In 1959, Johnny Mathis released “Kol Nidre” — the Aramaic prayer traditionally intoned at the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — as a 7-inch single. Yes, that Johnny Mathis, best known for his romance-inducing, back-seat drive-in make-out music, who recorded over 130 best-selling albums.
In 2010, right around Yom Kippur and Johnny Mathis’ 75th birthday, the single will be re-released as the cornerstone of “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” a 15-track compilation curated by the critically acclaimed Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation and featuring tracks by the likes of Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Jimmy Scott, Lena Horne and Nina Simone.
Mr. Mathis will take the stage at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to receive an award and retell the lost story of how he came to record his belting version of “Kol Nidre.” His appearance at the Skirball, where the Idelsohn Society exhibition “Jews on Vinyl” is currently on view, takes place August 19, as part of an evening long concert program, Jews on Vinyl Revue, featuring Hedva Amrani, Fred Katz and Sol Zim.
The story of the single is also the subject of a short documentary film at the centerpiece of an exhibit opening August 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Based on the Black Sabbath compilation, the massive show will feature iPad apps crafted by Idelsohn Society member Courtney Holt, President of MySpace Music.
The Idelsohn Society was started by four record-collecting dumpster divers who sought vinyl gold in the nooks and crannies of thrift shops and flea markets across the country. The disc that birthed the entire project came to them by mail in a battered box stuffed with musty albums and singles: a 7-inch version of “Kol Nidre” by Johnny Mathis, backed by the Percy Faith Orchestra. The Society simply had to know more.
They soon discovered that the single was a European release from his 1958 album Good Night, Sweet Lord, a long player that featured such devotional classics as “The Rosary” and not one, but two versions of “Ave Maria.” The Hebrew poem “Eli, Eli” and Yiddish favorite “Where Can I Go?” also sneak on, but it was Mathis’ “Kol Nidre” that blew the Society members away. Mathis’ rendition is simply majestic. By the end of the track, his signature sobbing sound, so seductive on hits such as “Chances Are” and “Gina,” reduces even the hardiest of listeners to tears.
What also captivated the Society, beyond the singular beauty of the song itself, were the questions the record posed about process. How and why, at the height of popularity, would an African-American legend take the time to master Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish, and record tracks in those languages on a major label release?
Obsessed, and not to be denied, the group reached out to Mr. Mathis in the course of creating Black Sabbath and he was generous to indulge their line of questioning. They went to his home in Los Angeles to film him telling the story behind the recording, a story that involved a Christmas album; Mathis’ mother; a Jewish bandleader, Percy Faith; a Jewish producer, Mitch Miller; and Mathis’ memories of growing up and sneaking into temples to hear the great cantors.
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