As the 93-year-old pianist and the Korean singer launched into a high-octane take on "Hava Nagilah," the sold-out crowd went wild, swaying, shimmying and stomping to the beat. Was this another one of those weird dreams I have whenever I drink too much Concord wine? No, it was the Jews On Vinyl Revue at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, featuring Irving Fields and Johnny Yune.
Being at the museum on this night was like being in a bizarre parallel universe, where Irving Fields was a household name and Johnny Yune wasn't a pop-culture footnote from the '70s but an acknowledged master of Jewish song. Which still didn't make the presence of former Dodger third baseman Ron Cey at the event any more explicable. But really, how much of the evening made sense, anyway? Best to simply down another complimentary cosmo, tuck into an hors d'oeuvre or two and roll with the punches.
(Full disclosure: I was there as Irving's personal flunky and drinking partner; I'm working with him on his autobiography. Anyone know any agents or publishers? But I digress.)
The idea to bring together Fields, the songwriter/performer who recorded the classic "Judeo-Latino" album Bagels And Bongos half a century ago, and Yune, a fine singer of Hebrew and Yiddish songs who's best known as the star of the cheesy comedy film They Call Me Bruce?, was the brainchild of Roger Bennett and Josh Kun of the Idelsohn Society. Their book, And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past As Told By The Records We Have Loved And Lost, resurrected - at least in print - hundreds of weird and wonderful Jewish LPs from the '40s to the '70s, including Bagels and Bongos and Yune's lone Jewish recording, Ose Shalom. Kun and Bennett also run Reboot Stereophonic, which is reissuing on CD many of the albums featured in the book.
From bringing these "lost" records back into the public eye, the next step was tracking down the artists themselves, or at least the still-living ones, and giving them their due while they yet walked the earth. The first such gathering took place last December, and last week's revue was a dry run for a much bigger extravaganza planned for this summer at New York's Lincoln Center.
But to the 350-plus hipsters who'd gathered to tear it up, kosher style, this was no dry run, this was an event. After all, Irving Fields had never played San Francisco in his 75 year career, and hadn't even set foot in the city since 1950. At a pre-show cocktail party, a proclamation from Mayor Gavin Newsom was read. Mayor Newsom clearly understood the magnitude of the event, declaring the day "Irving Fields Day" in the city. As we all lifted our glasses to toast the spry nonogenarian, I saw '70s baseball All Star and non-Jew Ron Cey in the room. He was kind enough to chat with me for a bit, although I never figured out quite why he was there. Hey, nothing wrong with being a Jewish hipster wannabe, Ron.
As showtime approached, the hysteria grew. Fans without tickets showed up to the museum just to get a photo or an autograph with Fields, who graciously obliged, smiling for every flashbulb and signing every record and photo thrust in front of him. Finally, he was helped onto the stage and launched into his signature song, "Miami Beach Rhumba," which he'd written in 1946 and had become the anthem for a generation of Jewish "mamboniks" from coast to coast. Clapping, dancing, whistling and cheers erupted from the crowd, most of whose parents probably hadn't even been born when the song was new.
Irving performed with a bassist, a bongo player and a "percussionist" who mostly just banged a couple of drumsticks together, but hey, who were we to kvetch? It sounded great. They'd only had one quick rehearsal together a few hours before the show, and the bassist occasionally got lost, but Fields was in top form. By the time they launched into "Havanna Negilah," as his Latin reinvention of the Jewish warhorse was titled on Bagels & Bongos, the band was gelling and firing on all cylinders, with Fields swaying, bopping, and damn near undulating at the piano bench like a man half his age.
Next it was Johnny Yune time, but not before a "legend" of '50s Jewish-American pop was introduced, someone so obscure that even the hosts of the event barely knew anything about her until a couple of months ago. But that didn't stop the audience from going wild for one of the Burton Sisters - alas, I don't remember which sister she was. But she looked lovely.
Mr. Yune then took the stage and regaled us not only in song, but with stories about being a Korean Jew (semi-Jew, anyway; I don't know if he did a full Sammy Davis and converted) in 1960s New York. He talked about the early days of his singing career, when he had to learn "Hatikva," the Israeli national anthem, for a paying gig the next day. "I was learning that song in my apartment until 3:00 in the morning. My Jewish neighbor got so mad, he was banging on the wall. 'Every time you sing that song I have to stand up!'" Yune also implored us all to visit Israel at least once, making me feel a little guilty that I haven't yet. Although I have seen Exodus - does that count?
But when the man opened his mouth to sing, I felt like my soul was in Jerusalem. Seriously, if the residuals from They Call Me Bruce? ever stop coming in, the guy could make a pretty decent cantor. And if there's a better Asian-sung version of "Ose Shalom" out there, I have never heard it.
And finally, the topper, the cherry on the sundae, the applesauce on the latkes, if you will - Fields and the mystery Burton Sister joined Yune onstage for the star-studded combo platter rendition of "Hava Nagilah" that brought the house down and brought the evening to a climax.
The biggest irony of the evening is that neither Fields nor Yune knew what "Hava Nagilah" means. "It's a Jewish fruit," said Fields. "When you go to Israel, you get off the plane and they offer it to you - 'Have a nagilah.'" Not exactly, Irving. "Maybe it's like, half a nagilah?" guessed Yune. "And you have to look for the other half somewhere?" Wrong again. And I certainly didn't know, either. Finally, I got revue organizer Roger Bennett to look it up online: "Let us rejoice." And that we most certainly did.
If you missed the Jews On Vinyl Revue, you'll have another shot at making the scene on August 23rd in New York, when even more Jewish musical legends and semi-legends get plucked from obscurity for another shot at the big time. It'll be worth your while, and take it from Johnny Yune - you don't have to be Jewish to dig Jewish music.