Sunday, December 21, 2008

Trail of Our Vinyl rocks New York City...

New York Times preview here

But for our review... read on:
On December 11th, The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation rocked New York with the sounds that once reverberated everywhere across the city. Many of the artists we have met over the past eight years took the stage one more time at Joe's Pub, playing for a sold out crowd who packed the club even as the heavens opened outside. By the line to get in, you would have thought the Beatles had reformed. Sodden masses clad in North Face, braving the elements to hear Irving Fields, El Avram, Gershon Kingsley, and Sol Zim hit it hard. The gig itself was an eighty-five minute roller coaster through time. 93-year old Irving Fields kicking things off with an animated version of Miami Beach Rhumba segueing into his Hava Nagila, replete with signature finger pyrotechnics which bought the audience to their feet. We could have closed the show right there. Irving felt the love and told the audience that they "could not understand how fulfilling it was to hear the applause of a crowd at his age."
Irving had set the bar high, but Avram Grobard, the mighty El Avram, had no fear, unleashing his ridiculously addictive "El Avram's Theme" on the audience who surely left the show with the chorus rebounding through their minds. A remarkable performance from a master of stagecraft.
Moog pioneer Gershon Kingsley took the audience on a journey into the Hebraic origins of his anthem, "Popcorn" leaving the stage to a flute driven tribute laid down by band leader, Paul Shapiro who was a giant throughout.
The show was closed by Sol Zim, the last in a royal lineage of five generations of Cantors whose career was inextricably changed when he attended a KISS concert at Madison Square Garden in the seventies. Sol toyed with the audience with his thumping rendition of Am Yisrael Chai, gyrating his crotch through the chorus, dragging the audience through the chorus, and yes, knickers were thrown...
The gig was a blast. For the audience, and most importantly, for the performers who rocked so hard, killing in their own way, and challenging the audience to consider both their individual pasts and their sense of collective history. Thanks also to Jessi Klein, Jody Rosen, and Kandia Crazy Horse, who toasted Streisand/Diamond duets, Jewface sheet music, and The Temptations doing Fiddler in that order... Nextbook and Alana Newhouse for hosting the afterparty, and Jackie Hoffman who channeled the spirits of Belle Barth and Ruth Wallis in inimitable fashion. We are planning a much bigger show in New York in Summer '09. But next up, a west coast gig... San Francisco, February 5th....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Leonard Nimoy Names That Tune

Last week was a busy, bi-coastal one for us here at Trail of Our Vinyl with two book launch parties on opposite sides of the country. We started West where our friends at the Santa Monica Museum of Art were kind enough to let us stage an amazing night of music and book- signing right in the middle of an exhibition by Martin Kersels. We knew that the one and only Leonard Nimoy was a Jewish music buff-- turns out Spock is also a veteran of Yiddish theater and Fiddler on the Roof-- so we decided to test his skills live on stage with a round of Name That Tune featuring artists and songs from the book.

We started with Irving Fields' slow-boiled bongo-peppered take on the Second Avenue chestnut "Belz Mein Shtetele Belz" and then moved to Terry Gibbs' take on "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" (featuring klezmer legend Sam Musiker on clarinet and Alice Coltrane on piano). Nimoy knew both tunes right away but hadn't heard these versions before, which started a good conversation about authenticity and tradition and about just how flexible musical Jewishness has been, which only intensified when he heard "Bei Mir" done by 30s "vout" jazzers Slim and Slam and a surprisingly cantorial sounding Judy Garland. Nimoy could easily differentiate between the voices of Yossele Rosenblatt, Richard Tucker, and Pierre Pinchik, and had no problem with Aaron Lebedeff's 40s version of "Roumania, Roumania," even if he scoffed at Eartha Kitt's rendering of it. There were tall tales of down-and-out cantors on his childhood streets of Boston ("Tabatchnik is Coming! Tabatchnik is Coming!") and fond memories of singing the staples of the Yiddish stage. Yet his Fiddler experience had him in disbelief when he heard The Temptations doing "If I Were A Rich Man" and he explained his resistance to the songs of Mickey Katz and Leo Fuchs, which he thought-- at one time-- were poor substitutes for the glory days of pre-WWII Yiddish music (we did our best to convince him otherwise).

