife still live on the domain.
In the meantime, Schoepen recovered from his illness and now finds himself once again engaged in his first love: music. In 2005 he gave four surprise performances at the literary festival Saint-Amour, where he again reminded people of his golden oldie, “De lichtjes van de Schelde”. The song dates from 1952 and since then has been covered innumerable times by popular Flemish and Dutch artists such as Louis Neefs, Hans De Booij, Wannes Van de Velde, and recently by Will Tura and DAAN. In November 2006 at the Radio2 "Hall of Fame", the song was officially eternalized by Bobbejaan admirer Daan Stuyven. That same month, under the impulse of his son Tom Schoepen, Bobbejaan Records was brought back to life. The record company was established in 1966 but died a silent death due to the increasing success of Bobbejaanland. The label is now focused on various artistic and commercial activities and releases centered on Bobbejaan Schoepen.
On 13 February 2007, with a great deal of media attention, Bobbejaan Schoepen received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels for his successful career as a singer-musician, and for his pioneering work in Belgian music history.
After Bobbejaanland was sold, Bobbejaan Schoepen once again began to focus on his music career, which resulted in the new album release Bobbejaan (Bobbejaan Records/PIAS) in May 2008, his first album in 35 years. The album was mixed at South Beach Studios in Miami.
The idea for this project originated with music producer Firmin Michiels and the Dead Man Ray-tour in 1999, but the idea was shelved when Schoepen was diagnosed with cancer. In 2005, the idea was revived by Michiels (A&R) and executive producer Tom Schoepen, who would concentrate fully on the production of Bob’s voice recordings. Michiels was aware that Bobbejaan Schoepen could not just pick up where he left off and carry his show for a large audience: his top years were too far gone and the amusement park had inflicted too much collateral damage on the singer. Slowly, however, his credibility returned. The album was recorded with five Belgian top musicians in Bobbejaan’s living room, who would have to deal with various health issues throughout the recording sessions. The release in May 2008 immediately received broad attention from the TV-journals and other media.
with Le plus beau jour de ma vie
with Messieurs les noyés de la Seine
|Belgium in the
Eurovision Song Contest
with Ma petite chatte