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1. SHELLAC IN HIS VEINS
On April 18, 1942, I was born Seymour Steinbigle, the only son of Dora and David. Considering my life’s obsession would be to get there first, it’s funny how late I arrived. Mother Nature’s stork dropped me down the chimney just as the biological clock was closing in on midnight. My forty-one-year-old father was the last Steinbigle, who’d almost given up praying for a son to carry the ancestral name. My only sibling, Ann, was already six years old and might have already resigned herself to being an only child.
My birth was greeted with sighs of “At last!” The question was, would I last? I was born with a cardiac defect, a hole between the left and right heart chambers. In those days, they called it a murmur. As we now know, that little heart kept beating like a drum all the way to the pages of this autobiography, but who’d have bet on it? It was my destiny to begin life as the fragile boy, the defective model, exempted from sport and spoiled rotten by a mother who always heard a time bomb ticking in my chest and did what any mother would have done in such a situation. She held my hand tight, hoped for the best, and tried to savor every precious moment.
It had been the gloomiest winter in living memory. Since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, America was in a state of shock watching the whole world sliding irreversibly into war. The very day I was born, however, marked the turning point when finally, Uncle Sam stood up and hit back. Literally hour for hour, while my mother went into labor in a Brooklyn hospital, sixteen B-25s took off from USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier in the West Pacific. To avoid radar detection, they had to fly fifty feet above sea level for a nail-biting eight hundred miles. Off the Japanese coast, they split into squadrons and bombed ten military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe.
Throughout life, my mother always joked that the tremors from those bombs were what made me turn out crazy, but what always struck me as insane was that after they’d dropped their bombs, all eighty airmen couldn’t turn back and had to keep flying west. By the time they reached the coast of Free China, it was dark and turning stormy. Some planes managed to crash-land on airstrips, but most of the raiders had to bail out into the paddy fields and let their unmanned planes crash. Three died, and eight were captured, four of whom were executed. One plane with a leaky fuel tank was forced to take an early right turn to Russia. About sixty airmen, however, managed to get home with the help of villagers, guerrillas, and missionaries.
The chief pilot behind this ramshackle adventure sported the unlikely name of Jimmy Doolittle. He got home to discover that every last target had been missed, and he was expecting to be court-martialed. But it’s a measure of how depressing our situation was in the first months of the war; the sheer daredevil heroism of this “Doolittle Raid” was a direct hit with newsmen and succeeded in lifting American morale off rock bottom. In the end, the powers that were awarded Jimmy Doolittle the Medal of Honor.
It was the stuff of comic books in an otherwise terrifying reality. Unfortunately, smiling Doolittle and the American public had no idea what kind of wasps’ nest he’d just rattled. Gripped by national panic, Japan’s imperial forces traced the wrecked and abandoned bombers scattered around coastal China to a trail of parachutes, cigarette packets, coins, and aviation gloves that the American raiders had given locals for their help. With hitherto unimagined levels of extreme violence, the Japs began torturing, slaughtering, and raping the entire region. They burned down every home, destroyed every farm, and even flew in biologists to poison wells with the bacteria of plague, anthrax, cholera, and typhoid. Within weeks, the Pacific front was plunged into a steaming hellhole of terror, starvation, and disease.
Meanwhile, across Eastern Europe and deep into Russia, something was happening on a scale that my Jewish ancestors couldn’t have imagined in their worst nightmares. All four of my grandparents had emigrated from Galicia just before the turn of the twentieth century, a rural region that had formed the northeastern edge of what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was broken up into Poland and the Ukraine in the interwar period. Annexed by Stalin in 1940 and then invaded by Hitler the following summer, our ancestral land had just disappeared behind a deathly silence.
I was too young to remember anything of the war, but as any war baby will tell you, its shadow is stamped on your identity for life. A thousand times in my adult daydreams, I’d be sitting in a plane or a hospital waiting room, and get caught by that “1942” on whatever visa or medical form I’d be filling out. It’s like a giant tombstone staring back at you, and yet, it’s weirdly empowering, almost like the terrible truth you learned as a teenager was still being shot at and avenged by the little boy’s comic book hero.
I’ve long wondered how so many genius originals were born during the war. Never in the history of music have so many heavyweights come from the same crop: Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, all four Beatles, Jagger and Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Arthur Lee, Ray Davies, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Roger Waters, Jerry Garcia, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, John Denver, Scott Walker, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Eric Clapton, George Clinton, Donna Summer, Dr. John, Captain Beefheart, Ian Dury, Diana Ross, Leon Russell, Robert Wyatt, Frank Zappa, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Bob Marley, Lou Reed … all war babies. Coincidence? I doubt it. We were born under a giant black cloud that I think made us run faster through life to wherever the lights were brightest. I obviously can’t compare myself to all these artists, but I do know that I went through life feeling intensely lucky, and maybe that’s what made me take so many chances.
Luck isn’t solely about timing, of course; it’s as much about being in the right place. When the credits roll at the end of my journey, the top of my thank-you list has to be the city where it all began—Brooklyn. Forget the hipster suburb it’s since become; the Brooklyn of my childhood was such a human zoo, it’s fitting that almost every cartoon character of my generation spoke in Brooklynese. Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Heckle the talking magpie, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble. In fact, Popeye’s famous line “I yam what I yam and dat’s all what I yam” laughed me through a thousand embarrassing situations in adult life. Anytime I was made to feel like a halfwit from the gutters of the Third World, I used to pull that line out like a water pistol.