The night's best moments came when Leo Fuld's "Where Can I Go?" got Nimoy going on the power of Jewish song as a diaspora tool-- longings for home, longings for a place to go-- and when Theodore Bikel's version of "Tumbalalaika" inspired him to lead the audience in a warm, group sing-a-long that somehow managed to feel as old-school as it was brand new.

The Playlist:

"Belz"- The Irving Fields Trio
"Belz Mein Shtetele Belz"- Seymour Rechzeit "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"- Terry Gibbs Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"- Judy Garland Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"- Slim and Slam "Roumania, Roumania"- Aaron Lebedeff ""Roumania, Roumania"- Eartha Kitt "Tikanto Shabbos"- Yossele Rosenblatt "Sim Shalom"- Richard Tucker "Rozo D'Shabbos"- Pierre Pinchik "Fiddler on the Roof Medley"- The Temptations "Where Can I Go?"- Leo Fuld "Bashana Ha'Bah"- Jon Yune "Yiddishe Mambo"- Mickey Katz
"Tumbalalaika"- Theodore Bikel

Monday, December 8, 2008

Can anyone crack the mystery that is... Benji?

This album was sent to us by Ollie from Los Angeles. We appreciate its design simplicity and the fact that the artist clearyly foresaw the Sleeveface fad. But who is Benji? His music is pop with a Mediterranean inflexion. But that is all we have to go on. If anyone can shed any light on Benji (a dead ringer for Donald Sutherland if ever there was one) and his career or even connect us to the man himself, we would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Riddle of Marcus Goldman... Uncovered

Marcus Goldman's album, Marcus Goldman Orchestra has long been an enigma. Marcus Goldman himself stares from the cover, sphinxlike. Secure in the knowledge that his name is etched across both his signature accordion and the large velvet yarmulke he sports, suggesting he is either extremely forgetful or heavily into personalizing his effects. We are indebted to a reader, Barry Mitchell, who enlightened us via email:

"I know Marcus Goldman posing with his accordion is of particular interest to you. The album actually dates back to at least 1972, the summer I played in a dance trio at Schenck’s Hotel in Fallsburg, NY. Marcus (also known as Alex, which probably accounts for the label’s name, Al-Mar) sold his self-pressed albums while leading the Catskill ladies in afternoon poolside dance lessons. He’d show up, set up his sound system, and blast Eydie Gorme’s “Blame It On The Bossa Nova.” If I remember correctly, the album featured the keyboard stylings of Bob Reisenman, who had the house band at Schenk’s.

It’s the same summer I wrote and performed at Schenk’s, the Evans Hotel, and the Homowack Hotel my parody of Sammy Davis’s then-popular hit, “Candy Man.” (“. . .who makes cherry blintzes, tender, light and sweet? Latkes that are flaky and borscht that can’t be beet? The Flonken Man. . .”)"

Our next challenge in researching this material is to hear about how the listeners encountered the music. If you have any stories at all... please be in touch! We would LOVE to hear them.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ornette and Yossele

We knew that there was a time when Cantors were the Jewish spiritual world's equivalent of rock stars, when they juggled careers in the synagogue with the bling allure of Broadway and the Opera stage. We knew that Richard Tucker could put out LPs for Shabbat and Yom Kippur one minute, then show up on a Christmas album the next, right alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Dina Shore. We knew that Bela Herskovitz showed up on This Is Your Life and then played Carnegie Hall with Eddie Cantor. We knew that Cantors played the Catskills just like Tito Puente and Buddy Hackett, only the Cantors got backing from symphony orchestras. We knew that Al Jolson and Harold Arlen were the sons of Cantor fathers and often spoke of Cantorial commonalities with African-American spirituals, blues, and jazz. We knew that Johnny Mathis did his Cantorial best on his own version of "Kol Nidre."

