Martin Davidson interviewed by Daniel Schley for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, April 2011
Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Martin 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: The first thing I wanted to ask you was about your influences and who were they?
MD: Let me give you a little context. I was a young boy from the north of England - born and bred there. I had some very limited contact with the manager of the Beatles who was a Jewish guy - Brian Epstein. I had to come visit a cousin of his and a friend of mine in Southport and in fact was part of a pop group that eventually played at The Cavern where the Beatles were the guest group. I’d written a couple of songs for EMI and was interested in music, but didn’t go further than that and then I went to Israel - to yeshiva. Went to yeshiva, came to Israel and - the big pop scene was the Beatles! (or the Stones) Usually there was a divide between those two. Everybody was an aspiring musician, and we all did it in England, trying to make the million dollar song or “the sound” that would be the next big thing. And just like the people today grow up with video games, we grew up with music and rehearsals and what have you. So I came to Israel and said wait a minute, I said, it’s like coming from home to home! We were in Israel, we’re Jewish, so we should be doing something different, something that has some cultural attachment to our roots, musically too.
I had some musicality in the family: my uncle was a hazzan and very musical, and my namesake who perished in the war was very much a musician and signer and entertainer which carried him 90% through the war years actually. But I said, “We got to do something of our own!” And so I jumped at this idea of “pop-Hasidic,” born from the song that goes “Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle, That’s the way the money goes, Pop! Goes the weasel!” So I said “pop goes Hasidic. Let me fuse pop and Hasidic music". The truth of the matter is that Hasidic music in itself was always taken from the influences of the day: Polish marching songs, or Russian drinking songs, Hungarian gypsy music. There wasn’t this holy eclectic spiritual stuff - it was the influence of the day. So I took a little license which was the first time this was done – the only person prior to me that was doing something in Hasidic/non-Hasidic was Shlomo Carlebach Alav ha-Shalom and of course his works were mentioned and what he did. I wanted to make it sophisticated. So I put together a group and I dressed up what was essentially Jewish traditional songs into a symphony of sounds, modern sounds: samba rhythms, jazz undertones, R&B. That was my experiment.
And so now when you say: who were the influences? A big influence in my English music, I think, was Tom Jones. I think Tom Jones affected me as a performer. Tom Jones could take any song - even if it belonged to somebody else - and own it. He walked along the stage and he owned that stage. From side to side. He drew you, he magnetized you. He had dynamics in the voice and in his reach. I think that was a huge influence for me because before me – and I don’t know about after me but certainly before me – one of these things when you get on the stage as a Jewish or Israeli singing performer is that you would jump off stage towards the audience, do ad-libs with kids on the spot, and stuff like that. And it was very English, because we were a lot more advanced – English people willing to take a chance a lot more, like Monty Python - it’s the humor type of thing. And secondly I felt that I could do that. I felt that what I was doing was what everyone else was doing. So I didn’t have to follow any codes. I was writing them.
So I got together a group of boys who were playing in a group and asked them if they would come and share this idea of “pop-Hasidic.” And they said to me “I’ll tell you what: we’ve got a pop competition in ten days. It’s a pop competition. You write a couple of songs in English and if we do well in the competition, then we’ll seriously consider it. So I said, “OK, you’re on.” And I wrote one song which I put to Hebrew words - very basic. I took 'In the year 2525', and we did one other song, a third song - and we won the competition, we won the cup. The group then was called the Cannonballs and I said: our name will now be Avnei haKotel: 'Stones of the Kotel'. Why the Kotel? That was exactly the unifying factor that I wanted -- and after ’67 it did just that. It drew everybody there. It created a response in everybody -- we united as a people. That’s what I wanted the fusion of this music to do. And especially to the young. Because for young people, there wasn’t much - unless you were listening to highly popularized Yiddish music or Hebrew music. Basically, most people listened to regular music and it’s not like what’s around today where you do have choices. So that’s really where I think I took Jewish music and after me of course came somebody who’s always been a good friend for many years, Mordechai Ben David. He used to tell me how he used to take a mirror and practice some of the dynamics of singing on stage. I for one think of the power of the performance. Because I always think that the performer has to imagine that he’s in the third row. What does he want to see? What would excite him? So people would say, “Wow that was a real show!” And high energy -- and the music too.
DS: Now, when you first started playing, you ran into some of the music people in Israel – and they did not take exactly to the music – both from the pop end and from the religious end, correct?
MD: That’s absolutely right. It’s a usual thing – so what? It took me 28 years. In Europe the immediate opposition were on both sides. A lot of the non-religious people were saying, “you can’t have people wearing a kippah on stage and doing secular and modern stuff and contributing to the hit parade – the army hit parade and the kol Israel hit parade – it had never been done you know, it’s impossible!” And the religious people were saying, “Yes, this music really should be confined to the table over Shabbat or Hagim.” And other religious people saying, “You can’t play this holy music on a stage outside with kids screaming and running around and this and that. It’s sacrilege!” So the silent majority were in the center. And they developed as did we.
