Month: July 2013

1973 – ALLAN SHERMAN DIES


                                                        1973 - ALLAN SHERMAN DIES
                                                                   by Barry Chamish

1973 was a turning point in Jewish history, for me, for all of us.

Mark Cohen is a writer and speaker specializing in the Jewish American scene, his latest work is: Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman  It's why the rise and fall of a big, self-destructive funnyman fits into a series of otherwise serious academic monographs from Brandeis University Press (2013). A recent review notes: Sherman had good reasons to be cynical about familial relationships and the promise of adulthood. But there can be upsides to having lunatic parents: While pawned off for months at a time on his grandparents in Chicago, Sherman learned Yiddish expressions and the behavioral patterns of immigrant Jews and their communities, and he drew from that well when he sat down to put together a quick album of public-domain song parodies in the summer of 1962. On Aug. 6, 1962, he gathered an audience, served them drinks, turned the microphones on, and started doing his shtick. The result was My Son, the Folksinger, and it sold 400,000 copies in three weeks.

      At long last Mark Cohen has completed the work I tried to begin in 1976 as my master's thesis at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My thesis guide was Shulmat Nardi, academician and also the special assistant to the President of Israel. She was sympathetic to my thesis goal of celebrating, Sherman, who I had planned to prove was the most influential American Jewish cultural figure, do I dare say it, of all time. But not one professor would judge my work with her, so I ended up with a much less significant, but still good, thesis called: Us Against Them: A Comparison Of Leonard Cohen's, The Favorite Game, and Mordecai Richler's, The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz.
      To me, Sherman allowed all us Jews to be proud of who we were. Sherman asked, if the whole world was Jewish, what would music sound like? The album cover was profound: Allen Sherman's Mother Presents: My Son The Folksinger. And there was Allan, standing barefoot atop a pedestal, guitar in hand, and in the backdrop was a lovely, sexy woman proudly displaying a plucked chicken. I was so moved by this display of pride that I actually dedicated my second novel to Allan Sherman. He made all us Jews be unashamed of our Jewish culture. Before Sherman, most of the great songwriters were Jews, but you'd never know it from their work. Most of the best comedians and film makers were Jews, but who could tell? After Sherman, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks et al acknowledged that, yes, they were honored to be Jews. Confusion reigned but shame disappeared. The attitude spread throughout the arts. Would Philip Roth have written Portnoy's Complaint before Sherman? I insist, no way.
How I wish I could have been in the astonished and delighted audience who were honored to hear, without realizing it, cultural history being made. Sherman's opening song was a parody of The Streets of Laredo, called The Streets Of Miami:

As I wandered out
On the streets of Miami
I said to meinself
This is some fancy town

I called up mein partner
And said, "Hello, Sammy
Go pack up your satchel
And mosey on down"

I got me a bunk
In the old Roney Plaza
With breakfast and dinner
Included of course

I caught 40 winks
On mein private piazza
Then I rented a pinto
>From Hertz Rent-a-Horse

The opening tour de force led to the majesty of The Ballad Of Harry Lewis, the brave clothcutter who died for the Republic:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6VgLXJzFY8

I'm singing you the ballad
Of a great man of the cloth
His name was Harry Lewis
And he worked for Irving Roth

He died while cutting velvet
On a hot July the 4th
But his cloth goes shining on

Glory, glory Harry Lewis
Glory, glory Harry Lewis
Glory, glory Harry Lewis
His cloth goes shining on

Oh Harry Lewis perished
In the service of his Lord
He was trampling through the warehouse
Where the drapes of Roth are stored

This heartrending tale led, almost inevitably, to the workman's complaints in Sir Greenbaum's Madrigal:

In Sherwood Forest
There dwelt a knight
Who was known
As the righteous Sir Greenbaum

And many dragons
Had felt the might
Of the smite
Of the righteous Sir Greenbaum

I chanced upon him one morn
When he'd recently rescued a maiden fair
Why, why art thou so forlorn
Sir Greenbaum, is thy heart heavy laden?

