Jan Peerce was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, and I was lucky enough to meet him twice — once by accident, and once on purpose. Those meetings remain wonderful and cherished memories to this day. To understand how special he was, let’s start at the beginning.
Jan Peerce was born Jacob Pincus Perelmuth in 1904 in New York. His parents were recently arrived immigrants from Russia. Both of Peerce’s siblings died, one from disease and one from an accident, leaving him as the only child.
Peerce took to music early on, and his mother encouraged him to study violin. But his real introduction to music was in the many shuls of the Lower East Side, first as a choir singer, and then as a boy cantor. As he grew older, he formed a band and played at bar mitzvahs and weddings. His voice matured into a powerful lyric tenor.
He began to attract attention from singing in concerts and on the radio, and became acquainted with the famed impresario Samuel Rothafel. Known by the nickname “Roxy,” Rothafel engaged Peerce to sing at his new theater: Radio City Music Hall. The NBC radio network broadcast many programs from there, including opera and concert broadcasts conducted by the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini heard Peerce sing and wanted him for his broadcasts. Peerce would sing with the famed maestro for many years, and was known as “Toscanini’s favorite tenor.”
Toscanini encouraged Peerce to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. Peerce recalled the day: “After singing everything in the book, several times over, Sol Hurok, the director of the Met came over to me and said, ‘Jan, its Friday. Go home, make kiddush, have soup and gefilte fish and have a good Shabbos. You’re a member of the Met.’”
Despite his great fame in the world of opera and other music, Peerce never lost his love for the Jewish music that was always a part of who he was. He made many Jewish recordings and sang Jewish material on many of the leading radio, and later television, programs. I will never forget how he sang the kiddush for Passover on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with the full choir and orchestra of the CBS network! We never missed it.
By the late 1960s, Jan Peerce was one of the greatest singers of all, known by the title of one his big hits, “The Bluebird of Happiness.” It was during that period that I met him for the first time, and it was surreal.
I was 14 years old, and it was erev Yom Kippur in the old Beth Sholom shul in Washington. The scene took your breath away. Twelve hundred people had come for Kol Nidre. The rabbi and cantor were robed in white, both wearing the high cantorial yarmulke, known in Yiddish as a spudik. The choir of 25 men and boys stretched across the huge raised bimah.
And then, as I looked down our row, I did a double take. I pulled my Dad’s arm: “Dad, look! It’s Jan Peerce!” Apparently, Peerce was appearing in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the old Shady Grove Music Fair in Gaithersburg, and had come to shul for Yom Tov. I got to meet him and shake his hand, and I was thrilled!
The second time came about 10 years later. Peerce was appearing in concert at Constitution Hall and Dad and I went. It was a fabulous concert and he sang all of the songs that had made him so famous. Then, he asked for requests. People asked for this and that, and each time the same man in the front kept asking for “My Yiddishe Mama.” The song is very poignant and features the regret of a son who could have treated his mother a little better when she was alive. This went on and on, until suddenly Peerce walked to edge of the stage. “My dear young man,” he said, “let me ask you something: How bad of a son were you?” It brought the house down! Later, after the show, we got to meet him, and he was very gracious.
A few years after that concert, Peerce suffered a stroke and had to stop singing. He passed away a couple of years later in 1984. He remains a beloved figure to all lovers of fine music, and for me, he was a very special man whom I had the good luck to meet twice. The memory of it always brings a smile to my face. May his memory always be for a blessing.
NEXT TIME: Fun Times at BBYO
By Larry Shor