Tag Archives: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Jew of the Week: Jerry Wexler

The King of R&B

Gerald Wexler (1917-2008) was born in The Bronx to an immigrant family of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish background. He graduated from high school by age 15, but there was little to do in the difficult days of the Great Depression. Wexler spent much of his time with a small circle of friends listening to music and discussing literature. It was only after returning from World War II military service that he finally pursued a career in journalism and music. He got a job as a reporter for Billboard Magazine, and soon became its editor. At the time, the magazine had a separate music chart for “black music”, called “Race Records”. Wexler took a stand against racism and came up with a new title, renaming the chart “Rhythm & Blues”. He thus coined the now popular term “R&B”. In 1953, the president of the start-up Atlantic Records (a fellow Jew named Herb Abramson) was drafted to the US Army. Wexler was offered to take his place. Under Wexler’s leadership, Atlantic Records became one of the world’s most successful music labels, and produced some of the biggest names in music, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. For bringing the latter to the world, Wexler was named Record Executive of the Year in 1967. (Franklin had struggled to find success in music until Wexler convinced her to join him at Atlantic, and produced her breakout hit song, “Respect”.) The following year, he signed a young group called Led Zeppelin. Wexler would go on to work with other big stars, including Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees, Richard Pryor, Carlos Santana, and George Michael. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Wexler played a central role in ending the era of “race music” (and stopping the practice of white musicians covering songs of black musicians and raking in all the fame and fortune for themselves). He opened the door for more “black music” to enter the once all-white Billboard charts, and has been credited with bringing “black music to the masses”. Not surprisingly, Wexler has been called “a prophet of roots and rhythm” and “the Jewish king of black music”.

Words of the Week

Music is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadifounder of Chabad

Jew of the Week: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Norman Eliezer Cohen (1934-2016) was born in Montreal, the grandson of a Lithuanian rabbi and a Polish immigrant who founded the Canadian Jewish Congress. Cohen grew up very close to his Jewish community, and attended Montreal’s Jewish Herzliah High School, where he was first inspired to take up poetry by a teacher. While studying at McGill University, he published his first set of award-winning poems. His second book of poetry found even more success, and was seen as an important work in Canadian literature, with one critic calling Cohen “the best young poet in English Canada.” Cohen moved to a small island off the coast of Greece and wrote prolifically, publishing several more books of poetry and novels. One of his later books – a Literary Award winner – was inspired by the Hebrew Bible and consisted of 50 poems that Cohen called “prayers”. Meanwhile, Cohen started recording music in the 1960s as poetry did not bring the income he hoped for. His first album was a big hit in the US and UK. It was his seventh album that had his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, which Cohen went through some 80 drafts writing, and “banging his head on the floor”. The song was inspired by various Biblical scenes, including the stories of Samson and Delilah, and King David and Batsheva. It would be covered by over 200 artists in dozens of languages, and become the subject of a whole book and BBC documentary. In 1994, Cohen entered a period of five years of seclusion during which time he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. However, he never abandoned his Jewish roots, and said, “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” Cohen was known to keep Shabbat throughout his career, even while on tour. In his 2009 concert in Tel-Aviv, Cohen spoke Hebrew and ended the concert with Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. During the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz before going to the front lines himself to entertain Israeli soldiers, saying he will “stop Egypt’s bullets”. In his 1972 Jerusalem concert he was so emotional that he had to walk off stage at one point. The crowd started singing to bring him back and a teary-eyed Cohen felt like “the entire audience turned into one Jew”. All in all, Cohen produced 15 albums (the last of which was released just three weeks ago), 13 poetry books, and two novels. He won a plethora of awards – including multiple Junos and Grammys, the Order of Canada, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and inspired countless musicians, poets, and artists. He has been hailed as one of the most influential songwriters and greatest musicians of all time. Sadly, Cohen passed away earlier this week.

Words of the Week

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Jew of the Week: Bob Dylan

First Musician to Win a Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan in 1963

Bob Dylan in 1963

Robert Allen Shabbatai Zisl Zimmerman (b. 1941) was born in Minnesota, the grandchild of Ukrainian- and Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. Listening to the radio as a child, Zimmerman fell in love with music. In high school, he formed a number of bands, mostly doing covers of Elvis Presley. While studying at the University of Minnesota, Zimmerman regularly performed at clubs and coffeehouses near the campus, introducing himself as “Bob Dylan” (after the poet, Dylan Thomas). He soon dropped out of school and moved to New York City. It only took about a year for him to get signed by Columbia Records. Though his first album didn’t do very well, and he was nearly dropped from the record label, Dylan’s second album fared much better. With this album, Dylan showed that he was not only a musician and songwriter, but a talented poet as well. The Beatles described his music as “incredibly original and wonderful”. By 1963, Dylan was tremendously popular, and had become an important part of the civil rights movement, too. He went on to produce an unbelievable 37 albums (so far), selling 120 million copies. His “Like a Rolling Stone” was listed as the greatest song of all time on multiple occasions, and his hand-written lyrics for this song recently sold at an auction for a record $2 million. His 2009 album made him the oldest artist ever to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Since 1988, Dylan has been on a “Never Ending Tour”, consistently performing around 100 concerts every year, and continuing to perform regularly to this day. Dylan also wrote a novel, published six books of his drawings and paintings, as well as a bestselling autobiography that was nominated for the National Book Award. He has won twelve Grammy Awards, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last week, it was announced that he received the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first musician to do so. It has been said that Dylan inspired countless musicians “from Mick Jagger to Eminem”, while President Obama once admitted that “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.” TIME Magazine placed him on the list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. Many have argued that Dylan’s lyrics should be studied in schools, and indeed, courses on Bob Dylan are now offered at a number of universities around the world.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Words of the Week

Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.
– Rabbi Israel Salanter

Bob Dylan at his son Jesse's bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 1983

Bob Dylan at his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 1983