Dr. Anthony Davidson interviewed for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive by Daniel Schley, 2011
Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Anthony Davidson. The text follows the spoken audio faithfully, with few edits or contextual corrections of imperfect grammar, etc., so that the original intent and flow of the spoken interview is not compromised. We have embedded links in the text where it made sense. We have also included additional links of interest at the end of this page.
DS: Could you tell me about the interest of your brother, Martin Davidson, in music? What were his influences? Was that something that came from the family, for example?
AD: Yes. On both sides, my family were musically inclined. My uncle was a chazzan for many years, first in Czechoslovakia and then for many years after he moved (just before World War 2) to England. His name was Emanuel Feldinger, and if you Google it should probably should come up in an article that was reprinted in various publications posthumously. And my other uncle, my mother’s other brother, who perished in the Holocaust, was very musically inclined. He used to play the violin – in fact he stayed alive for a number of years because he would play the violin and sing for the Germans in the concentration camp. Unfortunately he got sick and was in a hospital and they burned down the hospital with everybody in it when they were fleeing. So, on my father’s side, my father’s father was the only actual grandparent I knew. He was always singing and always had tunes, etc. So the formal musical training really came from the influence of my uncle who was the chazzan.
DS: What was your family’s Jewish life like?
AD: Always Orthodox.
AD: A blend really, on my mother’s side, of two Hasidic dynasties – Belz and Munkatch. On my father’s side: my father was born in England but his father had immigrated to England with his wife (my grandmother) from Romania -- and they always maintained an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
DS: So what secular music, if any, was there either in the household or outside?
AD: Well you know, we grew up in a place called Southport, which is a stone’s throw away from Liverpool so there was a band – I forget the name of it right now – that comes out of Liverpool that you probably know of... I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Beatles. So yeah, and my brother can tell you more about that because he was quite into that early on.
DS: Who do you think your brother’s music was for?
AD: When he started off, the phrase that he used to describe it, which was in fact the title of his first album, was Pop Goes Hasidic -- and also if you look at some of the buyers of the earlier albums. We're probably talking about Reflections, a 33 rpm LP which I gave Dr Hartov to include on the DJSA. You know this was very much about taking the Hasidic flavor and contemporizing it, as it were.
DS: Yes, but was he intending for his listeners to be Hasidic Jews or was he intending to reach a secular Jewish audience? Or a non-Jewish audience?
AD: I think he was intending to reach as broad an audience as possible. It appealed – and I say this, having gone to his first concert back in the late 60s – it appealed to people who were Hasidically oriented Orthodox Jews. It appealed to a younger element. It appealed to people who were less religiously affiliated. He even had songs released in Israel, when he was living there, which had Orthodox Jewish lyrics and music but which actually at the time and for many years after (and maybe today, I don’t know) were the first religiously oriented songs to make it to the upper reaches of the secular hit parade. Not only did Israel have its own Jewish top 10 (or whatever it was called) but his songs – most notably Eshet Chayil – were in the secular Israeli hit parade. I could arrive at the airport and get into a taxi and say to the driver, “You know the song Eshet Chayil?” -- and he would say, “of course, I know this song.” It could be a completely unaffiliated Jew and I would say “Oh, my brother wrote that song” and you know what? -- I’d get dropped off first. Eshet Chayil was a passport. It was known in all walks of life in Israeli society.
DS: Did he run into any problems with religious authorities?
AD: Not that I know of. People were probably more tolerant – these were not foci of scrutiny as they are today and his music was very eclectic in terms of style and anything which borders on kind of rock-oriented to Mexican influence to a rumba to a waltz. You know, very different styles, very eclectic across-the-board, rather than simply taking one style and recreating it. So, I dare say that there were some songs that had less a feel in certain areas than others, but I don’t recall anything ever being controversial at all.
DS: In Orthodox and Hasidic music in general, do you think there has been an evolution?
