This and That
Issue: 6.07 this is column 202
July-08-05
Bei Mir Bist du Schon

They called themselves Johnny and George, and they played the Apollo Theatre and any other gigs they could get one hot summer in the 1930s. Somewhere along the way, they managed to get a booking at Grossinger's up in the Catskills. Not bad. Free meals, you make a few bucks and you're out of New York City for a little while, beating all that August heat that could blow down the sidewalks of 125th St. like a blast furnace. One day Jenny Grossinger showed them the music sheets for this Yiddish song called "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," and Johnny and George had a little fun with it, with never a clue that what they had here was going to become one of the biggest hits of their time - but not for them.

So summer's over now, and Johnny and George are back down at the Apollo, and they decide to open with this Grossinger's song. They sing it straight through in Yiddish, but they kick up the beat and they get it rocking. And then they get it rocking more. The crowd goes wild. Everybody's dancing. The Apollo has never heard anything like this. Two black guys singing a swing version of a Yiddish song? In Yiddish?

Watching all this from the balcony that night were two up-and-coming songwriters, Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, and they both knew a sensation
when they heard one. Who owned the rights to this song? they wondered. And what would they want for them?

Checking it out, Cahn and Chaplin learned that the lyrics had been written by one Jacob Jacobs, who, with his music-writing partner Sholom Secunda, had composed "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" for a Yiddish production called "I Would If I Could." They'd already tried to sell it to Eddie Cantor, with no luck. When Cahn offered $30, they were happy to accept. This was nothing unusual for them. They'd sold hundreds of songs for $30 apiece.

Cahn and Chaplin went straight to Tommy Dorsey with their new $30 song, urging the bandleader to play it at the Paramount. Dorsey wasn't interested. Well, it was in Yiddish, he explained. So Cahn and Chaplin translated the lyrics into English. And then they took the tune to this new group of girl singers. The Andrews Sisters, they called themselves.

It happened that the sisters were then recording a Gershwin song called "Nice Work if You Can Get It," and it was decided that "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" would work okay as the B side:

Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some
Until I first met you, I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me
... And so I've racked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me
Bei mir bist du schon, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schon means you're grand

The Andrews' record was released a few days after Christmas 1938. By New Year's Eve it was playing over and over again on every radio station in New York City. It started when "The Milkman's Matinee" on WNEW picked it up and played
it on the all-night show. Soon there were near riots at the record stores. Crowds would line up and the song would be played out into the street from loudspeakers. Traffic would back up for blocks. By the end of January, "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" had sold more than 350,000 copies.

"Bei Mir Bist du Schon" fever spread across the land. "It's wowing the country," reported one New Jersey paper. "They're singing it in Camden, Wilkes-Barre, Hamilton, Ohio, and Kenosha, Wis. The cowboys of the West are warbling the undulating melody and so are the hillbillies of the South, the lumberjacks of the Northwest, the fruit packers of California, the salmon canners of Alaska." And it was huge hit in Yorkville: "The Nazi bierstuben patrons yodel it religiously, under the impression that it's a Goebbels-approved German chanty."

I could say Bella Bella, even say Voonderbar
Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are.

Over in Germany, Hitler himself was a big fan. Finally, the Third Reich had a tune, it could hum to. At least until it was discovered that the song had been written by two Jews from Brooklyn.

Over the years, "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" made millions of dollars for a lot of singers and record companies. Finally, in 1961, after standing on the sidelines and watching the royalties ring up over the years for a song that they'd made 15 bucks each on, Secunda and Jacobs got the rights back.

As for Johnny and George, who started all the excitement one night at the Apollo up in Harlem, it goes unrecorded whatever became of them, or even what their last names were.

Originally published on November 5, 2004 by Patrick Fenton

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