We take a tune thatâ€™s sweet and low, and rock it solid and make it gold. -The Barry Sisters
Age is just a number, and mine is unlisted. -Claire Barry
Since 2005, the non-profit record label Reboot Stereophonic has dedicated itself to rescuing lost treasures of Jewish-American music. They did it with Irving Fields’ Bagels and Bongos. They did it with Fred Katz’s Folk Songs for Far Out Folk. They did it with the way-out Moog experiments of Beastie Boys hero Gershon Kingsley and they did it, most notoriously, with the outrageous vaudeville cylinders of Jewface.
Now it’s time for the incomparable Barry Sisters, the original swinging queens of Jewish pop crossover.
While some of The Barry Sisters’ music has been re-issued on greatest hits packages, their final full-length recording from 1973, Our Way, has remained a lost classic. Loaded with killer Yiddish versions of 70s radio hits, Our Way is begging to be re-discovered by a new generation of listeners.
It’s all part of the Reboot Stereophonic mission. Founded by a quartet of academics and music industry veterans, the label’s goal is to incite a new conversation about the present by listening anew to the past. They do it by unearthing lost classics from the archive, sounds that are languishing in thrift-store crates across the nation. The stories that accompany them have yet to be told: hybrid identities, eclectic communities, racial dialogue, and pioneering musical style. This is music that forces listeners to ask themselves who am I, what have I inherited, and what am I going to do about it?
Enter The Barry Sisters.
1973 might not have seemed like the ideal year for a revival of Yiddish pop.
Discotheques were starting to fill up with sweaty swingers, Iggy and the Stooges were harnessing grinding proto-punk rage into Raw Power, Marvin Gaye was singing about the Vietnam War and getting it on, and Pink Floyd were becoming dorm room hall-of-famers with Dark Side of the Moon. But for Claire and Merna Barry, the Bronx-raised sisters whose crystalline voices, bi-lingual pop fluency, stunning looks, and bullâ€™s eye harmonies had become synonymous with what the old-timers liked to call â€œJewish Jazz,â€ the timing was just right.
They would take Burt Bacharach and Hal Davidâ€™s â€œRaindrops Keep My Falling On My Head,â€ sing it in their trademark perky Yiddish and with their signature bandstand pluck, and the youth of America would heed the wake-up call.
Yiddish would be back with a vengeance.
â€œWe decided we would sing only the most popular songs of the day,â€ says Claire Barry, now in her unlisted 80s and living between Manhattan and Miami (Merna passed away in 1976). â€œWe wanted to make sure young people would listen to our music at that time. They had to find the music familiar. So we did songs they might know but sang in Yiddish! The hope was that maybe they would pick it up.â€
The result was Our Way, a project so improbable in Nixon-era America that the sisters subtitled it â€œTahka, Tahka,â€ Yiddish for â€œReally, Really.â€ Where else could you find Second Avenue Yiddish theater alongside Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Fiddler on the Roof next to upper West Side mink coats and Las Vegas lounges?
By 1973, it was hard to find Yiddish on new records. The once-dominant diaspora tongue that ruled the Jewish stage and the Jewish page hit a severe post-war decline. In the 1920s, there were so many Yiddish speakers in New York City that the Yiddish daily newspaper The Forward outsold The New York Times, but the combination of the Holocaustâ€™s decimation of an entire Yiddish-speaking world, the rise of Israel as a Hebrew speaking nation, and the upwardly mobile attraction of fifties suburban safety (goodbye tenement, hello Nassau County), helped ensure that Yiddish became optional, not essential, to Jewish-American identity. To make it the lingua franca of a seventies pop album was not simply an exercise in cultural nostalgiaâ€”it was a re-branding of a vanishing tradition for a new generation of potential disciples.
Originally released on Mainstream Records (a one time home to Janis Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, and Ted Nugent), the album connected with â€œyoung peopleâ€ that might not have been as young as the sisters had hoped for. They took on the 20s pop chestnut â€œTea For Two,â€ used Yiddish to return the vanilla Perry Como smash â€œItâ€™s Impossibleâ€ to its Mexican bolero roots, raided Hollywood for â€œLove Storyâ€ (imagine Ryan Oâ€™Neal crooning in Yiddish at the bedside of a dying Kelly McGraw), raided Broadway for â€œCabaretâ€ and â€œAlice Blue Gown,â€ and turned out what just might be– second only to the one Cuban audio priestess La Lupe did just three years earlier– the most liberating version ever of the Sinatra staple, â€œMy Way.â€ So they didnâ€™t sing â€œWhatâ€™s Goinâ€™ Onâ€ or â€œI Wanna Be Your Dogâ€ (which, for what itâ€™s worth, would have been called “Ikh vil zein dein hoont”). The effect was still the same: seventies America woke up as a Technicolor Yiddish dream.
