Passover on Vinyl

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

After finding out that the CD really wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread after all, its predecessor, the vinyl LP album, has made a stunning comeback. Record stores are beginning to re-appear, and you can now buy hundreds of different types of turntables. What needs to make a comeback now is the ability to sit patiently and listen to an album, an uncommon skill in today’s internet world.

It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when families would gather around the record player and listen together. In the Jewish music world, from the 1950s to the 1980s, thousands of albums of all different types were produced. With Passover around the corner, it is the perfect time to remember the stellar talents of Jewish musicians who produced great Passover albums. More than any other holiday, Passover and the Seder sparked some of the finest recordings and, like the Haggadah, there were lots of different styles to choose from.

In 1953, the great Cantor Samuel Malavsky and his six children put out the first Passover LP. On it was a rendition of the Four Questions in Yiddish. It was so popular that Tikva Records extracted it from the album and released it as a single. Two years later, the great Moishe Oysher (who made an appearance a couple of columns ago) released “The Moishe Oysher Seder,” which takes the listener through the entire Seder. The narration was done by Barry Gray, a fixture on the Mutual Radio Network for decades, who, with his coast-to-coast audience, was a champion of civil rights in that era. And of course, it contains Moishe’s unforgettable freilich (joyful) version of “Chad Gadyo,”which many modern Jewish artists still sing today!

The late 1950s saw Passover albums produced by two of the greatest Jewish opera stars of the 20th century. Both had deep roots in Jewish music. Jan Peerce, known as “Toscanini’s Favorite Tenor,” released a Seder album in 1958. His brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, who started his career as a chazan (cantor) before joining the Metropolitan Opera, followed a year later with his Passover album. The highlight of that album, to me, was his stellar rendition of the “Ribono Shel Olam” prayer, recited on a weekday Yom Tov when the Torah is removed from the ark. It captures the meaning of the prayer perfectly and shows Tucker’s immense vocal talent.

From Baltimore, Beth Tfiloh’s longtime Rabbi, Dr. Samuel Rosenblatt, son of the legendary cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, released a Seder album in 1960, featuring several generations of Rosenblatt musical talent. And a couple of years later, the great Yiddish tenor Sidor Belarsky released his Seder album, featuring not only the Seder melodies, but lots of songs about Passover in Yiddish as well.

In 1962, the legendary chazan Moshe Koussevitzky, who many consider to be one of greatest cantors of all time, released a double LP, called “Seder With Moshe Koussevitzky.” This was the granddaddy of all Seder recordings. It featured the Ben Friedman choir accompanying Cantor Koussevitzky. The album contains just about every part of the Seder, with lots of nice Yiddish songs to go with it. The album was part of series that Koussevitzky was recording for the long-defunct Famous Records of New York. Unfortunately, it was one of his last albums, for he passed away a few years later in 1966.

The Israeli branch of the Jewish music world had its contribution of Passover albums in the 1970s by the famous Israeli singer Yehoram Gaon, accompanied by Cilla Dagan and Shula Chen, all very popular artists, and another Passover album with many multiple artists.

The late 1970s saw the rise of the famous brothers Sol and Paul Zim. Both were (and are) gifted chazzanim and singers of all types of music. Like Oysher a generation before him, Sol Zim released a series of holiday albums, and Passover was included. Sol Zim’s “Joy of the Passover Seder” was released in 1979, and brother Paul followed the same year with his Passover album. Both are superb listening!

The 1980s saw the decline of LPs and the rise of cassette tapes, which could be played in cars and other portable venues. Jewish music, like all others, followed this trend and thousands of Jewish cassettes were issued in the next 25 years. As Passover approaches, it’s fun to look back and remember. Perhaps some of these albums will be re-issued for a new generation to enjoy. That would be great, because Passover on vinyl will always be an unforgettable slice of Jewish music history. I wish all of you a Happy Passover and a zissen Pesach (a sweet Pesach).

NEXT TIME: 50 Years Later, A Look Back (Part 1): The Gathering Storm

 By Larry Shor