On 50th Anniversary of his “Kol Nidre” recording, Johnny Mathis performs at the Skirball Cultural Center on August 19
LOS ANGELES, Calif.—In 1959, Johnny Mathis released “Kol Nidre” — the Aramaic prayer traditionally intoned at the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — as a 7-inch single. Yes, that Johnny Mathis, best known for his romance-inducing, back-seat drive-in make-out music, who recorded over 130 best-selling albums.
In 2010, right around Yom Kippur and Johnny Mathis’ 75th birthday, the single will be re-released as the cornerstone of Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a 15-track compilation curated by the critically acclaimed Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation and featuring tracks by the likes of Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Jimmy Scott, Lena Horne and Nina Simone.
Mr. Mathis will take the stage at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to receive an award and retell the lost story of how he came to record his belting version of “Kol Nidre.” His appearance at the Skirball, where the Idelsohn Society exhibition “Jews on Vinyl” is currently on view, takes place August 19, as part of an evening long concert program, Jews on Vinyl Revue, featuring Hedva Amrani, Fred Katz and Sol Zim.
The story of the single is also the subject of a short documentary film at the centerpiece of an exhibit opening August 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Based on the Black Sabbath compilation, the massive show will feature iPad apps crafted by Idelsohn Society member Courtney Holt, President of MySpace Music.
The Idelsohn Society was started by four record-collecting dumpster divers who sought vinyl gold in the nooks and crannies of thrift shops and flea markets across the country. The disc that birthed the entire project came to them by mail in a battered box stuffed with musty albums and singles: a 7-inch version of “Kol Nidre” by Johnny Mathis, backed by the Percy Faith Orchestra. The Society simply had to know more.
They soon discovered that the single was a European release from his 1958 album Good Night, Sweet Lord, a long player that featured such devotional classics as “The Rosary” and not one, but two versions of “Ave Maria.” The Hebrew poem “Eli, Eli” and Yiddish favorite “Where Can I Go?” also sneak on, but it was Mathis’ “Kol Nidre” that blew the Society members away. Mathis’ rendition is simply majestic. By the end of the track, his signature sobbing sound, so seductive on hits such as “Chances Are” and “Gina,” reduces even the hardiest of listeners to tears.
What also captivated the Society, beyond the singular beauty of the song itself, were the questions the record posed about process. How and why, at the height of popularity, would an African-American legend take the time to master Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish, and record tracks in those languages on a major label release?
Obsessed, and not to be denied, the group reached out to Mr. Mathis in the course of creating Black Sabbath and he was generous to indulge their line of questioning. They went to his home in Los Angeles to film him telling the story behind the recording, a story that involved a Christmas album; Mathis’ mother; a Jewish bandleader, Percy Faith; a Jewish producer, Mitch Miller; and Mathis’ memories of growing up and sneaking into temples to hear the great cantors.
This tale is just one of many told on Black Sabbath, which includes:
Billie Holiday’s “My Yiddishe Momme,” from a private recording made in 1956 when she was visiting the New York home of clarinetist Tony Scott, in which she drains the maudlin from Sophie Tucker’s classic version, and rides the song like it’s a wave of ache.
Eartha Kitt’s “Sholem.” Kitt was a deft polyglot schooled in at least nine languages including Yiddish. Sung by observant Jews on the Sabbath (the full title is “Sholem Aleichem: Peace Be Upon You”), the song dates back to the Kabbalists, first showing up on the page in 17th century Prague. But the chorus is also a common on-the-street greeting and Kitt mines both meanings here, even throwing in a bit of “Hava Nagila” for good measure. Her “Sholem” is not really a cover, more a mash-up: part old-school hymn, part street dictionary, part Jewish greatest hits, and part “Introduction to the Greetings of the Globe.”
Lena Horne’s “Now.” Horne went to Israel in 1952 and was taken by what she called “history-in-the-making in a brand-new country.” She visited kibbutzes and a camp for Yemenite children, where she saw “terribly oppressed people of color, people just emerging from the kind of bondage Negroes have been struggling so long to emerge from.” Nearly a decade later, Horne decided it was the right time for her to leave RCA Victor and start singing more overtly political songs. Broadway vets Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Jule Styne wrote her “Now!,” an incisive rant against civil rights abuses that Styne composed to the otherwise joyous tune of “Hava Nagila.” Horne performed “Now!” at a pair of benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall (she co-headlined with Frank Sinatra) and then cut it as a single. Santiago Álvarez, an experimental Cuban filmmaker used the song as the score to his own “Now,” a landmark 1965 newsreel collage of Black civil rights struggles that is considered a classic of Cuban cinema.
The Idelsohn Society’s aim in this collection is to re-examine the recordings, the stories behind them, and the messages they communicate about the complex relationships between the African-American and Jewish communities in the post-war period.
•The album Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations is available online Sat., Aug. 14, 2010. http://www.idelsohnsociety.com
•The concert with Hedva Amrani, Fred Katz and Sol Zim, and Mr. Mathis accepting the Idelsohn Award, takes place as part of the Sunset Concerts series at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., on Thurs., Aug. 19, 8 p.m.; free, but seating is limited and there are no reservations. Parking at the Skirball is $10 ($5 for cars with at least three people). (310) 440-4500 or <<a href=”http://www.skirball.org”>