Various Artists

Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations

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The musical relationship between blacks and Jews has impacted popular music since the dawn of the recording era, with both groups often being influenced by, working with, and borrowing from one another. One compilation can't hope to capture all the shades and complexities of these interactions. But the ingeniously titled Black Sabbath: Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations does imaginatively compile 15 tracks by top African-American artists, focusing on performances of songs with a prominent Jewish flavor. While most of these were at one time easily available on releases by popular artists (though Billie Holiday's "My Yiddishe Momme" is taken from a private 1956 home recording), they're usually among the more obscure items in their repertoire. Certainly many listeners will be surprised, and perhaps even shocked, to find that Johnny Mathis covered "Kol Nidre"; that Cannonball Adderley did "Sabbath Prayer"; and that Lena Horne set the melody of "Hava Nagila" to English words for "Now!," to take just a few examples. The selections here lean toward jazz performers, with a few more R&B-oriented artists, as well, the music is somewhat uneven but generally strong, if not always too typical of the styles with which these stars were identified. Highlights include Jimmy Scott's show-stopping 1969 rendition of "Exodus"; Nina Simone's moody, infectious in-concert "Eretz Zavat Chalav"; the Temptations' unexpectedly funky take on excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof; and Slim Gaillard's characteristically grin-raising scat jazz on "Dunkin' Bagel." Aretha Franklin's "Swanee," done in 1966 before her rise to stardom, will not exactly stand out as a high point in her discography. But such oddities are part of the fun nonetheless, if only for discovering such unlikely connections between two ethnic groups who have contributed much to popular music. Those connections are enhanced by a 40-page booklet that supplies much detailed background of how these songs and recordings came into being, and make one hope that more such material can be unearthed and documented in future volumes.

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