Jewish Journal

Leaders of the Pack

A new book recounts the large Jewish influence on rock 'n' roll, but misses a few beats.

by Richard A. Macales

Posted on Feb. 20, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"Rock 'n' Roll Jews," by Professor Michael Billig (Syracuse University Press, $19.95).

If you "Treat Me Nice," "Save the Last Dance for Me," or once were "A Teenager in Love," chances are you are old enough to remember the early, "innocent" years of rock 'n' roll music.

For Baby Boomers, especially (the core audience for this book, images of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Fabian and Dion immediately come to mind. All were white, male-macho, handsome ... and not Jewish (with the possible exception of Elvis, if you want to count his maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Tackett, who was allegedly Jewish).

White racists disparagingly referred to "their" music and body movements as being from "the jungle." Mothers, politicians (Southerners, especially) and clergy alike worried that rock music would rot the morality of their children. To classical music aficionados, rock was merely a geological formation, certainly not a musical form.

Nevertheless, it has not only endured for a half-century, but rock music has created a volcano in popular world culture. Today rock music is a multibillion dollar industry, by far the most profitable and distributed of all musical genres.

In "Rock 'n' Roll Jews" -- a personal passion of Professor Michael Billig of England's Loughborough University -- we discover that Jews were, and continue to be, major players in the rock industry. For every "name" performer, like Bette Midler, there are hundreds of behind-the-scenes Jewish figures who have enabled rock to thrive.

To Billig, rock is very "Jewish." Never mind, he writes, that many of the top artists, songwriters and producers have an affinity for Christmas songs, amours with non-Jews, Gospel music and the sounds of the African American and Latino "street." Several Jewish rockers -- rebellious souls by nature -- had an equally passionate dislike of their Jewish names, musical roots and sometimes their parents. Irving Berlin, who popularized Tin Pan Alley music (the forerunner of rock), was a commercially successful role model for many of the pioneer Jewish rock 'n' rollers.

The heroes of Billig's rich work are not the household names we recognize as performers. Rather, they are the obscure and often tormented lives of songwriters with names like Doc Pomus (R&B songwriter for Elvis), who was confined to a wheelchair due to childhood polio.

Other personalities in the book include Los Angeles' own enigmatic producer, Phil Spector. The still-active Spector, who was recently arrested on suspicion of murder at his Alhambra home, penned the hit "To Know Him is To Love Him," based on the inscription on the tombstone of his father who took his own life. Another interesting story is told of Lou Reed, the urban music legend of "Take A Walk on the Wild Side" fame. He wrote racy lyrics at a time when radio stations were fearful of having their licenses lifted by the Federal Communications Commission. We also find colorful sketches of Monterey Rock Music Festival maven Lou Adler, but not his co-producer, Holocaust survivor Bill Graham. And then there are the "black lyrics" of co-writers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.

Billig also attempts to tackle one of the most long-standing anti-Semitic charges made about the music industry: that Jews and other whites have expropriated "black music" (i.e., rock) and exploited African American musicians. The rock music charts in the pre-Civil Rights years tell a much different story. Billig defends the role of the Jews. He observes that Jews wrote, produced and successfully distributed to white radio stations many top hits for black groups. In those days, non-Jewish-owned stations did not want to offend listeners ,so they tried to play the same songs, originally performed by black groups, with WASPish "cover" singers such as Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone.

The author explains why Neil Sedaka became one of the first outwardly Jewish performers in rock's early years. Sedaka was the antithesis of the male sexual predator macho artist and usually performed on the piano in classical music garb. His publicist always made it a point to remind everyone that Sedaka was trained on classical piano by none other than the virtuoso Artur Rubinstein. This fact has even been mentioned on the TV show "Jeopardy."

Only in the "counterculture" 1960s did other obviously Jewish performers surface. The nonethnic Tom and Jerry of the 1950s became the very Jewish Simon and Garfunkel of the 1960s and '70s. Billy Joel, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is another rock idol of the new type. Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow represent a middle-of-the-road musical sound and a very Jewish persona.

Paradoxically, the two groups that bemoan "satanic" rock music the most -- Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews -- both use this medium to effectively communicate the human relationship to God. For trivia buffs, Norman Greenbaum is the Jewish singer-songwriter behind one of the most popular Christian rock songs of all-time, "Spirit in the Sky." Yet, he never converted to Christianity. He just liked the sound, words and imagery.

Like it or not, rock 'n' roll music has a major impact on our culture.  

Richard A. Macales was a music publicist for many years at UCLA Extension.

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