Music Interviews
9:05 am
Thu December 15, 2011

Reviving 'Songs For The Jewish-American Jet Set'

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 8:45 am

Tikva Records was founded in 1947 as an independent Jewish record label. For the next 30 years, it would record an eclectic range of Jewish-American songs, including klezmer pop, cantorial singing, Catskills medleys and Israeli folk tunes.

Tikva Records folded in the late 1970s, but a number of singles on the label have been re-released by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and preserving Jewish music through museum exhibits, concert showcases and reissues of lost Jewish classics and compilations.

Their latest compilation, Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set, features a curated selection of Tikva Records tunes from the '50s and '60s, including numbers by Leo Fuchs, Leo Fuld, Martha Schlamme and Mary Levitt.

On Fresh Air, music critic and USC professor Josh Kun, a member of the Idelsohn Society, joins host Terry Gross for a discussion of Tikva Records and some of the musicians featured on Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set.

He describes the Tikva Records catalog as a veritable grab-bag of American-Jewish identities and styles from the years following WWII.

"I think this label ... gives us this window into understanding what Jews were buying [and] what Jewish identity could sound like in all of its mixture and diversity," he says. "It was this crucial time in American-Jewish life where you had record numbers of Jews moving up the economic ladder, suburbanization on the rise, corner shuls becoming big synagogues out in the suburbs, and Jews caught in the push and pull between mainstream, American-white identity and the Old World identities of the pre-WWII years."

Allen B. Jacobs, the label's founder, was a Long Island-based businessman who, as the liner notes put it, "churned out anything mid-century Hebrews might be interested in." That included kitschy numbers, novelty acts and even spoken-word comedy sets from the Catskills.

"He was somebody who saw this as a chance to produce records inexpensively, to put them together very quickly, to put together the cover art himself with his trusty pair of scissors and, as most believe, cutting the masters together himself," Kun says. "[It was] an attempt as cater to what he saw as a massive audience of American-Jewish record buyers. The result was this grab-bag of styles and sounds."

Josh Kun is the coauthor of And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl, which documents American-Jewish history through vinyl album covers. He is the director of The Popular Music Project at USC Annenberg's Norman Lear Center and an associate professor in the Annenberg School.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Whether it was klezmer music, novelty recordings, cantorial music, if it appeal to Jewish Americans in the 1950s and '60s, Tikva Records would release it if the price was right. Tikva was a low-budget label that got performers on their way up or their way down or their way to nowhere.

A new anthology of Tikva Records has been produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a group founded with the mission of collecting lost Jewish recordings and re-releasing or archiving them.

The founders have been through more than their share of thrift shops and flea markets. My guest is one of the founders of the group, Josh Kun. He's a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Popular Music Project at the Norman Lear Center.

The new Tikva anthology he co-produced is called "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set." Here's the opening track, "Mazel," which is Yiddish for luck. It's sung by Leo Fuld.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAZEL")

LEO FULD: (Singing) Mazel, mazel, mazel, mazel. (Unintelligible). Just a little Mazel. That's the only thing you need. You got to have a little mazel. Mazel means good luck, 'cause with a little mazel you always make a buck. And if you have no mazel, although you're on the boat, try and try saying goodbye, beat your head against the wall. Don't ever try to figure why you seem to be to blame that some folks have a million and can't even write their name. That's why you have to have a little mazel. Mazel means good luck, 'cause with a little mazel you always make a buck. A man must have a...

GROSS: That Leo Fuld singing "Mazel" from the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story."

Josh Kun, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOSH KUN: Thank you.

GROSS: So tell us about Leo Fuld, who we just heard.

KUN: Leo Fuld is considered to be one of the kind of greatest Yiddish superstars of the World War II era, and especially in the postwar years. And he was someone who though best known for his Yiddish and English songs, most believe he sang somewhere around 15, in 15 different languages, kind of the ultimate polyglot pop star of that era. And this is him doing a really kind of swinging and jazzy English and Yiddish and Hebrew tune that he mixes up all these different languages in the, you know, in the songs that he would sing.

GROSS: Now, one of the things I find amazing about the record that we just heard is that the R&B vocal group The Ravens recorded that song first and...

KUN: They did. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know when they recorded it and why they recorded it?

KUN: I believe they recorded around 1947. I believe it was the first recording of "Mazel," actually. And so the first recording of "Mazel," which was written by Artie Lane and Max Beekman, this was a song that was, you know, with very much explicitly Jewish content, was recorded by one of the leading African-American R&B groups, you know, of the post-World War II years.

