Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How "Bei Mir Bist du Schein," 73 Years Old This Week, Became a Smash Hit

This week is the 73rd anniversary of the sudden rise to fame of a Yiddish love song written for the Yiddish theatre by lyricist Jacob Jacobs and composer Sholom Secunda. The song, Bei Mir Bist du Schein, began as an act at Grossinger's Hotel by two black singers, Johnnie and George, who brought it to the Apollo Theater in Harlem where it was heard by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, who bought the rights to the song for $30.

The song's unlikely journey continued when the songwriters translated it into English and brought it to the attention of The Andrews Sisters, a new singing group.

The full story, told in All About Jewish Theatre, includes the following details:
The Andrews Sisters
The Andrews' record was released a few days after Christmas 1938. By New Year's Eve it was playing over and over again on every radio station in New York City. It started when "The Milkman's Matinee" on WNEW picked it up and played it on the all-night show. Soon there were near riots at the record stores. Crowds would line up and the song would be played out into the street from loudspeakers. Traffic would back up for blocks. By the end of January, "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" had sold more than 350,000 copies.
"Bei Mir Bist du Schon" fever spread across the land. "It's wowing the country," reported one New Jersey paper. "They're singing it in Camden, Wilkes-Barre, Hamilton, Ohio, and Kenosha, Wis. The cowboys of the West are warbling the undulating melody and so are the hillbillies of the South, the lumberjacks of the Northwest, the fruit packers of California, the salmon canners of Alaska." And it was huge hit in Yorkville: "The Nazi bierstuben patrons yodel it religiously, under the impression that it's a Goebbels-approved German chanty."
In 1963 United Artists released a record titled Yiddish Maestro Please that included a rendition of the song by the Feder Sisters, in Yiddish and in English.

There are no videos of the Andrews Sisters singing the English version that rose to the top of the charts in 1938, but other singers have tried to capture their spirit and harmony. A good example of this is The New Andrews Sisters, who, dressed like the originals, give us a good idea of what the original sisters sounded like.

So what has happened to the song during the 73 years since it first made its appearance as a popular English song? It's been performed and recorded in many languages, but it also found a place in a parody inspired by an offhand remark by a member of the Smith Street Society Jazz Band around 1963, who referred to it as The Bear Missed the Train. They recorded the song parody and it was picked up by the legendary Jean Shepherd, king of late night radio from 1956 to 1977, who played his kazoo along with it almost every night.

The parody also has verses that start "The goat missed the boat" and "The duck missed the truck." Today it's sung by schoolchildren as seen in the following video.  Enjoy!

(A tip of the kippah to Phoebe Weisbrot for bringing this story to our attention.)

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