You see, as well as every other quirk and irregularity you’re about to discover about me, I was a natural-born klutz. The hole in my heart caused me serious health problems later on, but what made me a playground misfit was my clumsiness. I had ten butterfingers attached to a jittery, left-handed nervous system. I was the red-faced kid who got so excited telling you all about his latest obsession, he tripped on his own shoelaces and accidentally squirted mustard down your shirtfront. To put it another way, I was the kind of boy that only a mother could love. I was difficult, impatient, I needed attention, people got dizzy just looking at me. Theoretically, my life should have been the thundering disaster that I physically am—but try defining “normal” in a place like old Brooklyn. We weren’t polite, we weren’t pretty, and we definitely weren’t up our own asses.
What Brooklynites didn’t have in wealth, beauty, or education we made up for in character. We were the world’s most multicolored, multicultural multitude of mutts whose only common denominator was that just about everyone was working class and had an immigrant background. We had Puerto Ricans, blacks, Asians, Irish, and at least a million Italians, but I don’t think there was anywhere like Brooklyn outside the new state of Israel. We had every flavor of Ashkenazim—Russian, Polish, Baltic, Romanian, Austrian, Hungarian, German, and Czech Jews, including about fifty thousand survivors from the concentration camps. We had lost Jewish tribes you didn’t even know existed—Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, Yemeni, Ethiopian, even some Sephardic Jews whose family trees had curled through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and South America. I’m sure any unsuspecting goy driving through Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon would have seen all the black yeshivish hats and lumped us together as one big, unhappy family. But among ourselves, each Jewish community was distinct, often with its own native food and language.
We even had our own time zones. For example, Galicia hadn’t been on any school atlas since my parents were children, but many thousands of families like ours never said they came from Poland or the Ukraine—that dubious honor was generally reserved for camp survivors. When my Yiddish-speaking elders immigrated to America in the nineteenth century, neither Poland nor Ukraine existed, and in those days, Ukrainians were an ethnic group called Ruthenians. It’s no secret that our Galician ancestors steered well clear of those vodka-swilling, pitchfork-poking schlubs of the east who, in the bitter end, evolved into the Ukrainian nationalists that lined up to do Hitler’s dirtiest work.
No, thank you—we wanted nothing to do with the Ukraine. We were proud Americans descended from Galicia, a specific time and place under the respectable Hapsburg kings of Vienna. The old Galician cities like Lemberg had been the birthplace of the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, a century when Jews embraced science, literature, art, and the liberal professions and even filled the ranks of the Hapsburg civil service. There’s not a lot that Jews value more than noble kings and prosperous times, and Galicia was a word that expressed so much without having to explain.
The Italian community of Brooklyn also had its own tribes and clans pocketed around different neighborhoods. The thing to remember, however, is that Brooklyn and New York, although joined as one metropolis back in 1898, were still distinct, especially as you moved east toward the coast. Unlike the Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg side, which looked at Manhattan, the bigger half of Brooklyn from Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Sheepshead Bay down to Coney Island had its back to New York and faced the ocean. Most inhabitants either worked locally or wanted to live near the beach—which in those days was clean, spectacular, and the place to be in summer.
We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy. By trolley, we were twenty minutes from Coney Island and Canarsie, where my grandparents Benny and Esther Weisberg ran an Italian-American grocery and Grandma’s elder sister Rose had a similar store nearby on Cropsey Avenue. Their brother, my great-uncle Morris, was the family bigwig who ran a successful olive oil importation business. Maybe I’ve watched too many Al Capone movies, but for a Jewish guy who made it on Italian turf during the thirties and forties, old Morris always struck me as suspect. I shouldn’t judge because it was Uncle Morris who helped his sisters set up their grocery stores, which in turn put great food on my plate and provided a key part of my education.
My mother had grown up above my grandparents’ store on Neptune Avenue, between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Street, and still considered Coney Island as home. Visiting my grandparents, which we did all the time, you could almost smell the Atlantic Ocean getting nearer just by the avenue names—Neptune, Mermaid, Surf. You’d see the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, and Cyclone from three or four blocks back. Europe wasn’t just over that big blue horizon; it was visible everywhere in our daily lives. But to simply call Brooklyn a melting pot, as so many do, is a terrible insult to the high standards of cooking. We were gourmets. Our store imported every delicacy known to Roman civilization. We had every type of pasta and olive oil, we had a hundred condiments and those scary-looking dried cod, or baccalà, hanging off the ceiling like giant mummified bats. For a start, when you pushed open that heavy glass door into the store, you’d get knocked backward by the smell of cheese. We stocked every imported variety of obscure, steaming formaggi that could practically follow you down the street if you whistled.
A few doors down was Totonno’s, the most famous pizzeria in Brooklyn. Like a great pop record, a world-class pizza is a deceptively simple art, and Totonno cracked a hit formula in 1924 that’s been drawing a loyal audience ever since. He was a dark, burly Neapolitan who spent his life in a white tank top because whether it was winter or summer outside, a hardworking day was always oven temperature. He was an opera fanatic who applied the same level of passion and perfectionism to the science of dough and handmade mozzarella. Always freshly kneaded—never refrigerated—he sourced only the tangiest, firmest handmade mozzarella. He tray-baked his fifteen-inch pies sprinkled with fine olive oil so thin and crispy, the slices crunched between your teeth in an explosion of divine savors.
Totonno’s masterpiece pizzas drew, and still draw, crowds of drooling Italians from all over Brooklyn and New York. His eldest son, Jerry, was taking over the restaurant by the time my legs were dangling off their seats, but their whole family was constantly running into our store for supplies because, as I learned only recently, my grandmother gave them credit, which wasn’t something the Italians always accepted among themselves. In return, we were welcome to grab a pie whenever we wanted. Tabs would be divvied up and paid on Fridays.
