As my wife kids me when she says that, “ Smells are a part of my life.” She is referring to my alleged keen sense of the olfactory. I am told that your memory of smells lasts well into senility. That comforts me. Carol also knows that music has been and continues to be the one constant in my life that has meaning to me on a daily basis. I still turn on the radio ( now satellite) and listen to the songs of my era- late 40’s and the first 10 years of Rock and Roll. As a 70 year old driving a big van, it must seem odd to passerbys that this old fellow is still singing There Goes My Baby at the top of his lungs and register.
It is not an accident that I still sing. My grandmother taught me all kinds of Yiddish songs- some pretty ribald as I learned later on. My mother sang well into her 80’s and my sister Renee sang on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. She still can sing in her late 70’s and does not find it unusual that I enter her home singing some sort of old tune that she can sing to. Our two children are also musical. Our son and daughter both sang in a show choir and did some travelling with the group.
Only one of us has really sung professionally- me. While I was in yeshiva, I was approached by a gentleman named Oscar Julius. To this day I have no idea how he knew who I was or how to find me. Someone at the school must have told him that I could sing. Mr. Julius had a professional choir that sang at weddings, bar mitzvahs and at high holy day services in Reformed temples. So, for some time when I was about 9 years old, I sat among a group of older men and sang Hebrew songs and once in a while, “Oh Promise Me,” at weddings. At one point, I followed the bride down the aisle singing that song.
I was taken to each of these venues by my sister. There was no other person to do it. I thank her to this day for her kindness. I got paid $60 for my efforts every three months or so and gave all of my money to my mother. I am not sure why all of this ended. Perhaps it was too much to drag me around to all of these places, sometimes as far away as New Jersey. Since we did not have a car, it took a long while to get to anywhere.
Sometime after my stint with the choir, my next door neighbors, the Hahns, informed me that there was a part for me in a Yiddish play that was being produced. Mrs. Hahn was the typical stage mother, working father, son who was musically talented and daughter who eventually became an actress in England. Son Herbie could not speak Yiddish, so the part was impossible for him.
The play was written and directed my Herman Yablakoff. He had been part of the Yiddish Theater Circuit and was preparing to take a troupe of players to all of the Displaced Persons Camps in Europe. I auditioned for him and became part of the troupe. At the first rehearsal, I sang one of his most famous songs, a tear jerker called Papirossen ( cigartettes). “ Please buy my cigarettes, dry and not wet from the rain, please buy from me. . . My father lost his hands in the war, my mother soon died from the problems, by beautiful sister fell ill and died in my arms, etc. As in so many Jewish plays, Traggegies (tragedies) were the most popular. The most popular of the plays were those translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies- Othello, MacBeth, Julius Caesar. “Now those were great Traggegies,” said my grandmother. I guess this was all part of the Jewish culture and theatre history.
The fly in the ointment of my budding Yiddish Theatre career was grandma. She had no idea that this play would take me away from home. Our first stop was going to be in Montreal to try out the play. She would hear nothing of it. And like my sister going to Brandeis a number of years later, we should not go away from home. Her fierce and stolid position of these sorts never stimulated a response from any of us. We were beholden to grandma for our very existence and we would never buck her. So, my singing of Yiddish songs was restricted to my home and my grandma’s smiles as I sang Romania, Romania.
My career in music was halted during the next 12 years and sprang full born into a chance for a rock and roll career in 1959. Some acquaintances of my mother heard me sing at the luncheonette that she worked at 35th and 7th avenue in New York City. I had been hired there as a runner to take orders up to workers in the garment industry in the many buildings that surrounded us. The owners of the luncheonette were somehow involved in the music business as a sideline. I was said to be a vocal carbon copy of Gene Pitney. I practiced “Every Little Breath I Take,” on a daily basis. My career ended with an attempt at a record which went nowhere. I have never regretted that I did not continue that career. My life, so far, has been much more interesting.