Jukebox, Jewkbox! Never mind the Klezmer..
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Jukebox, Jewkbox! Never mind the Klezmer..

Jews have been involved in every single facet of the music industry, as Francine Wolfisz finds out from an exhibition at the Jewish Museum

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

More than 400 record sleeves, along with music technology, such as this Dansette jukebox, left, are on show at the Jukebox Jewkbox! exhibition, which charts the history of music industry (Photo Dietmar Walser
More than 400 record sleeves, along with music technology, such as this Dansette jukebox, left, are on show at the Jukebox Jewkbox! exhibition, which charts the history of music industry (Photo Dietmar Walser

Forget for a moment about digital downloads, iPod nanos and streamed music.

In the days before sophisticated technology took over the way music is produced and played, shellac and vinyl were king, and gramophones, record players and jukeboxes adorned our homes.

Now a new exhibition captures this sense of ‘vinyl revival’ and celebrates the Jewish inventors, musicians, composers, music producers and songwriters who have contributed to the music industry over the past 100 years.

Jukebox, Jewkbox! runs at the Jewish Museum London until 16 October and was originally developed by the Jewish Museum Hohenems, Austria, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum Munich.

Walking into the exhibition is like stumbling across an Aladdin’s cave of all things vinyl – the walls are adorned with no fewer than 400 iconic record sleeves, while an illuminated 12-metre-long listening booth with 10 programmed iPads runs through the centre of the room.

There are also 90 songs by Jewish artists you can play on the beautiful – and functioning – 1950s coin-operated Rock-Ola jukebox, as well as the comfy ‘Jewtube’ lounge furnished with beanbags, iPads and headphones, from which to enjoy a selection of Jewish-themed music videos.

“There’s no question, you can spend a good few hours here,” enthuses curator Joanne Rosenthal.

The exhibition begins with the Jewish stories behind the technology developed to bring music to the masses. An early Edison phonograph, the oldest piece on display dating from the late 1800s, is practically a giant next to the newest, an iPod nano.

The phonograph, of course, was just the forerunner to the gramophone, the brainchild of Jewish inventor Emile Berliner in 1887, along with the very first record.

Seven gramophones from different eras are on display, as well as another Jewish success story – the Dansette – an iconic record player designed by Russian-Jewish immigrant Morris Margolin, which doubled as a stylish piece of furniture.

“These were very beautiful, collectible, cool retro pieces and were a real revolution in their day,” explains Rosenthal. “They were very popular, too, during the 1950s and 1960s and it’s estimated that over a million were sold in the UK alone.

“The Margolin family were in the cabinet-making business, but wanted to diversify and came upon this idea of designing a desirable crossover piece of furniture and music player.”

The exhibition also gives a nod to Alex Steinweiss, art director at Columbia Records, who was the first to put forward the idea
of designing record sleeves. The idea was trialled on Smash Song Hits in 1940 – and sales rocketed.

Visitors to the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, relax in the ‘Jewtube’ lounge, which has come to London (Photo Dietmar Walser)
Visitors to the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, relax in the ‘Jewtube’ lounge, which has come to London (Photo Dietmar Walser)

The story is a lovely segue to the main room, where the fruits of Steinweiss’ idea can be seen amongst a vast collection of iconic record sleeves.

These include a section on the earliest records from well-known cantors, including Yossele Rosenblatt, Manfred Lewandowski and Naftali Hershtik, the latter serving as cantor at Finchley Synagogue.

There are also examples from the world of Yiddish theatre, including Sholom Secunda and Molly Picon, and such seminal tracks as Mein Shtetele Belz, Yossel, Yossel and My Yiddishe Momme.

Jewish comedy records, which were bestsellers, also adorn the walls, from Sophie Tucker to Woody Allen, as well as the risqué-ridden Sexy Stories With A Yiddisha Flavor, while the great composers behind the 20th century’s most recognisable musicals are also on display – George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein are just a few among the number.

Moving on through the chronology, the exhibition shows the wealth of Jewish people involved as music producers – Alain Levy, Phil Spector, Clive Davis, Jerry Wexler – and as artists – Barbra Streisand, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Neil Diamond, Mark Knopfler and Billy Joel.

There’s also a section dedicated to Israeli folk music, Jewish jazz musicians and Zionism. While inconceivable today, The Battle for Jerusalem – The Six Day War is a live recording made from the actual frontlines in 1967 of mortar bombs, artillery shells and machine guns.
For Rosenthal, her favourite exhibits include the records produced for educational purposes, because they illustrate the changing face of British Jewry after the Second World War.

“They were released in the 1960s and 1970s following the secularisation and assimilation of Jews in the UK, to help people learn how to
observe the Sabbath or follow the seder service.”

The exhibition certainly conveys a sense of nostalgia for all things vinyl, but equally it shows a fascinating glimpse into the Jewish history behind the music industry.

Rosenthal adds: “You can come to the exhibition and love it as a music fan, but just by looking at the records, they can tell you a lot about the people who were making them and the people they were being made for.”

• Jukebox, Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl runs until 16 October at Jewish Museum London, Albert Street. Details: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk

 

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