DS: Now, among Orthodox groups, was there encouragement from some Rabbis?
MD: No, I think organized religion opposed it. I think most people felt the chords and the energy and the positiveness because of what we were. We weren’t promoting a political program. We were just singing. It’s good, fun, clean music. It’s for everybody. It speaks to people in different ways. In itself it’s so different as I said from Jazz to pop to rock and it was fluctuating and it was growing - it was the lyrics of course. I was looking at the first big hit we had, Eshet Hayil -- this was actually perceived by many of the secular public as a love song! And that’s what it is! Eshet Hayil Mi Yimtza? And it promoted women – so at least we had 50% of the audience on our side. And the truth of the matter is that the guys loved the song, and of the older generation: ask anyone 35 or older in Israel about the song Eshet Hayil and they will know it. Some of them still sing it. And it was a huge hit. That really helped us. If that first hit had been something like Ribono Shel Olam or what have you, perhaps it would not have attracted the immediate plurality of our audiences. So I think that was fortunate. And of course, one small interview led to one big interview led to one big article led to television, and in Israel there was one channel in those days and you were on television -- that was it. You didn’t look back. And everybody saw it as a new phenomenon. And actually, it catered to what was deeply inside many many Jews. And I think it was just an awakening too -- In a positive way. Something you know they could identify with. A lot of things in Israel are political. So everybody says: oh, which side am I on? Here you didn’t have to do that. You were just trying to have some good clean fun.
DS: Did you expect secular Israelis to take to your music as they did and did you initially intend for this music to be heard and sung by secular Israelis as well as Orthodox Israelis and Jews?
MD: That’s an excellent question. I think truthfully that there’s a bit of a dichotomy here. On the one hand, I’m one of the composers that always believe that when they write a song it’s going to be heard and hopefully enjoyed and passed around. But I write music for myself. On the other hand, when I have this program and I'm fusing the music, it’s for everybody to listen to and it should be going around and everybody should listen to it. I think that most people want to be successful and believe that there's a quiet moment, when you think: will it take the country by storm and revolutionize music? Maybe there are some messages that I may have had. But we do believe it when we set out. Because that’s our vision. That’s our mission and goal. We recognize it, as did everybody working in the cellars of Liverpool at the time they were writing songs. When they wrote it, they thought or believed that they could write a number one hit. You don’t have to do that but you could expect other people to. But the fact that it actually materialized was also a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one – to me too. I had to convince the group: come with me now, I know you’ve been doing other music. Take Israel by storm. You have to do that to get people interested.
DS: Were the musicians that you played with also yeshiva students and were they frum from birth? Or ba’alei teshuva?
MD: In the very original group, one of the guys was a friend of mine from yeshiva – from Kerem B’Yavneh -- and a third guy was a cousin of a friend of mine from England who was born in Israel and he was from a religious home. So we were three already. The drummer wasn’t religious at all and neither was the bass. The bass player was called “Jo-Jo". (Laughs) But as people substituted and changed, we turned into a group that was all religious but again, things sometime change. It wasn’t a prerequisite. It just had to be important how we behaved off the stage, because we were under a microscope at that time. We were the new thing. And so our behavior reflected our music.
DS: How did the recording process start with your music?
MD: The very first time we recorded, since we were becoming a phenomenon, it was requested by a Sephardic singer called Meir Levy. He had done several records and he asked us to a record - actually to arrange a record with him – of Ashkenazi songs. It would be a nice crossover and that actually was my first attempt at handling it. I didn’t have any practical formal training in music – I relied on my ears. And that’s basically how we did it. I taught the group by ear. Taught them – you know -- the songs some of which were known songs and some of which were new compositions. And having done that and tasted it and seen what it’s about, I was ready to record Eshet Hayil when that came around. Our first thing was an EP – Extended play – which was four songs: two sides each. And you required that for the hit parade because at that time I don’t think you could give them a tape. It’d have to be a disc of some form – the way of making a disc available then was actually doing the record. So that’s what led to that. And we were willing to perform part of the record so this style of music would catch on.
DS: Who were the producers of the music and can you tell me a little bit about what role – if any - record companies played?
