[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. Tonight, Tuesday May 11, 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.]
Welcome to a forgotten masterpiece of cross-cultural disguise and masquerade.
In 1930, the Ukranian operetta king of Second Avenue Alexander Olshanetsky and his actress wife Bella Meisel wrote “Glick, Du Bist Gekummen Tzu Shpait,” a heartbreaking showstopper for the Yiddish musical Del Letser Tants. The play told the tragic story of an arranged immigrant marriage that becomes an unexpected jailhouse romance, set in Sing Sing prison and brought to life on the stage of the Prospect Theater in the Bronx.
Olshanetsky and Meisel could never have imagined that over thirty years later, this dramatic last dance would become a scorching pasodoble, the official dance of Spanish bullfights, on a little-known LP that tried to introduce the Yiddish Theater to the Latin ballroom in the thick of the Civil Rights era– Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos.
Such is Jewish life in America.
Yiddish theater tunes and Latin dance tempos were about the only things straightforward about Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos. The 1961 Riverside Records album by the cryptically named band Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen, surely goes down as one of the greatest ruses of 20th Century American pop music.
Neither Juan Calle nor his Latin Lantzmen were actually Lantzmen, and only some of them were actually Latin. Juan Calle was John Cali, an Italian-American banjo picker and radio veteran best known for his work with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra and a string of solo banjo outings. His Latin Lantzmen included some of the biggest names in 50s and 60s Latin music– conguero Ray Barretto, timbales guru Wilie Rodriguez, pianist Charlie Palmieri– playing alongside African-American jazz greats Clark Terry, Doc Cheatham, Lou Oles, and Wendell Marshall. The sole Lantzmen were Yiddish vocalist Ed Powell, who appeared in the 1957 Ziegfield Follies but whose credits mostly seem to point to steady work as Riverside's in-house engineer, and reed multi-tasker Shelley Russell. The latter was such a Lantzmen that, as the original liner notes told it, his background included “playing at many a Jewish wedding.”
So there you have it, African-Americans and Latinos masquerading as Jews, coming together at New York's Plaza Sound Studios in the name of an only-in-America fusion: “Yiddish favorites in Latin tempo.”
If you believe the original liner notes, the impetus was purely economic, the Yiddish-Latin fusion album as guaranteed hit-maker:
If a vote were taken to determine the two varieties of music with the deepest and widest appeal of all, the chances certainly are that it would result in a landslide victory for the infectious rhythms of the Latin beat and the heart-warming melodies of Jewish popular and folk song. Many Yiddish songs have become not only hits but long-lived favorites of the entire American public…And by now it is taken for granted that every few years another South American dance craze will sweep the United States.
We at the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation decided it was time for Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos to get a second chance, so we re-issued it last year (more info here: www.idelsohnsociety.com). We also decided it might be fun to bring it back to life on stage, which is exactly what happened last August at Lincoln Center.
Watch and enjoy: