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Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Elmo.

For more than 20 years, puppeteer Kevin Clash has been the voice behind the lovable red monster on Sesame Street. Both Clash "and" Elmo talk with Terry Gross about performing with Jim Henson, and creating a fun, educational experience for preschool-aged children.


Other segments from the episode on December 15, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 2011: Interview with Kevin Clash; Interview with Josh Kun.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a rule, I don't interview puppets on FRESH AIR, but I was really happy when my guest Kevin Clash brought Elmo with him. Elmo is the little red monster Muppet from "Sesame Street" that young kids just love.

Although they don't care who the human is that's performing Elmo, as an adult it's fascinating to hear Clash's story of how he created Elmo's personality and made him into a beloved superstar.

Clash has performed Elmo on "Sesame Street" since 1984. The new documentary "Being Elmo" is about Kevin Clash and how he fulfilled his lifelong ambition of being a puppeteer, which wasn't considered the coolest fantasy by his classmates when he was growing up. While he was home sewing his own puppets, kids mocked him for playing with dolls. But he kept at it, and by the time he was in high school, he was a puppeteer on local TV kids' shows in Baltimore.

Let's start with "Elmo's Song," which later was adapted into the theme for "Elmo's World," a segment hosted by Elmo, which is a feature of "Sesame Street." The song starts with Elmo at the piano and Big Bird and Snuffy dropping by. Of course it's Kevin Clash singing as Elmo.


KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Everybody - Snuffy, Big Bird, come see what Elmo did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) What have you done, Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo wrote his own song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Really? What's it called?

CLASH: (As Elmo) "Elmo's Song."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Oh, clever title.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Yeah, wish I'd thought of that.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Do Snuffy and Big Bird want to hear it?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Sure.

CLASH: (As Elmo) OK.

(As Elmo) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) I like it.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) To think he wrote this alone.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la. He loves to sing, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. He wrote the music, he wrote the words. That's Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Wow, that's great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Yeah, I wish I had a song.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Yeah, well, Big Bird can sing Elmo's.


CLASH: (As Elmo) Well, just sing Big Bird instead of Elmo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Great idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Here I go.

(As Big Bird) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) It works.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

GROSS: Kevin Clash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would you describe Elmo, physically, and how do you describe his personality to anybody who doesn't - if there's anybody who doesn't know Elmo?


CLASH: Well, physically he's just a little - he's a little red monster. He's about three-and-a-half years old. He has a lot of energy, loves hugs and kisses and loves to laugh.

GROSS: So kids just, like, love Elmo. Are parents sometimes mystified by how much their kids love Elmo?


CLASH: Especially when they're - when they have a child, and the first thing that the child says is Elmo instead of mommy.

GROSS: Does that happen?

CLASH: Oh yeah, I get that a lot. It's like, do you know that my child's first word was Elmo? No, I get that a lot. But they're very surprised by it, but also they understand it, too. So it's nice. It really is nice to be a part of their life with their child.

GROSS: So you actually brought Elmo with you, and I should mention you're in a studio in New York, at the NPR bureau in New York, and I'm at our studio in Philadelphia. So we can't see each other.

CLASH: (As Elmo) No.


GROSS: And there's Elmo.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Hi, Miss Terry. How are you?

GROSS: I'm good, Elmo, how are you?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo's good. Elmo was just in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Yeah, but he didn't come visit us, did he?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo didn't know you then, but Elmo knows you now.


GROSS: Elmo, how come you always describe yourself as Elmo, and you don't say me or I, you say Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo just was born that way. That's just stuck with Elmo.

GROSS: OK, and do you feel bad because you can't hug me, and I can't hug you because you're in New York, and I'm in Philadelphia?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo will be there soon, and we can have a play date together.


CLASH: (As Elmo) Is that OK, Miss Terry?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's perfect. I do lots of play dates.


GROSS: So now let me get back to Kevin Clash here.

CLASH: (As Elmo) If you must.

GROSS: Excuse us, Elmo. So do you feel somewhat transformed, like, once he's on your arm?

CLASH: Yes, yeah. You know, it's interesting. When you're a performer, you really don't think about - once you go into the character, you don't think about yourself. It's pretty interesting because you're watching a TV that's showing you what the camera is shooting, and sometimes you forget that you're performing at the same time, and you tend to laugh at what you're doing, but you're actually performing it.

