Interview with Pete Sokolow

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You think it contributed to a change in your career?

Oh, without a doubt. I became introduced to klezmer because I did that job at the New Prospect. Ralph Kahn introduced me to the Epstein brothers-Max, Willy. Dave Tarras - I first met Dave Tarras on one of Ralph Kahn's jobs. . I got to know Dave Tarras on these things. I got to meet some of the old musicians like Irving Gratz the drummer, the best bass player in Jewish music Charlie Gallatin. I did a job with him and Berman. I met Rudy Tepel from them. I got into the Hasidic business through that, because Rudy Tepel was a kingpin of Hasidic music. I learned from his recordings . I then I worked for [Sy] Kushner. I was one of the first outside guys. Then I had to learn young Jewish repertoire. Most of what they did I didn't know. This was the new repertoire. Tepel had a saxophone sound, which was full of heavy vibrato. He sounded like a dinosaur in heat or a wayward moose. I had to learn to assimilate some of that sound. So you had to play with a full tone. Not a Stan Getz or a Lester Young kind of approach, closer to Ben Webster but not in a jazz way. The ideal man for this was Freddy Martin who recorded the Tchaikowsky piano concerto (sings a few bars in parody vibrato). And the piano player went, "binga-binga-binga" These guys all played like Freddy Martin. Rudy Tepel got his name from Rudy Weirdoff in the 20's, who was the idol of all the guys back in the '20s. Rudy Valle got his name from Ruby Weirdoff. Tepel's name was Harry, Harry Teplitsky. There was a guy called Lou Berman cause he played an old style. They all had this big sound. Some of these guys did it well. Today it does sound like a dinosaur in heat. But in those days it was more acceptable. It was called a Bar Mitzvah tone. And most of the tenor saxophone players who played the Catskills sounded like that at one time or another. And I had to learn to do a facsimile of it. My first saxophone teacher played like that, but he was more of a society tenor player. He played with Lester Lannon and people like that. The style quickly became outmoded. By the late '60s the sound was totally gone, because then the club date bands had become young guys who played in a Stan Getz or a Zoot Sims kind of a style. See, Danny Rubinstein was a little but older than us, and Ray Musiker was also a little older, never quite played in the corny style. They played in a more of an in-between contemporary. Sammy Musiker played a gorgeous tenor. And he, even in the '50s, sounded like a Zoot Sims or a Stan Getz than he would have sounded like those guys.

Standard band was trumpet, saxophone, piano, and drums. Some of the bands maybe had a bass player. A story is told about the agent, Aaron Toter. I went to his apartment on Ave F and East. Second Street. [in excellent reconstruction of Toter's accent]" "Boys, have I got a job for you in the Mountains. Boys, the job plays ten dollars a week for a band. Ayn dollar a vok for each man [for Toter, the agent]. It's experience, boys, experience." What a rat. A crook if ever there was one. A snake. There were some others [agents], there was Eddie Luntz, who sent me to Shloimie. There was Artie Summers who booked the acts into places like the New Prospect. He had a kept lady. Her name was Dorothy Gevaytensiker, alia Dorothy Gaye. She used to sing at the hotel. She sang Jewish songs. She was a doll. Pretty too. She knew what to expect. She never busted anyone's chops. Her arrangements were easy. Then there was also Bliman and Bate. Or Einhorn. Arnie Graham was already fancy stuff. I'm talking about the kleinerlich (little ones), the best of the low price field.

That was a wonderful imitation. I can hear his voice. I haven't seen Toter since 1967 or 1968.

I haven't seen him in longer than that, the 50s.

He sold my father my first violin when I was a kid.

It must have had several cracks.

Years later I was working as a waiter in the Karmel and he turns up as the resident agent who gets room and board in exchange for giving them one show a week. There he was in a little alcove off the dining room.

