Sometimes clichés really do come true

Once a childhood actor Jes Holtsø is now looking to establish himself as a blues musician. He’s got plenty to sing about

If you were to write a blues song, it would be Jes Holtsø.

Small and wiry, he has a blues look. With a pile of tattoos all over his body and often wearing some sort of hat – preferably a fedora or a pork pie – you almost expect him to tell you that he’s seen it all and then some. That he’s been robbed blind by those he trusted. 

And he can. 

Because more than just looking the part, Holtsø has lived the life that blues songs are made of. If it’s up to him, though, that song isn’t going to have the typical blues ending.

“I should be dead,” he said in a soft-spoken but intense manner that becomes apparent as soon as you begin speaking with him. “Every day that I wake up and I am still here is a gift, and I never take it for granted.”

Holtsø really has seen it all. Although most Danes will recognise him once you point out who he is – or was – few will know what happened to him after his life as a child star ended back in the 1980s. 

Playing the overly intelligent son of a hapless criminal in the Olsen Banden films, arguably the most famous film series in Danish history, Holtsø will forever be best known as Børge Jensen. His long hair and trademark round glasses made him an instantly recognisable and beloved character, and the part led to other TV and film roles. 

But that’s where most people’s acquaintance with Jes Holtsø ends. His downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse would be rejected as a cliché if you wrote about it in a blues song. 

Some who knew him personally thought he was dead or at least close to it – and they weren’t far from wrong. Sometimes spotted on the streets of Copenhagen hustling cash for drugs and weighing less than 50 kg, he was derided by some and pitied by others. Mostly, though, he was just forgotten.

His reemergence decades later as a blues singer on ‘Talent 2009’, an ‘Idol’ type television contest, shocked the entire country. As he walked onstage, one judge blurted, with tears in her eyes: “Is it really you?”

It was. 

Holstø is reflective about his past, but he'd much rather look forward

That is pretty much all Holtsø wants to say about the past. Approaching 30 years clean and sober, he would rather talk about how he became the musician he is now rather than the child star he was back then. In fact, Holtsø says, music has always been a part of his life, even during the movie days.

And when he stood on that stage back in 2009, he may have been ‘Børge’ to the judges, the audience and the million people watching at home, but at that point, Holtsø was quite probably more himself than anybody realised. He wasn’t a former child actor – he was a musician. 

“I’ve been banging on pots and pans and everything I could find since I was four years old,” he said. “I had an uncle who was a professional jazz musician, and he would show up at family parties with his Hohner harmonicas. It was the first instrument I learned to play.”

When his family moved into a Copenhagen flat that came complete with an old, out-of-tune upright piano, Holtsø taught himself the basics. Even though his parents had Billie Holiday and Sonny Boy Williamson records when he was young, he found his way to the blues through the British rockers of the 1960s.

“My sister is about five years older than me, and she was listening to the Rolling Stones. I loved the rhythms and the sound – I didn’t realise until later that a lot of the songs were old blues songs.” 

A chance meeting with pianist and producer Morten Wittrock at a Copenhagen blues bar led to Jes’s audition and subsequent appearance on ‘Talent 2009’. He didn’t win the competition, but he attracted the attention of several record labels. Working with Wittrock, he made and released his first CD in 2010.

“It was a dream come true. I dreamed it, I lived it, and it happened.”

The CD received excellent reviews in Denmark and sold well elsewhere, especially in those countries that remembered Holtsø from his acting days. He has no illusions that many people bought the first release because of what one reviewer called the “short-legged giraffe syndrome” – the shock that such a thing even exists. 

After touring extensively throughout 2010 and 2011, Holtsø finally released his second CD, ‘Big Easy’, in May this year.

“A lot of people said we waited too long, but we did it on purpose. This CD is a statement that I am a serious artist and musician, not just an old actor who makes music.”

The industry seems to agree. One reviewer called Jes’s performance on ‘Big Easy’ “sublime”, saying that his world-weary, honest voice brought life to every song. The Danish Blues Society named Holtsø its Blues Personality of the Year and he will be in the running this evening for a Danish Music Award in the Folk category.

Now in his mid-fifties, Holtsø’s live shows are energetic. His acting experience brings the audience into his reality as his rough-edged voice – a blend of Tom Waits and vintage Joe Cocker – tells stories of life’s ups and downs, punctuated by solid performances on the harmonica and at the piano. The blues, in other words.

Whatever Jes Holtsø does, he does it with the same charm and quiet intensity that fans noticed during his long-ago acting career.

“Those who dismiss me can think what they want to,” he said. “I do this because it is who I am … who I have always been. I cannot live without it, and I cannot stop.”

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