East End Yiddisher Jazz
October 9, 2018
Broadcaster Alan Dein introduces a new compilation of East End Yiddisher Jazz that he has uncovered, reclaiming a charismatic lost musical world from undeserved obscurity
Dancing in the street in Whitechapel
“Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World!” proclaimed Weinberg’s Brick Lane gramophone shop in an advert published in a Yiddish paper sold on the streets of Whitechapel in the twenties. This was the time when swinging dance bands were all the rage, and local venues like St George’s Town Hall, the Grand Palais and the King’s Hall proudly hosted ‘Jazz dances’ complete with live bands and fox trot competitions. At Levy’s record shop, 19 & 20 Whitechapel High St, which was known both locally and far and wide as ‘the Home of Music’, customers could find the latest red hot jazz imports, and even discs pressed up on Levy’s very own record labels, Levaphone and Oriole.
This was a musical landscape in which generations of gifted young Jewish Eastenders – musicians, singers, song writers as well as impresarios, club and record shop owners – forged a remarkable contribution to the development of the British music scene. Take Bud Flanagan, Joe Loss, Stanley Black, Ronnie Scott, Alma Cogan, Lionel Bart and Georgia Brown to name but a few.
Their recorded legacy can easily be found online. Yet surprisingly, given the cultural and religious backdrop, Jewish-themed jazz and dance band discs, or folk or musical comedy numbers recorded in London during this time have proved far more elusive. There is no problem in finding their equivalent in the United States, or even Jewish dance band music from pre-Nazi era Germany or Poland. So my quest has been to seek out and rescue the ‘Yiddisher Jazz’ soundtrack of the old Jewish East End from apparent aural oblivion.
What treasures they are! Thanks to a squad of supporters and fellow travellers, I have traced a series of remarkable 78 rpm discs in the archives of the British Library and the Jewish Museum, as well as in private collections, and via the charity shops of Hendon and Golders Green. These were districts where former East Enders moved in the last century and where – sadly after they have gone – some of their possessions end up for sale. Yet even after all these years, these recordings are still very much alive. Magically, they have preserved an atmosphere of a past world – mirroring the old Yiddish Theatre where audiences left with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
We can delight in the cheeky street patter of the incomparable slapstick drummer Max Bacon rejoicing in the East Enders love affair with ‘Beigels’ – but also shed a tear with Leo Fuld, the remarkable Dutch Yiddish singer, whose recordings in post-war London were haunting reminders of a way of life decimated by the Holocaust.
Local haunts like Petticoat Lane market are mentioned regularly in these recordings, and in 1929 Mendel & His Mishpoche Band offered lyrics sung in Yiddish to a pounding fox trot: “the women rush to get bargains, a chicken with schmaltz, a new sock, a bit of chrain, soup, a beigel with a hole, all this you can get in the Lane. A fish-sweet, half a kishke, an onion, fish, a meaty bone, a bride with a dowry, a woman looking for a husband, such things you can get in the Lane.”
Besides bands with fictitious monikers like Mendel’s where the actual names of the musicians have been lost in time, there are terrific Jewish-themed numbers by the hugely successful stars of the era, like Whitechapel boys Bert Ambrose and Lew Stone, whose BBC Radio broadcasts in the thirties made them household names throughout the nation.
It was an unexpected treat to discover a small run of releases by Johnny Franks & his Kosher Ragtimers, who recorded for the short-lived independent Planetlabel – which operated from a first floor flat in Stamford Hill at the beginning of the fifties. As a lad, Franks worked in his father’s kosher butcher shop, and by his early twenties he was composing and playing on a series of extraordinary recordings. His orchestra can be heard accompanying Chaim Towber, the Ukrainian-born star of the Yiddish Theatre, on perhaps the most well-known track in the collection – the classic ‘Whitechapel’. It is a poignant homage to a way of life that was disappearing in front of the singer’s eyes as the Jewish community of the area moves out to a suburban homeland.
Another highlight was a collection of 78 rpm discs by the Stepney-born siren of the Yiddish song, Rita Marlowe. Rita graduated from her synagogue choir to performing with dance bands in the pre-war years. She would later devote her career to performing solely in Yiddish, and her recordings were issued on Levy’s Oriole label. Founded in 1890 by Jack Levy selling bicycle parts in Petticoat Lane, Levy’s grew from the ‘Home of Music’ to running recording studios and owning labels and pressing plants, before merging with CBS in the sixties.
Thankfully the Beautiful Music has been preserved in the grooves of ancient discs. Now they are ready for a new journey, offering a nostalgic reunion for those who grew up listening to these songs, perhaps performed live at family functions, or in the ballrooms of the kosher hotel circuit of Brighton or Bournemouth – the British equivalent of the American ‘Borsht Belt.’ I hope the music will also excite a new generation intrigued by the rich social history of a place that has continued to absorb new cultures, and which has such a remarkable track record of inspiring musical creativity.
Advertisement from the twenties for Weinberg’s Gramophone Shop in Brick Lane
Sheet music for Petticoat Lane, A ‘Kosher’ Medley Foxtrot, 1929
Advertisement for Levy’s, The Home of Music, Whitechapel
Lew Stone featured on a Radio Celebrities cigarette card, 1934
Max Bacon featured in Radio Pictorial, 1934
Label for Whitechapel released by Planet Recordings, 1951
Advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle in the fifties for Johnny Franks
Label for Why be Angry, Sweetheart? released by Oriole
Click here to buy Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World – Yiddisher Jazz in London’s East End 1920s – 1950s
The LP comes with a fold-out insert including a detailed essay by Alan Dein, illustrated with rare photos and memorabilia. CDs are available from firstname.lastname@example.org
You may also like to read about
Alexander Hartog, Tenor & Mantle Presser