In Brooklyn, Jews and Italians didn’t just work side by side—we actually liked each other. I think they respected our family values, but there was our self-discipline, too. Jewish men generally didn’t drink to excess, didn’t beat their wives, and most of all, we minded our own business, literally. My grandmother Esther was a tough cookie, but she was innocent in the way that ladies were supposed to be in those days. I remember her chasing Puerto Rican kids away from the store with a broom because she thought they stole. However, when it came to her beloved Italian customers, she never knew what it really meant that some of them were distinguished representatives of the local garbage union. Grandpa knew but didn’t want to. His name was Benjamin, and he was the quiet one, especially when it came to other people’s business. Whenever he saw a gang of Italians kicking some poor fella around the pavement, he’d pick up a newspaper or disappear into the stockroom.
I remember these rough-looking Sicilian characters who once pulled up and bought some groceries. A minute later, two cops ran in. “See anyone suspicious getting into a truck?”
“What truck?” said Grandpa. When the cops ran off down the street, he turned to me and smiled. “If your grandmother were here, she’d have given them the license plate.”
And for us, the Italians had by the bucketload the one quality neither the Yiddish nor the English languages even had a term for—arte di vivere, which translates as “the art of living.” It wasn’t just their cooking, the way they sang their hearts out while they worked, the way wore their fedoras and Sinatra-style suits. They were the original Brooklyn hipsters. We forget how decades before Jews built Hollywood, America’s first entertainment superstar was an Italian opera singer, Enrico Caruso, who, along with Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, and others in my time, taught the twentieth century how to sing. Pop music owes so much to black people, of course, but we must never forget the Italians who brought high culture to our streets.
Their lady-flirting, pleasure-appreciating attitude to life certainly took a lot of the stiffness out of whatever Waspy Victorian culture dominated nineteenth-century America, and I’m certain it had a profound effect on Jewish immigrants, too. I can just picture all those Coney Island Jews, still carrying all their Ashkenazi baggage, pickled in centuries of fear and sorrow. How they must have suffered in kosher torment resisting Totonno’s pepperoni topping. They mostly gave in, of course. “Go thy way and eat bread with enjoyment”—Ecclesiastes 9:7. Peace at last between the Romans and the Jews.
In this seaside world of Italian cooking, my father, David, was the outsider who, God bless him, never once succumbed to the temptation of prosciutto. Father was born in 1901 and grew up on the Lower East Side practically under the Williamsburg Bridge in a German and Jewish tenement slum, where rag sorting was the local industry. It was called Sheriff Street until it was bulldozed into a housing project in the 1940s. My father never forgot where he came from, but I suspect the complete demolition of his childhood habitat was a something of a relief. Compared to my mother’s side of the family, where everyone owned a business, Father was somewhat embarrassed about his humble origins, which partly explains why we didn’t see his brothers and sisters and their families as often.
He worked in the city at J. F. Ditman’s showroom in the Garment District in the upper Thirties and Seventh Avenue. Like a man with two jobs, he was also vice president of our local synagogue, the Congregation Shaarei Tefilah on the corner of West First Street and Quentin Road, just a street down from where we lived. Every day, he’d drop by the synagogue at six in the morning and then take the train into Manhattan, where he’d sell ladies suits and coats all day. On the way home he’d always stop by the synagogue for evening prayers.
Outwardly, he looked like the typical well-dressed Orthodox Jew, but in his own way, Father was an original who’d been nicknamed “Happy” by his oldest friends because of his sharp sense of humor. The joke was, he hadn’t always been so religious. In his youth on the Lower East Side, he dated girls, ate in Chinese restaurants, and went out to vaudeville shows. He was the eldest of three sons, so when his father, Asher-Zalki Steinbigle, died, he felt it was his duty to carry on the old traditions. He put on his father’s hat and looked after his widowed mother.
That’s why my father was a late starter. Thankfully, one of his older sisters set him up with my mother, who for similar reasons was a late starter, too. You see, Esther wasn’t actually my natural grandmother. My mother’s real mother had died giving birth to what would have been her sixth child. To cut a long and tragic story short, my grandfather Benjamin ended up remarrying his dead wife’s sister, Esther. Sounds bizarre, but hey, Esther loved those motherless kids as any heartbroken aunt would. The family had to be saved, and she stepped up and eventually fell in love. The daughter of her remarriage to Benjamin was stricken with polio and needed constant care, so my mother had to help out with the store. By the time I was born in 1942, Mother was thirty-six, and Father was forty-one.
Although he signed up, Father was deemed too old to fight in World War II, so they made him an air raid warden, a duty he thankfully only had to execute in drills. Neighbors already knew and trusted my father as a community man, even the nonreligious ones on account of his canvassing for the Democrats. Many Brooklyn Jews in those days were communists, but my father was a staunch anticommunist who loved America with all his heart. Without ever lecturing or condescending people on their own doorsteps, he just felt sorry for those communist Jews, sensing they’d been easily led astray because of the Nazi trauma. He even shared some of their concerns. In the Garment District, he worked closely with black people and felt very strongly about their mistreatment in society.
I never thought we were poor. Full-blown poverty was a common sight in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan; it meant going hungry and never knowing where your next dollar was coming from. However modest Father’s salary must have been, we were the very definition of lower-middle class. While he was off at his steady job in the city, Mother was always there to greet us after school and tend to our every need. Plus, we had our grandparents’ store nearby to feed us like Roman nobles. That said, for as long as I can remember, I understood that money was precious. Anything I earned or was given, I saved religiously.
We were a family of four squashed into a two-bedroom apartment, but even that had its hidden advantages: we all went out and did things. If it wasn’t the synagogue, the store, or school, it was the beach, the amusement parks, the movies, the city, or just playing on the street. Even at night, we never missed an opportunity to get out. Most every Tuesday evening in summer, my sister and I would head up to the roof of our building to watch the fireworks over the amusement parks in Coney Island.