MD: I think the record company is usually the last line. When you’re an overnight sensation, they’ll come to you to negotiate a deal. I spoke to a number of the top companies when we finally got a name for ourselves and you see it. Although their job is really trying to discover the next thing, the executives are actually more interested in playing safe than making a leap, because they don’t want to be wrong. I think you have to get a following, you have to get noticed, you have to get on T.V. for the record companies to take a look at you. Interestingly enough, my first producer was my brother. It was in England. He got the same thing as The Beatles: to produce the cover and that stuff. They said to us, “We can sell a thousand records without a record inside. It depends on the cover." You have to be very clever about your outlay. We’re talking about the late ‘60s. They did a beautiful cover. Reflections was the name of the album. Those were exciting times. There was no such thing as a cassette – it's hard to believe. We all stood on stage and recorded. If somebody made a mistake, you did it all again. Not like what would come later where everyone was on their own and if you did a correct take, you’re out -- you could go and light a cigarette or whatever and meanwhile the other person corrects their track. In those days, it was all for one and one for all.
DS: Did Orthodox Jews respond differently to your music? For example, Litvish versus Hasidic versus Modern Orthodox – did they all respond to the music in the same way?
MD: No, they responded in different ways. First of all, you have to try to get a grip of what this was. It’s just like guys taking Adon Olam and just doing Jailhouse Rock to it. They had to see that there was more substance to it. I was an unusual lad anyway. Born on the outskirts of Liverpool, English, a Romantic streak in me, frum from birth. Remember, the music in the 60s was quite eclectic and otherwise it all passed me by because I was comfortable with everybody. And but what most spoke to me was Hasidic, because my mother was from a Hasidic family and to me that was the warmth and the light of Judaism, as opposed to Litvish which is more the learned lifestyle (and it still is today, you know). To me, it’s the emotion, it's the spurring sorts of things. It’s that little drink of a dance that reaches people so quickly, not the intellectual or educational thing.
DS: Do you think there’s been an evolution in Orthodox music? And if so, what do you think caused those changes?
MD: Well, it really is a process of years. It builds and builds. One day, it suddenly takes off – and you realize you’re not pushing the train, the train’s pushing you. I think in the beginning, it was very exciting – very exciting times in music altogether, certainly being in Israel and then Europe and then America. You could see: experimentation in developing this music was moving on and on. And then it overtook me.. It turned into an industry. Instead of doing a record every three, five years, people are doing a record every one or two years, which is a lot. And people started to buy and became accustomed to doing so. That’s the evolution of it. And of course it’s further energized by live performances. In my day, there weren’t too many people getting on stage and performing. And it wasn’t just performing, it was singing their songs. I knew that from England’s stage and being such a devoted fan of Tom Jones. You don’t just stand on stage and sing, you’ve got to excite your audience. It’s a spiritual sensation too but it’s got to have a physical energy with it to take people to new heights.
DS: So what do you think is the impact of Hasidic pop on Orthodox Jewish life?
MD: Firstly I think it gave lots of kids and older people too a medium, a place. In other words, they didn’t have to enjoy music in the home or put on an old Yiddish record but then have to see a concert to get the other thing. They could get both in one place. Jewish music concerts sprung up everywhere. People had an opportunity after the show to pick up a record or souvenir from the show and we developed a musical appreciation, a Jewish music appreciation, and there wasn’t any compromise. I always got a kick out of the musicians I would use in the studio. After I finished with the group. I got studio musicians -- and in England I got top musicians. Such as Stevie Wonder. Why not? So truthfully, I think the standards were way up. I think that was very important because Jewish musicians are looked down upon. It's just like wine: Jewish wine used to be “Oh! the sweet and sticky stuff.”. But today, there are kosher wines that compete with the best. Having been in the wine industry, I know exactly what I’m saying. It's the same thing with Jewish music. Where you can actually play and hear Jewish music on a top level, there's no reason not to. The thing I’ve found with Jewish music is that’s a broad slope -- it wasn’t like jazz music or just pop music. It’s playing around with everything. That was all. So in a typical show, we would traverse a spectrum of different rhythms and sounds to present a “pop-Hasidic.”
DS: You had mentioned that in Orthodox music there was a process. Were there any pivotal events that caused this process?
MD: Yes. The first big one, I think, was the Israeli Hasidic Song Festival. Not only did it produce huge hits but a lot of songs like Oseh Shalom which touched a lot of people -- and of course the music from the tours that went with it and promoted it. It was also participatory because you had to vote on the song and the entire country did it and they really liked it. It had more character and essence to it than the Israel Song Festival on Yom Ha’atzmaut, which was when Yerushalayim Shel Zahav was performed for example. But these songs touched the soul and I think that was a huge event, an amiable event, it grew and grew in popularity and the audiences for this kind of music grew and grew. It wasn’t considered parochial to go to a Israeli Hasidic Song Festival – it was as good as anything else and indeed in our own performances too. Nobody could actually describe the audiences. We had a laugh, because it was so mixed. People came for different things and that was how the whole industry grew. So I think that was a pivotal event. I think another pivotal event was when television began to allocate certain programs during the week specifically to this kind of music – the Hasidic hit parade or whatever. In 1978 I was voted singer of the year in Israel by the audiences, and they told me that they had more votes for our competition in the Hasidic genre than they did for the regular genre, incredible if you think about it. So they were very responsive, very into it. Maybe this was because people were now able to 'identify' and go to a concert, and it opened up a tidal wave of great music, great performance. And then, of course, with the national competition going on it just grew and grew.