AD: There’s definitely been an evolution, but I don’t think necessarily that all of it is positive. It’s changed in that it’s evolved. I think it’s much more like society in general, much more reductionist, and people are now getting boxed in or stereotyped or type-cast into a certain kind of music. And therefore, if you want to be successful commercially with a certain population, there are norms and styles that you have to conform to. And I’ll explain that: sometimes I’ve gone to, let’s say, a wedding and I’ve heard a lead singer of a band who I think has a wonderful voice but then they will adopt certain nuances and affectations which are clearly designed to categorize them or endear them to a certain market -- and I quite honestly think it often compromises not only the music but also the quality of their singing. That’s a very personal opinion. I also don’t think there are as many people writing music, composing as singer-writers as there used to be. In the old days, if you look at the record albums, most of the people doing the singing also did a lot of the writing. That started to change a little bit later on with Mordechai Ben David and they had other people writing music for them. Nowadays I don’t see too many singer-songwriters.
DS: And my last question is what do you think the impact is of your brother Martin Davidson 's music in the Orthodox world today?
AD: America is different from the rest of the world. There are lots of songs that, for instance, were sung very often in America at weddings and were re-recorded by different artists. People don’t necessarily know that it was my brother who wrote those songs and popularized them and they’re sometimes surprised to hear that. There is, though, a certain definite influence of my brother in some of the 'pop-Hasidic' kind of styles. But he’s probably made the most impact in his series of comedy lines that he did with the Rechnitzer Rejects which were re-released by Sameach Music about two or three years ago. That set a sound for a whole new foray now by lots of copycats into that area. It opened up the whole world of parody and so on. And my brother was very much a pioneer in the concept of pop-Hasidic. Lots of people have since capitalized on that. The commercial opportunities for people when he was starting off were very, very limited. It was very expensive, there weren’t the kinds of outlets, records were not really money making situations. It was more about whether you broke even or whatever - you got publicity out of them. There were a lot more concerts then than there are now -- these big concerts at Brooklyn College, Menorah Hall, etc. And there was a graduation – like they say in the publishing world: You have the quality of some of the books (and kids' books) being put out now and the artwork, which heretofore have been very amateurish. So Jewish music also evolved during that period of time and there were a few very influential people, such as Shlomo Carlebach and the Rabbis’ Sons, who brought a certain level of sophistication not only to the quality of the music but also to the presentation of the music: more complex arrangements, different use of instruments, and so on. So I would liken this evolution to going to an event and having a one-man band as against going to an event and having an orchestra. It’s just a greater degree of sophistication, complexity, etc.
DS: I’ve heard this “one-man band” terminology before in the description.
AD: And also in the compositions: the compositions musically are more sophisticated, more complex, and with a much wider range of influences. I think that paved the way even to people like Matisyahu nowadays. These were the pioneers of that time. You know one of the things my brother liked was doing the songs which were R&B, and doing more disco-esque, more rock, and having the different influences that were in the nature of who he is rather than taking one style and one song and regenerating that. And even the people who were doing that were still well ahead of the old Jewish music which was essentially that somebody had a song and they sang it at a Hasidic table and everybody learned it and that was it. So, now even in those nigunim, the level of sophistication is greater than it was previously. And that was due to the influences of the different types of music and the acceptability – you touched upon that. I was at a wedding about three years ago in Bnei Brak and during the first course they’re playing musically, just instrumentally, and they’re playing Titanic (Celine Dion) – and like whoa, this is a really, really right-wing wedding in Bnei Brak and I’m thinking: how many people – probably very few - knew where that song was originally from. Um, but clearly it’s on the wedding circuit along with a number of other secular songs which are kept in their entirety. Already 20 years ago, Men At Work's Down Under and things like that were being played at those events - even if people are attending these weddings who have no idea that that’s a secular top 10 hit. If you're a musician, the chord progressions and sounds and different combinations are going to influence you if you sit down and write a song.
DS: Very true. Dr. Davidson, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Additional Links of Interest