My obsessive hobby was collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy. Unlike most boys at school, I didn’t care about those baseball cards sold with Topps or Bowman gum. What I liked were the educational cards you found in cigarette packs or bread. “Horrors of War” cards from World War II were my favorite. The ultimate piece of treasure, however, was an authentic foreign stamp. Mother knew that I loved nothing more than to take the train into Manhattan with my best friend, Brucie, whose father had been my father’s childhood best friend on the Lower East Side. She’d hand me a few coins, and off Brucie and I would skip to explore the stamp department of Gimbel’s.
It was around that toothy age that my future career as a talking freak show got its earliest breaks. Any time my sister brought her friends home from high school, their running joke was to have little Seymour recite the Gettysburg Address. Like a disturbed child prodigy, I’d stand up and rattle off verse after verse. When I ran out of steam, they’d quiz me on state capitals, which I’d memorized down to every last Salem, Bismarck, and Providence. Or, when my parents went out, one of my sister’s babysitting tricks was to quiz me on the presidents while I was half-asleep on her lap in the TV room. “The twentieth president of the United States?” she’d whisper softly, and I’d apparently mumble, “James A. Garfield,” or whichever other number and name she was testing me on.
I don’t remember ever being a good student at school—which, by the way, was not a serious crime in Brooklyn. Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children. My appetite for information, or my “photographic memory,” as my sister called it, made me something of a nerd in the eyes of my parents and wider family, whose opinion was all that really mattered to me. Those who knew me best, and especially my older sister, thought I was brilliant, so who cared about what my math or science teachers thought?
I also have to thank my sister for the foundations of my musical education. Because she was six years older and we had to share the same bedroom, I heard the soundtrack to her teenage years, which partly explains how my ears grew up faster than the rest of me. The dominant fashion in the early fifties was orchestrated country, and Ann’s favorites included the stunning “Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page, “Your Cheating Heart” by Joni James, and “Cold, Cold Heart” by Tony Bennett—the latter two of which were originally by Hank Williams. Another was “Goodnight Irene,” a Lead Belly song covered by the Weavers. Its B side was “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” a rousing, banjo-plucking tribute to the new state of Israel complete with a verse in Hebrew. Even my parents sang along to that one. I was only about nine or ten and wasn’t consciously listening, but all these old standards hung in the air like cigarette smoke and yellowed my eardrums for life.
My earliest memory of musical obsession was running home from the synagogue on Saturday to catch the week’s Top 25 hits on Make Believe Ballroom, a hugely popular radio show presented by Martin Block. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the music business, but Martin Block’s magic world of songs and scoops was like watching the conveyor belt rolling straight out of an imaginary song factory. One lasting memory was the way he doffed his cap to Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” which remained number one for thirteen weeks in early 1951. “How’s that for consistency?” asked the master of ceremonies, as if to say that durability was the highest value in music.
Whether I knew it or not, I was falling in love. It wasn’t just the lyrics I loved memorizing, it was the weekly thrill of the charts. Often, my father had to stay on at the synagogue, so I’d sit at the kitchen table with a notebook and pen and write down the show’s playlist with chart numbers and notes. Watching my obsessive behavior with some concern, my mother whispered to my sister in the next room, “What’s going to become of him?”
Ann, however, was my greatest believer and always reassured my mother, “Just you wait and see, Mom; Seymour’s going to be a big success.”
The unbearable weekly suspense of Martin Block’s chart was probably accentuated by the other weekly ritual of my father wanting me to keep Shabbos. When he came home from synagogue, I’d have to hide under my blankets and hold the transistor against my ear with the volume turned down low. In the intense atmosphere of a traditional Saturday, I’d lie there almost breathless, taking in every new tune and piece of news like it was life’s honey seeping through airwaves.
It almost bothers me to paint such a stern portrait of my father, because had he ever caught me, I doubt he would have ripped that radio from my ears. He was a gentle soul whose orthodoxy was vastly outweighed by my mother’s side of the family. Being proud traders of fine Italian produce, most of my family rarely ate kosher, didn’t rate Ashkenazi food, and only went to synagogue for special events. We were a mixed family. Our home was 100 percent kosher, but outside, my mother could be easily tempted. On Saturday afternoons, she would always hand me fifty cents and quietly slip me out the front door to catch the movie matinées. Father never forbade this or passed any comments. For the unbeatable value of forty-five cents, I’d get a soda, a hot dog, a bag of fries, a screening of Flash Gordon, and five color cartoons. This was Mother’s reward for my respecting Father’s piety.
Our big family gathering was not Friday-evening Shabbat but a big fat Italian lunch above the store on Sundays. On the way to Coney Island, Father would stop by a kosher delicatessen to take away a corned beef sandwich, which he’d politely nibble at the table amid a tangle of uncles, aunts, and cousins devouring Esther’s legendary spaghetti and tomato sauce. Pizzas from Totonno’s would arrive to whoops of joy, and Father, being good humored, always fit effortlessly into this almost Catholic riot. I’m sure scenes such as this weren’t uncommon in Brooklyn. Most Jewish families were a mix of Orthodox and secular. The unspoken rule was to let each other be and always put family harmony first.
The only thing my father insisted on was Talmud Torah classes for my bar mitzvah, which was standard procedure for twelve-year-old boys. After school, I’d walk to the synagogue and sit down beside other fuzzy-faced prepubescent boys from around the neighborhood. Our teacher was the inspirational Rabbi Rosenfeld, something of a mystic who’d recently discovered a branch of Hassidic Judaism called Breslov. These were the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, an eighteenth-century Hassid who had developed revolutionary ideas about happiness that had resonated among Jews in feudal, czarist Russia. It didn’t matter if you were poor or oppressed; by choosing to be happy, no matter what, you would slowly take control of your life. As well as certain philosophical ideas, Breslovs emphasized joyous rituals like singing and clapping.