But we had no idea that Yossele Rosenblatt, arguably the greatest U.S. based Cantor of the 20th century (and the highest paid-- he could get up to 15k for a single Yom Kippur gig) was a voice in the head of jazz legend Ornette Coleman. In his fantastic new book, The Jazz Ear, NY Times critic Ben Ratliff sits down with Coleman to listen to music that Coleman chooses. His first pick is a 1916 recording of Rosenblatt singing "Tikanto Shabbos," a mix of crying, singing, and praying that when Coleman first heard it, made him cry. "I said, wait a minute," he tells Ratliff. "You can't find those notes. Those are not 'notes.' They don't exist...I think he's singing pure spiritual. He's making the sound of what he's experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he's singing to is what he's singing about. We hear it as 'how he's singing.' But he's singing about something. I don't know what it is, but it's bad.”

These days it's easy to conflate old-school Cantors with frozen tradition (Warner Brothers wanted the Ukranian-born Rosenblatt to play Jolson's stubborn Orthodox father in The Jazz Singer-- Rosenblatt declined), write them off as symbols of conservatism or insular identity. But Coleman's ears remind us of the great Cantorial legacy in American and Jewish music, re-establishing Cantors as practitioners of avant-garde outness, as spirit voices departing from the soul and heading up and out for what Sun Ra used to call "other planes of there," or in the words of Coleman himself, "something else!!!!"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sreading the Word: All Things Considered/Josh Spear

And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl was on All Things Considered this Friday. Our long time love for Melissa Block has reached new levels. Listen here.

And thanks to Josh Spear, the tastebuds of a generation, for spreading the word about this project. Massive stuff.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Can anyone crack the mystery that is Mr. Lou Mason?

We have collected so many comedy albums over the past couple of years that at times, it has felt as if they were the only kind that Jews ever recorded... from Rodney Dangerfield's quintessential Shlemiel, The Loser, to the "Bawdy women of Jewish comedy," Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, Totie Fields, and Rusty "Knockers Up" Warren, not to mention the Yinglish maestro, Mickey Katz, and the Jewish jazz tones of Lenny Bruce. Time Magazine, that veritable newssource, had a 1970 lead article dedicated to exploring why "nearly 80% of the top comedians in the country are Jewish." They focussed on the work of clinical pyschologist Samuel Janus who studied 76 different Jewish comics concluding that a life spent in poverty and despair was the crucial step on the road to entertainment success. "What makes them funny, says Janus, is their pain." You don't say... But even we were stumped by this album which has just come in... by Lou Mason, the self-styled "Master of Lafter." His tailored velvet jacket says superstar, but we had never heard of him and can't find a trace of him on the internet. Our first thought was the obvious one -- that he was Jackie Mason's brother. The Dan Swayze to the more famous Patrick, if you will. But we have found no evidence of that, and frankly he looks too self-condifident for that to possibly be. Listen to his sweet repartee. This is his "take my wife, please" bit, which he calls Wives Stories. If any of you can shed light on this mystery, we would be indebted. Please be in touch...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jewish Twists

When Hank Ballard and The Midnighters released a minor blues number they called "The Twist" back in 1959, it was a forgettable b-side. When Chubby Checker covered it a year later, it not only became an a- side single that rose to #1 on the Billboard charts, it became a social event, a culture-spanning dance craze to end all culture- spanning dance crazes-- apologies to all of you still mastering your lambada, electric slide, and Aunt Jackie steps. Thanks to Checker, everybody was dancing The Twist, an entire nation's body turning and bending to a blues shuffle and curing the country of a cultural cancer that Eldridge Cleaver diagnosed as "Bing Crosbyism, Perry Comoism, and Dinah Shoreism." Kids of all colors shook off the vanilla purr of the 50s and The Twist became, in Cleaver's famous words, "a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia. The Twist succeeded, as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write on the books." Young Jews were key pioneers in the suburban shift of the 50s and key players in the civil rights movement so it's no surprise that they added their own two cents to The Twist's musical legislation. Checker himself made sure that Jews were dancing with him when he re-recorded The Twist to the tune of "Hava Nagilah," even switching between the song's original Hebrew and his own Hava-fied English that invites you to get on the dancefloor.

