Brigit Grant meets the hitmaker behind your children’s favourite Jewish songs
When Stephen Melzack walks into a school assembly hall, the reaction is quite extraordinary. Children who seconds earlier were busy playing with their shoelaces or getting distracted by something innocuous in the playground, suddenly sit bolt upright and stare at him.
It helps that he is carrying a guitar of course, but the reason he commands such attention is because they recognise him. More importantly, they know his music as, in the world of Jewish songs, Stephen Melzack is a hitmaker whose Two Candles Burn has been at number one in Jewish schools across the country for many years.
In all probability, you have heard your own children sing it – complete with actions and, for pupils aged four to 11, a live performance by Stephen is like having One Direction at their Shabbat service. Well, almost.
Stephen’s first venture into music was “longer ago than I care to remember” with the band Susie Q, which he started with his friend Neil Gold.
Alrhough the band was a bit of fun, Stephen, who lives in Edgware, never stopped writing songs and his first foray into something of substance was an anthem for Tottenham Hotspur, who were looking to compete musically with Chelsea’s Blue Is The Colour.
“I got a call from a friend involved with the team who asked on a Friday if I could come up with something suitable by the following Monday,” recalls Stephen. “I had something in the bottom drawer and also came up with an additional song, although I had no idea when I turned up with my guitar at the White Hart pub in Tottenham that I would be performing it for the whole team.”
Strumming in front of the likes of Pat Jennings and Martin Chivers was quite a moment for Stephen, a QPR fan who was rewarded with a thumbs-up for Hotspurs Boogie, which was then recorded and released. “It was their song for the next few seasons and later went on to a compilation CD with Chas ‘n’ Dave” says Stephen who also wrote a song for his QPR team (which won’t interest Spurs supporters). He is also proud of his Candles Of Hope song written for Cancer Research UK’s Relay for Life events, which is reaching out to communities throughout the world.
But it is songs with Jewish themes that are most interesting to Stephen, who wrote the poignant Why? for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s, before going on to win an international Jewish songwriting competition in Montreal with his entry, This Land, which was about Israel.
The song is known and loved by many, but it was a personal request from his wife Alison – then headteacher of Yavneh Nursery in Woodside Park – to write some catchy tunes for little children that triggered Two Candles. “My wife wanted new and fresh songs to ‘replace’ Jewish versions of Wheels On The Bus,” he says politely.
The resulting 10 songs were an instant success at the nursery, notably with parents who wanted cassettes. With his daughters Louise and Cara, who were young providing the vocals, the tapes were then played at other nurseries and, following a feature in the Times Educational Supplement, other schools wanted them as tools for teaching about Judaism.
With Two Candles being sung at schools throughout the country, including Catholic and special educational needs schools, Stephen’s next big hit was Never Again, which he penned for Yom HaShoah. “I performed it two years ago at The Dell in Hyde Park as part of the National UK Yom Hashoah ceremony and then this year at Copthall Stadium, conducting eight school choirs. Each year, the number of children singing with me grows and with 28,500 hits on YouTube, it is now being sung at events and concerts in America.”
Every festival presents a new opportunity for Stephen and none more so than Rosh Hashanah, for which he composed the song below, and he has made the music available for Jewish News readers on YouTube.
“The most thrilling part of all this for me is hearing the children sing my songs,“ he says and from the way the pupils react when they see him, that thrill is obviously mutual.