Needless to say, such Jewish evangelism was lost on a lot of Brooklyn mothers who clamored around my father, because as vice president of the shul, he was the one person who could rein in the strange new teacher. “We only sent our son to Hebrew school to get bar-mitzvah’d,” they’d complain. “I didn’t want him to become an ultraorthodox!” Twelve-year-old sons were coming home still wearing tzitzit and yarmulkes and would sit silently in their bedrooms observing Shabbat, while in the living room, their fathers were watching TV and pigging out on popcorn. In his jovial way, Father would reassure all these concerned mothers that their sons weren’t being brainwashed. A bar mitzvah was an education in the principles of Judaism, and yes, it was a rite of passage when a son stops acting like a kid and gets working for the Man Upstairs. It was not just a gold-framed photo for Mom’s dressing table.
I’m sure such debates were common in the midfifties, a boomtown era when a growing majority of Jews were second- and third-generation Americans who wished to keep their Jewish identity but ditch all the heavy rituals. My father’s crew running the local synagogue was skeptical of this “secular” fashion. To them, Judaism wasn’t like an old song you mumbled along to; you learned the words and understood what they meant. You either lived Judaism or you didn’t. And if a twelve-year-old came to his local synagogue to learn the religion of his forefathers, he was going to be taught properly by teachers who cared. What that young man did with his life thereafter was his own business.
On the day of my bar mitzvah in March 1955, I remember so clearly being escorted to the synagogue by my future brother-in-law, Martin and his father, Lou Wiederkehr, racked with fright. My father was already there at 7:00 A.M. It was the Saturday before Passover, and the building was packed to the gills with the entire neighborhood, including my entire extended family squashed into the front benches. I stood petrified on that stage for almost two hours as our community leader, Rabbi Kahane, read from Prophets and pulled out various passages about sacrifices, tithes, and the duty of charity. When my big moment came, I stepped up and sang the long Shabbat HaGodol, trying hard not to look at my mother choked up in the front row.
My voice was changing, and so was America’s. “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was number one that week, a novelty folk number about a comic book hero who chopped down trees, ran for Congress, and “died at the Alamo.” Down South, a kid called Elvis was starting to make noise on Sun Records, still just a local stir that hadn’t reached New York, but in every big city, R&B was already the fast-growing craze among white teenagers. Then, just a few months after my bar mitzvah, my sister got married and left home. Suddenly, I was alone in my very own bedroom, a man in God’s eyes, just as my balls dropped and rock and roll began erupting. And that’s when everything started to spin out of control.
I had already been exposed to doo-wop like “Gee” by the Crows, “Sh-Boom” by the Chords, and “Hearts of Stone” by Otis Williams and the Charms in 1954, but when I heard great rhythm and blues, I was hooked for life. The first hits I couldn’t stop playing over and over were “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Going to the River” by Fats Domino. Another obsession was “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” by Joe Turner. Whatever sound first hits you like a bolt of lightning at that mutant, mumbling, blanket-staining bar mitzvah age is generally what will tune your ears for the rest of your record-listening life. For me, it’ll always be doo-wop and the raw sounds of Chuck Berry, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Hank Ballard, Ivory Joe Hunter, Lloyd Price, Johnny Ace, Ray Charles, Little Willie John, and without doubt, my favorite of all those early rockers, Fats Domino.
All these originals weren’t just singers; most wrote their own songs and pushed their routines to the very edge—literally, like Fats, who pushed his piano around the stage, or Little Richard, who ran in and out of camera, or Chuck Berry, who strutted about like a duck. I had no idea, of course, that stage theatrics were all part of the black vaudeville traditions that had mixed up with the evangelism of rhythm and blues. All I knew, aged thirteen, was that nobody else on TV was daring such crazy antics.
I had to collect all these records, so I began selling ice cream or lugging deck chairs on the beach, which turned out to be an education in itself. In those days, if you could have held Manhattan upside down and shaken it, Coney Island is what would’ve dropped out. A summer heat wave could draw a million in one day—people as far the eye could see, crammed like sardines into the amusement parks, all over the beach, all the way down waist deep into the water. And I mean everybody: kids of all ages, mothers, fathers, senior citizens, sailors, soldiers, fortune-tellers, shoeshiners, thousands of blue-collar Romeos showing off to young ladies dolled up in bright red lipstick—every face of American life, swimsuited, bare-chested, overdressed, drunk, sunburned, asleep under newspapers, the lost, the found, and the still looking. Later in life, if I ever needed to visualize The Public, all I had to do was think of Coney Island on a hot summer’s day.
Surf Avenue was the main subway terminus where all these swarms of people poured in. It was also the main drag for bars and curbside vendors. And like the choice of rides in the parks, there was every variety of steaming, greasy, sticky street food, most of it disgusting but perfectly edible when you’re thirteen and carrying a pocketful of change. When it came to food, variety was the name of the game in Coney Island, which had inherited the “world’s fair” tradition of the nineteenth century. Stalls sold everything from fried clams and crabs to knishes, sauerkraut, kebabs, chow mein, pizzas, hamburgers, crinkle-cut fries, steamed corn on the cob, roasted peanuts, waffles, doughs, cotton candy, toffee apples, marshmallow sticks, root beer, malted milk, and slices of fresh watermelon or pineapple. Hot dogs, or “franks” as we Brooklyn insiders called them, were even invented on Surf Avenue when the parks opened in the late nineteenth century. Some bright spark realized that a bread roll was the handiest way of serving frankfurters to passing crowds at ten cents a pop. A squirt of mustard, a funny name, and bingo!