Mambo king Perez Prado was onto the same idea but knowing how much Jews loved the mambo, Prado got rid of the "Hava Nagilah" lyrics and turned it into into a Twist, complete with his signature grunts and sparkling brass section. When it was time for the Twist to "go Latin," Prado knew it also had to "go Jewish."

Of course, Jews themselves chimed on The Twist, none better than the Yiddish Fred Astaire himself, Leo Fuchs. Fuchs is best known for his work on the stages of Broadway and the Yiddish Theater, but we're partial to his Shalom Pardner LP on the Tikva label, where he drops "Yiddish Twist," a bi-cultural stomper that, around 1:20, makes Yiddish speakers get twisting to the sound of-- who else?-- "Chubbele Checker."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Found! Israeli song bird, Hanna Ahroni!

Fewer of our finds have been as alluring as the Hannah Ahroni Sings Songs of Israel which we discovered on one of our collecting sorties in the thrift stores of Boca. A beautiful songbird cutting a ripe, exotic, and confident figure, laughing casually against the backdrop of a freshly harvested wheat field. How many young Americans were enticed to move to Israel by this record cover alone when it was released in 1962?

Ahroni (also variously spelled Aharoni and Aroni) was the most succesful of a gaggle of Israeli female solo performers who broke in America at the same time -- Yaffa Yarkoni, Shoshana Damari and Geula Gill were also soulful and stunning -- but there was something about this cover that haunted us and forced us to track her down. When we went round to meet her last week, Uptown in Manhattan, we had the same sense of trepidation as if we were visiting Kathy Ireland or Elle Macpherson.

We are delighted to report, age has dimmed little of her beauty. Her apartment is covered with mementos from a career which saw her play Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and Caesar's Palace which she opened with a month long residence alongside Johnny Mathis. A hallway plastered with album covers was as beautiful to us as anything in the Louvre.

We heard tales of her career which blossomed under the guidance of her manager and husband, the legendary Chaim Tishman, who carefully surrounded her with talent. Tishman persuaded H.B. Barnum, Aretha Franklin's producer, to make A Taste of Hanna (RCA, 1963) the record which made her a household name on American television where she starred in an hour-long special with Paul Anka, and shared a bill for a month with Harry Belafonte at the Hilton Plaza in Miami. Rock out to these two tracks soaked in sobbing vocals and heart-tugging horn arrangements, her version of A Taste of Honey, a song made famous by Herb Alpert, and a haunting version of Hava Nagila.

Hanna's real fame came in South America where her show "An Hour With Hanna Ahroni" made her a legend in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. The song which put her over the top, Viva Espana, which she originally recorded as a throwaway during a recording session in Germany, was faintly audible all over Europe in the early '70s. Enjoy it here on German TV and marvel, as the German producers do, in her polyglot abilities...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lena and Nina Go To Israel

One truth that became even truer on our collecting sprees: the scope of American Popular Music is unimaginable without the creative commingling of Black and Jewish musicians. The evidence is everywhere, from headline stories like Tin Pan Alley's Jewish composers creating pop standards out of African-American blues and spirituals and African-American jazz greats paying them back by turning those standards into jazz anthems, to lesser known tales of The Temptations and Cannonball Adderley doing Fiddler on the Roof tunes, Slim Galliard and Cab Calloway rocking songs in Yiddish about bagels, matzoh balls, and tailors, and Herbie Hancock sitting in on a recording of a Jewish prayer service. Yet as so many of the LPs we gathered seemed to suggest, Black women artists played a key role in all these exchanges. We stumbled on Eartha Kitt doing "Sholem" and "Roumania, Roumania" (see our earlier post) and Billie Holiday doing "My Yiddishe Momme" and Ethel Waters doing "Eli, Eli" and Alberta Hunter taking a trip to Israel and coming back to talk about it on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 where she proudly sings the old Alexander Olshanetsky tune "Ich Hob Dich Tsufil Lieb." She does it all in Yiddish instead of in its better known English version as "I Love You Much Too Much."

