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Uncovering the Jewish songwriters of rock n roll’s golden age

Alan Hartstein
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Gary Holzman, aka Yid Rock (photo: Ben Apfelbaum)

Published: 1 October 2016

Last updated: 4 March 2024

For well over 100 years, Jewish composers have helped define the Broadway musical and its place in the great American songbook. The collective influence of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein et al. are inestimable.

Yet what many people don’t realise is that Jewish songwriters were also responsible for many of the greatest rock and pop classics of the 20th Century. Some of these writers, like Bob Dylan, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen and Carole King are megastar performers in their own right.

Many more, however, are known only to a select few, despite the influence their songs have had in defining a generation. Songs such as Rock Around the Clock, Jailhouse Rock, Twist and Shout, Viva Las Vegas, Do Wah Diddy Diddy, For Your Love, Piece of My Heart, Whiter Shade of Pale, Black Magic Woman, Build Me Up Buttercup, Like A Virgin and You’re the Voice, to name but a few, were all written by Jews.

Shir Madness founder and Jewish Music Festival Director Gary Holzman, aka Yid Rock, has had a lifelong passion for the stories behind these songwriters and has made it his mission to raise awareness of their achievements.

A five-year-old with a transistor
Holzman says his love of music started when he was five or six years old. “I used to lie in bed at night listening to the hit parade on my crystal set [early transistor radio]. As I grew older, I spent a lot of time around the family stereogram listening to my father’s collection of Broadway musicals such as Oklahoma, South Pacific, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music.

In those days, Holzman says, the songwriters were as famous as the performers, and people paid far more attention to them. By the late 60s, when he could afford to buy his own records, he had become one of those geeks who pored over all the information on the back of the album cover.

“I always wanted to discover as much about each song as I possibly could. Although the Beatles started the trend of groups writing their own songs, I soon discovered that this wasn’t always the case and that unrelated songs by different artists often had the same songwriter, and in many instances they were Jewish.”

Researching such things before Google, Wikipedia, or YouTube existed made it far from an exact science, though there were some rock and pop magazines around. “By the late 60s, magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, New Musical Express and (in Australia) Go Set contained many serious articles. I was an avid reader of these magazines and still am to this day (my favourites are Mojo and Q magazine).”

These publications did contain some information about songwriters, but it was extremely rare for them to reference whether someone was Jewish. “What made it even harder was that many Jewish performers and songwriters deliberately adopted names that would not identify them as Jewish, like Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Janis Ian (Janis Fink), Carole King (Carol Klein) and Manfred Mann (Manfred Lubowitz).”

So in reality, Holzman adds, he found it hard to find a lot of concrete information on many of these songwriters before the advent of the internet.

A strong cultural heritage
Holzman says a lot of factors were at play that led to so many Jews becoming involved in the music business. In the US, Jews had always lived in close proximity to black communities and there was a lot of interaction musically between the two communities. Also, musical ability has always been highly regarded by Jews, as evidenced by the importance placed on chazzans and choirs in synagogues. Jewish parents also actively encouraged their children to learn instruments and take singing lessons from an early age.

Like the black community, Holzman says, Jews saw the music business as a way to advance economically – as a new industry, there were few barriers for ethnic minorities.
“Jews were instrumental in establishing many record labels in both the US and the UK and, due to the closeness of communities, this opened doors for fellow Jews to become involved as producers, agents, deejays, record store owners, singers and songwriters.”

Broadway trailblazers
Additionally, the Broadway composers acted as trailblazers for the Jewish songwriters of the 60s, many of whom were classically trained and inspired by the iconic songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Leonard Bernstein and others.

The songwriters who emerged in the 50s and 60s were not only instrumental in launching and sustaining the careers of icons such as Elvis and a host of other performers, they were also the bridge between the tin pan alley tradition and the new rock and pop sounds that came to dominate the market in the wake of the Beatles and the so-called British Invasion.

This era also produced hugely successful songwriting teams such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, Poison Ivy), Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (Suspicion, Little Sister, A Teenager in Love), Gerry Goffin and Carole King (Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Take Good Care of my Baby, The Loco-Motion), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (We Gotta Get Outta This Place, You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling), Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (the entire Neil Sedaka catalogue), and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Chapel of Love, And Then He Kissed Me, River Deep Mountain High).

“Not only did the Beatles try to emulate these Jewish songwriters when they first started out but many of these same songwriters continued writing hits for many more years,” Holzman says.

A new generation of music lovers
All this knowledge has been parlayed into a 10-week course titled The Jewish School of Rock, which Holzman has presented, in part or whole, at Shalom College, Limmud Oz, North Shore Temple Emmanuel, Moriah College, B’nai B’rith, Shir Madness Melbourne, and to the general public.

Given that many of the songwriters are not widely known, even by their own generation, it’s not surprising that school students have never heard of them. On the other hand, Holzman says, the songs themselves are often very familiar to them because they’ve been featured in countless movies and TV shows.

Cultural treasures
Holzman is certainly passionate about the importance of keeping memory of these composers alive. “I think it’s important for Jews of all ages to be aware and appreciative of the huge contribution that Jews have made to the development of modern popular music. One of the reasons for starting Shir Madness was to highlight this contribution and at the same time showcase and support local Jewish songwriters and performers who are continuing a proud tradition.”

Today there are still plenty of highly successful Jewish songwriters and performers, such as Pink, Adam Levine from Maroon Five, Adam Lambert, Charlie Puth, and Drake. However, as Holzman points out, music has become so compartmentalised that it’s unlikely that any single songwriter will achieve the same level of global appeal and influence as a Bob Dylan or Paul Simon.

This The Jewish Independent article may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.thejewishindependent.com.au

About the author

Alan Hartstein

Alan Hartstein has worked in publishing for over 20 years as a writer and editor across a range of sectors including finance, business, politics, and IT. He has also held senior roles on major broadsheets and magazines such as The Australian Financial Review and BRW.


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