It looks ridiculously easy. You pull together a dozen or so of your favorite recordings, put them on a CD and release them to an adoring public. But it took Simon Rutberg a dozen years to bring to fruition a lifelong dream, a compilation album that showcases his favorite Jewish and Yiddish classics, sung by an unlikely group of pop, rock and classical artists. Happily for Rutberg, the album, “Jewish Soul: The Heart and Soul of Jewish Music” is ready for Chanukah.
It didn’t come easy. Where Rutberg is concerned, despite a lifetime in the music business, it seldom does.
Rutberg’s background is as unconventional as his new CD. He was born in Russia, lived in Belgium as a child and came to the United States with his parents when he was “7 or 8,” he recalled. When he was 10, the family moved to Los Angeles, and he’s been here ever since.
“Los Angeles was a very different music scene,” he said. “I lived in a working-class, ethnically mixed neighborhood, and the kids were listening to rhythm and blues, not rock and roll. I grew up listening to the Clovers and the Chantels, but I went to them from Kay Starr and Doris Day. My parents listened to classical music at home, so I can appreciate anything.”
In the meantime, he and his brother would walk to shul every Saturday morning, and Simon sang with the congregation’s junior choir — so to say that his musical background was eclectic is an understatement. When the family moved to Fairfax Avenue, he started hanging out at Norty’s Music, a legendary record store on Fairfax. Eventually, the kid was such a fixture that Norty offered him a job.
“The guy who was working there already, who trained me, was Steve Barri, who went on to write ‘Secret Agent Man’ [with P.F. Sloan] and songs for Jan and Dean,” Rutberg said. “The guy before him was Jerry Lieber. The store was only a block from Fairfax High and among the kids who would come in and hang around were Phil Spector and a young guy called Herbie Alpert.”
The store’s stock, Rutberg recalled, was “half Yiddish, half everything else.”
Rutberg had one foot in r&b and the other in Jewish music. He became a very close friend of the legendary Jackie Wilson and Billy Johnson, one of the original Moonglows. Ironically, it was Johnson, whose father had raised him in the Jewish section of Cleveland and was a fluent Yiddish speaker, who turned Rutberg on to Mickey Katz, who became a close friend, too.
Norty’s was in a neighborhood “where you heard more Yiddish spoken than English,” Rutberg said. “And a lot of people in the entertainment industry, mostly Jewish, would come in. They all had wonderful stories. Leo Fuchs would tell me about Poland. Leonard Nimoy used to hang out.
“I thought, ‘This is the place for me, I’m gonna be a big macher,’ ” Rutberg said with a rueful laugh. “I figured someday I’d take over the whole thing. Instead I ended up with the Yiddish.”
He opened his own store, Hatikvah Music, a successor to Norty’s that specialized exclusively in Jewish music. It was a bad bet.
As the neighborhood changed over the years, the walk-in business dwindled. Eventually, Rutberg closed down the brick-and-mortar version of Hatikvah, and now it exists only on the Internet. As Hatikvah Music, Rutberg has been responsible for the re-release of some gems, particularly a Barton Brothers CD and albums by the Barry Sisters and Theodore Bikel’s output on Elektra Records. But “Jewish Soul” is a cherished project.
“The album came about in a very strange way,” he explained. “When I first started listening to Jewish music, it seemed hokey to me. I didn’t understand it then. I knew nothing about Jewish music when I started hearing a singer named Mimi Sloan. The voice impressed me. I never forgot that.”
(In fact, one of Rutberg’s previous projects was a reissue of a Sloan set.)
“Then Jackie released an album that was a tribute to Al Jolson in 1961,” he continues. “He had five hits on the charts, why would he do a Jolson album? Because Jolson was one of his idols. I started saving up Jewish songs by artists I liked, a lot of them non-Jews or singers who were identified with a different musical tradition. If I ever could make an album, this is what I would do.”
Getting the rights to a baker’s dozen of recordings was a chore that dragged on for years.
“I held out for one artist for a year-and-a-half, another for three years,” Rutberg said. “I did the album for myself. You can hear the Jewishness in every song, but you can hear the artist’s individual style, too. Every once in a while a song I liked wouldn’t make it because it didn’t flow into the others. And I wanted it to be good music so that you can appreciate it even if you’re not Jewish.”
The result is a dazzling, variegated blend that draws on Rutberg’s encyclopedic knowledge of ’50s and ’60s pop and includes such unlikely performers as Sir Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Eartha Kitt and Simon’s beloved Jackie Wilson. There are a couple of surprising Jewish ringers, too, perhaps none more unexpected than Jay and the Americans.
“Jay Black grew up in an Orthodox home,” Rutberg notes. “He sang as a kid in Moshe Koussevitzky’s backing choir.” Who knew?
If you are looking for a Chanukah gift for a younger – much younger – audience, two new CDs from Dafna should tickle the musical tastes of the children on your gift list. “Eight: Chanukah With Dafna!” and “Shelanu,” both on the Shir Fun label, offer a tasty blend of folk, rock and reggae that is geared to kids but shouldn’t be anathema to their parents. You can find them at shirfun.com.
Finally, if you want something a little more exotic and a little more hard-edged, check out “Sephardic Music Festival, Volume 1,” a selection of highlights from the first five years of Shemspeed’s annual Chanukah extravaganza. The compilation ranges from hip-hop to Sephardi soul and should have something everyone can dance to. Available from sephardicmusicfestival.com.