It's a little strange, but it's something that happens because you are creating something, and you're thinking about that character.

GROSS: This is interesting, so you have to be physically hidden. We have to see Elmo, but you're hidden because the kids aren't supposed to see that there's, you know, a Muppeteer. So is there a little video monitor hidden with you so you can actually see what's going on?

CLASH: Yeah, we actually have, you know, a monitor that's down, that shows us exactly what the cameras are shooting.

GROSS: What are some of the things you have to do to remain invisible?

CLASH: Well, I think what's interesting is we've found over the years of performing, especially on "Sesame Street," we have a lot of children that will visit. A lot of parents - you know, people who know people on the show and everything. And what we've found is that they really don't care about us, about the puppeteers.

You know, they've watched these characters on the show, you know, on TV for so long like close friends. So it's interesting when - and you saw it in the doc, they really don't look at me when they see Elmo. They run to Elmo because it's a friend of theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years that we've found that they really don't - the delusion is not broken by seeing us puppeteering the character in front of them.

GROSS: So how much do you like that, meeting all these kids who are totally star-struck by Elmo?

CLASH: It's the sweetest thing. You know, I get humbled by it all the time, the things that they tell Elmo, the things that they - I mean, the expression on their face when they see their friend, it's really...

GROSS: Do they tell Elmo secrets? Have you heard a lot of child secrets?

CLASH: They normally - a lot of things that they tell Elmo is, you know, when they got new shoes or a new dress or stuff like that, or they go to school, or they got a new pet, or they got a new sister or brother. It's more those things. It's really, really sweet.

The time that it really, really changed, and it really scared me, is when 9/11, when that happened. A lot of children were relocated from schools down in that area, and so they asked "Sesame Street" if some of the puppeteers, some of the characters and the cast could go and meet and greet these children.

And I remember I used to, you know, go and do, you know, appearances like that, and they would be coming up and giving Elmo a drawing of Elmo. And it was very scary to see these children bringing up drawings with the tower and a plane hitting one of the towers. It was - and, you know, it's very hard for me because I don't know what to say to them. You know, I'm there to really entertain them and take them away from that.

GROSS: So what did you do?

CLASH: Well, I just said, well, you know, yeah, that was really scary, but Elmo's here for you, and give Elmo a hug, and let's sing. You know, I tried to pull them away from it as much as possible because, you know, again, you know, again, you know, mommy and daddy, they're there to explain a little bit more, you know, but we're there to really entertain and try and take them away from it.

GROSS: And when you say let's sing, do the kids know the songs? Do they know "Elmo's World"?

CLASH: Oh, it's very - yeah. I mean, I can go around the world, and I could sing that, and children will sing it. That's how popular the song is.

GROSS: They're probably singing it in different languages, languages that you don't know.

CLASH: Right, but I know the melody. So it's really sweet.

GROSS: So is Elmo dubbed in other countries?

CLASH: Oh yeah.

GROSS: That must be weird, though, because it's like it's your puppet, it's your thing, and you're hearing somebody else's voice doing Elmo, and the voice is such a big part of it.

CLASH: It's wonderful. It is amazing. It's pretty funny, too, I mean, when you hear Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" in German or, you know, in South African. You know, it's really - it's wonderful, actually. I actually got to meet the voiceover person that does it in Amsterdam, in Holland, and he's 60 years old and beautiful voice, I mean wonderful Elmo voice. It's really cool.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Clash, and he performs the Muppet character Elmo, and there's a new documentary about him called "Being Elmo." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. Is that OK with you, Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Yes. Excuse - Elmo was drinking some milk, sorry.


CLASH: (As Elmo) You caught Elmo just when he put the cup up to his lips, sorry.

GROSS: That's OK. All right, so we'll take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Clash, and he performs the character of Elmo for the Muppets, and he has been fascinated with puppetry since he was 10. There's a new documentary about him and about his lifelong passion for puppets, you know, for making puppets and performing them, and the documentary is called "Being Elmo."

So you've created a lot of puppets over the years, but Elmo was basically a discard. When you came to the Muppet studios, several puppeteers had tried to do something with Elmo, and nothing ever really came of it.

CLASH: Yeah, actually I got Elmo by default.

