The Jews Who Rock Wiki
The Jews who Rock Wiki. It’s a long, long list of every more-or-less bigtime Jew in music. It was lovingly, painstakingly compiled by Jewcy’s own Izzy Grinspan, and we now bring it to the public to help us fill in … Read More
The Jews who Rock Wiki. It’s a long, long list of every more-or-less bigtime Jew in music. It was lovingly, painstakingly compiled by Jewcy’s own Izzy Grinspan, and we now bring it to the public to help us fill in any remaining omissions. Know of anyone who should be on the list, but isn’t? Add them! Tell us about them!
Bassist Kenny Aaronson has played with a long list of rock luminaries, among them Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Rick Derringer, Foghat, Sammy Hagar, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and the Rolling Stones. In the early seventies he was a member of the band Stories, which scored a number-one hit with the interracial love song “Brother Louie” in the summer of 1973. Aaronson was raised in Brooklyn.
Former cheerleader for the L.A. Lakers, now the arbiter of our country’s talent on “American Idol.” Abdul began her career in music choreographing for Janet Jackson, but when Jackson complimented her voice, she used the earnings from her dance work to record “Forever Your Girl.” Four of the album’s tracks went to the top of the charts: “Straight Up,” “Cold-Hearted,” “The Way That You Love Me,” and “Opposites Attract,” which may be the only number-one hit ever to have a video co-starring a large animated cat in suspenders. Paula Abdul is often counted among the many half-Jewish American celebrities, but she’s actually one hundred percent: her father is a Syrian Jew, while her mother is Jewish and French-Canadian. The Forgotten Exodus, a campaign on the behalf of Jews who have had to flee Arabic countries, uses her image on one of its posters.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the man who brought The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the American screen was also a rock manager. Lou Adler began his career working with Herb Alpert, fellow member of the tribe, as co-manager of the surf group Jan and Dean. Soon he and Alpert were writing songs together under the name Barbara Campbell, but the partnership ended in 1964, when Adler founded his own record label, Dunhill Records. Dunhill found some success with the song “Eve of Destruction,” by two songwriters on the label, but its real triumph was in signing the Mamas and the Papas. Ever-foresighted, Adler eventually sold Dunhill to ABC in order to focus more on planning (and recording) the Monterey Pop festival. The recordings made him a rich man, and he went on to found the label Ode, signing Carole King and producing her album Tapestry. In 1974 he brought over the British theatrical version of Rocky Horror and produced it as a film; not long after, he began managing the careers of two stoner humorists named Cheech and Chong.
Rumors abound (mostly on neo-Nazi websites) about the Jewish background of Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, but whether or not Liv’s dad is a chosen person, it’s certain that drummer Joey Kramer was once a nice Jewish boy. Kramer, who counts Jon Bonham as a major influence, was born in the Bronx. As one of the few Jewish kids in a predominately Italian school, he hung around a group of tough older boys for protection; these bigger kids eventually inspired him to take up the drums. He hit upon the band name “Aerosmith” while still in high school, possibly inspired by Harry Nilsson’s album Aerial Ballet. When two guys he knew in Boston invited him to be in a band with his old friend Steven, Kramer accepted, contributing both his simple yet powerful drumming style and the name Aerosmith.
One of the many mono-monikered pop stars of the eighties, Alisha was only fifteen when her self-titled album became a hit in 1985. “All Night Passion,” the first single, quickly became a dance club favorite. It was followed soon after by “Baby Talk,” the bassline of which sounds an awful lot like “Into The Groove.” When “Baby Talk” rose up the Billboard charts, the Brooklyn-born Alisha gained the dubious distinction of being the first dance diva ever to be dismissed as a wannabe Madonna.
Herb Alpert was a musical mensch on both sides of the business, founding the wildly successful A&M records and playing trumpet as one of its acts. Born in LA in 1935, Alpert began his music career writing songs with Lou Adler, including the Sam Cooke hit “Only Sixteen.” He founded A&M records with Jerry Moss in 1962; the label’s artists would ultimately range from the Carpenters to Cat Stevens to Janet Jackson and would include Alpert’s own group, the Tijuana Brass. Playing a south-of-the-border style known as “Ameriachi,” Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass released ten Top 20 albums during the sixties.
Three out of the four members of the now-defunct British teen pop ensemble All Saints were Jewish: England-born Melanie Blatt and Canadian sisters Natalie and Nicole Appleton. Their single “I Know Where It’s At” reached number four in the British charts in 1996, entered the top 40 in the United States in 1997, and was a hit in Europe and Asia. By 1998, their self-titled album had gone platinum; their second effort, Saints and Sinners, was released in 2000 and also entered the charts. All three Jewish members of All Saints have gained media attention for their romances with fellow British rock stars: Melanie Blatt is married to Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zander, Natalie Appleton’s husband is Liam Howlett of the Prodigy, and Nicole Appleton has a baby, Gene, with Liam Gallagher of Oasis.
Scott Ian of Anthrax has managed to thrash his way into hard rock history despite being short and Semitic. Starting with 1984’s Fistful of Metal and continuing through the eighties, Anthrax set the standard for speed metal with lighting-fast guitar work and heavy vocals. Even as a metal god, Ian never forgot his heritage, referring to himself in conversation regularly as “the Jew.” But depending on your definition of Judaism, Ian isn’t the only Yid in Anthrax. Born Jewish, guitarist Dan Spitz has been a Jew for Jesus since 2001.
Jews were making bands long before Making the Band. Just look at the Archies, a pre-fab ensemble concocted around the blueprint of the popular cartoon and best known for the infectious 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar.” Archie, Jughead, and Betty surely weren’t Jewish (though the jury is still out on Veronica), but the band’s mastermind Don Kirschner and producer Jeff Barry were indeed members of the tribe. And while none of the actual musicians in the Archies identified themselves as Jews, backing vocalist Andy Kim looks Jewish – he’s the spitting image of Neil Diamond, but he’s actually Lebanese.
Army of Lovers
Swedish pop groups tend to be about as Jewish as Creed, but two of the Scandinavian pranksters in Army of Lovers were of Yiddish persuasion. Ex-hairdresser Jean-Pierre Barda is French-Algerian and Jewish, while former phone-sex operator Dominika Peczynski is a Polish-Russian Jew. In the late eighties, these Euro Jews and their colleagues delighted the continent with their high camp disco. By 1993, however, they had crossed the line from fame to infamy when their single “Israelism” was accused of mocking Jewish culture. The Army swore that the track, which added a much-needed backbeat and rap section to “Havenu Shalom Aleichem,” celebrated Judiasm; naturally, while the controversy raged in Europe, the song went to the top of the charts in Israel.
Asleep at the Wheel
Despite their incredibly emo band name, Asleep at the Wheel is not made up of four sad nineteen-year-olds from New Jersey; instead, the band is composed of an ever-shifting number of Western swing musicians. At 6’7″, lead singer Ray Benson is somewhat of a Jewish giant. Also Jewish is the band’s steel guitarist, Lucky Oceans (who was born with the far more plausible name Reuben Gosfield). Asleep at the Wheel has been playing songs in the style of Merle Haggard and Bob Wills since 1970. Their discography, which includes the 1975 hit record Texas Gold, 1978’s Collision Course, and their 1987 comeback album, Asleep at the Wheel 10, has earned them a whopping nine Grammy awards over the course of their career.
Elan Atias may not be the most famous person to front the Wailers, but he’s definitely more Jewish than Bob Marley. In 1997, when the Orthodox Atias was 22, he was picked as one of many in a succession of post-Marley lead singers for the Wailers. Atias has also toured with Santana and played with members of No Doubt. His recent cover of Roxy Music’s “Slave to Love” featured Gwen Stefani on backing vocals, and he is currently working with Tony Kanal on new tracks due out this year.
The Bad Livers
The Bad Livers may have been the most experimental neo-country band ever to come out of Austin. Alongside banjo-players and guitarists Danny Barnes and Bob Grant, Jewish bassist and tubist Mark Rubin helped create a sound that brought both punk influences and sampling techniques to bluegrass. Rubin was raised in rural Oklahoma and grew up listening to klezmer – yet another of the diverse musical traditions the Livers added to their eclectic Austin country.
Brett Gurewitz fits the model of other Jewish musicians with record labels, but with one notable exception: his label, Epitaph, is one of the most influential in punk rock. Gurewitz was raised Jewish but had become disillusioned enough by the time he was fifteen to name his band Bad Religion. Founded in 1980, the band has a lifespan unrivaled in the fast-moving world of hardcore: Despite several lineup changes and a long hiatus on Gurewitz’s part, Bad Religion is still around today. Gurewitz’s other project, Epitaph Records, has exhibited equal stamina. Epitaph was founded in 1983 as a way for Bad Religion to release its records. By the early nineties, the label had a number of hit bands; today, its roster ranges from the indie hip-hop of Sage Francis to the Swedish neo-garage group the Hives.
In addition to backing Robert Zimmerman on what would eventually become the Basement Tapes, the Band had their own Jewish star. Robbie Robertson, who played rhythm guitar and wrote most of the Band’s songs, was born in Canada in 1944 to a Mohawk mother and a Jewish father. He was recruited to be a member of Ronnie Hawkins’ rockabilly band the Hawks; as the Hawks morphed into the Band, Robertson morphed into its most recognized member. The band gained popularity as Dylan’s backing group, but proved their chops with their own Music from Big Pink in 1968. After permanently making his mark on American music with four more albums, Robertson went on to score several Martin Scorsese films, including Raging Bull.
Who knew that the voice behind “Walk Like an Egyptian” grew up singing at Passover seders? Lead Bangle Susanna Hoffs is an L.A. Jewish girl who formed the band in 1981 by placing a want ad. Originally called “Colors” and then “the Supersonic Bangs,” the group settled on their name when they learned that “the Bangs” was already taken. Their Different Light garnered national attention with the Prince-written “Manic Monday,” and subsequent hits included their cover of fellow-Semites Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter,” the perennial karaoke favorite “Eternal Flame,” and of course, the aforementioned track about the land of Mizrayim, which was number one on the charts in 1985.
The Barenaked Ladies
These Toronto boys played for years before their breakthrough hit, “One Week,” climbed the charts in 1998. The band formed in 1988, taking their name from an old joke the vocalists had shared at a Bob Dylan concert as teens (they were inventing fictional bands with goofy names due to sheer boredom – Dylan wasn’t at his best back then). For most of the nineties, the Barenaked Ladies were a cult act, charming college kids with silly pop songs like “Be My Yoko Ono,” but 1998’s Stunt brought them into the mainstream. Jewish frontman Steven Page recently included three Chanukah songs on the band’s holiday album Barenaked for the Holidays, and all five Ladies refrain from touring during the Jewish holidays.
MC Paul Barman
“My dandy voice makes the most anti-choice granny’s panties moist,” boasts MC Paul Barman on one track. That’s one way to put it. Barman raps flowlessly through his nose, dropping filthy but clever lyrics with so little rhythm that he generally sounds like a parody of a white rapper. But his debut, It’s Very Stimulating, was produced by Prince Paul, and he’s collaborated with such hip-hop luminaries as Deltron 3030.
Brooklyn-born producer Steve Barri got his start when legendary manager and label-head Lou Adler took him under his wing. Barri produced tracks for artists such as Jan and Dean and Johnny Rivers, for whom he wrote “Secret Agent Man” with his writing partner P.F. Sloan. As the head of A&R for Dunhill Records, he was responsible for signing Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett, the Four Tops, and Dusty Springfield. In the early eighties, he began doing A&R for Motown Records, bringing in Rick James, the Commodores, and Lionel Richie. Barri was known for producing records with a rich, full sound; some of his greatest hits include albums by the Four Tops, Mama Cass Elliot, and Smokey Robinson.
Jeff and Mark Bass
The Bass Brothers – yes, it’s their real name – are the two Jewish guys responsible for Eminem’s sound. Growing up in Detroit years before Eminem made Eight Mile Road famous, the Basses got their start young, when the 12-year-old Jeff and 8-year-old Mark auditioned for a Greyhound commercial. Three years later, the brothers set off to make their musical fortune with Jeff’s band Dreamboy. By the early nineties they were producing hip-hop acts; they joined up with Eminem in 1992 after hearing him on the radio performing at an open mic. Years later, the Bass Brothers would produce most of the tracks on both Slim Shady and The Marshall Mathers LP. They also co-write many of Em’s songs, and when Eight Mile came out, Jeff and Mark Bass shared an Oscar with Eminem for their work on “Lose Yourself.”