As to why they recorded it, there is one story that's been floating around for a while that basically the songwriters came into the recording session and kind of pushed the song on the group. But I also think it speaks to the extent to which there were so many Jewish songwriters writing for black artists and so many Jewish managers managing them that there was a kind of common ground, where in-jokes in Yiddish, in-jokes about blacks and Jews, about Jews in America, were something that had become fairly common among so many blacks and Jews working in the pop music industry at that time.

GROSS: Okay, so here's The Ravens' recording of "Mazel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAZEL")

THE RAVENS: (Singing) Well, you got to have a little mazel and you never will get stuck, 'cause with a little mazel you'll always have good luck. Well, you've got to have a little mazel 'cause mazel means good luck and with a little mazel, you'll never, never, never get stuck. Yes, you've got to have a little mazel 'cause mazel is good luck. And with a little mazel, you'll always have a buck. Don't ever try to...

GROSS: It's such an interesting comparison between the two. And really, it's Leo Fuld who does it more as a novelty song and The Ravens sing a pretty straight.

KUN: Yeah, that's not uncommon, actually. You know, we found over the years in following the amount of black artists who would sing Jewish tunes, that so often it was the African-American artists who would do the songs more straight and it was the American Jewish artist who would kind of add a little bit of humor to them. So again, that back-and-forth is something that's been going on for a long, long time.

GROSS: So let's get to the Tikva Records story...

KUN: Yes.

GROSS: ...and the first recording reheard, the Leo Fuld recording, was on Tikva Records. It's included on the new anthology you put together.

KUN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set." Now, you described the Tikva label Rasta as a Who's Who of who's that.

And the DJ, Art Raymond, who played a lot of Yiddish music on his show, and I think helped you find some Tikva recordings...

KUN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...he described the label's output as junkie music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So why would you want to put together an anthology of this label?

KUN: One man's junkie music is another generation's joy. This so I think that this label, which was the most prolific record label that catered to an American-Jewish audience in the post-World War II years, that operated from the late '40s through the 1970s, it gives us this kind of window into understanding what Jews were buying, what Jewish identity could sound like in all of its mixture and diversity, and it was this crucial time in American Jewish life, you know, in these post-World War II years, where you had record numbers of Jews moving up the economic ladder, suburbanization was on the rise, corner shuls were becoming big synagogues out in the suburbs, and Jews were caught in that push and pull between mainstream American white identity and the kind of old world identities of the pre-World War II years, balancing English and Yiddish and Hebrew. Hassidic populations were on the rise in the United States after World War II. And so there was all these different identities and what we loved is that you looked at Tikva Records and Allen B. Jacobs just said, well, I'm not going to try to choose one of these; I'm going to try to market and cater to all them.

So the entire catalog is this grab bag of identities and styles that speaks to all of these different changing political affiliations. Of course, you know, the rise, you know, the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. So there's a lot of new material on the roster that speaks to the kind of growing power of Israel in the American imagination. So it's all there.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned the birth of the state of Israel kind of coinciding with the birth of Tikva Records and that leads to the next recording I want to play. And this is by Avram Grobard who was Israeli. So tell us a little bit about who he was and about this recording that you featured on the new anthology.

KUN: So Avram began, I guess, as an Israeli paratrooper who ends up coming to the United States as an accordionist and as a singer but also as a nightclub owner. He owned a fairly successful nightclub in Manhattan called El Avram and it was called that, not because he's Latino in any way but because it used to be a flamenco bar owned by a Puerto Rican.

And Avram couldn't afford to completely redo the marquis so he left "El" up there and he stuck his first name on the marquis and it became, you know, a Jewish and Israeli nightclub. He called the music Mediterranean bouillabaisse of sound.

GROSS: The nightclub used to be called El Chico and he changed to El Avram. Yeah.

KUN: Exactly right. Exactly right. And he now – he still is with us, so much so that he has recreated the nightclub in the basement of his home in New Jersey. So if you go to Avram's house and knock on the door he will take you downstairs. And he has meticulously recreated the nightclub in his basement.

GROSS: So this is Avram Grobard recorded in 1968 and it's included on the anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AVRAM GROBARD: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: So that's Avram Grobard from the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Kun and he's one of the four members of the Idelsohn Society which is dedicated to finding well known and obscure Jewish recordings and rereleasing them and giving them new life.

The new anthology they've brought out is called "Song for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Josh Kun. He's one of the members of the Idelsohn Society, a small group that tries to rediscover Jewish recordings and find new ways of getting them to an audience. So they have a new anthology called "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." So tell us a little bit about the founder of the label, Allen Jacobs. He had owned other labels before starting Tikva. What was his plan on starting Tikva Records?

You call this his biggest gamble. Why was it a gamble?

KUN: It was, well, he was a gambler. He was really kind of a hustler and an entrepreneur, really trying to make his way in the record business. But it seems clear to us, the more that we talk to folks and spoke to the kids of many of the artists who are on the records, that, you know, he was somebody who wanted – who saw this as a business opportunity.