GROSS: Tell the story of how you got Elmo.

CLASH: Well, Brian Muehl, who's a wonderful, phenomenal puppeteer, he started performing Elmo. He actually originated Telly Monster and Barkley on "Sesame Street." He started performing the character first, and he decided to pursue his acting and writing. So he left the show.

And so the character had to go to someone. So Richard Hunt was the next in line, and Norman Stiles, who was their head writer at the time, really did not like what Richard came up with. He just had the character yelling, and it wasn't - it didn't really sound like a kid. And so Richard really didn't, you know, need the character. So he threw the little red monster to me, and he told me to come up with a voice, and I came up with the voice.

GROSS: So how did you figure out what the personality was going to be?

CLASH: Well, the character was already developed when I actually got the puppet. So I knew that it was a three-and-a-half-year-old, and it loved playing games, and through the games, he would learn things. He always talked in third person. So all of those things I knew.

So really I came in, and I really thought about OK, he's a three-and-a-half-year-old little child, and he has a lot of energy. So I thought OK, this falsetto voice would work for him.

GROSS: And the whole idea that, like, Elmo really loves to be, like, kissed and hugged, and how did that come up?

CLASH: I think all of us tend to try to get some type of catchphrase or something that the puppet does that gets you into the character. Like Jim Henson with hi-ho, Kermit the frog here or say Fozzie saying wokka wokka or Miss Piggy saying moi. The laugh for Elmo was the hook for me to get to where Elmo needed to be.

And so that's really how that happened. It was interesting, Lisa Simon(ph), again the producer at the time, she took me out to lunch, and she said, you know, I really think the laugh is really too much. And I was like OK, I don't know what to do with that because I was so used to it. And again, like I said, it was that little - the connection I had to performing the character.

And then, of course, the big hooplah about the Tickle-me Elmo doll and everything, and so we left it to where Elmo laughs a lot and loves to laugh.

GROSS: How do you get Elmo's facial expressions?

CLASH: You know, I love the simplicity of characters, of the "Sesame Street" characters. I love that it's just, you know, an orange nose and two eyes and no tongue, just a black mouth. And you just find that by just the tilt of the head or, you know, looking up, it says something. There's an emotion there.

One thing that I found that wasn't really built into Elmo is there's a little bar underneath the fur that keeps the eyes on, and I found that by moving that around, I could expressions with Elmo's face. But it wasn't meant - it wasn't meant for that, but it works.

GROSS: So was it great for you to get, like, your own show within "Sesame Street," "Elmo's World," in 1998?

CLASH: It was a lot of fun, and it's been a lot of fun. I mean, it's - you know, the writers came together and talked about what concept would work because at the time, the show was skewing much younger. There were a lot more younger kids watching the show. And they thought that Elmo would be the right one to speak to those - that age group.

So they came up with "Elmo's World," and it was a wonderful show. I mean, it was chock full of so many different really cool things that - and especially that theme song. Man, I heard, you know, so many parents say to me just as soon as my child hears that, you know, "Elmo's World" theme song, they're running to the TV.

GROSS: How old were you when "Sesame Street" started?

CLASH: I was about - it started in '69. So I was nine years old.

GROSS: And what about the first puppet you ever made?

CLASH: Actually it was Mickey Mouse. It was made out of felt, and then from there I did Hansel and Gretel puppets and then started building my own from there. There was a little puppet called Arte that had silver hair. And I grew up watching and listening to, you know, listening to Motown and watching commercials.

So I was influenced by that. So the live shows that I was doing, I really used all of that, like with - Helen Reddy had "You and Me Against the World," I had a mom skunk and a little baby skunk, and they sang "You and Me Against the World," the mom sang it.

I did, you know, Debby Boone had "You Light up my Life," I made two lightning bugs. With commercials, I had a mummy climb up on the puppet stage and start to sing "I Am Stuck on Band-Aids Because Band-Aids stuck on me."


CLASH: So, you know, I watched - and, you know, all my puppets knew how to do The Bump and The Robot, all the dances that were out at the time. So I really was influenced by TV and music, and I incorporated them into my live shows.

GROSS: So there's this great story in the movie about how you made one of your puppets from - I think it was like the fur lining of your father's coat.

CLASH: Oh yeah, yeah.

GROSS: That must have gone over big in the house. Yeah, go ahead.

