When Linda Grant tracked down the Yiddish singing star she loved as a child, she didn't expect to find him winning over a whole new audience: young north Africans
When I was a child, on Sunday mornings the family would assemble around the blue-leather-covered gramophone to listen to records. Apart from the Light Programme, there was no music in the house during the rest of the week, and anyway, the star of my parents' collection of 78s was now heard only occasionally on the BBC. His discs, kept carefully in a cupboard in their paper wrappers, were placed on the turntable, the stylus lowered, and within a few notes we were all sobbing.
For the singer, Leo Fuld, was renowned as the leading exponent
of Yiddish song; he was, as it turned out, the last great Yiddish star.
Einstein was said to be a fan. Fuld had had two smash hits: one was a
cover of Sophie Tucker's My Yiddishe Momma, but it was the second, Wo
Ahin Soll Ich Geh'n (Tell Me Where Shall I Go), that had us crying our
Where to go, where to go
Without actually stating it, Fuld was obviously talking about the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the postwar displaced persons' camps. By the second verse, he has found a home:
Now I know where to go
The words of that song and the emotions they aroused, the story of the Jewish diaspora, never left me: I could sing the whole song, on demand, and would do so whenever I tried to explain what Zionism meant to my parents' generation. When my mother died in 1999, I tried to find Leo Fuld's records, but they had been lost in a house move, or thrown away, so one day I looked him up on Google.
The internet can throw up many surprises, but none so bizarre as the fate of Leo Fuld. Just before his death in Amsterdam in 1997, he had been discovered by Mohamed el Fers, a Dutch TV producer of Algerian descent. El Fers had produced Fuld's final album, The Legend, backed by an Algerian rai band, in front of a live audience of young Moroccans. You could download a couple of tracks, and when I clicked on My Yiddishe Momma, I heard the most extraordinary sound: a fusion of Arab north Africa and Jewish eastern Europe. At 84, Fuld's voice was still fresh and the crowd was going crazy, whooping as he announces that he's going to sing My Yiddishe Momma.
I tracked down El Fers, and he told me the Leo Fuld story. He was born Lazarus Fuld in Rotterdam in 1912 and started out in the synagogue choir; at 16, he was leading services, while at night he was singing secular songs in Rotterdam's Cafe de Kool. In 1932, still only 19, he came to Britain to audition for the BBC, where he was noticed by bandleader Jack Hylton and became a radio star. Seven years later, he left for the US where he established a career as a singer of Yiddish songs, performing with Frank Sinatra. When he returned to Rotterdam after the war, his entire family - with the exception of one sister - had died in the Holocaust. In 1948, he wrote Tell Me Where Shall I Go, which became a worldwide hit.
Fuld's career had three phases, El Fers says: the British one, the American one and the French one. In the latter, he performed with Edith Piaf and is said to have discovered Charles Aznavour. In the 1950s, he began to develop an Arab audience and toured the Arab world, still performing Yiddish songs. Then he moved to Las Vegas, but in 1992, at the age of 80, his career more or less over, he returned to the Netherlands.
"I thought he was dead," El Fers told me, "but a friend said, 'He's very poor; everyone has forgotten him and he's living all alone in a tiny apartment.' I remembered the records of my childhood, so I went to interview him and we became friends. He started playing me his old records." To El Fers' ears, the cantorial music of the synagogue had an undercurrent of the Middle East.
"Nobody cared," says El Fers. "He was 82 but still going. He had a kind of nightclub orchestra which was very bad, so I put him in contact with rai music from Algeria." El Fers got Fuld working again: "He went on national television with these very young Algerian musicians and in front of an audience of young Moroccans, and they loved him. I have no idea what was the magic between them. Normally, they're very against Jews and shout about the Palestinians, but the audience wouldn't let him go."
How did they take to Tell Me Where Shall I Go, I asked him? "We were clever," he said, "and we never played that song." Fuld didn't mind: "If he could play, he would play." The song was not performed until El Fers got Fuld together with an arranger, and in 1997 they recorded The Legend.
Suddenly, Fuld was a star again. Sony gave him a contract, and he was taken to meet the Dutch royal family. Sadly, however, he died a few months after the release of The Legend, aged 84. He went out on a high, with a new following and a new wife.
The fusion of the heartfelt sounds of Yiddish and the Arab Middle East resonate still in Leo Fuld's work. People loved him because he sang from the heart. No more wandering for him.
The Legend is available from Hippo Records (www.hipporecords.nl), Calabash Music (calabashmusic.com) or Sterns (www.sternsmusic.com)
Linda Grand in The Guardian July 26, 2007
Go to the cd
Here, Lazarus ‘Leo’ Fuld, the one-time king of Yiddish music, caps a 60-year career with a riveting reinvention of the old European Jewish song repertoire that the likes of Sophie Tucker and Barbra Streisand rendered such saccharine showbiz fare.
This is the Yiddish folk poetry of authors such as Mordechai Gebirtig, celebrating life in the old shtetls of Middle Europe.
Fuld, a Dutch-born one-time rabbinical student and cantor, made it his own through a career which took him from being an Amsterdam singing waiter to the star of Broadway and concert halls from Paris to Buenos Aires. Also, of course, Tunis and Cairo – indeed, Oum Kalthoum attended Fuld’s 50s performances at the Auberge de Pyramides. And it is the submerged Middle Eastern heritage within this music that this new record makes its ace.
Arranger Kees Post has treated Fuld’s songs to striking new arrangements – tight swathes of Oriental violin, eerie and sinuous woodwinds and accordions, and sombre double bass – which bring out the pathos but not the sentimentality of Fuld’s light but world-weary voice and provide considerable drama. So brilliantly noir is the orchestral prelude to ‘Fraitag oif der Nacht’ that it’s as much Fritz Lang horror film soundtrack as Sabbath party song, while the languorously menacing oboe of ‘My Yiddishe Mama’ brings to mind Salomé and the head of John the Baptist as much as the dear little grey-haired chicken-soup-maker of the title.
Fuld died shortly after making this record, which he apparently considered
his crowning achievement.
As I Heard It
Among the royalty of Yiddish music
I never know what surprises will await me in my mailbox. Recently, among
the usual catalogs that routinely get discarded, was a CD from Holland.
After opening the box, I found a CD, the cover of which featured a handsome
man with Edith Piaf, the acclaimed French songstress (the word legendary
readily applies to her), and in the lower left a poster which describes
Mr. Leo Fuld as "The King of Yiddish Music."
Rather than read the (excellent) booklet first, I decided to listen to
the CD first and let the performances speak for themselves. All of the
songs on the CD are chestnuts to those who are senior citizens and knowledgeable
of the music of this genre. For many, and I daresay the majority of, listeners,
these songs are probably unknown, and there may be a fresh audience emerging
who will enjoy this material anew.
Morton Gold - As I Heard It - NAT 27, 2005/08/23
Review of The Legend by Odetta Clarence on UKFM
Leo Fuld: The Legend
Life and work of the late Leo Fuld
The Four Wives of Leo Fuld
Leo Fuld his last recording
Odetta Clarence UKFM June 9, 2007