Charlie Ollmann, aka Charlie O., is a local favorite
Editor’s note: The following is the first article in a three-part series on movers and shakers in the local music scene. The remaining articles will run over the next two weeks.
One could say that music came naturally to Charles Scott Ollmann. Having a piano and an organ in the home as a kid only helped. Music might even be part of his genes.
As a son of parents who sang in the church choir, Ollmann experienced music early in life. By the time he was in the second grade he was taking piano lessons.
The lessons have indeed gone far for Ollmann, better known as Charlie O. In many circles, Ollmann has become Forest Lake’s official piano man. Nearly 40 years of making music and 32 years of heading a local music store can help build such a reputation.
Ollmann grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan in South Milwaukee, Wis., and it was music that sent him to Forest Lake in 1976. It was his upbringing and education in suburban Milwaukee that set the foundation for his love of music and the recognition of its importance in education, Ollmann said.
Yes, Ollmann, now 59, is a piano man in 2013, but music and its role in education remain at the core of his philosophy on life, he said.
The early years
Ollmann was a junior high school student when he bought his first electric guitar, a Gibson Melody Maker. By this time Ollmann could play the piano and organ; the guitar opened a new door to music.
“It was the summer of ’69,” Ollmann said.
He teamed with pals from the area to form a band that would play at junior high dances. He was 13. By the time he was 16 he was playing keyboards and guitar for professional bands that worked gigs for cash.
Ollmann found time for his music while staying active in high school. He played football and wrestled.
“I considered myself a jock,” he said.
His music gigs took him to bars in downtown Milwaukee where he would pocket $75 to $100 a night. It was money for his college fund.
“I never came home smelling like alcohol,” he said. “My dad was a cop.”
As one of eight kids in the Ollmann family, he learned respect and boundaries early on.
His passion for music fueled an early desire to go into education as a choral director. A guidance counselor at his high school recommended St. Olaf in Northfield, and it was there that he landed in 1972 following high school graduation.
It was the right move, Ollmann said. At St. Olaf, he joined the famed St. Olaf Choir. He was part of a six-week European tour and performed during the choir’s first Christmas concert to be aired on public television.
It was also at St. Olaf where the tenor met Barb Storgaard of Glenview, Ill. She was a soprano in the chorus. By 1978 the two would be married.
And on the music beat, it was also at St. Olaf where Ollmann created Charlie O.
His four years at St. Olaf were marked by summers back home. There was a factory job testing electronic components and music. After one summer, however, Ollmann learned that playing in a band wasn’t the right formula. By the time all the band members migrated home for the summer and organized to play gigs, it was time to head back to college.
“I couldn’t afford not to be playing,” Ollmann recalled. “I needed to make money for college.”
It was then that he moved forward with a solo act and Charlie O was born. It was an act that would serve him well at college and during the summer months at home. During the school year, he would manage a full class load, sing in the school choir and work regular weekend music engagements in Minnesota and Iowa.
On to Forest Lake
After graduating from St. Olaf in 1976 with an elementary teaching degree in music, he was hired in Forest Lake. He would spend the next five years working for the school district. Barb Ollmann also landed a job in Forest Lake in 1980 as a junior high school choral director after teaching two years in the Belle Plaine district.
In 1981, the Ollmanns would partner with Bruce Abbe, another St. Olaf graduate and music teacher in the Forest Lake district, to start The Music Connection. The music store and lessons center celebrated its 32nd anniversary on July 13.
All the while, Ollmann was loading his digital piano, packing his guitar and harmonica and heading out to gigs as Charlie O. His introduction to the Forest Lake music scene came at the Der Lach Haus, a long-gone bar and restaurant on the corner of Lake and Broadway where Vannelli’s by the Lake stands today.
The 1960s-era bar had a piano tucked into one of the corners.
“I would just come in and play,” Ollmann said.
Soon, the Boehm family that ran the bar hired Ollmann to play and sing one night a week.
It didn’t take long for the Charlie O. brand to grow. In 1979 he was hired by Ground Round restaurants and would work 200 to 250 nights a year. It was a seven-year run for Ollmann.
It’s not hard to find Ollmann today. He is a frequent performer in Forest Lake, working the Arts in the Park stage at Lakeside Memorial Park. Ollmann is also a frequent performer at the Vannelli’s patio and continues to work private parties and benefits. He is also a regular on the riverboats from Taylors Falls and at Al’s Center City Saloon.
Over the past decade, Ollmann has expanded his music into the world of dueling pianos. Several years ago he created Aces and 88s, a dueling piano act. The name came from a dueling piano performance at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus. The 88s of the name relates to the keys on his digital piano.
“I’ve learned a great deal doing dueling pianos,” Ollmann said.
Through Aces and 88s he works with Cal Spooner and Dana DePrez. He also joins other dueling piano groups on occasion.
He likes the music of both solo performance and dueling pianos.
“I’m just doing the stuff I like,” he said of the Charlie O. format. “Everything that I do is live. I don’t use backing tracks, drum machines or karaoke-type music — just me.”
With dueling pianos, the duo takes requests from the audience.
“It’s high-energy music and you are playing off the audience,” he said. “You try to get the audience more involved. It’s audience-centered.”
Today, Ollmann has roughly 200 songs logged in his memory banks. He practices new material on a regular basis and will learn new songs requested by a wedding party, as an example. For an artist performing 75 to 100 events a year, new music is frequently introduced.
He has patterned his music after rockers Billy Joel, Elton John and the rock group Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“I also like Bob Dylan and John Denver,” he said.
Ollmann is a big believer in the strong relationship between education and music. He said he can relate from a personal perspective.
During his eight years of parochial education in South Milwaukee, Ollmann said he will never forget the Friday ritual that involved hymn memorization and how it helped him learn the music that he sings today.
“To this day the memorization skills are far-reaching,” he said. “I can remember a lot of (hymns).”
His business sense led to the partnership and the formation of The Music Connection. The store works closely with many school districts for instrument rentals and sales. Abbe heads the lessons department that utilizes 20 teachers. Charlie Ollmann runs the retail operation while Barb Ollmann is the store’s technology expert.
The store also handles sound system installation. Charlie Ollmann was awarded the contract for the University of Minnesota Marching Band studio area inside TCF Bank Stadium and recently installed a new sound system for the Pumpkin Bowl, the home football stadium for Anoka High School.
Ollmann is convinced that music makes the world go around. He knows that is the case for him, anyway. He likes to relate music to the Classical Greek philosopher Plato. Referring to Plato’s belief of the importance of learning music, physics and philosophy, “you were pretty much equipped,” Ollmann said.
He is also a believer that kids who study music read better and have stronger math skills. Music is a key core to the whole education process, Ollmann said.
For Ollmann, music is deep in his soul, much like a true piano man who sings his heart out to audiences who drink in the message, night after night.
“The reason I’m in the music business is I like to play,” he said. “Playing is my passion. Music is just part of life. It’s a big part of my life. It gets you through the tough times.”