CLASH: Well, you know, I just got this energy of just, you know, I wanted to make a monkey puppet. And so I saw the lining of my father's coat, and I took it out, and I cut it up, and I made a monkey out of it and realized what I had done afterwards. And I actually hid - after I built the puppet.

My dad came home, and he saw the puppet. I put it on his - my mom and dad's dresser, and he saw it and asked my mom about it, and he called me, and he said what's his name? And I said his name is Moandy(ph), and he said: Next time, ask. And so, you know, yeah.

I mean, they were always very, very supportive of the things I did. I mean, they were very - I mean, they disciplined all of us. I mean - but they were very creative people themselves. So they knew where that was coming from.

GROSS: In what ways were they creative?

CLASH: Well, my mom, she sewed a lot, and she taught me how to sew on the Singer sewing machine, and she sewed clothes, her dresses, and also what she would do is she would take some of the material that was leftover, and she would cover some of her shoes with that same material. So she was very creative in her own way.

My father drew a lot. We had pastel colors and paints and stuff that he would - he loved drawing and stuff, so...

GROSS: So that's how you learned to sew, from your mother?

CLASH: Oh yeah, well, I had gotten - there was a show called "Romper Room" that originated in Baltimore at the local station that I was working at. And it was - "Romper Room," and Miss Nancy was the lady that was the host of it in Baltimore. The producers of the show asked me could I make a doctor puppet for not only the Baltimore local "Romper Room" but all of the different television stations that had their own "Romper Room" in different cities because they wanted to talk about health.

And so I designed the puppet, and the character's name was called Doc. And I had to build 35 of them. And they only paid me like $10 apiece for them.

GROSS: Oh no.

CLASH: But my mom said listen, I can't sew all these for you. I have to teach you how to sew. So that's when she taught me how to sew. And I sewed all of them myself and built them all myself.

GROSS: How old were you?

CLASH: I had to be still in high school.

GROSS: Wow, they really ripped you off.


CLASH: Yeah, but you know what? The experience was wonderful. You know, I can't - I was very lucky to get so much experience because that helped me - Jim Henson was very surprised at the amount of experience and things that I knew once I met him and, you know, and showed him what I could do.

GROSS: So what was most interesting to you when you first got to look at the Muppets up close and examine how they were made?

CLASH: Just the artistry, the brilliance of how they made them. I mean, I was - please, I was - it was Elmer's glue and, you know, whatever, and staples with me. I mean, I didn't know - you know, I was just going by what I could see.

And when I actually saw, you know, an actual "Sesame Street" Muppet, the fur was so I mean thick and rich and the different threads that they were using. And, you know, touching the eyes and how - you know, I could just find plastic spoons and stuff. You know, their eyes were really hard, and the plastic was really hard, and so that meant it could last.

And so it was really amazing to me how they made the mouths, how they, you know, how they sewed the mouths together. It blew me away. It was so different. You know, you can get with so much looking at it on TV, but up close and being able to really examine it, it was a dream come true for me.

GROSS: Kevin Clash and Elmo will be back in the second half of the show. The new documentary about Clash is called "Being Elmo." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kevin Clash, who has performed the Muppet Elmo since 1984. He turned the little red monster into one of Sesame Street's most beloved Muppets. The new documentary "Being Elmo" is about Clash and how he fulfilled his lifelong ambition of being a puppeteer.

CLASH: By the time he was in high school he was a puppeteer on local kids TV shows in Boston. From there he worked on the long-running CBS kids show "Captain Kangaroo."

GROSS: So after doing local TV shows and "Captain Kangaroo," how did you get to be a Muppeteer?

CLASH: Well, saw a show on PBS called "Call It Macaroni," where I saw Kermit Love, who helped create Big Bird and Snuffy, the Snuffleupagus, for the show. And I asked my mom, could she find a way of getting in touch with him. Well, she called the PBS station, the local PBS station, and got his number and she called and left a message and he called back and said whenever I was up in New York, come and visit him.

Well, I - that was around 12th grade and we were going up for a trip, so I went and talked to him and he said, listen, this year we're already cast for "Sesame," but there are some other projects that I have that I'd love for you to be involved in. So I started working with Kermit and then lo and behold, he asked me to do the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and - because they needed more puppeteers because the classic Muppets, Jim and all of the Muppeteers, were going to be on this other float that was promoting the first Muppet movie. And so that's where I got to meet Jim for the first time, was at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

GROSS: So when did you realize that Elmo was not only catching on, it was becoming a sensation?

