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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Episode 55 - By Me, You're Beautiful: The Story of Bei Mir Bist du Schön

Episode 55 - By Me, You're Beautiful: The Story of Bei Mir Bist du Schön

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As Dreamtime Constant Listeners will remember, we devoted a whole show to the Andrews Sisters and their megahit of a calypso song - Rum and Coca-Cola - a song that turned out to be purloined by comic Morey Amsterdam from a Trinidad singer.

The first Andrews Sisters hit, Bei Mir Bist du Schön, wasn't stolen, but has almost as twisty a history as Rum and Coca-Cola. Bei Mir Bist du Schön was originally written in 1932 for a stage show, but the Yiddish musical the song had been crafted for closed without making much of a splash with the general public, and Bei Mir Bist du Schön probably would have disappeared into obscurity except for a perfect act of love and theft.

We'll talk about that in a second, but first let's hear the Andrews Sisters and their 1938 hit, Bei Mir Bist du Schön.

Bei Mir Bist du Schön - The Andrews Sisters]

So, what happened between 1932, when Bei Mir Bist du Schön first appeared as a Yiddish musical number and then disappeared off the radar, and 1938 when it suddenly returned as an English-language hit for a trio of Lutheran sisters from Minnesota?

Around 1937 the song fell into the hands of an act called "Johnnie and George," two black performers who were stopping the show at the Apollo with their swing version of Bei Mir Bist du Schön...sung to their Harlem audience in the original Yiddish.

The legend goes the two were shown the song's sheet music while doing their act up at the Grossinger's summer resort in the Catskills sometime during the late `30s. They gave the song a shot, and found their Jewish audience got a kick out of hearing two black boys doing Yiddish, so Johnnie and George made it a regular part of their show. Back in town for a gig at the Apollo in 19 and 37, the pair suddenly spring a jump jive version of Bei Mir Bist du Schön on their hipster audience... which goes wild and starts swinging up and down the aisles, setting the whole Apollo to shaking according to contemporary reports.

Watching all this is Sammy Cahn, who's dropped into the Apollo on one of his regular expeditions for musical inspiration and is now laughing in amazement as he sees the joint rocking out to a song whose lyrics the only two Jews in the crowd - he and his partner - can probably understand. Knowing a hit when he hears one, Sammy Cahn tracks down the provenance of Bei Mir Bist du Schön and finds the song's authors, who are more than happy to sell it to him for the going rate of $30 - $15 bucks each.

[Left: The Andrews Sisters with Sholom Secunda, co-author of the original Bei Mir Bist du Schön]

Cahn and his partner try to get Tommy Dorsey to introduce the song at his next live gig, but the bandleader thinks the idea of a Yiddish swing song is crazy, and isn't interested. The pair next turn to Decca Records, label for the Andrews Sisters, a sister act that was trying to break out of vaudeville into the big time of R&R - radio and records - and who needed a B-side for their new single. The three Andrews Sisters are so white bread that they think the song is in Greek, but they learn the Yiddish lyrics phonetically and do the recording.

But now Decca is worried that the song will get the Andrews pegged as an ethnic act and insists that the sisters re-record it with English lyrics. Sammy Cahn and and his partner Saul Chaplin come up with an English version of the song, but now they don't want the Andrews Sisters. The songwriters argue that if they're going to the effort of writing straight lyrics to what they had intended as a throwaway Yiddish novelty number, the song should be recorded by an established singer like Ella Fitsgerald rather than by the unknown Andrews.

But eventually Decca prevails on behalf of the sisters, and the Andrews take on the new version of the old song with the Yiddish title now Germanicized and including a built-in English translation: Bei Mir Bist du Schön (Means That You're Grand). Actually, "Bei Mir Bist du Schön" doesn't mean that you're grand in either German or Yiddish - the Yiddish translates to something like, "By Me, You're Beautiful," but that probably sounded too ethnic, too.

Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some
Until I first met you, I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me
... And so I've racked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me
Bei mir bist du schon, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schon means you're grand
The Andrews Sisters record in November and released their single a few days after Christmas, 1937, with the A-side the Gershwin standard, Nice Work If You Can Get It. But nobody is listening to the A-side. By New Years Eve 19 and 37, Bei Mir Bist du Schön was already an established hit on New York radio stations, and by the end of January, 1938 it had sold over 350,000 copies, jumping to the Billboard #1 slot for the next five weeks. Riots would break out at record stores whenever a new shipment of the 78 or its sheet music came in. Not bad for a piece of music where most customers got the title wrong, often asking for that hit song called something like My Mere Bit of Shame or maybe Buy Me a Beer, Mr. Shane.
"It's wowing the country," reported one New Jersey paper. "They're singing it in Camden, Wilkes-Barre, Hamilton, Ohio, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. The cowboys of the West are warbling the melody and so are the hillbillies of the South, the lumberjacks of the Northwest, the fruit packers of California, the salmon canners of Alaska. [Even] the Nazi bierstuben patrons yodel it religiously, under the impression that it's a Goebbels-approved German chanty."
That last was true. Hitler himself was said to be a big fan, thinking it a proper German-American ditty, although how he reacted when he found out the song was originally Yiddish and written - and then rewritten - by a bunch of nice Jewish boys, is unknown. Bei Mir Bist du Schön stayed popular enough in Germany that the Nazi propaganda band, Charlie and His Orchestra, who you may remember from Theme Time's Season 2 More Birds show, did a version in 1942, with lyrics changed to attack that archenemy of Fascism, Bolsheviks.

[Bei Mir Bist du Schön - Charlie and His Orchestra]

Not only did Bei Mir Bist du Schön become a breakout hit for the Andrews Sisters, it started a minor craze for what became known as Yiddish Swing. Within weeks of the song hitting the charts, a New York radio station brought a show on the air called “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” that specialized in putting a swing beat to traditional Jewish folk tunes. The show proved so successful that it packed a 600-seat theater each Sunday, and ran for two decades.

[Excerpts from Yiddish Melodies in Swing]

Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin eventually got their wish, and Ella Fitzgerald covered Bei Mir Bist du Schön, as did many other singers, including Judy Garland, Benny Goodman, Steve Lawrence, and The Barry Sisters, who we just heard performing Oh Mama, I'm So in Love. Even Theme Time favorite, Slim Gaillard did a weird scat version of the song with his partner Slam, something that sounds like it would have fit right into Theme Time's Food episode.

[Bei Mir Bist du Schön - Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart]

The little Yiddish song from 19 and 32 ended up making a lot of money for a lot of people over the years, grossing as much as $3 million dollars by some estimates. It eventually sold over a million copies, giving The Andrews Sisters the first gold record ever awarded to a female vocal group.

Sammy Cahn bought his mother a house with the royalties he earned from his $30 investment. But Shalom Secunda's - the original lyricist who sold his piece of Bei Mir Bist du Schön for $15 - mother wasn't so lucky. She spent the remainder of her days praying in a synagogue for God's forgiveness, convinced that her family must have committed some awful sin for her son to have been stupid enough to give away that song for, well, a song.

And what of Johnnie and George, the two black performers whose Apollo act launched the swing version of Bei Mir Bist du Schön? Disappeared. Forgotten. Unremembered except for Sammy Cahn's story about how he stumbled over a million-dollar song one afternoon in Harlem.

Nobody even knows their last names.

Sources and Additional Reading: The Wikipedia article is relatively stark, but includes links to invaluable source material about Bei Mir Bist du Schön. Among other sources, I drew upon articles from the All About Jewish Theatre site; the "Non-Bloggish Blog"; and most especially The Yiddish Melodies in Swing site (part of the Yiddish Radio Project), which has sections dedicated to both Bei Mir Bist du Schön and the radio program Yiddish Melodies in Swing. Highly recommended reading. Also not to be missed are these two period newspaper articles on Shalom Secunda and his mother.

As is usual with these stories, some of the facts change dependent on who's doing the telling. Sometimes the black duo's names are spelled as Johnny and George. Sometimes it's Johnnie and George. Sometimes Cahn heard them at the Cotton Club. Other times it's the Apollo.

Some stories have it that Johnnie and George came up with the swing version; other stories say it was Cahn and Chaplin. Shalom Secunda claimed that their arrangement was virtually identical to the original. Who knows?

In any case, Johnny and George probably did pick the tune up at Grossinger's sometime in the `30s, possibly from Jenny Grossinger herself, the boss of that famous Borscht Belt resort, and brought it back to Harlem. Sammy Cahn probably did hear it somewhere in Harlem and bought the rights from someone, sometimes it's directly from Shalom Secunda and his partner for $30, sometimes it's from their publishers, who according to Secunda acted as an intermediary and paid the two $30, reselling limited rights to Cahn and Co. for an undisclosed amount while still retaining the publishing rights.

The song went on to gross an estimated $3 million dollars over the next 20-odd years until the copyright expired in 1961 and reverted back to Secunda and his partner Jacobs. They renegotiated a new deal with the publishers and happily finally saw some money from their tune nearly three decades after writing it. And as I said, Johnny and George, or maybe Johnnie and George, disappeared without a trace after popularizing a Yiddish song in Harlem - a reverse case of Love and Theft.


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