[Ed.'s Note: Roger Bennett and Josh Kun are the masterminds behind the amazing Jews on Vinyl project, where they have digged deep to retell the history of Jewish recorded music from the 1940s to the 1980s. Their projects include a blog, a book and a traveling museum exhibit which is coming to LA's Skirball Cultural Center on May 12 and will be there until September 5. Next Tuesday, May 11th, at 8 pm Kun and President of MySpace Music Courtney Holt will present “a one-of-a-kind slideshow of LP covers, plus rare musical clips.” The exhibit will be free and open to lecture attendees form 6 to 8. To celebrate this exhibit and the talk, Kun and Bennett are guest-blogging for West Coast Sound, sharing covers and stories from their great archive of greatest moments (and some strangest moments) of the Great Jewish LP era.]
A single recent find birthed the idea behind our next collection, Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations. A 7″ version of Kol Nidre by Johnny Mathis, backed by the Percy Faith Orchestra. That Johnny Mathis. The musical master of romance who became one of the most prolific American singers of all time, recording over 130 albums, selling over 180 million recordings worldwide, cracking the Billboard charts over 60 times, and inventing the Greatest Hits album concept along the way. The second we heard his belting version of “Kol Nidre,” the Aramaic prayer traditionally intoned at the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we were alerted to a new dimension to his magic. We simply had to know more.
We soon discovered that the single was a European release from his 1958 album, Good Night, Sweet Lord, a long player which 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 is Mathis' “Kol Nidre” which blew us away. The prayer itself consists of the thrice-repetition of a single verse, with emotion increasing every time. 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.
When we dried our eyes after first play, we were struck by the realization that our interest surpassed the singular beauty of the song itself. What captivated us were the spiral of 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?
We knew Mathis had a knack for languages, crooning popular songs designed to put you in the mood for love in Italian, French and Spanish throughout his career. But even in our eyes, recording comparatively obscure tunes about the renunciation of vows on the Day of Atonement is about as opposite to a romance language figuratively and symbolically as there can be. Obsessed, and not to be denied, we reached out to Mr. Mathis in the course of creating this disc and he was generous to indulge our line of questioning and shed light on the history to the recording. We have shot a short film that tells the story, and when it comes out, the musical mystery will be solved forever.