CLASH: I think the research department went out, they normally go out and they watch the show with kids and see how they react to certain characters, and Elmo just I mean hit the charts as far as them really connecting to the little red monster. And also not only laughing with him and enjoying him, but also learning what they're supposed to be learning from, you know, the specific curriculum that was in the scripts with him. And so that's when I knew. Then, of course, the next step after that is I started performing him a lot more, which meant that there was a lot more scripts being written for him, so that meant that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing for the show.

GROSS: One of the big outcomes of the popularity of Elmo was the Tickle Me Elmo doll. And the year that they came out, like for Christmas you couldn't get one. It became this incredibly hot commodity because it was just selling out everywhere. And you describe in the documentary about you being Elmo that when you first saw one in a store and realized it was called...

CLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Tickle Me Elmo, you but that doesn't make sense, the title doesn't make sense.

CLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: Explain why.

CLASH: Well, it should – me – Elmo never says - it should be Tickle Elmo, but it was called Tickle Me Elmo. But, you know...

GROSS: And you weren't in on the decision? They didn't ask you?

CLASH: No. No. Not at that time. I mean I wasn't involved like that. I was really just a puppeteer at that time. That was in '96.

GROSS: So you really didn't see this until you're in the store.

CLASH: Yeah. I was out with my daughter, actually, in like a Baby Depot or something like that and I saw the toy and I picked it up. I said, oh, that's what that is for. Okay. And I bought it. Took it home and...

GROSS: You bought it. That's great.

CLASH: Yeah.


CLASH: Yeah, I did buy it. And like maybe two weeks later I got a call saying that at the end of that week Toys "R" Us was saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy at Toys "R" Us. And then analysts were saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy for that Christmas. And, you know, you've got to understand, I'm a puppeteer. I don't know anything about merchandising or products or anything. And so I just was happy that it was something positive.


CLASH: That's all I really knew. But it was fascinating, the big hoopla about this toy. It was unbelievable.

GROSS: I'm sorry, I just lost my train of thought for a second.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's okay.


GROSS: Thank you, Elmo. You're so reassuring.


GROSS: That's very generous of you to step in and rescue me they are. So because you've had to crouch so much over the years, like hiding your physical self, Kevin Clash, so that Elmo would be seen while you'd remain invisible, are there parts of your body that hurt a lot?


CLASH: Oh, yeah. I'm 51 now so - but, you know, I know that physically working out is something that's really, really important. So, you know, sometimes I go away from it for months at a time and then I come back to it because I know that that's the only way I can physically perform these characters. You know, we sit on - roll around like ottomans that very low to the ground with wheels underneath that we roll around the set on, and that's how we get around on the set, you know...

GROSS: Sitting or lying down?

CLASH: Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. So oof, you know, so we, yeah, we do have to do like, you know, sit-ups and crunches and push-ups and things that, you know, that we - to keep our bodies in physical shape.

GROSS: So you're one of the producers of "Sesame Street" now. What's your title?

CLASH: Well, I'm, you know, co-executive producer of "Elmo's World." And now we're actually, you know, "Elmo's World" is going off and we're actually doing a new format so I'll be co-executive producer of that. Yeah, but also I direct the shows and stuff like that, so it's a lot of fun.

GROSS: Let me just get this image. So you are on an ottoman, hidden beneath the camera, performing Elmo while directing?

CLASH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I block it out. I mean I have an assistant director to really - once I get out there and I start performing the character, he has to call the shots. You know, I mark all the - I mark the script up as far as what shots I need and everything. And then the assistant director will call those shots out, because I'm down on the floor performing Elmo at the time.

GROSS: So do you say things like, you know, Cookie Monster, I need more of a smile or...

CLASH: Oh sure. Yeah. Definitely. I mean if I'm performing Elmo and another character says something that's oh, you know, that didn't work. Let's start over again...


CLASH: the same time. But, you know, Jim was that way too. I mean Jim was directing and performing at the same time, you know, so I'm just, you know, walking in his footsteps.

