The Arty Semite

Q&A: Yiddish Singer Elmore James

By Curt Schleier

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Courtesy of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts
Lisa Fishman and Elmore James in “Soul to Soul.”

When you Google Elmore James the first hits that pop up refer to a blues singer from the 1940s. That is not the same Elmore James who stars in the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene production of “Soul to Soul.” But Yiddish-singing James, 57, thinks the Southern bluesman would see similarities between what the two men do.

“Soul to Soul,” conceived and directed by Folksbiene artistic director Zalmen Mlotek, showcases Yiddish and African-American music sung by James as well as by Lisa Fishman and Tony Perry. Its next performance is April 4 at Queens College. Tickets are free, though reservations are required.

James grew up in Harlem and attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts. He talked to The Arty Semite about getting into show business, performing in “Soul to Soul,” and learning to sing in Yiddish.

Curt Schleier: How did you become aware of Jewish music?

Elmore James: I became aware of it by listening to Paul Robeson and all of the different languages he sang in. I became very interested in learning his repertoire. There were a couple of songs I really loved — “Vi Azoy Lebt Der Keyser“ and “Shlof Mayn Kind” — and I wanted to learn to sing them well. I didn’t know how, and one day I’m walking past this Judaica store and I figured someone there could help me with my Yiddish. The person said no, but he had a friend who could help me, and that friend was Theodore Bikel. I knew who he was, but he said, “No, you have to go to Zalmen Mlotek, he’s the best guy in the business.” I think Zalmen was really touched by the fact that I was so earnest in singing in Yiddish well, he asked me to sing in a concert.

Do you sing phonetically?

I know German, French, Italian and Swedish, and I sing in other languages. I don’t sing phonetically. I don’t sing and not know what I’m saying.

How did you get from Harlem, where you grew up, to theatrical and operatic stages around the world?

It was my black teachers in primary and secondary school, but it was also my Jewish teachers in high school who said, “With what you have, you can do something with this.” It wasn’t until I went there that I knew any white kids or Jewish kids. When I got to high school, all my friends were Jewish, and when I went to their homes or they slept at mine, there was an affinity, a certain kind of earthiness I couldn’t help but relate to.

It was Jews who did it for me and later in the theater. Now my best friends are Jewish [laughs]. All my friends are Jewish.

How did you get into the High School of Performing Arts?

To get into Performing Arts I had to do a monologue. They asked for two, modern and classical. I didn’t know what classical meant. I didn’t know what monologue meant. So I bought a book, “Monologues for Student Actors” and did something from there. The acting teacher, a Jewish woman, accepted me in the school on exactly no evidence I had talent. In my senior year, I wrote a show that became the inspiration for the movie “Fame.” The teacher read the play and said, “Who would have thought you had talent. I just took you in the school because you were a nice boy.” That was the nicest compliment anyone ever gave me.

Did you get credit for the show?

No, this is show business. But just ask anyone in my class. Anyone in the school.

What has the reaction to “Soul to Soul” been like?

Paul Robeson said the way you make people love you is when you sing their songs. So if I sing a Swedish folksong or a French song or an Italian song, I enter into their neighborhood. That’s my intention, anyway, and Jewish audiences appreciate what I do. At first I thought the show would just appeal to people who were around during World War II. But we did a performance at Symphony Space and there were a lot of young [African-American] kids there and they loved it.

I think music is the thing blacks and Jews have in common. What are the blues? Singing about your circumstance in a way that is still optimistic about life.

Watch a preview for ‘Soul to Soul’:


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