The Beastie Boys
Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D. began playing together as a hardcore punk act in the early eighties, when they were still known as the New York high school kids Adam Horowitz, Adam Yauch, and Michael Diamond. They were discovered by legendary rap producer Rick Rubin in 1984, signed to Rubin’s new label Def Jam in 1985, and catapulted into fame with the release of the frat-party classic License to Ill in 1986. It would be hard for the band that wrote “Girls” not to mature on their subsequent albums, but nobody expected them to become post-modern heroes (their sample-crazy, Dust-Brothers-produced Paul’s Boutique prefigured Beck’s Odelay by several years) or pious activists (their Tibetan Freedom concerts brought together huge names in alternative rock throughout the late nineties). Bonus ancestral note: Adam Horowitz’s father is playwright Israel Horowitz.
The Beat Farmers
The Beat Farmers were formed in San Diego in 1983 as a country band with an L.A. punk rock influence. Leader Country Dick Montana recruited a host of musicians, including Buddy Blue, a Jewish fellow born Buddy Seigel, who played with the band until 1985, leaving shortly after their debut album was signed to Curb Records. The Farmers went on to play for the next ten years, collaborating with such musicians as John Doe of X and the Jewish singer (and former stripper) Candye Kane, until Montana’s death in 1995.
Beck’s mother, Bibbe Hansen, was not only Andy Warhol’s youngest Factory actress but also the daughter of a Jewish mother whose own mother was also Jewish. As a result, by Halachic rules, Beck Hansen is a Jew, despite a non-religious background and a recent interest in Scientology. Like his fellow Jewish pranksters the Beastie Boys, Beck is a master of collage, mixing up folk, blues, country and funk and layering the whole stew with a hefty dollop of samples. His first album, Mellow Gold, became a success after 1994’s “Loser” taught a generation of kids how to explain how incredibly not cool they were in Spanish. His next big hit was 1996’s Odelay, which spawned six singles, followed by Mutations in 1998 and the ridiculously funked-out Midnite Vultures in 1999. In recent years, Beck seems to have finally shed his perpetual adolescence, releasing the melancholy Sea Change in 2002 and marrying the actress Marissa Ribisi.
Dan Bern’s angry, literate folksongs have earned him the “new Dylan” label, and his tongue-in-cheek riffs on Dylan’s talking blues haven’t exactly helped shake that comparison. Unlike the former Mr. Zimmerman, though, Bern has never come close to hiding his Jewish background. He often performs under his family’s original surname, Bernstein, and his backing band is called the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy. Bern’s songs have titles like “Jew from Kentucky” and “My Name is Bernstein” (in which Bern claims that Jesus was born with the name Jesus Lipshitz), but his most Jewish lyrical moment might be in “Jewish Guys.” When a woman informs him of Jesus’s many miracles, Bern’s narrator replies, “You don’t know a lot about Jewish guys/ That’s just the way we are/ All that stuff they say about Jesus/ I can do sittin’ in my car.”
This Brooklyn metal band is known for being one of the first to incorporate elements of hip-hop into their sound. Their 1992 album Urban Discipline gave the band a reputation for beat-heavy songs about the ravages of city life. Drummer Danny Shuler and bassist/vocalist Evan Seinfeld are both Jewish; Seinfeld even proclaims his heritage with a somewhat paradoxical Star of David tattoo.*
See Max Weinberg.
Jack Black (that’s his real name) grew up in Los Angeles, where he discovered his acting skills during a game of Freeze after a Passover seder one year. Black’s career took off after he became a member of Tim Robbins’ acting troupe at U.C.L.A. As an actor, he has often played musically-inclined roles, including Barry in High Fidelity and the hero Dewey in School of Rock. But Black is also a rockstar of sorts as one half of Tenacious D. The joke-rock duo gots its start with just one song: a tribute to the greatest song in the world, although not that song itself (because the band had forgotten how that one went). The D had an HBO series in 1999; it didn’t last long, but Black and bandmate Kyle Gass have toured the nation twice now and are at work on an upcoming Tenacious D movie.
Chris Blackwell founded Island Records, the label that introduced ska and reggae to Europe and the US. Blackwell was born in London, but his family had long-standing ties to Jamaica; they had founded the first synagogue there, and when Blackwell was young, they moved back to the island. Blackwell’s career would reverse that trip across the Atlantic. He started Island Records in Kingston in 1959, but moved it to London in the early sixties. There, he quickly became the number-one provider of Caribbean music to the city’s growing West Indian population. He found his biggest reggae success with Bob Marley but eventually branched out to produce rock and pop, including such artists as U2, Robert Palmer, and Tom Waits. When the observant boy band Evan and Jaron went looking for a record label that would honor their “Shabbat clause,” they turned to Island, and Blackwell was happy to accommodate them.
Shiksa goddess Debbie Harry may be the face of Blondie, but the band wouldn’t be the same without founder and guitarist Chris Stein, a Jewish fellow from Brooklyn (at least according to Guy Oseary’s 2001 book Jews Who Rock, although Stein has been known to claim otherwise). Stein met Harry in 1973 while she was waitressing at Max’s Kansas City. They had some success with their first two albums, but their real breakthrough into the nation’s consciousness came in 1978 with their third album Parallel Lines, featuring the classic new-wave tracks “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Sunday Girl,” and “One Way or Another.” Both “Heart of Glass” from Parallel Lines and “Call Me,” their theme to the movie American Gigolo, simultaneously topped the charts in the US and the UK.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
One particularly intense night at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, Al Kooper bled all over his organ keyboard. He’d just formed a new band after leaving the Blues Project, and this incident inspired their name. Blood, Sweat and Tears was comprised of Kooper, Blues Project guitarist Steve Katz, and four other Jewish musicians: Bobby Colomby on drums, Randy Brecker and Jerry Weiss on trumpet, and Fred Lipsuis on sax and piano. The bassist and trombonist weren’t MOT, but the band did hire a string ensemble for their first album that was three-quarters Jewish. This album, Child Is Father to the Man, has been called one of the best of the sixties. With horns, Kooper was able to add soul elements to the blues-rock of his previous band, while pushing it in the direction of jazz. Only about a month after the album was released, however, Kooper took a job at Columbia Records. He was replaced by a Canadian singer named David Clayton-Thomas, whose creamy voice can be heard on Blood, Sweat and Tears’ most famous singles: “You Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel.” Without Kooper, the band lost some of their credibility, a problem that was greatly compounded by subsequent choices to tour on behalf of Nixon’s State Department, play Vegas, and compose music for Barba Streisand. They lasted for quite a while despite demonstrably poor judgment, but Child Is Father to the Man remains their greatest creative endeavor.
Raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago, Michael Bloomfield received his first guitar for his Bar Mitzvah. He also received a career-making favor from the rabbi who officiated, Edgar Siskin, when Siskin introduced young Michael to Columbia Records executive John Hammond, Sr. Hammond had signed Bob Dylan, and in 1964, he added Bloomfield to his roster of successful musicians. After an adolescence spent sneaking out of the house to hear music in Chicago’s clubs, Bloomfield was as knowledgeable about the blues as any young Jewish kid possibly could be—he’d even played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. This made him a natural session musician, and he went on to a series of studio gigs, most notably as guitarist on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. (He also backed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.) Bloomfield’s own bands were all acclaimed for their innovation and energy, starting with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He played guitar on their 1965 self-titled debut and their 1966 raga-influenced East-West, then quit in 1967 to found Electric Flag. In ’68, he teamed up with Al Kooper to make Super Sessions and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. 1969 saw the release of 2 Jews Blues with Barry Goldberg, an album Columbia didn’t want Bloomfield to cut. Bloomfield never hid his Jewish identity, though, occasionally even playing under the goofy name “Fast Fingers Finkelstein.” In 1981, when he died (allegedly of a drug overdose), Barry Goldberg called him a “true hero not just to the Jewish people, not just to musicians, but to the world.”
Blue Öyster Cult
Of course it was Jews who discovered the hard-rock potential of the umlaut. Having gone through several even-worse band names (Soft White Underbelly, Oaxaca), founders Sandy Pearlman and Richard Melzter settled on “Blue Oyster Cult” just before signing to Columbia in 1971. Known for playing “thinking man’s heavy metal,” BÖC had their biggest success with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” which was featured in the horror movie Halloween and hit the top 40 charts. Read more about Blue Öyster Cult in Don’t Fear the Rockdots.
The Blues Project
Al Kooper, keyboards. Danny Kalb, guitar. Steve Katz, guitar and vocals. Andy Kulberg,bass. Roy Blumenfeld, drums. How’s that for a Jewish line-up? Sure, there have been other all-Jewish bands in the history of rock. There have even been other bands with five Jewish members; see J. Geils. But no other band—certainly no band this influential—has consisted entirely of what the rock writer Scott Bernarde points out is half a minyan. (They had a non-Jewish singer for a short while, but he left after the first album). The Blues Project formed in 1965 out of a group of musicians who had little in common other than their Jewishness. Somehow, they were able to create a sound that included Kooper’s rock leanings, Kalb’s love of the blues, Katz’s pop sensibility, Kulberg’s jazz and classical training, and Blumenfeld’s interest in African and Caribbean music. Projections, released in 1966, is widely considered the band’s finest achievement. Not long thereafter, though, the Blues Project split over the subject of horns. The pro-brass Kooper left to form Blood, Sweat and Tears; the rest of the band recorded one more album and then drifted apart. (See also Al Kooper, Blood, Sweat and Tears.)
See T. Rex.
Love him or hate him (is there anyone left who actually loves him?), Michael Bolton is undeniably Jewish. Born Michael Bolotin in 1954, Michael changed his name in 1983 after finding middling success as a singer-songwriter. Amazingly, his career as Michael Bolotin involved a stint as lead singer for a metal band, Blackjack, which released two albums with Polydor. Bolton found his real niche singing honky-fied versions of soul classics when his cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay” became a Top 40 hit in 1987. His next album, Soul Provider, contained five Top 40 singles, and the follow-up, Time, Love, and Tenderness, had four more. By the nineties, his audience had come to their senses; 1997’s All That Matters was a flop, and Bolton turned his hand to singing opera instead of the blue-eyed soul that made him famous.
It’s hard for a band of Jersey guys not to have a Jewish member, but the boys of Bon Jovi have found themselves a real mensch in keyboardist David Bryan. Bryan was born David Rashbaum in Edison, NJ. He and the young Jon Bongiovi played in bands together as teenagers. When they hit the big time with a Polygram/Mercury deal in 1983, both David and Jon changed their names. Bon Jovi had three Top 10 hits with Slippery When Wet and five more with New Jersey. Five of their singles, including the classic “Living on a Prayer,” reached number one on the charts. They are still beloved around the world – and David Bryan is still very active in his local shul.
The LA-based singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff wrote three songs for Linda Ronstadt’s 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind. Her success with Ronstadt won her a recording contract with Columbia, and the third of her albums for them contained “Personally,” which was a Top 40 hit. Bonoff worked on several soundtracks in the eighties, most notably Footloose.
British grunge heartthrob Gavin Rossdale is half-Jewish; his father is descended from Russian Jews. In 2000, Rossdale recited the Motzi at a Friday-night concert in Austria as a statement against the nation’s newly elected radical right-wing government (and also as a blessing over its bread). Bush gained fame in the early nineties on the strength of their post-Nirvana hooks, reaching the Top Ten with the singles “Little Things,” “Comedown,” and “Glycerine.” Their albums Sixteen Stone and Razorblade Suitcase were grunge staples, but the Seattle sound had fallen out of favor by the 1999 release of The Science of Things.
See Riffed Off by Dave McKenna.
Thanks to their name and the religious overtones of some of their songs, the Calling are sometimes mistaken for a Christian rock band. However, both singer Alex Band and guitarist Aaron Kamin are Jewish. Band and Kamin met when the twenty-year-old Kamin began dating fifteen-year-old Band’s sister. Despite the age difference, the two began playing together, actually doing a stint in a group called Generation Gap. The Calling had a chart-topping single with “Wherever You Go” from the album Camino Palermo.
Born in a small town in Pennsylvania, Vanessa Carlton was something of a musical prodigy. She began her studies at the School of American Ballet in New York at age fourteen, but the rigidity of ballet frustrated her, leading her to take up the more individualistic craft of songwriting. Be Not Nobody debuted in 2002. Its single “A Thousand Miles” reached the charts, and Carlton’s follow-up album, Harmonium, came out last year.