Said he, "Forsooth
'Tis a sorry plight
That engendered my attitude bluish"
Said he, "I don't wanna be a knight
That's no job for a boy who is Jewish"

This may have been a parody but in reality it was pure Jewish poetry. Straight from the heart.
Allan was deeply influenced by many sources, Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway, cowboy laments, but he especially was moved by Calypso:

Oy, my Zelda
My Zelda
My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor

Once again now
My Zelda
My Zelda
My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor

My Zelda she found her big romance
When I broke the zipper in my pants
My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor

Followed by:

[parody of "Jamaica Farewell" by Harry Belafonte]
I'm upside down, my head is turning around
Because I gotta sell the house in Levittown

My Son The Folksinger  was the bestselling album in history until then. It sold a million copies and actually had to be sold without it's cover, which couldn't be printed fast enough to keep up with public demand. It proved to all of us, you can be Jewish and the goyim understood our in-jokes, our thinking. Bless Allan for taking our language and making it American, no, universal.
Folksinger was not Sherman's ultimate commercial triumph. Allan was now an American upper class suburbanite and the cover of his second album, My Son The Celebrity, said so. Here was Allan, replete with guitar, in front of his family, Lincoln, black maid and chauffeur. But he still sang to me:

We'll call him Barry, Barry.
That'll be the baby's name.
We thought of Lance or Josh,
But, oh, my gosh,
They're not the same.
But if it's Barry, Barry,
That's a name with style and grace.
And if he's not a he,
It still could be
Like in Barrie Chase.

But it was his third album, My Son The Nut, that made him immortal with his popular hit, Hello Madduh, Hello Fadduh, and his finest piece of universal philosophy, Hail To Thee Fat Person:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MInOApCkA98&list=RD02K1phr_MLnIM

no. 3 Hail To Thee Fat Person

I would like to explain how it came to pass that I got fat.
Ladies and gentlemen, I got fat as a public service.
When I was a child, my mother said to me,
"Clean the plate, because children are starving in Europe."
And I might point out that that was years before the Marshall Plan
was ever heard of.
So I would clean the plate, four, five, six times a day.
Because somehow I felt that that would keep the children from starving
in Europe.
But I was wrong. They kept starving. And I got fat.
So I would like to say to every one of you who is either skinny
or in some other way normal--
When you walk out on the street, and you see a fat person,
Do not scoff at that fat person. Oh no!
Take off your hat. Hold it over your heart.
Lift your chin up high. And in a proud, happy voice say to him,
"Hail to thee, fat person!
You kept us out of war!"

Allan Sherman was a remarkable comic genius. Others had attempted parody as their genre, ie. the overly intellectual Tom Lehrer, but only Sherman used his gift to save the dignity of the Jewish people. Have a look at him on popular media, with Dean Martin and Vic Damone:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vR9cT6Jyg4

Then consider his lyrics:

On top of Old Smoky,
All covered with hair,
Of course I'm referring
To Smoky The Bear.

*
Do not make a stingy sandwich.
Pile the cold cuts high.
Customers should see salami
Coming through the rye.

*

Oh salesmen come and salesmen go
And my best one is gone I know
And if he don't come back to me
I'll have to close the factory

Gimme Jack Cohen and I don't care
Gimme Jack Cohen and I don't care
Gimme Jack Cohen and I don't care
But the best it's gone away.

*
God bless you, Jerry Mendelbaum
Let nothing you dismay
This May you had a rotten month
So what is there to say
Let's hope next May is better
And good things will come your way
And you won't have a feeling of dismay
Next May

*
Yasha got a bottle of Geritol
Geritol, Geritol
Yasha got a bottle of geritol
And he knocked a whole in the wall

*

Oh I'm Melvin Rose of Texas
And my friends all call me Tex
When I lived in old New Mexico
They used to call me Mex

When I lived in old Kentucky
They called me Old Kentuck
I was born in old Shamokin
Which is why they call me Melvin Rose

(author's note: Shamokin is a play on the Yiddish word, Shmuk)

*

On November 30, 1973, aged just 48, Allan Sherman died while performing before friends. I was heartbroken. My first artistic hero was gone. He opened the Jews to say so openly and with deep pride. The month before, in October, 1973, two Jews, Henry Kissinger and Moshe Dayan conspired to make sure Israel was unprepared for the Yom Kippur War. Their duplicity lives with all Jews to this day, but Allan Sherman's real Jewish dignity, we hope, even pray, will outlive them.

end

     My successful at humor, 1971, has been turned into a screenplay. I add, thanks to my mentor Allan Sherman. For a tiny donation, I'll send it to you.

My Rabin lecture in Hebrew: Some people, I'm told, had to copy and paste this to open it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOYpkCP1WNM

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    The land of Israel ... Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, the Biblical
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