For those of us who lived nearby and could get odd jobs, it was like growing up beside the circus. My grandparents had witnessed Coney Island’s golden age in the twenties when wealthy Manhattan families would stay the night in plush hotels. The rich had long since moved down the Long Island coast, but in the fifties, Coney Island still had magic, albeit of a more working-class flavor. When I was a kid, Woody Guthrie lived just a block off the beach, where he wrote “Mermaid Avenue, that’s the street where all the colors and the good folks meet.” He was so moved by Coney Island’s carnival atmosphere, he also wrote a collection of kids’ songs, even a few tributes to Jewish culture.
On a busy day, I could make up to ten dollars on the beach—serious dough for a teenager—which I of course squirreled away into one of my secret holes. I make it sound easy, but I promise you, it was exhausting and embarrassing work wearing a heavy ice cream box in flesh-melting temperatures. To buy records, there were a few stores in Brooklyn, but for a full selection of R&B, I’d take the subway to Record Shack, or Bobby’s Happy House in Harlem, and later Cousins’ in the Bronx. In those days, the 45 and 33 formats had almost taken over, but many R&B records were still being pressed as 78 ten-inches—big heavy biscuits made from a substance called shellac, the precursor to vinyl. I much preferred the 45 RPM speed.
The first step in any teenage ambition is to fake the persona you wish to become; the next is believing it yourself. I started taking my new records to my grandparents’ on Sundays and jiving like Martin Block to any cousin or aunt who’d listen to me. I’ll never forget one Sunday lunch when my great-uncle Morris heard my plans to take over American show business. He smiled, gave me some sound advice, and put his finger straight on that idea of durability that Martin Block had referred to about “Tennessee Waltz.” Uncle Morris may have been an olive oil importer, but he understood how New York operated. “Anyone can get into show business for a while,” he warned, “but the true kings of Broadway are all about staying power.”
It was time for me to investigate the machinery behind Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom. I knew that Billboard compiled his charts, so on one of my city expeditions in the summer of 1956, I called into Billboard’s office, which was part of the Palace Theatre on Forty-Seventh and Broadway. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said to the lady at the front desk. “I’m really interested in your charts and was wondering if you need interns.”
She kindly called out Billboard’s charts man, Tom Noonan, who was no more than thirty years old and surprisingly friendly. Knowing that I was far too young to get a job, I explained that I just wanted to copy his archives as a sort of school project. To my delight, he pulled out a pile of bound volumes, made space on the corner of a desk, and let me copy away in my left-handed scrawl.
I doubt anybody cared about my project, not even my mother. Fortunately, Tom Noonan let me come in during the holidays and after school to delve further and further backward to the very week I was born. I just kept copying and copying, learning names, watching Tom, and basically seeing how long I could last. Who knows what he and the other writers inside Billboard were thinking. Most of them were poor, unmarried music fanatics who practically lived in the office. Whatever sick obsession I had, they suffered from, too.
Lafayette High School was a giant four-story building on the west side of our neighborhood and had about four thousand kids. It’s not that I didn’t find the lessons interesting, but compared to Billboard or selling ice cream on Coney Island, the classroom felt like a straitjacket. I always sensed there was something different about me, but it took me a long to time realize what it was. I don’t know what makes a person gay; I just remember standing on the side of the field, staring at our school’s best athletes. Because I couldn’t play sports, I just presumed it was normal to be so awestruck by other guys’ strength and agility. I wasn’t turned off by girls, and I had no problem picking out the pretty ones, but I was also becoming aware of the special camaraderie between guys that I think even the straightest of men can recognize is so strong. As the teenage merry-go-round started to spin faster, all these threads laced into an ever-tightening attraction, but it wasn’t something I let myself think about. All I knew is that it would kill my father if he ever found out.
My eureka moment was watching Ricky Nelson on TV performing Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking.” That’s when I knew. There was nothing camp in my mannerisms, no giveaways. If I ever got called names at school, it was because of the pranks I used to pull, like pretending a tiny transistor earphone was a hearing aid so I could listen to music during class. I knew I was tragically clumsy and something of a weirdo, but I also knew that the coolest thing about me was my record collection. Our school produced a lot of baseball players, including Sandy Koufax, Dodger Hall of Famer, but there’d actually been one pop star who’d graduated in the forties; Vic Damone was his name. He proved it could be done, so I just wanted other kids to know that I was riding into whatever stage-lit sunset Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson were singing in. I don’t think anybody suspected I was gay, because in that era of Eisenhower and Doris Day, homosexuality was not something people would suspect, not even us dirty-mouthed Brooklyn brats. Even for me, it was buried so deep, I truly believed that if I ignored it long enough, it might go away, like the hiccups or a door-to-door salesman.
My secret probably caused me isolation, but I can’t say that anything specific hurt or that I suffered. It was only when the music began flowing through me that I could feel something medicinal happening. I suddenly felt better without ever knowing there may have been an unwellness in the first place. I’d lie on my bed studying the small print on the sleeves: King, Apollo, Mercury, Aladdin, Excelsior, Atlantic, Miracle, Sun, Chess, Vee-Jay, Modern … all these castles and flags from across the land. Whether I was sitting at my desk in school or eating dinner with my parents, the only place I wanted to be was nearer the source of it all.
My obsession for records didn’t seem to overly worry my parents, because a young man had to learn a trade, and officially, I was an intern at a respectable New York publication. The guys at Billboard had even given me a press card, which enabled me to bullshit my way into shows like Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price, and others at the Brooklyn town hall. Plus, I was taking home scoops, like the day the Country Music Association paid a visit to the Billboard editor, Paul Ackerman, to complain about Elvis being put on the country chart. Paul Ackerman was an amazing teacher. He would tell me things, like the time folks from the Country Music Association came up to complain about Elvis Presley’s Sun records hitting the country music charts, which in those days only ran to about ten or fifteen positions. They said to him, “Paul, you know this is nothing but nigger music.” He felt ashamed that he didn’t just throw them out of his office, but those folks carried a lot of weight. Paul was a sensitive intellectual and a true crusader for R&B and black people.