Rick Chertoff produced hit albums for Cyndi Lauper, the Hooters, Joan Osborne, and Sophie B. Hawkins, among others. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, he met fellow Jews Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. The two went on to form the Hooters; Chertoff went on to produce them. In 1996 Chertoff was nominated for a Grammy for the Joan Osborne song “One of Us,” which was written by Bazilian, but he’s probably best known for his work on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual.
Leonard and Phil Chess
The Chess brothers, who immigrated from Poland as young boys, ran the most influential blues label of the fifties. Signing such legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon, Chess Records set the standards for Chicago blues. The label also had a hand in kick-starting rock and roll when Leonard signed Chuck Berry in 1995.
Lest you think there was a single band in the heyday of punk that was entirely Jew-free, we present for your consideration Mick Jones of the Clash. Jones grew up in a working-class household in Brixton, the son of a Jewish mother whose own mother was a Russian refugee. True, he played in a hard rock band called the London SS – ah youth – but the name changed with the addition of a few new members, including a belligerent young fellow named Joe Strummer. After a stint supporting the Sex Pistols on the famous Anarchy Tour, the band released a self-titled album (cover photo taken by friend and great Jewish rock photographer Kate Simon). It hit number 12 on the British charts and was declared unfit for radio play in the US – a double punk coup. By 1979’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the band members had simultaneously developed social consciousnesses and impressive arrest records. It wasn’t a huge hit, but the band released London Calling that same year, debuting at number one on the British charts, hitting 27 in the US, and forever earning themselves a place in the rock pantheon. 1983’s Combat Rock was even more successful, but that fall, Mick Jones was fired from the band. He went on to form Big Audio Dynamite; the Clash went on to release one more, very mediocre LP and then disbanded.
Johnny Clegg founded South Africa’s first multi-racial band, Juluka. Their first album got grassroots attention but never made it to the radio due to racial prejudice. With their second album, African Litary, Juluka achieved a South African hit, and by their third album, Scattering, they had a host of international fans. When Juluka broke up, Clegg went on to form the immediately-successful Savuka, which sold two million copies of its first album. Heat, Dust, and Dreams, the band’s fourth album, was nominated for a Grammy in Best World Music.
Named after a character from William S. Burrough’s druggie classic Naked Lunch, Clem Snide play country-inflected indie rock. Lead singer and guitarist Eef Barzelay was raised Jewish in New Jersey. Drummer Ben Marcus is also fifty percent Jewish and one hundred percent rock star; as Barzalay tells us on a birthday song for his bandmate on 2003’s The Soft Spot, “half-Jewish boys make kick-ass drummers.”
Leonard Cohen was a novelist and a poet before he became a singer, but before that, he was just a Jewish boy from Canada struggling to join his family’s dry goods business. Cohen’s first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, appeared in 1968 after Judy Collins spotlighted his songwriting talents with her version of “Suzanne.” A perennial college favorite, Cohen has always been more popular as a songwriter than a singer, as well-known covers of his haunting “Hallelujah” by both Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright demonstrate.
See Nudie and the Technicolor Jacket by Eddie Dean.
The hedonistic world of rock and roll affords many temptations for the Jewish rocker: In March 2003, the Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer Adam Duritz was photographed cooking pork ribs in Blender. Duritz explained that he’d been led down the road of traif by that notorious corrupter Gibby Haines of the Butthole Surfers, who taught him his secret Dr. Pepper marinade. The Counting Crows, who got their start playing coffeehouses in San Francisco, rose to fame with their 1993 album August and Everything After on the strength of the Van Morrison-esque single “Mr. Jones.” Since then, the Crows have released three CDs and a double live album, honing their dark but laid-back sixties sound with each release.
Country Joe and the Fish
Best known for their anti-Vietnam War anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish were one of the many legendary groups to play at Woodstock. Their three albums, all released in the late sixties, combined folk music with psychedelic rock and jazz. In 2003, drummer Gary Hirsch told rock biographer Scott Benarde that he’d always thought of the group as a Jewish band. Actually, with a Jewish drummer, a Jewish keyboardist, two half-Jewish guitarists, and a bass player whose maternal grandmother was a Jew, the band is officially only 65% Jewish.
Although the sixties proto-supergroup Cream was technically a trio of non-Jews, their “silent” fourth member was a member of the tribe. Pete Brown grew up Jewish in London. He was a published poet by the time he reached the age of 18; Cream drummer Ginger Baker used to attend his poetry readings, which is how he met the band. Brown collaborated with Cream on many of their songs, including “I Feel Free,” “White Room,” and “Sunshine of Your Love.”
Like Sammy Davis Jr, Jim Croce is a famous convert. Raised in an Italian Catholic family, Croce horrified his parents when he fell in love with a very young folksinger named Ingrid Jacobson. He converted for her and married her in a traditional Jewish ceremony that was not attended by a single member of his family other than his brother. Croce released two well-received albums and had four hits, including “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which went to number one in 1973. Tragically, he died in a plane crash while finishing up a tour for his second record, Life and Times.
Culture Club was hugely popular in its heyday, achieving seven straight Top Ten hits in the UK and six in the States, including “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Karma Chameleon.” The band’s gender-bending lead singer Boy George (who is not Jewish) has said that the Jewish T. Rex frontman Mark Bolan inspired his own rock star persona; he also played for a while in an early incarnation of Bow Wow Wow after being invited to join the band by the Jewish punk impresario Malcolm McLaren. Culture Club drummer Jon Moss is Jewish. He had previously played with Adam and the Ants and the Damned.
The Cyrkle are remembered primarily for two hits: “Red Rubber Ball” and “Turn Down Day.” The band formed as the Rhondells at Lafayette College in the early sixties but soon relocated to Greenwich Village and changed its name to Cyrkle on the advice of John Lennon. Cyrkle had two Jewish members, guitarist and pianist Don Danneman and drummer Marty Fried, but it also got by with some help from its Jewish friends, including Paul Simon (who co-wrote “Red Rubber Ball”) and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. These connections helped the Cyrkle achieve brief but widespread popularity between 1966 and 1967.
Arguably the greatest talent scout in the history of rock, Clive Davis went into the music business because he thought being a young lawyer didn’t confer enough status. He went on to become a major industry macher, signing such notables as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Chicago, Patti Smith, the Grateful Dead, Whitney Houston, and Sarah MacLachlan. He founded Arista Records, which is named after the honor society he was a member of in high school. He later formed LaFace records with Babyface and cut a 50/50 deal to form Bad Boy with Sean “Puffy” Combs. Despite publicly claiming to have no ear for hip-hop, Davis was thus also indirectly responsible for the careers of Monica, Outkast, TLC, Faith Evans, and the Notorious B.I.G. Most recently, he started J Records – it’s his middle initial, which weirdly enough stands for nothing – and turned Alicia Keys into a megastar.
Sammy Davis Jr
Read about Sammy Davis Jr in Funny, He Didn’t Look Jewish by Wil Haygood.
Jewish girl Leslie Wonderman changed her first name to “Taylor” and her last name to “Dayne” to become one of the pop divas of the eighties. After two unsuccessful stints in rock bands, she cut a solo called “Tell It To My Heart” which entered the Top Ten in 1987. Both her debut album, also called Tell It To My Heart, and the follow-up, Can’t Fight Fate, produced three top ten hits.
Known as the Jewish Elvis, Neil Diamond is responsible for some of the catchiest not-quite-rock songs of the twentieth century. First hitting the charts with “Cherry, Cherry” in 1966, he went on to score five Top 20 hits in a row. Diamond wrote such classics as “I’m a Believer,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” His filmic career includes the soundtrack to the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the lead role in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, the plot of which he revamped to better reflect his own life in show business. Little-known Neil Diamond trivia: he attended NYU on a fencing scholarship.
Before the Ramones, there were the Dictators. Founded in 1974 by Andy Shernoff and music critic Richard Meltzer, the band set a New York standard, playing balls-out garage rock in a town where almost no one actually has a garage. Their sound was dirty, their subject matter trashy (wrestling, fast food). They enlisted frontman Richard Blum, aka Handsome Dick Manitoba, after he proved himself totally incompetent as a roadie. In short, they were punk rock before punk rock actually existed. Despite being wildly influential – this is a band that featured both ACDC and Cheap Trick as opening acts – they were hated by the critics, and by the time their aesthetic caught on in the late seventies, they had broken up.
See Mark Knopfler.
Robby Krieger, the Doors’ guitarist, may be the only Jewish Door, but his contribution to the band came from a very different cultural tradition. Krieger studied Indian music at UCLA and met Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek at a meditation session. The Doors formed soon after, in 1965, and found instant success with their single “Light My Fire” in 1967. Their first, self-titled album was enormously popular. While the band continued playing together for the next four years, they were never able to release an album that was quite so gorgeously dark and rich.
Perhaps the single most famous Jew in rock, Bob Dylan is a self-made enigma. Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941, Dylan began fabricating an image for himself from his first performances at the University of Minnesota, taking his new last name from the poet Dylan Thomas. Upon his arrival in New York in 1961, he became a staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene with his signature twisty, evocative lyrics and developing political sensibilities, all set to a classically folky acoustic backing. 1962’s The Freewheeling Bob Dylan went to number twenty-three on the charts and introduced Dylan to the world outside of New York. In 1965, Dylan famously shocked his fans with an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, after releasing the partly electric Bringing It All Back Home. As the title of the famous documentary about him suggests, he never looked back, releasing literally dozens of albums of both electric and acoustic folk-rock throughout the rest of his career. A mysterious period in the late seventies saw Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, but he was back to the Jewish faith by 1983. For more about Bob Dylan, see Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues, A Night in the Life and Subterranean Homeland Blues.
As the son of one of rock’s most influential musicians, Jakob Dylan has done an admirable job developing a rock and roll career of his own. Sure, the famous name didn’t hurt, and it must have helped that he came equipped with piercing blue eyes and unholy cheekbones, courtesy of his stunning mother Sara Lowndes. But Dylan’s band the Wallflowers had a respectable showing in the charts with their 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse, producing the pleasant-enough hits “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache.”
Elastica lead guitarist/vocalist and Jewess Justine Frischmann couldn’t have been more of a rock goddess in the nineties. A founding member of Suede with her then-boyfriend Brett Anderson, Frischmann left the band to start her own group in 1991, explaining in one interview that she’d “rather be Pete Best than Linda McCartney.” She proceeded to become half of Brit-pop’s most celebrated couple when she began dating Blur’s Damon Alburn. Meanwhile, Elastica’s singles “Stutter” and “Connection” climbed the charts, although they were criticized by many who said that their riffs were both lifted directly from Wire songs. Frischmann was also ragged by the press for her posh upbringing, causing her to reveal in one interview that her father is a Holocaust survivor who was at Auschwitz when the war ended. Ultimately, feeling pressure from both her band and the media, Frischmann quit the music business, but not before making a major impression on the Cool Britannia scene.
Mama Cass Elliot
Poor Mama Cass: eternally haunted by the rumor that she died choking on a ham sandwich, which is no way for a Jewish girl to go. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen, Cass Elliot started her performance career as an actor; she actually competed against Barbra Streisand for the part of Miss Marmelstein in an off-Broadway performance of “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” in 1961. Elliot became part of the Mamas and the Papas in 1965 when she left her own folk group to sing with Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips. After hits like “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreaming,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love,” Cass Elliot was enough of a star to embark on her own solo career, but it was cut short with her death (of a heart attack, not a sandwich) in 1974. See Who’s Your Mama? in Words.
The Beatles’ famous manager Brian Epstein knew all about the fifth commandment – the not-very-rock-and-roll exhortation to honor thy father and mother. Epstein worked at his parents’ music store (which, coincidentally, is where James McCartney Sr bought his family’s piano on an installment plan). When a catchy new pop group called the Beatles caught his eye, he immediately asked his mom and dad to come see the band in action. They were a little unsure – Epstein’s Yiddishe mama had no idea what to wear to a rock concert – but after the show, they gave their son permission to manage what would become the most famous band in rock. Epstein is the man who got the Beatles their first contract, fired Pete Best, and oversaw the band through their rise to fame. Sadly, his career was cut short with his death at age 32 from an overdose of sleeping pills. His body was discovered next to working script of “Yellow Submarine” and a copy of The Rabbi, a novel by Noah Gordon.