What I remember about the Carmel. The Carmel in Loch Sheldrake is today the Stage Door Manor, a theater camp. A saxophone player, Mike Gold, a young guy from Manhattan School of Music who today is in Florida. He was this brilliant clarinet player. Mike Gold was working the Karmel. All the guys used to go hear him at the Carmel. There was a place in Woodburne called the River Tavern right on the corner across the bridge towards Greenfield Park. A facockte goyishe bar. We used to go in there. That was where all the jazz guys got together to jam. You went to the River Tavern and Mike was playing - Charlie Parker, wild stuff. Berman used to say, "What is this be-bop shit?" I was a be-bop cat. We used to jam at the River Tavern.

I worked one Rosh Hashana in the Senate, formerly the Levitt. The owner of that hotel was Max Rosenblatt who was the original owner of the New Prospect He was a partner with Willy Forman in the New Prospect. Rosenblatt used to say, "You don't like it, take the bus." He was a shtikl chzzan (a bit of a cantor). He thought since his name was Rosenblatt he could be a cantor. He was a nasty man. I worked with a band there. I was still playing sax. I worked with Ralph Kahn's brother, Sam. The only way he could play a freilachs was backwards. And they had an old piano player. He looked like Mister Magoo, he talked like him, except he had a slight southern accent. His name was Leo Dustin. He could play the piano, but his style was not accessible. Strange stuff. Hell of a lot better than Berman. He looked and sounded like Mr. Magoo. He didn't like Blacks. He had weird opinions. And there was Sammy Cohen trying to play the bass. He was a barber. He didn't know from this stuff. On one of Peratin's jobs, Sammy was holding the bass. One time I tried to tune the bass, the bridge almost fell out, so I tuned it a tone flat. It didn't make a difference. He put his hand over the bass and he did this [indicates plucking the bass]. Peratin said, "Sam you are terrific. If you could sing , I would give you all the jobs."

Did you ever have to play at the poolside?

Yes, I'll tell you where. I believe at the Homowack. In the early 80s. There were a couple of band-a show band and a lounge band. Many of the bands had to play at the pool. I think at the New Prospect we must have played at the pool once or twice, but most people hardly every used the pool, they were too old. Basically you played a lot of Latin music at the pool so people could practice their cha-cha. The lounge band at the Homowack played in a little lounge downstairs. Just two of us. We would do the latest Hasidic dances. This was all after Davidman bought it. I understand that the Homowack was a real swinging place at one time. Rudy Veren, when we was there he had organs, one in the bar and one in the show. He was a good organ player, Hammond, not B-3, but C-3. The Raleigh, was a swinging place. I remember at the New Prospect the women across the street in the bungalows would come down and get Willy the concession man to drive them to the Raleigh. They wanted to go swing at the Raleigh.

Now we used to go Saturday nights after the regular show, we would go to the bungalows. We went across the street to the bungalows, the Nassau Bungalows, across the road from the New Prospect Hotel. We would go down to Rottenbergs. We would make an extra $8. We played regular dance music. We played very little Jewish music. We played Jewish theatre on the concerts. "Ich Hub Dich Tsu Fil Lieb," "Shayn Vi di Livone " that kind of stuff, "Yass, Mein Shtetl, Yass" I also learned "Rumania, Rumania." American music was foreign to some of these guys. These guys were older, born 1910.

Fiddler on the Roof came out in the 60's. By the 60's most of my Catskills career was over. Sure it stayed there. We normally did a Fiddler medley for listening. This was not for dancing. Yiddishe Mama, of course, was originally introduced by Sophie Tucker. Two sided record, Columbia Records, late '20s-one English, one Yiddish. The Yiddishe Mama song was usually in a show. A tear jerker. Some people didn't want it because it was too sad. Never as a dance tune. Once in a while I'd play it as a slow rhumba. I kindo f downplayed that, because it's chicken soup with schmaltz.

It's Jewish music but without the soul.

Let's talk about that. Sure it has. Of course it has. To the secular Jew, not necessarily spiritual, but connected to the altichker style, a song in Yiddish touches the heart, 'Iz gib mir a kitzl in hart', it gives me a tickle in the heart." And these songs touched the souls of the people, the way that klezmer does to some of these other people [today] the soul and the heart. The dance music was supposed to bring out happiness. Even with a cry and a laugh in it. I find that the songs touch people more. Most people relate more to sung music than instrumental. That music is a touch of nostalgia. I think that those tunes touched the heart.

