For much of his very long life, Irving Berlin was dogged by rumors that he had plagiarized many of his best-known songs. In the most widely circulated version of this canard, it was whispered that a “little colored boy” actually wrote Berlin’s early hits. Andy Razaf, a black songwriter who was thought by some to have been the “colored boy” in question, unequivocally denied it:
I, for one, would like to see this ridiculous legend placed in a coffin and given a permanent burial….[I]f such a “colored boy” existed, many would-be [song] writers today could really use him. To think of it, I could give him some part-time work myself.
Still, the rumor—for which there is no evidence whatsoever—continues to circulate, and one of the underlying reasons for its persistence is the widespread belief that black musicians were victimized throughout the 20th century by whites who stole their music and profited from doing so. This mistaken conviction, which in its extreme form borders on conspiracy theory, arises from the undeniable fact that while blacks played central roles in the emergence and development of many major styles in American popular music, including jazz and rock, it was white musicians who in most cases introduced these styles to the general public—thus reaping a larger share of the resulting profits.
Moreover, it was once common for whites to receive sole credit in the popular press for stylistic innovations that were originally made as a whole or in part by blacks. Just as Berlin, Al Jolson, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, George Gershwin, and Paul Whiteman were variously described as “creators” of jazz, so was Elvis Presley later portrayed as having “created” rock. Such distortions of a far more complex historical reality were so widely (and understandably) resented by blacks that it has lately become almost as common for journalists of both races to ignore the unique and significant contributions of these and other white artists to American popular music.
Because Jews—Berlin, Gershwin, and Jolson among them—have been intimately involved in every aspect of pop music since its gestation, it was inevitable that this dispute would eventually acquire anti-Semitic overtones, especially since so many black jazz and pop musicians have relied on Jewish managers and record-company executives to direct their careers. It is no secret that these men did not always behave scrupulously toward their clients. Judged by today’s standards, the business arrangements between such black artists as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Joe Glaser and Irving Mills, their Jewish managers, were unquestionably exploitative.
Some black musicians have expressed open resentment at the conduct of Jews in the music business. In 1973, Miles Davis said of Columbia, his longtime record label, “they don’t do anything for you unless you’re white or Jewish.” But outright anti-Semitism is and has always been relatively uncommon among black artists. Louis Armstrong is a case in point. Far from resenting Glaser for having taken financial advantage of him, Armstrong had a quasi-filial relationship with his manager, and his feelings toward the Jewish people as a group can fairly be described as philo-Semitic. Many of the most prominent black musicians of Armstrong’s time were not only aware of the Jewish contribution to American popular music, but held those who made it in the highest esteem.
A little-known side of the relationship between black and Jewish musicians has now been documented by the release of Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a CD released by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a New York–based group of record collectors who chronicle the history of the Jews by reissuing rare recordings of Jewish music. Black Sabbath, which can be ordered online at idelsohnsociety.com, contains 15 performances by blacks of songs mostly written by Jews that (according to the producers) “shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans.”
The recordings themselves are obscure, but the performers are not: Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and the Temptations are some of the artists featured on Black Sabbath. There, for example, can be heard a 1958 rendition of “Kol Nidre,” the grave prayer that begins Yom Kippur, sung by, of all people, Johnny Mathis. A few of these performances are little more than novelties, but others are both historically informative and powerfully moving, both as works of popular art and as documents of a relationship fraught with both mutual admiration and mutual suspicion.
The resemblance between Jewish cantorial singing and black popular music, with its bluesy microtonal inflections of pitch and melismatic vocal ornamentation, has long been a commonplace of American music criticism. The composer Harold Arlen, whose father was a cantor in Buffalo and whose own songs, “Blues in the Night” and “Stormy Weather” in particular, were strongly influenced by jazz and the blues, liked to tell the following story:
I brought home a record of Louis Armstrong, I don’t remember now which it was. My father spoke in Yiddish. And you have to remember, he was brought into this country originally to Louisville, Kentucky, so he must have picked up some of the blacks’ inflection down there. Anyway, I played him this record, and there was a musical riff in there—we used to call it a “hot lick”—that Louis did. And my father looked at me, and he was stunned. And he asked in Yiddish, “Where did he get it?”
In fact, Armstrong “got it” by having been exposed to Jewish music as a child in New Orleans, and other black musicians of his generation had similar formative encounters. But early jazz critics (as well as many musicians) took the resemblance between black and Jewish music to be a natural consequence of the similar historical experiences of the two ethnic groups.
Ethel Waters’s oft-quoted explanation of why she made the Yiddish song “Eli, Eli” a part of her cabaret repertoire is revealing in this connection:
It tells the tragic history of the Jews as much as one song can, and that history of their age-old grief and despair is so similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race too.
The response of Jewish-American musicians to black popular music is woven into the national musical DNA. The vast majority of American popular songwriters in the first half of the 20th century were Jewish, and most of them were deeply influenced by black music. In addition, many prominent jazz musicians have been Jewish, and a few of them, Artie Shaw in particular, deliberately sought in their music to amalgamate black and Jewish elements.