GROSS: So before we say goodbye I want to say, like I feel like I should talk more to Elmo, but I have no idea what to say to him.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's okay.


CLASH: (as Elmo) It's okay. It's okay.

GROSS: Elmo, you don't feel left out of the conversation?

CLASH: (as Elmo) No, no. Elmo has been talking for years.

GROSS: Okay.

CLASH: Years.


CLASH: (as Elmo) Elmo wants to give Mr. Kevin is 15 minutes of fame.

GROSS: Kevin Clash, it's been great to talk with you.

CLASH: Nice talking to you too, Terry.

GROSS: And thank you, Elmo.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Thank you for having Elmo.

GROSS: The new documentary about Kevin Clash is called "Being Elmo."


Whether it was klezmer music, novelty recordings, cantorial music, if it appeal to Jewish Americans in the 1950s and '60s, Tikva Records would release it if the price was right. Tikva was a low-budget label that got performers on their way up or their way down or their way to nowhere.

A new anthology of Tikva Records has been produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a group founded with the mission of collecting lost Jewish recordings and re-releasing or archiving them.

The founders have been through more than their share of thrift shops and flea markets. My guest is one of the founders of the group, Josh Kun. He's a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Popular Music Project at the Norman Lear Center.

The new Tikva anthology he co-produced is called "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set." Here's the opening track, "Mazel," which is Yiddish for luck. It's sung by Leo Fuld.


LEO FULD: (Singing) Mazel, mazel, mazel, mazel. (Unintelligible). Just a little Mazel. That's the only thing you need. You got to have a little mazel. Mazel means good luck, 'cause with a little mazel you always make a buck. And if you have no mazel, although you're on the boat, try and try saying goodbye, beat your head against the wall. Don't ever try to figure why you seem to be to blame that some folks have a million and can't even write their name. That's why you have to have a little mazel. Mazel means good luck, 'cause with a little mazel you always make a buck. A man must have a...

GROSS: That Leo Fuld singing "Mazel" from the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story."

Josh Kun, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOSH KUN: Thank you.

GROSS: So tell us about Leo Fuld, who we just heard.

KUN: Leo Fuld is considered to be one of the kind of greatest Yiddish superstars of the World War II era, and especially in the postwar years. And he was someone who though best known for his Yiddish and English songs, most believe he sang somewhere around 15, in 15 different languages, kind of the ultimate polyglot pop star of that era. And this is him doing a really kind of swinging and jazzy English and Yiddish and Hebrew tune that he mixes up all these different languages in the, you know, in the songs that he would sing.

GROSS: Now, one of the things I find amazing about the record that we just heard is that the R&B vocal group The Ravens recorded that song first and...

KUN: They did. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know when they recorded it and why they recorded it?

KUN: I believe they recorded around 1947. I believe it was the first recording of "Mazel," actually. And so the first recording of "Mazel," which was written by Artie Lane and Max Beekman, this was a song that was, you know, with very much explicitly Jewish content, was recorded by one of the leading African-American R&B groups, you know, of the post-World War II years.

As to why they recorded it, there is one story that's been floating around for a while that basically the songwriters came into the recording session and kind of pushed the song on the group. But I also think it speaks to the extent to which there were so many Jewish songwriters writing for black artists and so many Jewish managers managing them that there was a kind of common ground, where in-jokes in Yiddish, in-jokes about blacks and Jews, about Jews in America, were something that had become fairly common among so many blacks and Jews working in the pop music industry at that time.

GROSS: Okay, so here's The Ravens' recording of "Mazel."


THE RAVENS: (Singing) Well, you got to have a little mazel and you never will get stuck, 'cause with a little mazel you'll always have good luck. Well, you've got to have a little mazel 'cause mazel means good luck and with a little mazel, you'll never, never, never get stuck. Yes, you've got to have a little mazel 'cause mazel is good luck. And with a little mazel, you'll always have a buck. Don't ever try to...

GROSS: It's such an interesting comparison between the two. And really, it's Leo Fuld who does it more as a novelty song and The Ravens sing a pretty straight.

KUN: Yeah, that's not uncommon, actually. You know, we found over the years in following the amount of black artists who would sing Jewish tunes, that so often it was the African-American artists who would do the songs more straight and it was the American Jewish artist who would kind of add a little bit of humor to them. So again, that back-and-forth is something that's been going on for a long, long time.