The daughter of a Jewish baroness and a British WWII spy, Marianne Faithfull went from being one of the less talented singers of the sixties to one of the more extraordinary ones of the late seventies. Faithfull was initially known mostly for being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and partner in crime – literally, as famous accounts of the lovebirds’ drug busts attest. Her recordings, including Jagger’s “As Tears Go By,” were not very well received, and she sunk into drug addiction. But in 1979, with her comeback album Broken English, Faithfull found herself suddenly widely appreciated, especially by the newfound punk scene. All the years of drinking and heroin had roughened up her voice, giving it both texture and gravitas. Since then, Faithfull has recorded several albums, working with critically acclaimed songwriters like P.J. Harvey and Beck.
Perry Farrell is another loud, proud Jewish rock star. Born Peretz Bernstein in Queens in 1959, Farrell worked in his father’s diamond business for a while before moving out west to found Jane’s Addiction 1985. Two platinum albums, Nothing’s Shocking (1988) and Ritual de lo Habitual (1990) followed. Both were hugely seminal for the nineties alternative rock scene, but by the time Nirvana broke, Farrell had moved on to a new band, Porno for Pyros. Perhaps more importantly, he was also at the helm of a project that defined the sound of the era: Lolapalooza, the enormous traveling rock show. Farrell debuted his pierced, tattooed baby in 1991, headlining with Jane’s Addiction just before they broke up, and went on to steer the festival through the decade.
Several different bands in the history of Jewish rock got their start in the synagogue chorus, but the Flamingos may be the only ones who met in a church choir – a Jewish church, no less. Jake and Zeke Carey were cousins who joined the Church of God and Saints of Christ Congregation when they moved from Baltimore to Chicago in 1950. The church, or synagogue, is the oldest black Jewish congregation in the US (yes, there are others). When the Carey cousins joined the choir, they became friends with Paul Wilson and Johnny Carter. Sollie McElroy rounded out the group, and as a doo-wop fivesome, they recorded their first track, “If I Can’t Have You,” in 1953. In 1956, they had a Top Ten song with “I’ll Be Home,” but their biggest hit was 1959’s “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Having spent the early part of their vocal training on sad Jewish melodies, the group were well prepared for the lovelorn ballads of fifties R&B.
Born into a highly musical Jewish family, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Greenbaum – later Peter Green — started playing with his future bandmates in the Bluesbreakers, replacing Eric Clapton in 1966. The band became Fleetwood Mac in 1967 when the rest of the members left behind founder John Mayall to form their own group. Green’s hard-edged, blues-influenced guitar gained acclaim for the new band. Two of his songs, “Man of the World” and “Oh Well,” were number two hits in 1969. But by the following year, Green’s heavy drug use had rendered him unstable, and in the spring of 1970, he left the band.
Rock and roll might have existed without Alan Freed, but “rock and roll” would never have been born. In 1951, Freed began two spin rhythm and blues records on a Cleveland radio station, WJW. Instead of calling the sound “r’n’b,” though, Freed gave it a racier new name, one that cut loose the blues and focused on the rhythm. Three years later, he applied for a patent, making “rock and roll” a legal coinage. By then Freed was a genuine star, DJ’ing on WINS in New York. Ultimately, a scandal involving radio bribery brought him to ruin, but the phrase “rock and roll” remained his legacy.
Country singer, mystery author, independent gubernatorial candidate: Texas’s leading Jewish cowboy, Kinky Friedman, wears several different ten gallon hats. Born Richard Friedman, Kinky spent three years in the Peace Corps before founding Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. With songs like “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” the band appealed to a small but growing cult following, ultimately touring with Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue. The Jewboys disbanded in the late seventies, and by the early eighties, Kinky Friedman had become a writer, publishing mystery novels about a Jewish country singer named Kinky Friedman. He’s had a long career as an author, but he’s moving on once again; this spring, Kinky is running for Texas governor under the slogan “Kinky Friedman: Why the Hell Not?”
True, Art Garfunkel may go down in rock history as the ultimate embodiment of “that other guy,” but before his songwriting partner abandoned him, Garfunkel was half of one of the most important folk duos of the sixties – and don’t you forget it. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel got their start as Tom and Jerry, hitting the top fifty with their single “Hey Schoolgirl.” Lack of success caused them to split up, but when they reformed as Simon & Garfunkel in the sixties, they scored a number-one hit with “Sound of Silence” after their producer added electric guitars to their gentle folk-rock. “Homeward Bound,” “I Am a Rock,” and “Hazy Shade of Winter” all hit the charts in 1966 and 1967. “Mrs. Robinson” became a hit on the strength of the movie The Graduate, and their 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water remained on top of the charts for ten weeks. After the group split up, Garfunkel pursued an acting career which included a role in Catch-22. He also released several albums, but never even approached the fame of his former partner.
The J. Geils Band
The J. Geils Band couldn’t have been more Jewish, with the notable exception of J. himself: singer Peter Wolf, drummer Stephen Bladd, harmonica player Magic Dick (born Richard Salkovitz), keyboardist Seth Justman, and bassist Danny Klein were all Jews. And they didn’t hide it: the band was often called the Jewish Rolling Stones. During the seventies, the J. Geils band toured tirelessly, gaining a reputation based on their gritty r’n’b and wild live shows. Their second album, The Morning After, had a Top 40 hit with “Looking for a Love” in 1970, and 1972’s Bloodshot entered the top ten thanks to the single “Give It to Me.” But they were mostly known as a concert band until 1981, when their single “Centerfold” became a favorite on the newborn cable channel MTV, driving the album Freeze Frame up the charts. As one of the great live bands of the era, the J. Geils Band did miss one major gig: obscure band trivia has it that they were asked to play the original Woodstock. Sadly, it seems the influence of one too many Jewish grandmothers came through; the band supposedly gave the supremely bubbe-esque response: “Three days in the mud – who needs it?”
See Mike Bloomfield.
The Grateful Dead
From their early days in the San Francisco psychedelic scene to their one radio hit, 1987’s “Touch of Grey,” the Grateful Dead have always had a large Jewish following. Deadheadism is a lot like Judiasm. Fans of the Grateful Dead, like observant Jews, glean spiritual meaning from the intensive study of their chosen texts: in this case, song lyrics. They view themselves as misfits in the greater world but draw incredible strength from their own communities. And, as the joke goes, much like the Jews, Deadheads tend to follow around the Grateful Dead. Of course, the high number of Jews in the Dead’s fanbase is echoed by the band’s own Jewishness. Drummer Mickey Hart was raised Jewish, and the band’s publicist and manager were both Jews.
See Fleetwood Mac.
What is it about Jewish musicians and college-based cult followings? Like Phish, Guster developed a major following in the nineties with almost no radio play, winning the hearts of thousands of college kids on their practically endless touring loops. The all-Jewish trio met at Tufts University in 1992 and released their debut album, Parachute, two years later. Goldfly came out in 1997 and Lost and Gone Forever the neat year. In 1998, the band signed to a major label, Sire, but it folded. Undeterred, they released Keep It Together with Reprise in 2003, still touring tirelessly all the while. These days, they might be the only band at any given school’s spring weekend playing a shofar – but that’s only because Phish no longer exists.
Woody Guthrie wasn’t Jewish, but he married a Jewish girl and settled in Brooklyn near his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Guthrie’s son Arlo grew up Jewish and was deeply influenced by his grandmother, who served the family Shabbat dinner every Friday night. Arlo Guthrie is best known for his eighteen-minute-plus “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” which was released in 1967. Inspiring a 1969 movie and causing the album it was on to go gold, “Alice’s Restaurant” was Guthrie’s biggest hit; however, his 1972 single “The City of New Orleans” was a commercial success, and he continued to release albums throughout the seventies. Read more about Arlo Guthrie in This Land is Your Land.
See the Grateful Dead.
If you’re an Israeli pop musician, the highlight of your career is normally to become a finalist in the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Although Ofra Haza did just that in 1983, with her single “Hi!”, this daughter of Yemenite Jewish refugees would soon achieve international success unprecedented for a citizen of the Jewish state. Her 1984 album Yemenite Songs (AKA Fifty Gates of Wisdom), featured club-dance versions of traditional secular and religious compositions. The album’s lead single, “Im Nin’alu,” with lyrics by 16th-century mystic Shalom Shabazi, reached the top 20 in the U.K. and was a hit in American clubs as well. Haza subsequently recorded a well-received English album, toured the U.S., and recorded with Iggy Pop, Sisters of Mercy, and fellow tribe-member [[Lou Reed]]. She died of AIDS-related complications in 2000.
Sure, the Brits had Malcolm McLaren, but here in the US, we had our own Jewish punk pioneer in the person of Richard Hell. Born Richard Myers, the half-Jewish Hell got his start playing in Television – the band that convinced a dive bar on the Bowery called CBGB’s to start having live shows. Hell was deeply inspired by the trashy aesthetic of the New York Dolls, so when that band broke up, he teamed up with Johnny Thunders to form the Heartbreakers (although he dropped out before they made music history touring England with the Sex Pistols). Finally, Hell found his niche as a frontman with the backing band the Voidoids, defining the ennui of an era with their 1977 song “Blank Generation.”
Peter Himmelman’s Jewish rock credentials are unimpeachable, even aside from his role as son-in-law to one Robert Zimmerman. How Jewish is he? Well, he refuses to play on Shabbos. His most recent album, Imperfect World (released in March of 2005) was written after an inspiring Tisha B’av fast period. Even his Hebrew name—Pesach Mordechai—is more Jewish than most. Himmelman’s twin interests in Judaism and music have been with him since his childhood in Minnesota: he made his first trip to Israel at age eight and got his first guitar when he was 12. In the early eighties, he began playing under the pseudonym Sussman Lawrence, which eventually became the name of his new wave band. Both of their albums were lauded by critics, but it wasn’t until Himmelman went solo with This Father’s Day (1986) that he really found his stride. Dedicated to the memory of his father, with whom Himmelman was extremely close, the album won him a contract with Chris Blackwell at Island Records. Today, many albums later, Himmelman also writes children’s music and music for television. He is known for his imaginative approach to concerts—he once took an entire audience out to eat after a show. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty hugely Jewish thing to do.
See the Bangles.
Janis Ian was born Janis Eddy Fink in New York City in 1951. Though she began using “Ian” as a surname when she started playing folk music in high school, Ian never quite left behind her given name: her 1968 album was titled The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink. Ian’s first hit was the highly controversial “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” a song about interracial romance that Ian wrote when she was only 15. The track gained attention after Leonard Bernstein featured it on a television special, launching Ian’s career. She released albums throughout the late sixties but really came into her own in the seventies. Roberta Flack’s performance of her song “Jesse” became a Top 30 hit; more famously, “At Seventeen” won a Grammy and reached the Top Three in 1975.
Neo-soul Brits Jamiroquai boast a frontman who sounds like Stevie Wonder but looks like the kid who always sat in the back of the class in Hebrew School. Jason Kay was born in 1969 in Manchester. He decided to start a band after a stint of homelessness; music seemed a safer occupation than petty crime, which was how he had been getting by. Jamiroquai’s first single “When You Gonna Learn?” came out in 1992, followed by the album Emergency on Planet Earth in 1993. It hit number one in the UK, but Kay didn’t find success in the US until 1996’s Traveling Without Moving. The video for the track “Virtual Insanity” was one of the coolest of the nineties and helped the album go platinum. The band never achieved the same fame in the states, but overseas, Jamiroquai is still going strong.
See Perry Farrell.
Jay and the Americans
This all-Jewish band had the distinction of opening for both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on each group’s first American tour. Founded in 1961, the band was named by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; “Jay” was John Traynor, one of vocal group’s seven members. In 1962, their song “She Cried” became their first Top Ten hit. Not long after, John Traynor left the band. David Blatt, a singer who had been raised Orthodox, came in to fill the “Jay” role. When Blatt’s last name was misheard on The Mike Douglas Show, he became “Jay Black.” Nearly all of the band members changed their Jewish last names, but in 1967, they recorded an adaptation of a Yiddish song, “Vi iz dus Gesele,” which Black translated himself. This was not a huge commercial success, but many of their other singles—”Come a Little Bit Closer,” “Cara, Mia,” “This Magic Moment” and others—hit the Top 40.