What is less well known is the reciprocal response of black musicians to what might be called “ethnically” Jewish music. Not only were many of them aware of it, but some also performed and recorded it, and did so in a way that made their awareness explicit. Cab Calloway, for instance, was clearly influenced by cantorial singing, as can be heard in the 1939 recording of “Utt Da Zay” included on Black Sabbath. In this swinging lament, adapted by two Jewish songwriters from a Yiddish ballad about the life of a tailor, Calloway sings two lengthy wordless cadenzas that leave no doubt of his familiarity with synagogue chant.
Of comparable interest is Johnny Mathis’s “Kol Nidre.” Mathis, who listened closely to cantors as a teenager in San Francisco, learned the prayer from a 1953 recording by the Italian-American pop singer Perry Como that was, like Mathis’s 1958 performance, sung in the original Aramaic. But unlike Como, who had a smooth, beautifully placed baritone voice of modest size, Mathis is a large-voiced tenor who in his youth received extensive classical training, and his recording of “Kol Nidre,” if not quite idiomatic, is nonetheless both palpably sincere and unexpectedly poignant.
Several of the other selections on Black Sabbath are no less illuminating. Just as a private recording of Billie Holiday singing Sophie Tucker’s “My Yiddishe Momme” in 1956 reveals that Holiday was at the very least familiar with Tucker’s own interpretation of the song, so are Alberta Hunter’s bilingual version of the Yiddish theater song “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb” (“I Love You Too Much”) and Nina Simone’s live recording of the popular Israeli folk song “Eretz Zavat Chalav” (“Land of Milk and Honey”) indicative of a knowledge of Jewish music within the black community that is more wide-ranging than is commonly supposed.
Illuminating in a different way are performances of the “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler on the Roof and the theme from Ernest Gold’s score for Exodus by the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and the jazz singer Jimmy Scott. While these compositions are evocations of traditional Jewish music rather than the thing itself, they are nonetheless vividly evocative of Hebrew chant, and it is striking to hear the unabashed passion that Adderley and Scott wring out of their mournful minor-key melodies.
The other selections on Black Sabbath, however, are for the most part curiosities, albeit fascinating ones. It is startling, for instance, to hear the Temptations, one of the most prominent black vocal groups of the 60s, stroll through a smoothly soulful nine-minute medley from Fiddler on the Roof in which they transform the familiar songs of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick virtually beyond recognition. Eartha Kitt’s “Sholem,” on the other hand, is absurdly campy, while “Now!,” a kitschy civil-rights anthem written for Lena Horne in 1963 by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne, is a blush-making souvenir from the dawn of radical chic, set to the tune of “Hava Nagila”: “The message of this song’s not subtle/No discussion, no rebuttal/We want more than just a promise/Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas.”
Do the recordings collected on Black Sabbath add up to proof of a significant Jewish influence on black popular music in America? That is a matter of definition. It goes without saying—or should—that Jewish-American songwriters left an enduring mark on their black contemporaries, one that lasted well into the age of rock. Not only do the works of Arlen, Gershwin, Berlin, and the other creators of the “great American songbook” continue to be performed by singers and instrumentalists of all races, but many of the biggest hits recorded by black rhythm-and-blues singers in the 50s and 60s were penned by such younger Jewish songwriters as Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Doc Pomus, and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
At the same time, though, there seems to be little evidence that black musicians as a group were influenced by specifically Jewish musical styles. In his liner notes for Black Sabbath, Josh Kun proudly cites “the famous Cab Calloway story of how Louis Armstrong once told him that Armstrong’s heralded scat singing on ‘Heebie Jeebies’ was inspired by the sound of Jewish davening.” But this secondhand anecdote ignores the fact that Armstrong did not invent scat singing, and he is not known to have made the same claim on any other occasion, nor does it appear in Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Calloway’s 1976 memoir.
On balance, then, it seems more likely that these recordings are demonstrative not so much of influence as of affinity—a recognition on the part of the black artists who made them that they had much in common with Jews, both musically and in a larger cultural sense. This affinity is aptly summed up in one of the epigraphs to Black Sabbath, which comes from Brother Ray, the 1978 autobiography of Ray Charles: “If someone besides a black ever sings the real gutbucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
The original context in which Charles made this remark is worthy of fuller quotation:
I have enormous respect for what the Jews have made of themselves, especially in America. They had their program together before anybody else, and they’ve kept it together…Blacks and Jews are hooked up and bound together by a common history of persecution, and that’s probably why I’ve always been interested in Judaism. I’ve always seen Jews as the earliest defenders of black causes in this country, particularly at a time—in the forties—when no one else was breathing a word.
Whatever else it does or does not do, Black Sabbath serves as a reminder that there was a time when blacks were both aware of such things and willing to acknowledge them in a way that has in recent years become sadly uncommon. Perhaps it is in the end no more than amusing to hear the black jazz balladeer Johnny Hartman sing a 1966 version of Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic” into which he interpolates a verse from the Jewish immigrant song “Di Grine Kuzine” (“The Greenhorn Cousin”) sung in flawless Yiddish. But the very fact that Hartman thought it would be amusing for him to do so also says something important about what America was like in 1966—and how greatly it has changed since then.