When Lena Horne-- a veteran of plenty Hadassah benefits in the States-- went to Israel in 1952, she sang some Israeli tunes she had learned phonetically over the years. Israel was in the midst of independence fever and Horne was taken by what she called "history-in-the-making in a brand-new country." She visited kibbutzes and a camp for Yemenite children, "terribly oppressed people of color, people just emerging from the kind of bondage Negroes have been struggling so long to emerge from." Nearly a decade later, in the midst of U.S. civil rights upheavals and inspired by the folk protest scene, Horne went through a career transformation and decided she needed to start singing political songs. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote her "Silent Spring" (based on Rachel Carson's influential book on environmental destruction) and Broadway vets Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Jules Styne wrote her "Now!," an incisive rant against civil rights abuses that Styne cpmposed, believe it or not, to the cheery tune of "Hava Nagilah." Horne performed them both at a SNCC rally at Carnegie Hall. Then as film scholar Michael Renov thankfully revealed to us-- in 1965, "Now!" became the soundtrack to a pioneering experimental documentary about the civil rights movement by Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Must be seen and heard to be believed.

Nina Simone played Israel in the 70s and was shocked to find that when her El Al fight landed at the Tel Aviv airport, there were throngs waiting to see her. "They had been waiting for me to come for ten years," she wrote in her autobiography. Simone left Israel in 1979 and claimed that her visit put her back in touch with herself and with God and put her career back on track. She should have seen it coming-- Nina already had Israel on her mind in the 60s. She sang the circle-dancing ode to the Land of Milk and Honey, "Eretz Zavat Chalav," when she played Carnegie Hall in 1963. You can hear it on her incredible live LP Folksy Nina, or just be awed by this:

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail...

Israel and Folk Music have always gone together like Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. Partially because the genre's love of flowery lyrics gave Israeli poets permission to let themselves loose ideologically. And partially because like most things, electric guitars were in scarce supply in the nascent state, so the stripped-down style was the perfect sound for the day. A rich and varied folk industry was the result. Acts like Ron and Nama, The Lirons, and the Ofarim unleashed fine vinyl in the sixties and seventies. One of the combos we have come to love through our collecting is The Paravim (The Suburbs) who were known as Israel's Simon and Garfunkel. Not only did they they physically resemble the American duo and translate their material into Hebrew, they even split up though musical differences were not this cause on this occasion. One of them became Ultra-Orthodox. Here we present two tracks from their 1972 release, The Paravim Sing Simon and Garfunkel (In Hebrew.) The first is their version of America, a track about clinging onto big dreams amidst bruising realities, which was no doubt quite fitting in 1970s Israel. The second is a rollicking rendition of El Condor Pasa, the traditional folk tune plundered from the Andes with new lyrics applied Graceland style, resounded as an Israeli folk song.
Click to listen here:

El Condor Pasa.

Thanks to Ari Kelman for sending in this beauty.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Found!!! Fred Katz: The Zen of Fred

To get to Fred Katz, you must find your way through the manicured suburban back-streets of Fullerton, then cross a Zen garden (complete with wooden bridge over a sea of pebbles), then walk over a SHALOM doormat. Once you find him, it will be hard to stay away. We've spent many an afternoon in Katz's living room-- full of his old LPs, family photos, and collection of books on magic and Kabbalah-- and his converted studio garage, a magical space itself where Katz's cello takes center stage alongside reel-to-reel decks and piles of sheet music.

We've posted the basics on Katz's remarkable career before but suffice it to say there is nobody quite like him: the first cellist in jazz, an emeritus professor of anthropology, a composer for Roger Corman films, and an arranger for Lena Horne, Carmen McRae, Sidney Poitier, Ken Nordine, and Harpo Marx. That's not to mention his years on cello pioneering West Coast jazz with the Chico Hamilton Quintet and his numerous solo albums, from Soul-O-Cello to Fred Katz and His Jammers (where he played cello on Malibu Beach in his pajamas)... Folk Songs For Far Out Folk, his landmark 1959 jazz orchestration of American, Hebrew, and African folk songs. We re-issued Folk Songs last year (more on that here) and are happy to say that it helped re-introduce Katz's incredible story to new audiences.

