Fifty Dollars for a Number-One Hit

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

How many times have you heard the expression, “If I would have known then what I know now”? How many fortunes have been won and lost because of the sequence or timing of events?  As we call it, bashert, meant to be. It happened to one of the great Yiddish songwriters, who, through an odd chain of circumstances, lost the biggest hit he ever wrote. Here’s the story. One of the great composers of the Yiddish theater was Sholom Secunda (1894-1974). A gifted and prolific composer, he composed hundreds of songs for the theater and pieces of liturgical music for cantor and choir.

In 1932, a show premiered called “Mir Kennen Leben, Ober Mir Luzt Nisht” (“I Could Live, But They Don’t Let Me”). The title was a “naughty” double entendre designed to amuse the audiences of the day. In the show was a song called “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (“According to Me, You Are Beautiful”). The show, which starred the great Aaron Lebedeff, ran with modest success, and closed after a decent run. The song was a big hit among the Yiddish-speaking audience who heard it. Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs thought it could be an American hit. After some attempts to sell it to various publishers and radio stars, such as Eddie Cantor, a Yiddish speaker himself, all met with failure, the song went on the shelf and was forgotten.

Five years later, in 1937, songwriter Sammy Cahn was taking in a show at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. On the bill were two African-American entertainers named Johnny and George. They sang the song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” in perfect Yiddish! Cahn loved the song and got his employer, Kammen Music, to buy the rights. To be able to sell a Yiddish song to an American publisher was a big deal, so when Secunda sold what to him was a worthless song, he let it go for what was then the going rate of 50 dollars. Cahn took the song to fellow composer Saul Chaplin and together they re-worked it into an American swing song; the only Yiddish to be retained was the title.

Now that they had their song, who was to record it? They went to their friend Jack Kapp, president of Decca Records. He suggested a new trio of sisters he had just signed to the label, who were looking for a song they could make into a hit. Their names were Patti, Laverne, and Maxine Andrews. Yes, the famous Andrews Sisters.

They recorded it in 1938 and it was an instantaneous hit. It rocketed to number one on the Lucky Strike cigarettes Hit Parade program, the “Top 40” of the day. The recording sold millions of copies and the song was covered by hundreds of artists in America and in many languages around the world. Sheet music orders poured in as well.

In the meantime, shut out of all the fame and fortune was the original composer. He received nothing more than his 50 dollars. Yet, despite this tough break of fortune, Secunda was content. He was not bitter and continued to write and compose. As the Yiddish theater declined in popularity, he wrote more liturgical compositions, some still in great use today. In the late 1940s, he became the musical director for the legendary cantor and Metropolitan Opera star Richard Tucker.

In 1961, the copyright for “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” reverted back to Secunda, and he did make some more money in royalties from the song. It is estimated that during the 28 years that Kammen Music held the rights to the song, it earned more than three million dollars in royalties (many times that amount in today’s dollars).

Secunda passed away in 1974, after a long and distinguished career. He will be remembered as one of the great Jewish composers and conductors of the 20th century, but he will also always be remembered for the one that got away — and for the fact that after all was said and done, he really didn’t care. Secunda was someone to whom you could apply the ancient compliment that he was sameach b’chelko, one who is satisfied with his portion in life.

An example for us all.

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By Larry Shor