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Johnny Mathis' Jewish covers strike chord for Idelsohn Society

Mathis' renditions of spirituals appear on a new collection, 'Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,' which features legendary black singers covering Jewish songs.

August 19, 2010|By David Mermelstein, Special to the Los Angeles Times

At a time when the relationship between African Americans and American Jews seems largely irrelevant to the national conversation, the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is directing its gaze back at a different era. Not the early 1990s, when tensions between the two communities exploded into riots in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, but to the days more than 30 years prior, when blacks and Jews reached across the divide to embrace commonalities.

It's the driving force behind "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations," the society's latest collection of music, available Sept. 14 as a compact disc and digital download. An exhibit of the same name, opening Aug. 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, will augment the album.

In addition, the society — a nonprofit organization formed and run by four nostalgia-loving, middle-aged Jewish men — will honor the ageless balladeer Johnny Mathis on Thursday night at the Skirball Cultural Center, where another Idelsohn exhibit, "Jews on Vinyl," remains on view through Sept. 5.

Mathis is to receive the inaugural Idelsohn Society Honors, an award the organization plans on bestowing annually. "Our goal is that we will pay tribute to key figures in American-Jewish music whose stories have not been told," said Josh Kun, a professor at USC's Annenberg School and one of the Idelsohn's four charter members.

How Mathis, who turns 75 next month, meets Kun's description is what "Black Sabbath" is all about. In 1958, Mathis, then at the height of his fame, recorded an album titled "Good Night, Dear Lord." Conceived as a tribute to his mother, it included spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Deep River," two versions of "Ave Maria" and three unexpected selections: the Yiddish hymn "Eli Eli"; a song about the Warsaw Ghetto, "Where Can I Go?"; and an abbreviated rendition of "Kol Nidre," the Aramaic liturgical chant sung at the start of Yom Kippur.

The suggestion to include those three items apparently came from Mathis' arranger, Percy Faith, and his producer, the late Mitch Miller. Both men were Jewish, and according to the singer, "They heard such music all the time and didn't think there was anything strange about it."

For Mathis, the impetus to place material of different faiths on one record came from his own broad views about worship. "I've always felt a kinship to all religions," he said, dressed casually and staring out a picture window at his house in the hills above Sunset Plaza earlier this week. "I was never concerned about what kind of religious music I was singing. What mattered was that it gave me a lot of satisfaction."

Now his version of "Kol Nidre" caps the "Black Sabbath" album. "It was definitely a catalyst for the project," said Courtney Holt, president of MySpace Music and another Idelsohn founder. "Black Sabbath" opens with Billie Holiday singing "My Yiddishe Momme" and includes rarities like the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley playing "Sabbath Prayer" from "Fiddler on the Roof" and Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone giving spirited renditions of familiar Hebrew songs.

But entertainment is only one goal of the Idelsohn Society, which is named after Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, a Latvian-born cantor who in the early 20th century essentially created modern Jewish ethnomusicology. "We revisit history through music," Holt said. "Our records are not just for lean-back listening. They are also to inspire conversations. We see them as part of a larger curriculum."

For Gayle Wald, a professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who studies African American culture and popular music, "Black Sabbath" explores a lesser-known aspect of a wider field.

"While the story of Jewish interest in African American music is well known, we know a lot less about African American interest in Jewish music," she said. "American Jews in the mid-20th century were thrilled to hear black musicians doing songs in Hebrew or Yiddish. It somehow made them feel more American. And black performers apparently identified with the content of this music. The minor tones in 'Kol Nidre' and even 'Hava Nagila' were kind of Jewish blue notes, and black performers found something rewarding in it — and not as parody; they did it straight. That's what's so moving about it."

Mathis confirms her contention. "I always thought that blacks and Jews had this bond between them," the singer said. "It sounds like a cliché, because everybody has suffering in their lives, but black people and Jewish people seem to have risen above it, and one of the reasons is that music has given them inspiration."

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