My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger. He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia. Still, Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).
Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way, for any readers emerging from broken relationships). For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here. For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of Tucker performing “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.
Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul. Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky. The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn. Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure. So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.
During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising. He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul. Kofsky, who had always dreamed of a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it. The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.
To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover. For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”
Why do I tell these stories? Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost. And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!