Nearly everyone in Jefferson Airplane was Jewish in some way or another. Drummer Spencer Dryden: Jewish. Singer Marty Balin and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen: Jewish. Paul Kantner: technically not a Jew, but with that last name, who cares? The Airplane went through many line-up changes as the band developed out of the mid-sixties San Francisco rock scene, but it achieved the form known to history when Dryden, Balin, Kaukonen, Kantner, and bassist Jack Casady recruited singer Grace Slick in 1966. Slick brought two sings with her when she joined the band: “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” These tracks both reached the Top Ten and made 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow a gold record. Jefferson Airplane continued representing the drugged-out culture of their hometown on the charts until the seventies, when the band morphed into both Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna.
Billy Joel once pretended to be Irish and Catholic – hence the many songs about things like crosses and communion – but both of his parents are Jewish. Joel was raised with little Jewish education and in fact grew up attending Catholic mass with his friends. He was a bit of a piano prodigy, taking up the instrument at age 3. As a teen, he played recording sessions, including the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” Joel built his career slowly, releasing several classic singles including “Piano Man” and “New York State of Mind” throughout the seventies, but it wasn’t until 1977’s The Stranger that he achieved real fame with “Just The Way You Are,” which won Grammy Awards for both Record and Song of the Year. Billy Joel’s popularity has always withstood cold reception from rock critics: despite being dismissed as soft and derivative by the press, the man who wrote “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Uptown Girl,” and “Only The Good Die Young” has sold more than 100,000,000 records over the course of his career.
See Yo La Tengo.
In 1986, Lenny Kaye taught a course at Rutgers University on the history of rock. He was uniquely qualified, having played a major role in that history himself. Kaye grew up surrounded by music, playing in garage bands, writing articles about rock, and eventually getting a job at a record store in Greenwich Village. In 1971, Patty Smith came across an essay by Kaye in Jazz & Pop magazine and was so impressed that she tracked him down. They soon formed the Patty Smith Group, a proto-punk experiment anchored between the poles of Smith’s raw lyrics and Kaye’s noisy guitar. Meanwhile, Lenny Kaye was also working on a compilation of garage rock songs, Nuggets, which came out in 1972. With this carefully organized double album, Kaye made a successful case for the suburban basement as prime breeding grounds for good music, an idea that would be cherished by the punk movement he was helping to create. The Patty Smith Group’s debut album, Horses, came out in 1975; they were to release three more records before breaking up in 1979. Kaye formed the Lenny Kaye Connection in 1980, worked as a record producer, and continued his journalism career, writing for Addicted to Noise, Cream and Rolling Stone. In 1996, he played on Patty Smith’s comeback album, Gone Again.
Born Carole Klein, Carole King wrote some of the most memorable pop songs of the sixties. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”? That’s hers. “The Locomotion”? Also hers. Campfire favorite “You’ve Got a Friend?” Yup, that’s her too. And while she didn’t write “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” King did give Aretha Franklin another signature cut, the soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.” King got her start at Queens College, where she met fellow songwriters Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka and Gerry Goffin, whom she later married. She and Goffin wrote over 100 charting singles over the first half of the sixties (“The Locomotion” was recorded by their babysitter) but split up towards the end of the decade, causing King to move out to LA, where she met James Taylor. In addition to popularizing “You’ve Got a Friend,” Taylor encouraged King to perform as a solo artist, and in 1971, she released Tapestry. It remained on the charts for six years, finally granting King the recognition her songwriting deserved.
Born Chaim Witz, Gene Simmons grew up attending yeshiva in Brooklyn (his upbringing was so Jewish that when he first saw a picture of Santa Claus, he figured the bearded guy must be a rabbi). Simmons began playing with fellow Hebrew Paul Stanley (Stanley Harvey Eisen) in a band called Wicked Lester, but the two soon joined forces with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to form a group positioned somewhere between the macho end of glam and the theatrical end of hard rock. Kiss came out in 1974 and went up to 87 on the US charts; with 1975’s single “Rock and Roll All Nite” off the live album Alive, the boys behind the make-up became bona fide rock stars. The single “Beth” went to the Top Ten in 1977 and the 1979 album Dynasty also went platinum, but after all of this success, Peter Criss decided he wanted out. KISS’s fortune went downhill from there, spiking briefly in 1983 when the remaining band members (Ace Frehley had left by the point too) appeared for the first time in public without the make-up. Several reunions and much controversy later, Chaim Witz is still going strong – last winter saw him as a guest judge beside fellow Yid Paula Abdul on this season’s American Idol. Read more about Kiss in A One For the Money, a Two for the Money.
All four members of the Knack were Jewish; naturally, so was Sharona. Coming out of LA in the late seventies, what made the band so unique was its choice of idols: while everyone else was emulating either Led Zeppelin or the Sex Pistols, the Knack looked back further, aiming to be 1979’s answer to the Beatles. They may have overshot, but the Knack were hugely popular for about a year. Get the Knack (1979) sold millions of copies, partly on the strength of “My Sharona.” By the time …But the Little Girls Understand was released less than a year later, the band was suffering somewhat of a Knacklash. They released two more albums, but their next real chance to shine didn’t come until Reality Bites revived “My Sharona” in 1994. Read more about the Knack in His Sharona.
Mark Knopler was always a Person of the Book. The son of a Hungarian refugee whose Jewish faith and communist sympathies led him to flee to Scotland, Knopfler majored in English in college and worked as a rock critic before founding Dire Straits. As the band’s songwriter, Knopfler remained wordy and clever, gaining attention for writing literate lyrics. Dire Straits had their first hint of success when the single “Sultans of Swing” was picked up from their demo by a London DJ. On the strength of the airplay, the band wrangled a recording contract and released their self-titled debut, which entered the Top Ten in both the US and the UK. Their second album sold three million copies worldwide, and their third, Making Movies, had a major hit with “Romeo and Juliet.” It wasn’t until their sixth album, 1985’s Brothers in Arms, though, that Dire Straits really became megastars. With the video for “Money for Nothing,” they became one of the bands to embody the feel of early MTV. Meanwhile, Knopfler began writing scores for movies, including The Princess Bride (1987).
What didn’t Al Kooper do in the 60s and 70s? Born Alan Peter Kuperschmidt, this Brooklyn-raised Jew began his career in the Royal Teens (of “Short Shorts” fame). He went on to become a well-respected session musician, a role that placed him in the studio with Bob Dylan for “Like a Rolling Stone.” That famous organ riff? That’s all Al Kooper. In the meantime, Kooper also managed to become a founding member of the Blues Project when a producer invited him to play on their demo. Frustrated by his bandmates’ decision not to include a brass section, he quit the band and founded Blood, Sweat and Tears. After orchestrating what has been called one of the best albums of the sixties, Kooper moved on to a production job at Columbia Records. He brought the Zombies to the United States; he signed Lynyrd Skynyrd. He also kept playing his own music, releasing two blues-rock albums with Mike Bloomfield. Between his producing activities, his own bands, and the sessions he played with groups like the Who, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, Kooper played a part in many of the most important moments of rock and roll. (See also the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears.)
Lenny Kravitz is one of rock’s most famous half-Jews. The son of a Jewish TV producer and actress Roxie Roker (Helen on The Jeffersons), Kravitz has made a career of playing his rock heroes almost better than they could play themselves. Unfortunately, he started his simulations with Prince, which didn’t get him much farther than the stage name Romeo Blue and a pair of ill-advised blue contact lenses. Once he turned to Hendrix, however, Kravitz was unstoppable. 1989’s Let Love Rule somehow came off as stripped-down and authentic compared with everything else out that year; it became a major hit, with the title track’s video logging in long hours on MTV. The same year, Kravitz proved his genuine talent by writing “Justify My Love” for Madonna. His next album, Mama Said, had a huge hit with “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over,” and by the time he released Are You Gonna Go My Way in 1993, he’d earned respect as an original performer. “Fly Away,” from 1998’s 5, was a megahit, as was Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman” in 1999. Today, Lenny Kravitz can be seen backing another beloved fashion victim and Jewish icon, Sarah Jessica Parker, in Gap ads across America.
See the Doors.
Leiber and Stoller
A lot of people hated Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” when they first heard it. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, though, had a good reason: that skinny hick was ruining their song. Leiber and Stoller had both been raised Jewish, but their musical influences were always African-American. Elvis, they figured, was impinging on their role as the only white guys in r’n’b – a role they backed up by writing over fifty pop hits, including “Yakety Yak” for the Coasters and “There Goes My Baby” for the Drifters. Ultimately, of course, Leiber and Stoller were hardly the only white songwriters to break the barriers of segregation in their music. But they did it first, and with classics like “Hound Dog,” you could argue that they did it best.
Lisa Loeb proved a lot of things in the early nineties. With her number one single, “Stay,” she proved that you don’t need a record deal to top the charts; with her unabashedly Jewish name, she demonstrated that there’s no need for pseudonyms in this day and age; and with those giant spectacles, she let a generation of nerds know that glasses can be sexy. Loeb got her start as part of a duo with her Brown University roommate, Elizabeth Mitchell (later of Ida). She moved on to a role as front-woman with her band Nine Stories in 1990 and attracted some major label interest, but it was not until after her buddy Ethan Hawke featured “Stay” in Reality Bites that she was signed by Geffen. “Stay” won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Group. She released her debut album, Tails, in 1995 and scored a radio hit with “I Do” from 1997’s Firecracker. 2003’s Cake and Pie was re-released under the name Hello Lisa as part of a promotional deal with Sanrio’s Hello Kitty character. Loeb has also found some fame in television, starring alongside former boyfriend Dweezil Zappa in the short-lived cooking show Dweezil & Lisa.
Everything about Courtney Love is controversial, so it’s no surprise that even her Jewish identity has been called into question. Half-Jewish groups have claimed Love as one of their own, but the singer has also stated that only one of her grandparents was a Jew. Add this to the various bizarre rumors about Love’s background – could her mother actually be Marlon Brando’s lovechild? – and her tendency to, well, make stuff up, and it becomes nearly impossible to determine the truth. As with all rock stars, though, we’re probably best off accepting Courtney Love’s stage persona. Unhinged and usually also undressed, Love has been thrashing around in the headlines since she was just the rocker wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. As Cobain’s star rose, Love’s band Hole began to get attention, making Love a star when Live Through This was released not long after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Naysayers claimed that the album was written entirely by Love’s husband; surprisingly, 1998’s Celebrity Skin did very little to refute those rumors, possibly because so many of the songs sounded like the handiwork of Love’s ex Billy Corgan. Love’s band has since released America’s Sweetheart, but the singer has gained more attention recently for several public meltdowns, at least one indecent exposure outside a Manhattan Wendy’s, and a stint in rehab.
The Lovin’ Spoonful
The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky was known as the Jewish Ringo Starr, which is surely confusing to the many misguided Yids who claim Ringo as a member of the tribe, but becomes doubly confusing when you recall that Yanovsky was a guitarist, not a drummer. One look at that punim, though, and you’ll know where the nickname came from. The Lovin’ Spoonful is responsible for a huge number of mid-sixties hit singles, including “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic?” from the 1965 album of the same name. In 1967, the band began to fall apart when bassist Steve Boone and Yanovsky were busted for marijuana possession. Boone and Yanovsky ratted out their source, angering many of their fans. Yanovsky quit the band, and despite several subsequent releases, the Spoonful never fully gained back the love.
The Mamas and the Papas
See Mama Cass Elliot.
Born Barry Alan Pincus in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Manilow eventually adopted his mother’s maiden name. He put himself through Juilliard by working in the mail room at CBS, but his real break came after he graduated, when he began working as Bette Midler’s musical director. His self-titled album sold poorly, but 1974’s Barry Manilow II became a hit with the number-one single “Mandy” (a song that Clive Davis found and urged him to record.) His next number-one hit was “I Write The Songs” (which Manilow didn’t write) in 1976. The album it was on, Tryin’ to Get the Feeling, went platinum that year. His next album, This One’s For You, was also a success, but it wasn’t until 1977’s double live record Live that Manilow had a number-one album. “Copacabana” was a hit in 1978, but then Manilow’s run began to slow down. He spent the eighties and nineties covering jazz standards and has had only one more album reach the top three – Unlimited Manilow, which was released, if you can believe it, in the year 2002.
Handsome Dick Manitoba
Born Richard Blum, Handsome Dick Manitoba has been a figure on the New York music scene since he fronted the Dictators in the 1970s. These days, he sings with the MC5, DJs on Steve Van Zandt’s satellite radio channel, and still finds time to manage his eponymous Alphabet City bar. See the Dictators for more information.