The klezmer style was the music of the immigrant who came during 1880-1924 when the act of Congress closed the door. Their children, the first generation Americans, pushed this stuff aside. They wanted to be Americans first, who happened to be Jewish. When the Churbn happened, the Holocaust happened, the whole idea of nostalgia for the old country was destroyed. The Polishe Yidn went back and the Poles had pogroms to finish off Hitler's work. What became popular in '45 was the music of hope. All of a sudden, a new national anthem. The two national anthems were previously "Yah-ta-ta-ta-de-dum," "It Wasn't My Valise" (a comic name for "Tantz, Tantz, Yidelach." And "Chosen, kale, mazel tov." This was played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band - they have a little section in major [key] [hums part of "Tantz, Tantz, Yidelach"} These were the Jewish songs. Now the new Jewish song-"Hava nagilah."

Now, you mentioned "Vie a hin zehl ich gayn." "Where should I go. There's no place for me. Every door is closed. It's the same in every land." After WWII, the Jews went to the DP camps. Roosevelt wouldn't let them in, Canada wouldn't let them in, Australia wouldn't let them in, any of the British Empire, because the British empire had promised the oil sheiks they wouldn't let the Jews into Palestine. No one would let them in. One of the reasons they liberated the concentration camps so late was that the British were wishing that all the Jews would be eliminated so they wouldn't have to deal with Palestine later. This was all done for ARAMCO, Arab-American Oil Company. Ralph Kahn, my old klezmer teacher was a guard in the American camp where he was watching over German prisoners. Lena Horn came into the camp and there were supposed to be black guys up front. There were German prisoners. She walked out, she wouldn't sing. The Germans had the life of Reilly. Meanwhile the black soldiers were segregated. They brought German prisoners over here, but no Jews. That was the meaning of the song "Vie a hin zehl ich gayn." Then the last part. The new state of Israel, finally in 1948: "Now I know where to go, where my folks proudly stand. Let me go, let me go, to that precious promised land. No more left, no more right, lift your head and see the light. I am proud can't you se, for at last I am free, no more wandering for me.' They couldn't go anywhere. That was the meaning of the song. We did a Catskills reminiscence night at the Circle Lodge for the Workmen's Circle. My klezmer band did an 8 minute intro then Harvey came on as the featured singer. I had him do "Vie a hin zehl ich gayn." And then the comic Mickey Freed. That was a real Catskills night. Then we did a champagne night. We did the dance team, the rhumba contest. It took me back to my student years in the New Prospect in Mountaindale. This "Vie a hin zehl ich gayn" became the biggest number because it was the song of hope.

What happened was klezmer was the old stuff from the old country. People didn't want to hear it any more. . They had a new thingŠIsrael. "Havah, Nagila," "Artza Alinu," "Havenu Shalom Aleichem." This wiped out klezmer. Wiped it out! When I came into the business, we hardly played any of it. We played an occasional bulgar [hums a few excerpts]. We only played theater-related tunes because they had word to them and people knew them. But we didn't get to play[ hums klezme] , the kind of stuff that [Sid] Beckerman plays. Beckerman learned all this stuff from his father and he kept the memory. The only band leader in the 60s who still playing the old European repertoire was a man called Marty Levitt. Marty Levitt was the son of Jack Levinsky. He was a trombone player. His uncle was Louie Levinsky, who I worked with many, many times. Marty's son Dave was a great trombone player. They were a klezmer family. Marty was a band leader for the oislander, refugees who had come over since the war. He played klezmer music. He was the last one. So I very rarely played a bulgar, Once in a while on a job, I played [hums music]. Most of the stuff was Israeli, and then Hasidic. Since Rudy Tepel and Berman were working together, I learned Hasidic [hums tunes]. We started to play Hasidic because the Hasidim were coming here. There was a need for music. The American guys couldn't play for them. They got a guy from their own community.

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