May 29, 2008
When legendary songsters such as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were working on various incarnations of “the great American songbook,” veteran record producer Brooks Arthur wondered: why not create a representative album in the Jewish idiom?
Arthur, a multiple Grammy winner, ruminated on the idea for more than a decade while working with artists like Bette Midler, Janis Ian, Jackie Mason, Adam Sandler, and countless others.
In a telephone interview from his home in southern California, the Brooklyn-born Arthur explained the arduous process of bringing his “baby” — The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People — to market.
In the liner notes for the album, Arthur described the type of music he considered representative of his scheme.
“It’s as if every song they played [on WEVD-AM], every song that my grandparents and my Mom and Dad taught me from the Jewish songbook, somehow miraculously replaced my bone marrow with Yiddish ‘song marrow.’”
Part of the huge “jigsaw puzzle” was coordinating the talent whose songs appear on the album. “Most of [them] are friends of mine, so the calls to them were relatively easy.” Arthur proposed song ideas he thought fit their styles; he soon learned they wanted a more active role in finding just the right tune. “It was a meeting of the minds: the artists and the songs that they loved and that influenced them in their youth by their parents or by themselves, and the songs I suggested.”
For example, Arthur had worked with Sandler — the comic actor and Saturday Night Live alumnus — on the popular “Chanukah Song,” a tuneful list of Jewish celebrities.
“My inclination was to give him something from the funny side, [but] he said he wanted to do a song that would make his heart hurt — in the positive side — and make him feel good.” The result is a sweet rendition of “Hine Ma Tov,” with Marcelo Gindlin, cantor of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, where Sandler and his family attend.
While the singers were enthusiastic in their participation, responses from record companies were not so promising, Arthur said. Fortunately, he eventually found Harold Bronson and Richard Foos of Rhino Records, who agreed that the project was worth developing. Deciding on the songs was relatively easy. It was much harder to juggle all the schedules. “That was brutal,” he said. It took more than two years to complete the album.
The Jewish Songbook features such industry luminaries as Jason Alexander.
Photos courtesy Brooks Arthur, Brooks Arthur Archives
Some, such as Herb Alpert (“Mein Shtetele Belz”), Marvin Hamlisch (“Hatikvah” with vocalist Kenny Karen), and Neil Sedaka, who sings a haunting version of “My Yiddishe Mama,” have been out of the public eye for years.
“Neil’s always loved his Yiddish roots. We grew up together, so to speak, as people and in the music industry. He’s always been attached to his Yiddishkeit,” Arthur said.
“What I’ve notice in all of these performers as I recorded the sessions: I learned a phenomenon called the pintele yid, the light in your heart. Sometimes it glows less and sometimes it glows greater.” He offered the Holocaust as an extreme example. “It would glow less…but even then it was glowing, the flame was never put out. And when the artists stepped up to the microphone and did these songs, you could see their pintele yid: their eyes were glowing, their hearts were glowing. It was mystical on some levels.” Arthur said he could practically see them connecting with their ancestors.
The roster of musical veterans acquitted themselves as expected, but in addition to Sandler, a few not generally known for their singing proved remarkable. Arthur said the biggest surprise was Robert Smigel, another SNL associate, who, in the persona of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, belts out the intricate “Mahzel (Means Good Luck).” The fast-paced swing number was often used as a set closer for Italian entertainers in Pocono Mountains resorts in the 1950s. “That’s a ‘Yiddish theater-at-its-finest’ kind of a performance,” Arthur said.
Although Barbra Streisand’s schedule made it impossible to record a track of her own, she thought the Songbook worthy enough to allow Arthur to include a recording of “Avinu Malkenu,” which serves as the final cut. “It’s a wonderful way to wrap up the album,” he said.
The Manhattan Transfer
Arthur himself does a nice turn on “Sheyn Vi Di L’Vone” with Lainie Kazan. He said it brought back memories of his days singing at Greenhut Park, a bungalow colony owned by an aunt and uncle in Ironia. “[It was] the New Jersey Borscht Belt back in the day.”
In addition to the fun of bringing the Songbook to fruition, there was another, basic Jewish concept involved: tzedaka.
“Everybody on this album is contributing at least 50 percent of their royalties and their advance to Jewish charities,” Arthur said, with some contributing their entire proceeds. “The label and I are contributing a chunk of money as well.”
Arthur laughed at the suggestion that a “Volume 2” might be in the works. “God willing, but what a dream that would be,” said Arthur, who would only list his age as “senior citizen.”
The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of A People will be released on June 3. Some snippets of the CD may be viewed on their MySpace page.
In addition to the aforementioned tunes, the 13 tracks (“The 12 tribes and the lost tribe,” Arthur said) include:
• The Lower East Side-inspired “Utt Da Zay,” by The Manhattan Transfer
• “Raisins and Almonds,” by saxophonist David Koz
• “Bagel & Lox,” by Rob Schneider, another former Saturday Night Live veteran
• New Jersey’s own Jason Alexander on Allen Sherman’s classic, “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max”
• Paul Shaffer, band leader for The Late Show with David Letterman, teams up with stone-faced comedian-cum-TV cop Richard Belzer in “Joe and Paul,” a parody of Yiddish programming on WEVD.
• Theodore Bikel, who played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, reprises the musical’s “Sabbath Prayer” with Betsy Hammer
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