For the translations, the sisters enlisted the help of Herman Yablokoff, the Yiddish theater legend responsible for one of Jewish musicâ€™s only hit songs about cigarettes (â€œPapirossenâ€) and for â€œShvayg Mayn Harts,â€ better known as the song that bearded and barefoot West Coast mystic Eden Ahbez turned into â€œNature Boy.â€ The vocal arrangements went to TV and film composer Jerry Graff, a veteran of the Nat King Cole television show who was so chummy with Claire and Merna that he was billed on the album as â€œOur Friend Jerry Graff.â€
â€œI am still so proud of this album,â€™ says Barry. â€œIt brings back so many beautiful memories.â€
Our Way was the eleventh, and last, Barry Sistersâ€™ full-length studio recording. Throughout their career, they consistently drew from the wells of Yiddish and English popular song, everything from â€œWithout a Songâ€ and â€œCry Me a Riverâ€ to â€œHava Nagilaâ€ and â€œChiribim Chiribom,â€ with stops at the Miami-to-Cuba soap opera of â€œChanna From Havanaâ€ and the hi-de-ho Arizona campfire yodels of â€œRagtime Cowboy Joeâ€ along the way. Even though the duo were also known to dabble in Italian and Spanish (their 1966 album Something Spanish teamed them up with Cuban jazz legend Chico Oâ€™Farrill), the â€œworld of the Barry Sisters,â€ as one of their hits collections was titled, was really always two: the Jewish songbook and the American songbook. The former was mostly traditional folk melodies and Yiddish theater tunes and the latter was mostly jazz, pop, and Broadway standards. The hallmark of the Barry Sisters was that they never chose between the two, but hopscotched between them with a savvy and sophisticated bi-cultural glee.
â€œWe wanted to be Jewish and American at the same time,â€ says Barry. â€œThat was what our music was always meant to speak to.â€
Claire and Merna grew up in a Yiddish speaking immigrant home in the Bronx, the daughters of a Russian father and a Viennese mother. When the sisters decided they wanted to sing in the Yiddish of their parents and not the English of their friends, their father put his authenticity foot down.
â€œWe spoke English,â€ says Barry, â€œSo my father told us when we started, â€˜you must sing in Yiddish the way we do, with no American accents.â€™ And thatâ€™s what we did, we took a chance on Yiddish, with no accents, and it was marvelous. We spoke the new English but we also spoke Yiddish that people would recognize as haimish.â€
Back in the thirties, Claire and Merna Barry hadnâ€™t been born yet. They were still Clara and Minnie and when they started singing on the Feter Nahum, or Uncle Norman, Jewish childrenâ€™s radio show on WLTH in New York, they were billed as The Bagelman Sisters. After recording a version of â€œKol Nidreâ€ for a young Moe Asch (the soon to be head of Folkways Records), the Bagelmans quickly moved to the front of the Jewish-American music world by associating themselves with the biggest names on the Second Avenue scene. They made their first 78rpm recordings in the late 30s for RCA Victor, harmonizing over a stellar quintet that featured the Miles Davis and John Coltrane of pre-WWII Jewish music: klezmer clarinet king Dave Tarras and composer/arranger Abe Ellstein. They followed it up with a collaboration with tenor great Seymour Rechtzeit, the ubiquitous and celebrated king of Yiddish radio (at one point, he was performing on 18 live radio shows during a single week).
â€œPeople told us that we had perfect harmony,â€ says Barry. â€œBut to be honest, we didnâ€™t know what harmony meant! We had no training, no schooling in this type of thing. There is a Yiddish word beshert, which means meant to be. I always say, it was beshert that we would sing like that.â€
While the Bagelmans had become well-known in Yiddish-speaking circles and Jewish immigrant communities, their reality as first generation Americans extended far beyond the rich folk and theater worlds of Eastern European tradition. They knew all about jazz and swing music and had already watched, with the rest of the Jewish community, as a little-known Yiddish theater tune became a certified American pop hit.
In one of the greatest, and most oft told, tales of Jewish-American musical crossover, Sholom Secundaâ€™s â€œBei Mir Bist Du Schoenâ€ fell into the repertoire of the African-American vaudeville duo and Catskills regulars Johnnie and George, who sang it in Yiddish at the Apollo Theater. In the audience was Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter Sammy Cahn, who changed the lyrics to English and handed the song to the blonde Lutheran trio The Andrews Sisters who went to have a #1 hit with it in 1938. A month later, Benny Goodman followed suit with his own version, featuring the equally blonde Los Angeles singer Martha Tilton. Just like that, the old Yiddish tune that had all of America singing and dancing grew into an international pop staple, one of the most recorded songs of all time.
The seeming ease with which Jewish music became chart-topping American swing helped inspire pianist Sam Medoff to cook up the 15-minute radio segment Yiddish Melodies in Swing for radio station WHN. The concept was simple: take popular klezmer numbers and Yiddish tunes and play them in the swinging idiom of hot jazz. Tarras led the band and after the Pincus Sisters declined his offer, the Bagelmans joined the show, but only after a quick linguistic makeover. Inspired by the mainstream success of the Andrews Sisters, Clara and Minnie became Claire and Merna (the names of two of their classmates) and Bagelman became Barry (Berger was their first choice but nobody liked the way it sounded).