Born Matthew Miller and raised in the California suburbs, Matisyahu had to undergo two transitions to become the musician he is today. First, he had to discover his passion for Orthodox Judaism, a religious interest sparked in the two most Jewish places on earth: Israel, which he visited as a teen, and New York City, where he attended college. As a student at the New School, Miller met a Lubavich rabbi in Washington Square Park (ironically, he had just written a play about a student who meets a Lubavich rabbi in that very location). The Lubavichers welcomed him, and he moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. While the secular Matthew Miller was becoming Hasidic, the hippie Matthew Miller was discovering reggae. After a stint following Phish as a teen, Miller attended a wilderness school where his interest in music was encouraged. He began to turn his proclivity for beatboxing in the back of the classroom into a real musical career, performing at local open mics. By the time he became Matisyahu, he had become a skilled reggae artist, writing songs about his faith and performing in a black hat and peyas. JDub Records released his debut album, Shake Off the Dust…Arise in 2004.
In 1958, Malcolm McLaren became a Bar Mitzvah. In 1975, he became manager of a bunch of skinny louts who called themselves the Sex Pistols. The latter event was probably more formative for McLaren, but the fact remains that punk’s most famous manager is a member of the tribe. Malcolm McLaren was raised by his grandmother and attended just about every art school in the UK before opening up a clothing store with fellow misfit Vivienne Westwood in 1972. In 1974 he began managing – and dressing – the fading New York Dolls, but his career was made during his three years in charge of the Sex Pistols. With his wild aesthetic and Situationist ambitions, McLaren arguably invented punk rock. He went on to manage Bow Wow Wow, which had a hit with “I Want Candy” in 1983. Along the way, McLaren discovered both Adam Ant and Boy George, but by that time he was mostly focusing on his own work. 1982’s “Buffalo Gals” has been credited with introducing hip-hop to Britain; it reached the Top Ten, and its 1998 revival also charted in the UK. Read more about Malcolm McLaren in The Situationist.
Dave Mustaine formed Megadeth after he was booted out of Metallica two years after helping found the band. It seems Mustaine might not be the best team player: he’d already fired eight band members when he recruited the Jewish guitarist Marty Friedman in 1990. Despite the high turnover, Megadeth had a successful eighties run: 1986’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? and 1988’s So Far, So Good…So What! both went platinum. After Friedman joined the band, their popularity only increased (a fact that should be noted well by anyone who doubts the rock prowess of Jewish metalheads). All but one of their nineties albums debuted in the Top Ten, Rust in Peace (1992) and Youthanasia (1994) went platinum, and 1992’s Countdown to Extinction went double-platinum. Recently, Mustaine told Israeli radio that his mother was Jewish, but he considers himself Christian.
In 1958, young Leslie Weinstein received a guitar as a Bar Mitzvah present. Almost ten years later, Weinstein, now calling himself Leslie West, formed the hard-rock band Mountain. West had a strong rock resume, having spent years playing Long Island venues as part of the local heroes the Vagrants, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with former Cream producer Felix Pappalardi for 1969’s Mountain that he really achieved rock star status. After the release of his solo album, West assembled other musicians to make up the band Mountain; they had an auspicious beginning, playing their fourth gig ever at Woodstock. In 1970, their album Mountain Climbing went gold, and its hit single “Mississippi Queen” still graces classic rock radio stations today.
New Found Glory
Like the Calling, New Found Glory often gets mistaken for a Christian rock band despite being chock-full of Jews: three out of the five members grew up in Jewish homes in Coral Springs, Florida. Since the rest of the band is from Florida, they tend to get lumped in with Floridian emo boys like Dashboard Confessional, but New Found Glory were putting out albums before the latter-day emo explosion. They’re also a little bit tougher and goofier than the likes of Chris Carraba, although they do play suspiciously melodic pop punk. After 1999’s Nothing Gold Can Stay and 2000’s A New Found Glory, the band did a stint with the Warped Tour, which led to both their 2002 album Sticks and Stones and an invitation to tour with Warped a second time. “My Friends Over You,” from Sticks and Stones, was a hit single, and in 2004 the band released another LP, Catalyst.
The New York Dolls
The New York Dolls got their start in 1971 and found their Egyptian Jewish guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain, in 1972. Originally named Sylvain Mizrahi, Sylvain Sylvain was born in Cairo but moved to New York with his family as a young boy to escape Gamel Abdel Nasser’s anti-Semitic policies. Like his famous designer cousin Isaac, Sylvain exhibited a flair for fashion; he and his bandmates became famous for dressing like Bowie while making noise like Iggy. Sadly, the New York Dolls were too ahead of their time to ever have much commercial success (record companies thought they were too vulgar, if you can believe such a thing) but their albums New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974) both went on to influence every kid who formed a punk band in the following decade.
Randy Newman is both a songwriter’s songwriter and a secular Jew’s secular Jew. Best known for his satirical songs “Short People” (1977) and “I Love LA” (1983), Newman has never been hugely commercial, but his work is always complex, well-crafted, and sly. It also has been covered dozens of times, by artists from Blood, Sweat and Tears to Joe Cocker to Dusty Springfield, and Three Dog Night’s version of his “Mama Told Me Not To Come” hit number one on the charts in 1970. Newman writes film soundtracks as well as pop songs: his “If I Don’t Have You,” from Monsters Inc., won an Oscar in 1998. Both of his parents are Jewish, but Newman was raised in a non-observant home, and his songs about religion – of which there are quite a few – take an ambivalent, questioning perspective.
In the liner notes of their 1992 album White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean, NOFX provided handy visual aids for their fans. Drummer Eric Ghint was represented by a can of Shaefer malt liquor. Guitarist Aaron Aheyta (aka El Hefe) contributed a can of black beans. As for the band’s lead singer and other guitarist, Fat Mike Burkett and Eric Melvin, they provided both matzah and gefilte fish. In 1994, NOFX took the Jewish pride a step further with “The Brews,” from Punk in Drublic. The chorus announced: “Hey hey, we’re the Brews/ sporting anti-Swastika tattoos/ Oi oi, we’re the boys/ Orthodox, Hasidic, OG ois.” When not playing his own snotty but wildly accessible anti-corporate punk, Fat Mike releases albums by bands like Avail and No Use for a Name on his Fat Wreck Chords label.
One of the many Jewish luminaries of the early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, Phil Ochs is best known for the protest songs that made many critics compare him to Bob Dylan. As a Jewish leftist, Ochs was committed to social action through folk music. Ochs called himself a “singing journalist,” releasing his first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, in 1964. Although he turned his focus to more personal matters as the sixties moved on, releasing the successful love song “Changes” in 1966, Ochs was present at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. After 1970, he left folk music altogether, performing as an Elvis-esque fifties-era rocker in a gold lame suit. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in 1976 he committed suicide.
Raunchy electro rapper Peaches used to be music teacher Merrill Nisker; her public persona may have changed, but she’s still a Canadian Jew. Read more about her in Sarah Wildman’s profile, coming soon.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty’s backing band the Heartbreakers may seem awfully goyish, but the drummer takes a menorah with him on every concert tour. (Well, if it’s menorah season.) Stan Lynch began to play drums as an adolescent in Florida. On occasion, he would fill in behind the kit of a local band, Mudcrutch, led by a kid named Tom Petty. When Petty got signed in 1975, Lynch and some friends from Florida became his backing band, eventually playing on hits like “American Girl” (1976), “I Need to Know” (1978), and “Don’t Do Me Like That” (1979). In 1982, the band gained another Jewish member, Howie Epstein, who played bass for the Heartbreakers for twenty years before his untimely death, of a heroin overdose, in 2003.
The guys of Phantom Planet are well-known multi-taskers: musicians, actors, models, relatives of famous people. Not surprisingly for a bunch of Hollywood kids, lead singer Alex Greenwald, former drummer Jason Schwartzman, and guitarist Jacques Brauthbar are also all Jews. You’ve probably seen two of these three fine young men on the big screen: Schwartzman starred in Rushmore, and Greenwald played the bully Seth Devlin in Donnie Darko. And it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard them on the small screen: their single “California” is the theme song for Fox’s ubiquitous teen soap The O.C. The band’s debut album, Phantom Planet Is Missing, came out in 1998; The Guest was released in 2001; 2004’s self-titled record was Schwartzman’s last with the band.
Like the Grateful Dead, Phish play unstructured, jammy, jazz-inflected music, tour incessantly, and occupy a special place in the hearts of many a Jewish hippie. Phish have a leg up over their predecessors in the Jewish department, though: the band has not one but two Jewish members. Both drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon are Yids, making Phish officially one-half Jewish. The band embraces its roots, playing “Yerushalayim Shel Zhahav” and “Avenu Malkenu” in concert. Phish formed at University of Vermont in the mid-eighties and were signed by Elektra in 1992. By the release of their fifth album, 1994’s Hoist, they had a major following among college kids. Tours with the H.O.R.D.E. festival, cameos on The Simpsons, and many, many side projects boosted the attention they received from the public, leading the band to tour until the summer of 2004, when they officially quit after twenty years.
Porno for Pyros
See Perry Farrell.
“Princess” is a loaded word for many Jewish girls, but Concetta Kirschner embraced it, taking Princess Superstar as the name of her hip-hop alter ego. That didn’t seem like enough bravado, though, so she went on to name her her record label A Big Rich Record Label and release the albums Strictly Platinum (1996), CEO (1997), Last of the Great Twentieth Century Composers (1999), and 2002’s Princess Superstar Is. Backed by major critical love from CMJ and support from everybody from Kool Keith to Beth Orton, Princess Superstar blends the braggadocio of hip-hop ladies like Lil Kim with the chutzpah of your stereotypical Jewish princess.
Procol Harum’s biggest hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” existed before the band did. Jewish lyricist Keith Reid and singer/pianist Gary Brooker began writing songs in 1967. They found the rest of the band by placing an ad in Melody Maker and rehearsed as the Pinewoods before re-naming themselves Procol Harum, after the Latin phrase for “far from these things.” “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was their first single and became one of the only debut tracks to hit number one on the British charts on its first release. With one song and no permanent band, Reid and Brooker rearranged their line-up and only then recorded a whole album, 1967’s Procol Harum. They released Shine on Brightly in 1968 and A Salty Dog in 1969, both of which charted in the US. The next few years saw even more line-up mutations as well as a shift in record labels, but despite all of the changes, Procol Harum remained a popular prog-rock band throughout the seventies.
Joey Ramone may not be the only Jew with a hip corner of downtown Manhattan in his name (just ask the Lower East Side’s Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel). As the sole Jewish Ramone, though, Joey definitely deserved the honor bestowed on him by the City of New York, which named the corner of 2nd St and the Bowery “Joey Ramone Place” after his death to cancer in 2001. Joey Ramone was born Jeffrey Hyman in Forrest Hills, Queens, which was somewhat of a breeding ground for Jewish rock stars; both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel grew up there. Which is fitting, because the Ramones were to punk something like what Simon & Garfunkel were to sixties folk-rock: They weren’t necessarily the first, and they weren’t necessarily the best, but they stamped their name on their genre way few others ever could. None of their songs charted in the States when they were released (although 1977’s “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” did make the British Top 40) but their sped-up, dumbed-down rock songs defined punk as we know it.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Chili Peppers formed out of a triumvirate of high school friends: Anthony Kiedis, Michael Balzary (later known as Flea), and a Jewish guitarist named Hillel Slovak. They got their start playing strip clubs as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, but changed their name in 1983, shortly before signing with EMI. Slovak and drummer Jack Irons briefly took off to form their own band, What Is This, but returned in time to play on 1985’s Freaky Styley and 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. Keidis and Slovak both had heroin problems, though, and in 1988 Slovak died of an overdose. The Chili Peppers rotated through a series of guitarists before settling on John Frusciante, who has played with them on several chart-topping albums.
In the pantheon of Jewish rock visionaries, Lou Reed (his father changed the family name from Rabinowitz) ranks up there with Bob Dylan. As they say at seder, if he’d only founded the most influential band of all time, it would have been enough. But after his run with the Velvet Underground, once he’d made it OK to sing about heroin and S&M and to use feedback and soundscapes in rock songs, Lou Reed went on to release Transformer in 1972. If he had only added New York grit to glam rock with an album produced by David Bowie and featuring the Top 20 hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” dayenu. But then Reed put out 1973’s dark, elegant Berlin, somehow getting into the British Top 10 despite not coming anywhere near the US. charts. That might have been enough, but in 1975 he released Metal Machine Music, a two-CD album with a very apt title. Had he only invented noise rock while conning his fans into purchasing two discs of unlistenable screeching, dayenu – but Reed kept going. His career highlights since the seventies include 1989’s critically acclaimed New York, a tour with the re-formed Velvet Underground in 1993, and some theatrical endeavors. Which would have been enough, but Reed is still going. Read more about Lou Reed in Subterranean Homeland Blues.
