[Dixielandjazz] Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen

Rick Knittel knittelsportland at juno.com
Tue Jan 18 12:35:19 PST 2005

Rick Knittel - JAZZBONE
37 Ship Channel Road; South Portland, Maine 04106-5136
Phone; (207)-741-2407; fax 2409; Cell: (207)-233-3480;  
E-mail; Knittelsportland at juno.com; Winter (mid January to mid April)
7657 Bergamo Ave; Sarasota, FL 34238; Phone/Fax; (941)-924-5186

They called themselves Johnny and George, and they played the Apollo
Theatre and any other gigs they could get one hot summer in the 1930s.
Somewhere along the way, they managed to get a booking at Grossinger's up
in the Catskills. Not bad. Free meals, you make a few bucks and you're
out of New York City for a little while, beating all that August heat
that could blow down the sidewalks of 125th St. like a blast furnace. 

One day Jenny Grossinger showed them the music sheets for this Yiddish
song called "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," and Johnny and George had a little
fun with it, with never a clue that what they had here was going to
become one of the biggest hits of their time - but not for them. 

So summer's over now, and Johnny and George are back down at the Apollo,
and they decide to open with this Grossinger's song. They sing it
straight through in Yiddish, but they kick up the beat and they get it
rocking. And then they get it rocking more. The crowd goes wild. 

Everybody's dancing. The Apollo has never heard anything like this. Two
black guys singing a swing version of a Yiddish song? In Yiddish? 

Watching all this from the balcony that night were two up-and-coming
songwriters, Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, and they both knew a sensation
when they heard one. Who owned the rights to this song? they wondered.
And what would they want for them? Checking it out, Cahn and Chaplin
learned that the lyrics had been written by one Jacob Jacobs, who, with
his music-writing partner Sholom Secunda, had composed "Bei Mir Bist du
Schon" for a Yiddish production called "I Would If I Could." They'd
already tried to sell it to Eddie Cantor, with no luck. When Cahn offered
$30, they were happy to accept. This was nothing unusual for them. They'd
sold hundreds of songs for $30 apiece. 

Cahn and Chaplin went straight to Tommy Dorsey with their new $30 song,
urging the bandleader to play it at the Paramount Theater. Dorsey wasn't
interested. Well, it was in Yiddish, he explained. So Cahn and Chaplin
translated the lyrics into English. And then they took the tune to this
new group of girl singers. The Andrews Sisters, they called themselves.
It happened that the sisters were then recording a Gershwin song called
"Nice Work if You Can Get It," and it was decided that "Bei Mir Bist du
Schon" would work okay as the B side: 
        Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some; Until I 
        first met you, I was lonesome; And when you came in sight, 
        dear, my heart grew light, And this old world seemed new to me
        ... And so I've racked my brain, hoping to explain. All the 
        things that you do to me.
        Bei mir bist du schon, please let me explain,
        Bei mir bist du schon means you're grand, 

The Andrews' 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

"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." 
        I could say Bella Bella, even say Voonderbar,
        Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are. 

Over in Germany, Hitler himself was a big fan. Finally, the Third Reich
had a tune it could hum to. At least until it was discovered that the
thing had been written by two Jews from Brooklyn. Over the years, "Bei
Mir Bist du Schon" made millions of dollars for a lot of singers and
record companies.

 Finally, in 1961, after standing on the sidelines and watching the
royalties ring up over the years for a song that they'd made 15 bucks
each on, Secunda and Jacobs got the rights back. As for Johnny and
George, who started all the excitement one night at the Apollo up in
Harlem, it goes unrecorded whatever became of them, or even what their
last names were. 

Originally published on November 5, 2004

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