DS: You mentioned Shlomo Carlebach. Can you tell me a little bit about what you think of his music and his impact?
MD: The first time I met him was in Israel, and about two weeks before I got a letter from his lawyer saying that he was going to sue us because we sang Leman Achay on the record – the first record we put out - Reflections. And I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about! I’ve known this song for the last five years! I sang this when I first came to East Jerusalem in 1967. So what are you talking about?” Of course, he was a very special person. Soft, warm, sincere. No commercial aspects about him whatsoever. And he sat down and we took care of it. Anyway, that never became an issue. We were very close. We performed together in many different places. I always kept, I think, a distance because in the beginning he was considered a freak. Of course he wasn’t, but to the audience of that time, somebody singing with a guitar and dancing up and down and having a beard and peyot. And I wanted to project a sophisticated image of young Orthodox Jewish kids who could play music and especially handle the guitar. We worked three guitars: rhythm, lead, solo, and bass. And Sholomo Carlebach – that was moot. I got to write for the Jerusalem Post as the pop music correspondent and I once wrote about Shlomo Carlebach – “The man, the music and the mission.” And I think he was the fusion of those three. He had a wonderful idea to take music to the people and to everybody. There were no barriers. I think all of the songs were generally and legitimately the essence of Jewish music because he could play those three chords on a guitar. That’s all it was. The best songs are the simplest. Sometimes that would really upset me. I’d write a really complicated piece for this and that and the other - it would be good for musicians, who would love it. But you know, you’re playing for audiences, you better give them what they want. And I recognized that in him, not only the pioneering that he’d done and the traveling – the huge amount of travelling to preach a message. He laid all the groundwork for us to be able to tread on and travel further -- and for everybody else too, and as a performer. I can see how we have to perform in order to sell the music. It really came together, you know. To me he definitely created the infrastructure for modern Hasidic music and he himself, although he was German, had such a love of Hasidism and all that it was about. That was him.
DS: The last question I wanted to ask you was if you could tell me about who you think the important people are in the Orthodox music scene – outside of Hazanut.
MD: Take a look: For me, there was a temptation - on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – basically like I’m starting with what you don’t want to talk about (laughs). Just let me explain: Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur was for me a very good source of income also, because I loved to daven so I didn't need to hear anybody, so I automatically liked the hazzan. And when I came to this country one way of getting a green card was that I would be a full-time hazzan for a year or two. And apart from that, although I appeared with hazanim in different situations from time to time, essentially we were music. We were popular music and sort of such-and-such. I think the popular people after me were Mordechai Ben David and afterward Avraham Fried. Avraham Fried, I thought, also gave a lot of energy to his performances. I know - he always wanted to know “how do I get this? How do I develop this and that?” He was very interested in also making it popular and making performers exciting and then generating enthusiasm, not just putting over a song. Then you have the groups: The Piamentas with their style and a lot of Israeli performers, of course. I mean, Israeli performers who I had offered my music too –Yehoram Gaon, Yigal Bashan and even Shuli Natan, who sang Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. Although it’s not music that's entirely appropriate for Israel, they themselves were doing records of Songs of Shabbat some three, four years later. I think I’m less into the modern day people, because I hung up my boots after thirty years, but you do have - I think that groups like the Megama Duo (whose Moshe Yess passed away unfortunately very recently) were tremendous. There was A.D Rotenberg, who was a veteran of the force: he writes songs in English about Jewish themes, so beautifully written - the lyrics are absolutely fantastic and that’s a different dimension which he brought into mainstream. You have the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, which came after the Avnei haKotel but I think we were more European in our sound and they were more the Country sound. And different things and different colors of that rainbow developed. And then you have the choirs coming in, Miami, the Pirchei, then you have groups like Judaea which was people like Yerachmiel Begun who wrote for them doing great things. And everyone rushing into different areas, expanding the horizons through Jewish music in a great way and everybody I think has contributed. The only sad note I have is that I don’t it is continuing as much as it could. One thing we never did as the group Avnei haKotel was play weddings – because we said, if you’re going to play weddings then you’re going to do everyone else’s songs and you’re going to have to play it through by note pretty much and we were a performer group. We were a theatre group. We were a group you paid good money to hear -- original stuff and original sounds. And that kind of defied what was going on in a wedding or a bar mitzvah. But you know, there are different names and there are many that have contributed to this industry and have made it into what it is today. Today where it stands, I don’t think it’s enjoying the same success, but then again, I think a lot more recordings are being sold.
DS: Well, Hazzan Davidson, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
MD: Not at all, it was the greatest pleasure.
DS: We truly appreciate it. Thank you.
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