In 1966 it was the Rudy Vallee-esque Winchester Cathedral, performed by the now forgotten New Vaudeville Band. A few years later Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips, singing moldy oldies with earnestness if not elegance. Now there’s a new claimant to music’s novelty-nostalgia crown: Taco Ockerse (pronounced Oh-care-seh), 28, who last year grafted Irving Berlin’s 1930 classic Puttin’ on the Ritz onto the latest European techno-pop instrumentation. Berlin, 95, reportedly is delighted with the new version, and he isn’t the only one: Over the past 17 months Taco’s synthesized Ritz has neared the top of the charts in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Austria, Canada and the U.S., where it has climbed as high as No. 4.
The international twist is appropriate to Taco (the name is Dutch, not Mexican, and the only one he uses professionally). He is an Indonesian-born Dutch citizen who currently resides in Hamburg, West Germany. His professional pedigree is equally mixed. A dancer, choreographer, actor, singer and musician, he admits that Ritz grew less from artistic passion than from commercial pragmatism. “I was trying to get a record deal for years, but I could never come up with the right sound,” Taco has said. “I’ve done every kind of music from country to R&B to rock ‘n’ roll, but couldn’t get a record contract.” When he finally did, for a disco LP released in 1981, it flopped. Taco bounced back with the Ritz single in the spring of 1982. It showed faint signs of life, and Taco, no introvert, began to flog it for all it was worth. “My God, I pushed for all sorts of promotion,” he recalls. In particular, he spent a lot of time in German department-store windows dressed “like a puppet in my tuxedo with a white face and my hair greased back.” When a crowd gathered, “I would muffle out of the corner of my mouth, ‘Turn on the music!’ and begin singing and doing my puppet antics. People loved it.”
Taco loves the travel engendered by the success of Ritz, in part because he grew up peripatetic. The son of a Dutch clothing executive, he spent time in Indonesia, America, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, along the way learning four languages fluently. After graduating from high school in Belgium, he moved to Germany in 1975 and pursued his career acting in local theater and singing in clubs. Financially, he says, showbiz comfortably “kept my head above water.” It also brought him a bride. “I saw him singing one night in 1980,” says his wife, Uschi, 30, a mathematics teacher, “and I went to every performance that week.” They were introduced by a mutual friend and, after a brief courtship, married the same year. Their cottage near Hamburg is decorated with a touch of Art Nouveau and Taco’s collection of porcelain and marble ducks. Why ducks? “He’s got a thing about ducks that I have not been able to fathom,” says Uschi. “But it seems to be about his only vice, so I don’t complain too much.”
Taco will begin a U.S. tour later this month, close on the heels of his second nostalgia single, a synthesizer remake of Cheek to Cheek, also from his Taco After Eight album. He then hopes to break the mold and record something a little more modern, if still culturally far-fetched: a disco-funk LP. “You might not know it from this LP,” Taco has said, “but I’m a real soul brother.”