Jon Kalish's visit to Katz's home for NPR was one of our favorites and you can listen here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Our Billboard Top Five

Here are five tracks which are barely off our gramophones. Something for everyone to listen and fall in love with below.

Fiddler on the Roof by Motown's favorites, The Temptations

Belz by our hero, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

Orthodox, Conservative, or Reformed, the only song of lust to involve religious denominations by Bernie Knee

The infectious Dunkin' Bagel by the ever innovative Slim Galliard

The deliciously named, Dance of the Semites, by the sexiest man in the world, Herbie Mann

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hedva and David: Big In Japan?

We just received this work of beauty from Samuel Shep in Cleveland and after unpacking it and giving it a spin, are intrigued. The album is a thumping funk cocktail. Taste it yourself with Side two's kick off adrenalin shot, Illusions. And the liner notes tell a cryptic and unbelievable tale of Hedva, a Yemenite Israeli who met David in the Israeli army and went on to represent Israel in an "International Popular Song Contest" which they won with a rendition of the Hebrew song Naomi. The song went on to become Nippon's number one, going gold and selling over a million records. We would love the story to be true, but it is undercut a little by the album itself. Make no mistake. Each track is a roller coaster that plays with your emotions, but it is self-produced and the liner notes are written on a type writer. But no sooner were we tempted to dismiss the whole story as some publicists creative license, we found this on the You Tube. Hedva and David singing Naomi in Japanese, and then the below. Two of the cream of Japanese crop performing their version of the track on Japanese television as if the song is a national treasure... If anyone knows where Hedva and Ron are now... we would LOVE to learn more...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Found! Moog Pioneer Gershon Kingsley!!!

If you grew up loving Kraftwerk like we did, then you probably own a copy of The In Sound From Way Out, the first ever electronica album, recorded by the Moog pioneering duo, Perrey and Kingsley in 1966. After breaking up, Jean Jaques Perrey kept noodling away on his Moog, but Gershon Kingsley went on to experiment with the Fairlight and the Synclavier and released the anthem of many of our youths, the infectious 1972 dance hit, Popcorn,which is still faintly audible across the whole of Italy and huge swaths of Germany. The tune has been covered over 100 times by everyone from DJ Mystik to Herb Alpert to Ben Folds... (to listen to these golden interpretations and more click here) Imagine our delight then when these two albums were mailed to us by a reader from Chicago... Kingsley's lesser known attempts to fuse the machine and the divine -- Shabbat for Today... recordings made between 1968 and 1974 which utilize creativity, the Moog, and a few choice Proverbs to create meditations on identity and freedom in the form of a gospel-driven rock opera for the Sabbath. The album is as infectious as it is intelligent. It blew our minds on first listen. And then we were tipped off that Gershon was alive and well and living in Midtown Manhattan. We dialed him up, as nervous as if we were calling Don Johnson, Adam And or any other icon from our youth, and Gersh invited us over. We sped over to his beautiful home/recording studio, in which he keeps enough technology to launch a Sputnik. Gersh's biography spans pre-Holocaust Euope, pre-State Palestine, California and New York and his career arc is a parable of the modern Jewish experience. But most of all, he rocked us with his continued creativity, recording daily with a slew of young collaborators, and his incessant efforts to analyze our fragile psyches with his Jungian skills. You can glimpse Gershon's studio here and get a taste of the Shabbat for Today sound with his synth-funk version of U'Shoreem with chug-along drumming reminiscent of a young Stewart Copeland.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Make this year, a Mathis Yom Kippur...