But really saw this as a chance to produce records inexpensively, to record them very quickly, to put the cover art together, in most cases, himself with his trusty pair of scissors. And, as most believe, cutting his masters together himself, often in some sloppy ways that you can hear on some of the records in an attempt to cater to what he saw was a massive audience of American Jewish record buyers.

And, you know, the result was this, again, this kind of grab bag of styles and sounds.

GROSS: Did you get a sense that he really loved music or that he was just in it for the money?

KUN: It's a mix of both. I mean, there's clearly elements, I think, the more we looked at a lot of the stuff and especially talking to a lot of the kids of the artists that, you know, saw him as someone who wanted to put stuff out quickly. And there is a rushed quality to a lot of the records. They sound real good on the anthology but when you listen to a lot of the original vinyl, you can hear the edits on the vinyl.

You know, you can hear where the tape comes together in a lot of ways. So he would rush through them but it's clear he had to love the music. I mean, he spent, you know, from the late '40s to the '70s collecting this stuff and putting it out and, you know, I doubt he was making a fortune off of it.

So I think that the love had to be there. And I think that shows in the range of materials and in the joy that so much of the music has within it.

GROSS: Now, the Idelsohn Society which you're part of which produced this new Tikva Records anthology, among other things, they're named after Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the musicologist who wrote "Hava Nagila." Now, when I read that I thought somebody wrote "Hava Nagila?" I thought that was like an old folk song by anonymous.

KUN: Yeah. The melody is actually an ancient Hassidic tune, but the lyrics were written fairly recently in the 19-teens by Idelsohn and his students at the music school that he started in what is now Israel but then was Palestine. And Idelsohn was the, you know, the man responsible for giving us these lyrics that, you know, has become the kind of great global Jewish anthem.

GROSS: So what do the lyrics mean in English?

KUN: They are a command to be joyous and be happy and rejoice, rejoice, rejoice. One of the happiest songs ever written and, you know, again it's – but I think what's also important for us about that tune is it's something that people think of as so Jewish. I mean, it's the ultimate Jewish song and yet it's been covered by everyone.

I mean, it's been covered at least, you know, in the U.S. something like 200 times and it got famous in the United States, you know, by Harry Belafonte.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

KUN: That - yeah. I mean, when he performed that song live at Carnegie Hall in, I believe it was 1959, it pushed that song into the folk music world and kind of made it into a pop anthem, something that so many people have grown up with. I think that's also what is kind of symbolic of the work that we're interested in, is this stuff that is in a way Jewish at its core and yet it is also not Jewish in its routes and its travels. And we're kind of interested in following all those pathways.

I mean, what's also, I should say, interesting about Idelsohn is he's someone that as a musicologist devoted much of his life to – you know, we often think of him as like a Latvian Alan Lomax, that, you know, he would roam the Middle East, you know, looking for songs that he could compile to say this is Jewish music.

He would do multivolume encyclopedias of music as a way to try to define Jewish identity.

GROSS: So as you pointed out, there are so many recordings of "Hava Nagila" yet none of them are on your anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Set." Did Tikva not record "Hava Nagila?" Or did it not record good versions of it?

KUN: There were some "Hava Nagila" versions, none of which were as outstanding as "Hava Nagila" should be. One of the projects we have in the near future is to do a compilation of only "Hava Nagila" versions. It's going to be about 20 different versions of "Hava Nagila" which will either make you completely insane...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KUN: ...or will bring you nothing but endless joy.

GROSS: Okay. So, you know, it's interesting. I think probably the majority of Jewish-Americans who came of age in America while Tikva was releasing records – 1950 to 1973 – are the progeny of Eastern European Jews. But the next recording I want to play from your anthology is by a Sephardic Jew, someone who was from Morocco.

KUN: Yes.

GROSS: And this is an interesting recording and he has an interesting personal story. So tell us a little bit about him before we hear the record.

KUN: Yes. This is the "Moroccan Prince" as he became known, you know, in the U.S., the great Jo Amar. And Jo Amar was born in Morocco but ends up coming to Israel and within Israel becoming the main importer and popularizer of Sephardic melodies and so-called Eastern melodies. And he was instrumental in popularizing, you know, the musics of Morocco, of North Africa, of the Sephardic past, into a kind of hybridized pop and spiritual sound.

GROSS: Well, Josh Kun, thank you so much for talking with us.

KUN: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Josh Kun is one of the producers of the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story 1950 to 1973." We'll close with a recording by the singer we were just talking about, Jo Amar. It's called "L'Oriental," and as you can guess by the title, it's sung in French.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, L'ORIENTAL)

JO AMAR: (Singing in French) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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