My father saw I was good with money and still harbored hopes of my becoming a doctor or a lawyer; however, to his credit, he let me find my own path and just watched over my shoulder from a respectful distance. He befriended Tom Noonan, which was easy because although Tom wasn’t Jewish, he was a devout Irish Catholic whose extended family included a few nuns in Boston. My father showed his gratitude to Tom for taking me under his wing by inviting Mrs. Noonan to the garment center. In those days, Tom was probably earning as little as my father, so it was no small gesture to fit Mrs. Noonan out in a beautiful new suit and coat.
It was editor in chief Paul Ackerman, however, who made the biggest impression on my father. Ackerman wasn’t religious, but he was a fine specimen of the upright, Jewish intellectual mensch. He was educated, principled, and viewed Billboard’s daily work as serving a higher cause. Paul had personal interests, such as poetry and horticulture, but it was his crusade as a music writer and belief in editorial substance that made him a renaissance man of the twentieth century. There’s usually a rich businessman in every Jewish family, sometimes several; they’re common species in any synagogue. For religious Jews like my father, the highest rank of man was the outstanding rabbi or community leader who stood up to be counted. Paul Ackerman was clearly one of these.
My father respected Billboard and was proud of the connections I was making; what frightened him was that I’d gotten sucked into music so young and had all but abandoned school. Paul Ackerman had studied English literature at Columbia, so there was little chance of me turning out like the boss. Even by Brooklyn’s working-class standards in the late fifties, I was a freak. What my parents couldn’t have known was that Billboard’s charts were nonetheless providing me with a solid education for the career I was about to embark on. Among many things, I was learning how TV and radio concentrated public attention on big-name stars, whereas sales reports revealed how vast and diverse the marketplace really was. As well as compiling figures from all over the United States, Tom received European charts, too. Watching him figure it all out was like biblical class. Names, names, and more names. You had to remember as many names as you could—artists, song titles, labels, publishers, songwriters. But once you could piece together all the little references, interesting patterns appeared.
I’d noticed all the foreign songs when I copied Billboard’s archives backward into the forties. Every month, a surprising number of entries were records directly licensed from Italy, France, or Germany. Some were localized cover versions that had been translated or totally revamped on Tin Pan Alley. The same was happening abroad, where American hits were being translated or repackaged into foreign language mutations. So, the very first golden rule I learned about the music business was that good songs fly around the world just as easily as food recipes or fashions in the garment trade.
This came as no major revelation to a Brooklyn child. You’d be hard pressed to find a better symbol of the music business than Luna Park or the Steeplechase—a swarming, multicolored amusement park with its big rides that draw the crowds, and all its smaller curiosities and foreign-themed food stalls that added an element of wonder. At the end of the day, people don’t care where things originally come from. The fact that something might at first seem a bit strange is probably what hooks them. If it hits the spot, they’ll soon make it their own.
Billboard’s charts in those days were as accurate as they could be. There were three separate charts reflecting record store sales, jukebox plays, and airplay; there was also a separate chart for sheet music sales, which was quite important back then. There was also a chart that combined it all, called the “Honor Roll of Hits,” but as Top 40 radio started to really take hold all over the country, Tom came up with an idea of using the Top 40 charts, combined just with sales, to make a Top 100 chart. The Top 100 became an invaluable tool at a critical juncture when speed and timing became the essence for getting the news out with regard to hits.
Tom Noonan and Paul Ackerman were my first mentors, but of all the lucky breaks I got at Billboard, there was one freak encounter that changed my destiny like no other. I was sitting in a music review session one Wednesday evening when I first laid my eyes on this potbellied, buffalo-shouldered force of nature. His name was Syd Nathan, the owner of Cincinnati label King Records. He was about fifty-five, although he looked closer to seventy and was so borderline blind he had to wrap these Coke-bottle glasses around his head or risk bumping into every doorpost. I’d never seen glasses like his. Set in reinforced frames, the lenses were so heavy and bulbous, when he moved his head around, his eyes appeared to zoom in and out in different sizes.
When Syd Nathan spoke, which he liked to do, it was best to focus on his mouth, where this fur-balled wheeze, a result of chronic asthma, emitted the most fabulous show business spiel I’d ever heard. His lungs and vocal chords were so shot, he had to strain at his highest register to get the words out. Syd talked and talked this high-voltage chaos of knowledge, gags, and anecdotes, stuff coming in from all angles. For every writer in Billboard, and especially Paul Ackerman, the old man was an American legend. He’d sold tens of millions of records in hard times to mostly country and black customers. He was the prototype record man whose crazy genius left me spellbound.
He’d dropped into Billboard to present some new releases, which, if reviewed favorably, would probably sell him about seventy-five thousand copies among jukebox operators alone. But unlike all the other label toppers who’d always talk up their dreck, Syd just played his records and hung around for hours to chat, pick up news, and hear to what the competition had to offer. “Load of crap” seemed to be his catchphrase for all the cheap talk the music business has always produced in vast quantities—back then, as today and always.
In that session, the reviewers were sifting through stacks of new releases when one writer muttered, “Oh, let’s not bother with these Jubilee records. I hear they’re going out of business.” Syd sat up straight and peered out of his Coke bottles. “Is that how you talk about me when I’m not here?” He had a way of silencing rooms. “Just listen to the records,” he told the reviewers. “Jubilee’s problems aren’t yours. There might be something on one of those records you might need to know.”
“Jerry Blaine must be a good friend of yours!” joked a writer, referring to Jubilee’s boss.
“No. I’m suing the son of a bitch,” said Syd, flat as a pancake. We played the Jubilee releases, and sure enough, one song shone out—“White Silver Sands” by Don Rondo, which went on to become a hit.
