by Daniel K. Davis
Most people do not immediately associate the holiday season with rock ‘n’ roll, but that did not stop dozens of rock history buffs from coming out to the San Francisco Library’s Merced Branch on Dec. 12 for a presentation titled “Blue Suede Jews: Jews in the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Author and Richmond District resident Richie Unterberger has been putting on special exhibitions of rock history at San Francisco and other Bay Area library branches for the past decade. When the San Francisco Public Library approached him about highlighting the contributions of various ethnic groups to rock ‘n’ roll, he jumped at the chance, putting together presentations of African Americans, Latinos and Jews.
As Hanukkah reached its midway point in December, Jews and gentiles alike were treated to rare performance clips of some of the most prominent Jewish rock performers from rock’s heyday through the ’60s and into the ’70s.
The presentation started with a live performance by someone who, as Unterberger wryly put it, “epitomizes the nice Jewish boy.” As the clip rolled a wiry, blonde Lou Reed – decidely not the stereotypical nice Jewish boy – vamped his way through his Velvet Underground tune “Rock and Roll.”
Unterberger chose the Reed clip to kick off the presentation not only for the fact that the song is about rock ‘n’ roll, but, as he said, “because it’s very entertaining!”
From there the presentation progressed chronologically, starting with Neil Sedaka, whom Unterberger called “the first Jewish performing rock star, as far as I can tell,” and Leslie Gore, through to the Ramones with the late Joey Ramone (born Jeffry Hyman) on lead vocals and T. Rex, featuring the late Mark Bolan (born Mark Feld) singing lead. In his day Bolan was a huge icon in the United Kingdom, outshining even David Bowie on the glam rock scene.
Unterberger has discovered scores of rare clips in his years researching his other presentations and his nearly one dozen books on rock history, including works on ’60s folk rock, the Beatles, the Who and the Velvet Underground. Many of his clips come from trading with other collectors.
Among the highlights, and Unterberger’s personal favorites, on display at the Merced Branch were a 1966 performance by Bob Dylan from the rare documentary “Eat the Document” and a Simon & Garfunkel clip from a Canadian TV show, also from 1966.
In between many of the clips Unterberger tested the audience’s rock history I.Q. with trivia questions. The knowledgeable crowd got many of them right, including some esoteric ones, but Unterberger was able to stump them on a couple of occasions.
More than mere diversions, the trivia questions helped tie the clips together by showing common threads running through the history of rock in the ’60s and ’70s, with many names recurring and many of the era’s most famous songwriters, Jewish and otherwise, working out of Manhattan’s Brill Building. Carole King and her husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were headquartered in the Brill Building, as were Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry who, as Unterberger taught the crowd, both wrote Manfred Mann’s hit “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and produced Neil Diamond’s early hits.
In Blue Suede Jews, Unterberger was not emphasizing the religious side of Jews in rock, given that they were not performing religious music. Rather, there were two messages he wanted the audience to come away with: “First, isn’t it amazing, considering Jews are maybe three percent of the American population, how many Jews have been important in the history of rock music; but also, on a more universal level, rock music is one of the most multi-ethnic of popular art forms. It very much reflects the melting pot of ethnic groups in the United States.”
In the end Unterberger lamented that he only had two hours in which to cover the history of Jews in the golden age of rock. He plans on doing a Blue Suede Jews Part 2 and including acts such as The Clash, Turtles and Doors. In the meantime, he has other presentations coming up soon on rare soul music clips, rare Rolling Stones clips, and more.
For more information on Unterberger’s ongoing presentations at San Francisco Public Library branches, visit the websites at http://www.richieunterberger.com and http://www.sfpl.org.
Categories: Richmond Review