LONDON — In 1887, Emil Berliner changed our lives for the better. The Jewish Berliner — who later emigrated from Germany to the United States — invented the gramophone, finally granting popular music the technology on which to disseminate the sounds of the street and the stage.
His story is told in the London Jewish Museum’s new remarkable exhibition, “Jukebox, Jewkbox,” which charts the influence of Jews on mass entertainment, through shellac and vinyl, wax cylinders and, indeed, a gigantic jukebox.
A delicious London touch is the presence of an iconic Dansette record player, a fashionable accessory of the late 1950s and early 1960s, designed and built by the Russian-Jewish emigrant to the UK, Morris Margolin. Every Jewish teenager who could owned a Dansette, whose particular feature was an auto-changer, enabling six singles to be stacked and played on the deck.
The show, devised by the Jewish Museum of Hohenems in Austria, has already drawn crowds in Frankfurt and Munich, and will travel to Warsaw after its London stint.
The centerpiece of the show is a gigantic mock-up of a record store counter, at which visitors can don headphones and listen to music of every genre, from folk to punk to cantorial, from Arab-Jewish music to Yiddish comedy. There are also more than 40 audio stories with musicians, artists, producers and music fans, featuring “the Jewish record that changed my life.”
But the wow factor — apart from some astonishing, fully working early models of gramophones — is the more than 500 record sleeves which form the backbone of the show. They enable the visitor to move seamlessly from early liturgical music to Molly Picon, who made her early career in the American Yiddish theater, or to marvel at the sheer input of Jewish artists who became world famous, from Barbra Streisand to Amy Winehouse, from Neil Diamond to Leonard Cohen, from Simon and Garfunkel to Carole King. At least 50 of the sleeves have a particular London resonance.
Dr. Hanno Loewy, the mop-haired director of the Austrian Jewish Museum in Hohenems who developed the exhibition, is a delightful guide to the show, darting from a record sleeve featuring the Electric Prunes’ 1968 version of “Kol Nidre,” to explaining that Oriole Records was the label of the Levy family of Whitechapel.
We stop in front of what Loewy says is the first record of Jewish humor — “Cohen on the Telephone,” made in London in 1911. The “talker,” as he is billed on the record label, is Joe Hayman, who is arguing with his landlord about his rent.
“The joke,” says Loewy, “is that Cohen has a heavy Yiddish accent and is trying to patronize his landlord. But the landlord is actually a London bank owner who speaks beautiful English. Neither of them understands each other.”
“Cohen on the Telephone” not only sold more than a million records but gave birth to a slew of copycat situations, each featuring a Jewish immigrant Cohen who fails to understand what is being said to him.
Further along the wall the comedy records include an American standard, Tony Schwarz’s 1959 “The New York Taxi Driver,” which features genuine sound recordings from cabbies ready to give their opinion on everything. Here is Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer, a young Woody Allen and an even younger Mel Brooks. Texan “cowboy” Kinky Friedman is there, too, along with sardonic offerings from the US comedian Mort Sahl and comedy troupes who tell the world “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish.” Here is the 1940s comic voice of Mickey Katz, and there on another record sleeve is his son, Cabaret star Joel Grey, whose daughter Jennifer Grey became the celebrated star of “Dirty Dancing.”
One startling aspect of the show is that record sleeve art as we know it did not exist until 1940. Before that all records appeared in plain brown or paper sleeves, with the only decoration being the name of the company issuing the disc. And, inevitably, it was a Jewish graphic designer, Alex Steinweiss, hired by Columbia Records as its art director, who is credited with inventing record cover art. His first sleeve, appropriately enough, was for a Jewish musician, Richard Rodgers.
Guide Hanno Loewy bounces over to the Arab-Jewish music section of the show, an area full of fascinating stories. Leila Mourad, the Egyptian daughter of a cantor, was a huge singing and film star in her day but had to be protected by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser over rumors that she was a secret supporter of Israel, despite her conversion to Islam.
He also shows records on the Koliphone and Zakiphon labels.
“The Azoulay brothers, who emigrated to Israel from Morocco and set up shop at the Clock Tower in Jaffa, couldn’t find any Moroccan music in Israel, so they started their own labels,” Loewy says.
The brothers, now in their late 80s, still work in Jaffa.
With a show that begins with traditional cantorial music including big names such as Yossele Rosenblatt, and opera singer Jan Peerce — born Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth — along with genres such as Israeli music, folk, klezmer, pop, punk and rock, there is almost too much to take in.
When asked if he has a favorite among the hundreds and hundreds of names vying to be the voice of 20th century Jewish music, Loewy groans. There is a singer, he explains, who formed the soundtrack to his childhood.
“Wolf Biermann lived in East Berlin and sang these ‘chansons’ with political content. I loved them.”
Biermann, strongly critical of the Communist regime, was isolated and stripped of his citizenship. He eventually made it through to West Germany and it was then revealed that his Jewish father had been murdered in Auschwitz.
But then Loewy grins.
“I also love this — Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. It’s what you could call klezmer-punk.”
With lyrics like “we suffered in style, and it’s all in the file,” the Detroit-born and Berlin-based Kahn has his own swing at the questionable politics of Communist Germany.
The London curator of the show Joanne Rosenthal said, “this exhibition celebrates the role Jews have played in the history of recorded music, both from an artistic standpoint and as industry influencers.”
As the first visitors leaned over to make their choices from the show’s giant jukebox, there was, indeed, dancing in the streets.
Jukebox, Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl runs at the Jewish Museum, London through October 16, 2016.