Eddie: When you're making out, who do you prefer? Sinatra or Mathis?
Boogie: I like Presley
-- Diner, Barry Levinson, 1982

The Jewish Day of Atonement -- Yom Kippur -- has always been one of our favorite holidays and not just because we have more to repent for than the average gent. Our unfettered delight comes from our ownership of this seven inch masterpiece by "Mr. When A Child Is Born" Johnny Mathis himself, who recorded the Kol Nidre melody
—the nullification of personal promises that cannot be fulfilled—on his 1958 LP, Good Night, Dear Lord. On the album itself, Mathis' versions of Eli Eli and Where Can I Go? nestled alongside renditions of Ave Maria and Sweet Rosary but even more staggering than the tracks cropping up on an album sung by the universally acclaimed King of Romance, is that Mathis devoted the time to mastering Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish so he could record them fluently. Savor the track and appreciate the awe of the liturgical melody and Mathis' velvet virtuosity. And if you find it sub-consciously putting you in the mood for romance as opposed to reverential atonement, click here and calm yourself down.

We wish all of readers happiness and health for the year ahead. In the Hebrew calendar this is 5769... the end of the Sixties era... so rock on.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Exodus of Johnny Yune

It took some pleading with his manager and a few weeks of hilarious cell phone tag, but we finally made it to a Korean bakery in a strip mall in the heart of L.A.'s Koreatown to sit face to face with the great Johnny Yune. Pop culture junkies will recognize Yune from his 1982 "Asianploitation" martial arts satire They Call Me Bruce:

which helped get Yune spots as a judge on the 1984 Miss Universe pageant, as a guest on The Love Boat, and as host of his own variety show:

But for us, he is forever the "Jon Yune" of Ose Shalom, his 1975 album of Jewish and Israeli songs, sung entirely in Hebrew and Yiddish. The cover of the album finds Yune posing in front of the United Nations, which we always thought was an odd choice for such a culturally specific record, but Yune had his reasons. "I could sing in 16 different languages and I wanted to have a symbol of the whole world there," he told us. "But especially the American flag, because only in this country could a Korean guy sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs." Yune left Korea for New York in 1962 and he became a regular in the audience at Cafe Exodus, one of a few Jewish-themed nightclubs in 1960s Manhattan. After a fluke invitation to get on stage to sing a number (he did it in Italian), Yune was invited back but he had to sing in Yiddish or Hebrew. He started listening to albums by Israeli chanteuse Yaffa Yarkoni and had "My Yiddishe Momme" down cold, and was soon making 85 bucks a week and all the falafel and pita he could eat at Exodus, El Avram, Cafe Sabra, and Cafe Tel Aviv.
"Before I knew it I knew so many Hebrew and Yiddish songs and I had fallen in love with the music," he said. "Almost every Jewish song is in a minor key. There is a sadness to life. Koreans went through almost the same situation with 60 years under Japanese occupation and they treated Korean people like animals, just like the Jewish people were treated so badly. So I could feel that. Im not Jewish but I feel the same oppressions from when I was a kid under occupation." Which is why to this day, Yune still closes his Vegas act with his rousing version of "Exodus," putting his own spin on "walking without fear" across a "land that is mine."

There is nothing novelty about the music on Ose Shalom-- it is a deeply earnest and often intense album, so much so that when we played it for legendary TV producer Norman Lear (who writes about it in our book), Lear got emotional, steamrolled by memories of his own Yiddish-speaking family. Yune is mostly known as a comic and Ose Shalom was his first and last recording, but when he talks about it, it's clear that it still ranks as the most profound moment of his career.

For us, it's a major testament to the power of cross-cultural exchange and an amazing window into a 1960s Jewish music scene where all outsiders could find their voice. 'I dont converse fluent Yiddish, a bissel, you know, a little bit," Yune said before we left. "When I speak in Yiddish they say I used to have a Gilitzyaner accent! Some people tell me I speak with a Litvak accent! My Hebrew pronunciation is pretty good actually. I still enjoy speaking in Yiddish when I can and when I perform for Jewish audiences I always sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. When I was in Israel, I sang that sang overlooking the Gethsemane garden and Golden Dome of Jerusalem. I had tears in my eyes."