If you want to be a cult rock star, it helps to begin your career from the Velvet Underground’s manager’s couch. That’s where Jonathan Richman tried to get his start in New York in 1969, and while he didn’t catch on in the NYC scene, he did wind up with John Cale as the producer for his 1973 album with his band the Modern Lovers. The self-titled disc didn’t come out until 1976, but with songs like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso,” it went on to become a pre-punk classic. 1977’s Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers also showcased Richman’s goofy, childlike pop songs. In the eighties. Richman performed as a solo artist, finally emerging in the national eye in 1998 as a troubadour in the film There’s Something about Mary.
David Lee Roth
As Adam Sandler tells us on radio stations across the country every December, David Lee Roth lights the menorah. Sandler’s not just being poetic with that line: David Lee Roth is, and always has been, a proud Jewish rock star. Witness that last name, left unabashedly Jewish while his more reticent peers took on bland or silly monikers to hide their ethnic heritage. Roth was raised on the chutzpah and showmanship of vaudeville performers like Al Jolson – not a surprise, given his stage presence. He started playing with Eddie and Alex Van Halen as part of the opening band for their shows as Mammoth and teamed up with them to form Van Halen in the mid-seventies. Their self-titled first album came out in 1978 and was a major hit. Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, and 1984 came out in the next six years and were all hugely successful. In 1985, Roth put out a solo EP, Crazy from the Heat, presaging his departure from Van Halen by only a few months. After more than ten years and several well-received discs (including the single “California Girls”), Roth reunited with Van Halen for the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, his relationship with his former band has been spotty, but Roth continues to tour like the unstoppable Jewish showman he is. Read more about him in And the Dreidel Will Rock.
One of the two guys behind legendary hip-hop label Def Jam is Jewish. Hint: it’s not Russell Simmons. Like seemingly every white guy in hip-hop in the 80s, Rick Rubin was a Jewish New Yorker. He and Simmons met at NYU and founded Def Jam out of a dorm room in 1984. By 1986 their label was part of Columbia and they were the proud parents of two huge hits, the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell. Rubin produced both of those albums as well as the follow year’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Public Enemy’s debut LP. By then, though, the Def Jam partnership was breaking up, and Rubin left Simmons to found his own label, Def American. Rubin always liked hard rock as much as hip-hop, so it makes sense that he went on to sign Slayer and produce the rock-inflected Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. 1991 saw a double coup for both of Rubin’s favorite genres: the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hit single and Bar Mitzvah dance party fave “Baby Got Back.” Rubin is still producing records today, though he’s long since dropped the “Def” from his label name.
Everything about Rush, from the sci-fi-influenced lyrics to the virtuosic musicianship to the very lengths of their songs, is grandiose and epic – which is why, in the late seventies and early eighties, they were reviled by critics and adored by teenaged boys. Geddy Lee, who is best known for his unnaturally high-pitched singing voice (yes, he does speak like an ordinary guy), was born Gary Lee Weinrib in 1953. His unusual nickname comes from his grandmother’s Yiddish accented English, in which “Gary” became “Geddy.” Lee’s parents were Holocaust survivors who got married at Bergen-Belsen a few months after the concentration camp was liberated. Like many survivors, they were overprotective of their children, and young Geddy rebelled by turning to music, not knowing that his father had been a musician before the war. Along with guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart, Lee has sold over 35 million albums in the course of his career. 1976’s 2112 went platinum, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings reached the top 40, and 1980’s Permanent Waves, and 1981’s Moving Pictures spawned the radio hits “The Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer.”
The list of performers who have covered Neil Sedaka songs could take up his entire bio. In the course of his career, Sedaka’s songs have been performed by ABBA, the Carpenters, Sheryl Crow, Bobby Darin, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, Peggy Lee, and not one but two TV bands (the Monkees and the Partridge Family). Sedaka grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a Sephardic father and an Ashkenazi mother. He got his start with the Tokens as a high school student, auditioning at the Brill Building and signing to a small label. A few years later, he took time off from Juilliard to work for another Brill Building publisher, Al Nevins and Don Kirschner’s Aldon Music. With his songwriting partner Howard Greenfield, Sedaka wrote dozens of songs, many of which hit the top ten. Meanwhile, his self-titled debut album came out in 1959 and was nominated for a Grammy. His next Grammy nomination came four years later for his famous “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” which would be nominated again after its revival in the mid-seventies. Sedaka’s career was briefly unmade when Carole King, his old girlfriend and the subject of his early single “Oh! Carol,” released Tapestry and ushered in an era of more contemplative, serious singer-songwriter pop. His mid-seventies comeback on Elton John’s label re-established him as a force in music, and he’s been around in some form ever since – most recently with 2003’s Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish.
The Silver Jews
The Silver Jews have always played Rhoda to Pavement’s Mary, but David Berman’s deadpan vocals and the band’s country slant makes them markedly different from their more famous cohorts. Berman, who is also a published poet, started playing with Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich while the three were undergrads at the University of Virginia. At the same time, Malkmus founded Pavement with a childhood friend and recruited Nastanovich as the drummer and general noisemaker. Berman, Malkmus, and Nastanovich moved to New York after graduating and continued playing together as the Silver Jews, but for years Pavement’s success as the indie rock band of the early nineties eclipsed the quieter, more lyrics-based Jews. After recording several EPs on a walkman, the Silver Jews released Starlite Walker in 1994, followed by The Natural Bridge in 1996. By 1998’s American Water, critics were hailing the Silver Jews as better than Pavement. The genesis of their name, by the way, remains a mystery: It might be a reference to either the Silver Apples or the Silver Beatles, it might have something to do with blonds who are also Yids, and it might just be more wordplay on the part of the band’s poetic frontman.
The daughter of one of the founders of Simon & Schuster, Carly Simon played in a band with her sister before releasing her solo debut in the early seventies, just as the listening public developed an interest in confessional singer-songwriters. “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” hit the top ten; the title single from her next album, “Anticipation,” reached the top forty. Both records were released in 1971, earning her that year’s Grammy for Best New Artist. Simon will always be best known for the number-one single off her third album: “You’re So Vain.” It might have been about Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, or Simon’s then-husband James Taylor, but the singer wouldn’t say (and hasn’t, to this day). Simon continued to sell phenomenally throughout the seventies, ultimately releasing nine albums in that decade.
Does it get more Jewish than a cameo in Annie Hall? Since his start as a sixteen-year-old charting with “Hey Schoolgirl” in 1957, Paul Simon has always been a Jewish musical hero. This is, after all, a guy who played under the name “Jerry Landis” for a bit in 1963, making him perhaps the only Jew in rock to ever try changing his name to something more Jewish. Of course, he found real success recording under his real name with Art Garfunkel, but Simon was never fully wedded to the duo. As early in 1965, he was recording as a solo artist in Britain. From Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in 1964 to Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, Simon and Garfunkel could be found in every college dorm in America. Paul Simon, Simon’s first solo outing after the group split, sold a million copies in 1972, as did the next year’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) and Graceland (1986) both won Grammy awards for Album of the Year. In the nineties, Simon’s foray into Broadway, 1997’s Songs from the Capeman, was a flop, but his live concert in Central Park at the start of the decade was a huge success, cementing his role as the quintessential Jewish New Yorker.
Opinion is divided as to the Hebraic roots of this guitar hero. Maverick executive Guy Oseary includes the former Saul Hudson in his book Jews Who Rock, but Slash’s fansite makes a point of stating that “an Old Testament name is not always indicative of a particular faith.” Calls to Slash’s management weren’t returned, but we think it’s safe to trust the many sources who say that his dad was Jewish, even if the man himself doesn’t spend much time in shul. Slash got his start in rock in high school, when he befriended a drummer named Steve Adler. After an unsuccessful stint playing as Road Crew, the two formed Guns N’ Roses in 1985. 1987’s Appetite for Destruction made them famous, but rumors of wild behavior, including Slash’s own heroin addiction, kept them in the news. In the early nineties, Slash overcame his drug problems and founded Slash’s Snakepit, which released It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere in 1995. The following year he moved on to Slash’s Blues Ball, a cover project, but the Snakepit reformed in 1999. Nowadays, of course, Slash is involved in yet another band, the Scott Weiland-fronted supergroup Velvet Revolver, which had a hit with 2004’s Contraband.
Fittingly, Sleater-Kinney’s best-known song off their best-known album is an ode to a fellow Jewish punk icon. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” from 1996’s Call the Doctor, showcases the band’s signature ingredients: Corin Tucker’s mad banshee yelp and Carrie Brownstein’s angular guitar. Both Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, also of Quasi, are Jewish. Developing out of the riot-grrl scene in the Northwest, Sleater-Kinney followed Call the Doctor with a move to the veteran indie label Kill Rock Stars. Dig Me Out was released in 1997, followed by The Hot Rock in 1999. All Hands on the Bad One came out in 2000; by 2002’s One Beat, the trio had more than earned their place as one of the stalwarts of the Kill Rock Stars roster.
See Twisted Sister.
Phil Spector was born with perfect pitch in the Bronx in 1940. His family moved to LA after his father’s suicide, and he had his first hit as one of the Teddy Bears in 1958 with “To Know Him is to Love Him,” based on his father’s epitaph. As a songwriter and producer, Spector worked with the Beatles, the Righteous Brothers, Gene Pitney, and a number of girl groups, most famously the Ronettes. His “wall of sound” style made him famous, but his bizarre behavior also garnered attention: while recording Death of a Ladies’ Man, Spector chased Leonard Cohen around his studio with a loaded crossbow. Tragically, after a lifetime of hits like Let It Be and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” Spector was indicted for the murder of his neighbor, Lana Clarkson.
Regina Spektor was born in Moscow to a musical family; her father is an amateur violinist, and her mother was a music professor in a Russian conservatory. She began to study classical piano at the age of six. Her early exposure to music included tapes of The Beatles, Queen, and Moody Blues that her father procured by trading casettes with other friends in the Soviet Union. Her family emigrated to the US when she was nine years old, and settled in Bronx, NY. Regina Spektor’s musical style can best be described as “eclectic;” a mix of hip hop, folk, indie, Jewish, Russian, and classical music. Her latest album “Begin to Hope” was released in the US in 2006.
Read about Randy California and his band Spirit in Riffed Off.
Jewish rock star dirty joke coincidence number two: while the Lovin Spoonful’ and 10CC are Jewish bands whose winking names need no explanation, few know that both indie rockers Clem Snide and soft-rock intellectuals Steely Dan are Jewish bands named after two of the cruder characters in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Clem Snide might have taken their name from a certain talking orifice, but Yiddish-fluent non-Jew Walter Becker and authentic Hebraic rocker Donald Fagen went with the moniker of a giant dildo. It’s the edgiest thing they’ve ever done, but the Dan has an enormous cult following. Can’t Buy a Thrill came out in 1972 and contained “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years,” which both went to the top ten. Their next hit single came in 1974, when “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” from their third album also entered the top ten. Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho all did well during the end of the seventies, but then Steely Dan went into hibernation, emerging in 2000 with the acclaimed Two Against Nature. More than thirty years after the band first broke, thousands of fans still come out to see the duo play their jazzy, sophisticated pop live.