When the session wrapped up, I got my chance to flap away like a seal. “Oh, my God, what an honor, Mr. Nathan. I’ve bought some of your records.”
“Oh, yeah? Which ones?”
“Hank Ballard and James Brown, sir.”
I obviously made an impression, because every time Syd dropped into Billboard, he’d always stop by Tom’s office to say hello. One day, however, he began quizzing me with the look of a concerned father. Maybe he’d asked Paul Ackerman or Tom Noonan what I was doing hanging around, but whatever pathetic, orphaned figure I cut through his Coke bottles, the old man must have recognized something of himself decades earlier.
I wouldn’t know his story until years later, but sometime around 1910, when Syd Nathan was only five, he’d been given his uncle’s drum kit, which he whacked all through his unhappy childhood. It was probably what kept him sane, because he was so handicapped by his eyesight, he couldn’t see the blackboard and failed every exam. His asthma was so chronic, he could barely run around the playground from the kids teasing him about his glasses. By the time he was fifteen, he could take no more. He followed his ears straight through the school gate and drummed his heart out in jazz clubs, weddings, and events around the Midwest. That’s when Syd’s life began.
His dream in the 1920s was to become a star drummer with his Forest Bradford Orchestra, but in those turbulent times when radio blew up and sent the phonograph industry crashing into a fifteen-year crisis, only the very best musicians could carve out a living. Poverty, recession, and disillusionment eventually pushed Syd onto the shadier side of life. He worked in a pawnshop. He got caught up in some political feud between Cincinnati clans. He bribed city workers to vote for some local kingpin in union elections, a “job experience” that almost put him in jail. Later, he ran a jewelry store that kept getting burgled, and he promoted wrestling matches and ran a shooting gallery that landed him in court for not paying prize winners. As a young man in the Great Depression, Syd Nathan had been what they call a colorful character, but once midlife hit, he returned to his passion. He began selling radios, phonographs, and secondhand records, until in 1943, he rolled all his life’s experiences into King Records, the pioneer label that produced many of the seminal country and R&B hybrids that led to rock and roll.
By the time he laid his goggle eyes on me, Syd Nathan had done it all. He was wise enough, rich enough, don’t-give-a-damn enough to spot a dropout who had no place in civilian society and point him to the nearest circus. “Kid,” he said one afternoon in 1959, “I love Billboard. Paul Ackerman is the most honest man in the music business. I can tell him anything and know it’ll be kept a secret. But look, do you want to be in the game, or do you want to be a spectator? Because that’s what Billboard is, a spectator. You’ll be reporting what other people are doing. You’ll be discovering records after someone else has signed them. And maybe you’ll be participating in helping them become hits. But don’t you want to do it yourself?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied in what was to be the only marriage pledge I ever stuck to.
“Well, come to work with me.” He smiled. “Come to Cincinnati.”
I didn’t know it then, but the single-biggest tragedy of the record-producing vocation is that the biological sons of label founders usually don’t have the ears or gut force to carry on Daddy’s adventure. The entire history of the record industry is littered with disaster sons who never should have been handed the keys to the castle. Syd was the oldest and the most successful of all the independent barons, but he didn’t have any heirs, not even a spoiled brat to waste his hopes on. His only child, Nat, was what he always described as “almost spastic”—probably autistic, not that doctors even knew such terms in those days.
I was also too young to suspect that my real father might be hostile to this unexpected twist in the plot. When I brought home the amazing news about Syd Nathan’s invitation to Cincinnati, Dad didn’t look so happy and insisted on calling into Billboard to ask Paul Ackerman questions.
“Syd Nathan has a branch office in New York,” Paul Ackerman told my father. “Why don’t you meet him yourself?” To my horror, father telephoned King Records but had to wait months for Syd’s next trip to New York. I was so embarrassed, I wouldn’t talk to either of my parents for weeks.
When the big day came, my father and I arrived at King’s New York branch on West Fifty-Fourth Street, where Syd was standing on the stoop. Syd must have seen my father tossing his cigar into the gutter or, considering his eyesight, only had to smell the cheapness. Syd pulled a fat Cuban from his pocket. “Here, have one of mine,” he told my father, whose face lit up like a candle.
“I know you’re a busy man just in from Cincinnati,” began Father. “I don’t want to take up much of your time. I have only two questions.”
“Mr. Steinbigle,” interrupted Syd. “I have only one question. Can I ask it first?”
“Yes, of course.”
“How much money do you have?”
I almost shriveled into the nearest manhole, seeing my poor father’s face turn beetroot. As if this whole meeting wasn’t humiliating enough, Syd knew I was a poor kid. “I don’t own a business,” choked Father, trying to get the words off his parched tongue. “I work in the garment center. I’ve worked there all my life, and I’ve worked my way up. Seymour and his sister never wanted for anything … always went to summer camp.”
“Mr. Steinbigle,” interrupted Syd again, “all I wanted to know is if you have enough money to buy Seymour a newspaper route.”
“A newspaper route?” My father was now totally confused. “But Seymour’s never done anything like that.”
“Listen, your son has shellac in his veins. All he wants to do is be is in the music business. I know him well enough by now to know that if he can’t be in the music business, it’s going to ruin his life. He’ll wind up doing nothing and will have to deliver newspapers. But I can get him into the music business.”
My dear father took a severe beating that day. Fortunately, he was a sensible, religious man who believed that his son’s welfare must always come before his own pride. While he was looking out the window lost in thought, I was glowing like a Christmas tree on that train back to Brooklyn. I’d just been given the ultimate compliment from an old master; the legendary Syd Nathan thought I had the signs of a record man. Back on Dahill Road that evening, my parents began packing my bags to leave home at the end of June. Urgent behavior considering it was still only April.
Copyright © 2018 by Seymour Stein