â€œWe were not embarrassed by our name,â€ says Barry. â€œNever embarrassed. It was just better for show business. We knew so many entertainers who did it back then that we thought it was just a good business decision. It wasnâ€™t about culture at all, just business.â€
During the showâ€™s Manischewitz-sponsored â€œAmerican Jewish Hour,â€ Sam Medoff led the Swingtet band with The Barry Sisters, â€œthe daughters of the downbeat,â€ on the microphones, and they merged Yiddish songs with what the show dubbed â€œmerry modern rhythms.â€ The showâ€™s theme song was even a klezemerized take on â€œWhen The Saints Go Marching In.â€ Songs that were â€œsweet and lowâ€ like â€œReb Duvidelâ€ and â€œEli Melechâ€ were, as Claire and Merna liked to say, â€œrocked solidâ€ and â€œmade goldâ€ by infusions of downbeats and Harlem swing and the sisters crooned, belted, and harmonized atop it all like hip supper-club stars. The show ran until 1955 and The Barry Sisters became the official voices of the Yiddish Swing craze (the same one that turned the Romanian oldie â€œDer Shtiler Bulgarâ€ into Ziggy Elmanâ€™s â€œFrailach in Swing,â€ and eventually Benny Goodmanâ€™s â€œAnd the Angels Sing.â€)
â€œIt just seemed so natural to combine Jewish music and swing,â€ says Barry. â€œIf the Jewish songs had a good beat, why couldnâ€™t we do swing in Yiddish? We heard the beat everywhere. Why not this song? Why not that one? We did it to anything we could find.â€
For the next two decades, that same strategy served the Barry Sisters well across a slew of singles and full-length LPs that garnered them recognition beyond the confines of the Jewish musical community where they nurtured their skills. Their album We Belong Together teamed the sisters up with composer Jerry Fielding– best known for his theme music to You Bet Your Life and later for his score to The Wild Bunchâ€”and they stuck to a purely English-language songbook that included â€œIn Other Words,â€ â€œYouâ€™re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,â€ and â€œMy One and Only Love.â€ They made it onto the Jack Paar Show and the Ed Sullivan Show and soon after joined Sullivan on his All-Star Caravan to the U.S.S.R., performing for 20,000 people in Moscowâ€™s Gorky Park at a time when Western visits were still rare.
The liner notes to the album that followed, Side by Side, which they dedicated to Sullivan, described the experience this way: â€œ[Sullivan] had an Iron Curtain smash in the Barrys, who literally tore down The Kremlin with a rip-roaring Western medleyâ€¦which only goes to prove that all you need are ears to hear with, and eyes to see with, and makes no differenceâ€”Yank, Britisher, Ruski, or Hottentot, the Barry Sisters have made it.â€
Yet for all of their globe-trotting internationalismâ€”which also included a celebrated performance for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War that became The Barry Sisters In Israelâ€”the Barry Sisters were always at their best using their musical bilingualism to work out the complexities of identity back home, doing the Yiddish makeovers they perfected on their 30s RCA Victor sides and on the songs that bubbled up on Yiddish Melodies in Swing.
If adapting Jewish music to the rhythms and contours of the American pop landscape can be considered one of the dominant aesthetics of early twentieth century popular music, then the Barry Sisters ought to be considered crucial bi-cultural pioneers, part of the same treasured artistic genealogy that usually starts and stops with the Tin Pan Alley likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen. They didnâ€™t turn America Jewish, they made Jewish sound more American.
Which is partly why we the re-issue Our Way is so importantâ€”itâ€™s the only Barry Sisters album that seems to reverse this tactic. This is an album of (mostly) giddy Jewish hijacks of American culture: B.J. Thomas speaking in Yiddish tongues, the Rat Pack gambling on Kol Nidre, Tea for Two served with a side of pickled herring. Mickey Katz and other musical comedians made this move in the 50s and 60s, but their chosen forms were parody and satire, wholesome vulgarity and schmaltzy wit. On Our Way, The Barry Sisters choose the elegant tradition of popular song itself.
Promoting their music as radically ethnic or anti-assimilationist wasnâ€™t the Barry Sisters style, but in its greatest momentsâ€”the finale of â€œMy Way,â€ the earnestness of â€œRaindropsâ€â€”Our Way has the feel of a utopian dream, a visionary cultural proposal: what if the world actually sounded like this? What if Yiddish hadnâ€™t become the language of refrigerator magnets and Jewish joke punch lines? What if the language of Eastern Europe was still the language of now America, all that memory, all that tradition now part of Americaâ€™s polyglot urban future, as hip and swinging as a new Kanye single, as urgent as a new Mexican immigrant border ballad from Los Tigres del Norte?
â€œWhen I look back on this music,â€ says Barry. â€œAll I want to say is Dear God, thank you for giving us the opportunity. What a wonderful opportunity.â€