Depending on who is counting, there are either one or two Jewish Strokes. Guitarist Nick Valensi is the son of a Tunisian Jew. And guitarist and keyboardest Albert Hammond Jr told Rolling Stone in 2003 that he’d informally converted to keep Valensi company. Whether or not informal hipster conversations count for much in our 3000-year-old religion, the Strokes do make a nice addition to the Jewish rock pantheon. Valensi met fellow Strokes Fabrizio Moretti and Julian Casablancas at private school in Manhattan in 1998; Hammond joined the band the following year. By 2000, the boys had developed a reputation as the saviors of garage rock, and when Is This It came out in 2001, they were greeted with a firestorm of hype. The media loved them and hated them in equal measure; so too did their audience. But the band managed to survive the frenzy at least long enough to release Room on Fire in 2003. Sure, it sounded exactly like their previous album – but if it ain’t broke, as they say…
Jewish Londoner and ex-model Marc Bolan got his start in a duo called Tyrannosaurus Rex, playing folk songs with vaguely dippy titles (his best-selling book of poetry, published in 1969, was called “The Warlock of Love”). The band’s name hinted at something slightly more off-kilter than folk music, though, and in 1970 they streamlined it to T.Rex and released the fuzzed-out “Ride a White Swan.” The single hit number two in the UK and was followed by a string of successes, including “Get It On,” which reached number one in the UK and number ten in the US. By 1973, T. Rex’s hard-rock singles like “20th Century Boy” were defining glam rock for the decade. Indeed, Bolan (né Feld) may not have kept his father’s name, but as a fashion icon, he certainly did his Yiddishe papa proud: Like so many Jews before him, Mr. Feld was a tailor.
Raunchy band names seem to be popular with Jewish rock stars; like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the British art-pop band 10CC – named after the amount of semen supposedly ejaculated by the average man – boasts several Jewish members. Initially called Hotlegs, the band got its name from producer Jonathan King after he dreamed that a group called 10CC would someday be hugely successful. Indeed, 10CC scored several hits in the 1970s, including “I’m Not In Love,” which reached number-two in the US charts in 1975. Three out of the four members of the band were Jewish: Lol Crème, Kevin Godley, and vocalist/songwriter Gouldman, who has said that he prefers writing in a minor key because he was raised hearing Jewish liturgical chants in synagogue. Gouldman also wrote hits for the Yardbirds and Herman’s Hermits, among others. Crème and Godley later gained minor fame as a video-producing team in the eighties, when they made pioneering use of the same morphing technology later seen in Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White.”
Between the nose, the falsetto, and the bizarre behavior, Tiny Tim didn’t do much for the reputation of the Jews worldwide. His own mother told Parade magazine in 1968 that people tended to think he was meshuggenah. But Tiny Tim, born Herbert Khaury, was simply a sweet, strange guy who wanted to make people happy with his ukelele. In 1968, he appeared on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In singing the old standard “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” in an absurdly high voice. This was the sixties, and people loved it. Tiny Tim’s first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, sold 200,000 copies. He furthered his fame in 1969 by marrying his teenaged girlfriend on the “Tonight” show. Despite his novelty status, Tiny Tim toured for many years, only stopping in 1996 due to a fatal heart attack that struck while he was playing “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” to a Minneapolis audience. Among the performers he influenced: Paul McCartney, whose falsetto on “Honey Pie” on the “White Album” is a Tiny Tim tribute.
The Tokens might be the most Jewish group of early rock and roll. Every member was raised in a Jewish home, and their frontman, Jay Siegel, considered becoming a cantor. Perhaps most Jewish of all, the Tokens developed out of the Linc-Tones, a vocal group founded by master Jewish songwriter Neil Sedaka. Sedaka left the group long before their first hit, 1961’s “Tonight I Fell in Love.” Their real claim to posterity came a year later, when they re-worked the Weaver’s version of the South African folk song “Mbube,” or “Wimoweh.” You probably know it by another name, and you might picture it being sung by a cartoon warthog, but in 1962, “Mbube/Wimoweh,” otherwise known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was a massive hit attached to a bunch of Jewish boys from New York City. It hit number one in 36 countries – including Israel.
Rumor has it that Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and a third Jewish New Yorker named John Segal played together in a band called Rainbow, back in 1970. This wasn’t the same Rainbow fronted by Ronnie James Dio—that would have been too much rawk for any one band to sustain—but it was the same John Segal who founded Twisted Sister in 1972. Calling himself J.J. French, Segal recruited a number of musicians to help him with his mission, which was to sound like the New York Dolls. When a half-Jewish guy named Dee Snider joined the band in 1976, though, Twisted Sister lost some of their glam schtick and developed a harder sound. Playing with the Dictators’ former bassist, the band became local legends, releasing singles on their own label TSR. They finally signed to Atlantic nearly a decade after French had founded the band, and in 1984 released the multi-platinum-selling Stay Hungry. The singles “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” took full advantage of the new medium of MTV. Within a year, the band had gone from underground metal darlings to monsters of rock, so the backlash may have been inevitable. The band released a few more albums but never quite returned to their all-too-brief Stay-Hungry-era glory. These days, Snider can be seen on VH1, where he’s often a talking head alongside fellow Challah Famer Scott Ian. In April of this year, Snider, Ian, and J.J. French hosted VH1’s Passover special “Matzo and Metal.”
See David Lee Roth.
You might not expect a band named after a character by the famously anti-Semitic Roald Dahl to contain members of the tribe, but both Nina Gordon and Louise Post of Veruca Salt are Jewesses. So was the band’s drummer, James Shapiro, Gordon’s big brother – unlike his sister, he uses their father’s last name instead of their mother’s. In the nineties, Veruca Salt had a major alterna-hit with their Pixies-influenced single “Seether.” Despite the fact that their first album, American Thighs, was produced by Liz Phair knob-twiddler Brad Wood and released on the Chicago indie Minty Fresh, Veruca Salt never had much cred. But “Seether” stormed the charts, even on finicky college radio stations, and the record went gold. After the band signed with Geffen, their follow-ups Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt (1996) and Eight Arms to Hold You (1997) couldn’t redeem their tarnished image, even though the former was produced by another Midwestern indie hero, Steve Albini. In 1998, the band split up and Gordon went solo.
It’s somewhat ironic that horn player Lee Oskar ended up in a band called WAR, since he left his native Denmark in 1966 to get away from the aftermath of World War II. Oskar’s father had worked for the Danish resistance; his mother was a concentration camp survivor. Oskar grew up feeling hemmed in by his parents’ caution and fled to the US as soon as he could. In Los Angeles, he met Eric Burdon and the rest of the members of WAR; at the time, they were all playing in a band backing up the failing singing career of former LA Rams linebacker Deacon Jones. The new group released their first album as Eric Burdon and War in 1970, scoring a number-three hit with “Spill the Wine.” Their real breakthrough came a few years later, after Burdon left the group, when WAR released the best-selling album of 1973. Poignantly for a band consisting of six black men from LA and one European Jew, the record was titled The World is a Ghetto. Both the title track and “The Cisco Kid” became top ten hits; later, singles like “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” (both 1975) cemented their fame for the ages.
Bruce Springsteen isn’t Jewish, but his drummer is. Max Weinberg, the man Springsteen called “the best thing” on Born in the USA, has been proving that Jews do have rhythm since 1974, when he auditioned for the E Street Band. “Mighty Max,” as Bruce calls him, has played on Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Born in the USA. He also lent his straight-ahead, no-frills style to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell in 1977, and for one week in 1983, he could be heard on both the number-one and number-two tracks on the charts: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” by Air Supply. After the E Street Band went on hiatus, Weinberg spent some time as a record producer and tried going back to school, although he kept drumming in bar mitzvah bands. In 1993, a chance meeting with Conan O’Brien led to a gig leading the band on O’Brien’s new late-night show. Weinberg has since gone back to Springsteen’s reunited E Street Band, but he still leads the Max Weinberg Seven on Conan every night. Meanwhile, E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan is also a Jew, as well as the first person ever to write an original song for Bruce: “Roll of the Dice,” from 1992’s Human Touch.
Despite their New Testament name, Peter, Paul and Mary were one-third Israelite. Peter Yarrow wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, but like many of the Jewish folksingers of the sixties, he based his career on the very Jewish concept of healing the world – tikun olam. Inspired by Pete Seeger, Yarrow took up the guitar in high school. After graduating from Cornell, he met Noel Paul Stookey and Mary Travers in Greenwich Village, and the three formed a folk trio. Their self-titled album had hits in 1962 with “Lemon Tree” and the Pete Seeger song “If I Had a Hammer.” In 1963, they released Moving, which contained Yarrow’s classic children’s song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and In the Wind, which contained their hit covers of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice.” They backed up their musical convictions with social action, marching against segregation and apartheid. Yarrow never talked much about his Jewish background, but when his bandmates asked him to write a Hanukkah song in 1983, he came up with “Light One Candle,” still a staple of Hebrew school singalongs today.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Of the neo-garage bands to come out of New York in the past few years, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be the most notoriously over-hyped. Which is not to say they don’t deserve the praise – it’s just that their live shows had critics raving before they’d ever released a full LP, creating a very imbalanced ratio of praise to recordings. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ self-titled EP came out in 2001. After several years of touring with hipster behemoths like the Strokes and the White Stripes, the band finally released an album, Fever to Tell, which contained the single “Maps.” The jury is still out on lead singer Karen O (does that stand for “Oy”?) and guitarist Nick Zinner, but drummer Brian Chase definitely qualifies as a Jewish rocker.
In 1981, Yes broke up, and bassist Chris Squire set about forming a new group called Cinema. He recruited Yes drummer Alan White, Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, and a South African Jewish guitarist named Trevor Rabin. Then Yes vocalist Jon Anderson asked if he could get involved, and Squire realized that he had virtually re-formed his old band. This proved to be the most commercially successful of the many incarnations Yes took during their thirty-year career. After over a decade of recording songs four times as long as anything on the radio and inspired by Stravinsky, Yes released a dance-pop album, 90125. Rabin’s contributions included the single “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which became Yes’s only number-one hit. In his native country, Rabin had been similarly successful, fronting the pop band Rabbitt, which has been called South Africa’s answer to the Beatles. Rabin, who changed his name from Rabinowitz, was raised in a Reform household. He grew up observing Shabbat and singing in his synogogue choir, and despite the name change, he has never really left Judaism. In 2004, he told the San Diego Jewish journal that it helps to be a Jew in the world of rock and roll, because so many other musicians are also MOT. Indeed, Rabin wasn’t the only Jew affiliated with Yes—their manager, Brian Lane, was born Harvey Freed.
Yo La Tengo
Every Hanukkah, Yo La Tengo puts on an eight-day show at Maxwell’s, the veteran rock club in Hoboken. Frontman Ira Kaplan, who has been called “the Jewish Jimi Hendrix,” brings his Jersey hometown covers by Jews ranging from Neil Diamond to the Ramones. Yes, they’ve put out Christmas EPs – but for their December devotion, Yo La Tengo might win the title of the most Jewish band in indie rock. With their marriage of soaring noise tapestries and sixties pop confections, they’re also one of the most influential. Debuting in 1986 with Ride the Tiger, the band gained steam throughout the end of the decade. In 1993 the band signed with Matador and released Painful, beginning their journey towards elder-statesmanship with a series of albums that managed to be hugely innovative while taking a major cue from the Velvet Underground. Electr-O-Pura (1995), I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), and …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000) all feature songs made out of layers of sound as bright, dense, and strange as the clouds above North Jersey. Most recently, they’ve covered Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” and released Summer Sun (2003).
Warren Zevon lived a life straight out of a Tom Waits song. The young Zevon’s Jewish father was a professional gambler and prizefighter; along with his Mormon mother, Warren grew accustomed to moving every time Mr. Zevon’s fortunes changed for the worse. In LA, young Warren picked up piano, studying under Igor Stravinsky. When his parents divorced, the sixteen-year-old Zevon took off to New York in his father’s Corvette, where he began writing sharp, satirical songs about lives as tough as his own. 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive gained little attention, but critics fell in love when they discovered his self-titled 1976 album, which was produced by Jackson Browne. The single “Werewolves of London,” from 1978’s Excitable Boy, was his first big hit. But Zevon’s alcoholism got the better of him in the eighties, despite the critical praise won by The Envoy in 1982. He resurfaced in 1987 with Sentimental Hygiene, backed by members of REM, and followed it with several well-received albums in the late eighties and nineties. Not longer after the 2002 release of My Ride’s Here, Zevon was diagnosed with a rare form lung cancer usually associated with asbestos poisoning. He died the following year after putting out one final album, The Wind.
John Zorn is downtown New York’s emissary of radical Jewish culture – a phrase which, not coincidentally, is the rallying cry of his record label, Tzadik. As a composer and saxophonist, Zorn has always been equally influenced by Jewish culture and the lure of the experimental. He gained a cult following in the nineties with his rock band Naked City, which brought free jazz to post-rock as a sort of downtown experimentalist supergroup. After Naked City dissolved, Zorn formed Masada, for which he has written over two hundred pieces exploring Judaism through avant-garde composition. Meanwhile, since 1995, Tzadik has been promoting experimental Jewish music through its Radical Jewish Culture project.