GROSS: So let's get to the Tikva Records story...

KUN: Yes.

GROSS: ...and the first recording reheard, the Leo Fuld recording, was on Tikva Records. It's included on the new anthology you put together.

KUN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set." Now, you described the Tikva label Rasta as a Who's Who of who's that.

And the DJ, Art Raymond, who played a lot of Yiddish music on his show, and I think helped you find some Tikva recordings...

KUN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...he described the label's output as junkie music.


GROSS: So why would you want to put together an anthology of this label?

KUN: One man's junkie music is another generation's joy. This so I think that this label, which was the most prolific record label that catered to an American-Jewish audience in the post-World War II years, that operated from the late '40s through the 1970s, it gives us this kind of window into understanding what Jews were buying, what Jewish identity could sound like in all of its mixture and diversity, and it was this crucial time in American Jewish life, you know, in these post-World War II years, where you had record numbers of Jews moving up the economic ladder, suburbanization was on the rise, corner shuls were becoming big synagogues out in the suburbs, and Jews were caught in that push and pull between mainstream American white identity and the kind of old world identities of the pre-World War II years, balancing English and Yiddish and Hebrew. Hassidic populations were on the rise in the United States after World War II. And so there was all these different identities and what we loved is that you looked at Tikva Records and Allen B. Jacobs just said, well, I'm not going to try to choose one of these; I'm going to try to market and cater to all them.

So the entire catalog is this grab bag of identities and styles that speaks to all of these different changing political affiliations. Of course, you know, the rise, you know, the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. So there's a lot of new material on the roster that speaks to the kind of growing power of Israel in the American imagination. So it's all there.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned the birth of the state of Israel kind of coinciding with the birth of Tikva Records and that leads to the next recording I want to play. And this is by Avram Grobard who was Israeli. So tell us a little bit about who he was and about this recording that you featured on the new anthology.

KUN: So Avram began, I guess, as an Israeli paratrooper who ends up coming to the United States as an accordionist and as a singer but also as a nightclub owner. He owned a fairly successful nightclub in Manhattan called El Avram and it was called that, not because he's Latino in any way but because it used to be a flamenco bar owned by a Puerto Rican.

And Avram couldn't afford to completely redo the marquis so he left "El" up there and he stuck his first name on the marquis and it became, you know, a Jewish and Israeli nightclub. He called the music Mediterranean bouillabaisse of sound.

GROSS: The nightclub used to be called El Chico and he changed to El Avram. Yeah.

KUN: Exactly right. Exactly right. And he now – he still is with us, so much so that he has recreated the nightclub in the basement of his home in New Jersey. So if you go to Avram's house and knock on the door he will take you downstairs. And he has meticulously recreated the nightclub in his basement.

GROSS: So this is Avram Grobard recorded in 1968 and it's included on the anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story."


AVRAM GROBARD: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: So that's Avram Grobard from the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Kun and he's one of the four members of the Idelsohn Society which is dedicated to finding well known and obscure Jewish recordings and rereleasing them and giving them new life.

The new anthology they've brought out is called "Song for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Josh Kun. He's one of the members of the Idelsohn Society, a small group that tries to rediscover Jewish recordings and find new ways of getting them to an audience. So they have a new anthology called "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story." So tell us a little bit about the founder of the label, Allen Jacobs. He had owned other labels before starting Tikva. What was his plan on starting Tikva Records?

You call this his biggest gamble. Why was it a gamble?

KUN: It was, well, he was a gambler. He was really kind of a hustler and an entrepreneur, really trying to make his way in the record business. But it seems clear to us, the more that we talk to folks and spoke to the kids of many of the artists who are on the records, that, you know, he was somebody who wanted – who saw this as a business opportunity.

But really saw this as a chance to produce records inexpensively, to record them very quickly, to put the cover art together, in most cases, himself with his trusty pair of scissors. And, as most believe, cutting his masters together himself, often in some sloppy ways that you can hear on some of the records in an attempt to cater to what he saw was a massive audience of American Jewish record buyers.

And, you know, the result was this, again, this kind of grab bag of styles and sounds.

GROSS: Did you get a sense that he really loved music or that he was just in it for the money?

KUN: It's a mix of both. I mean, there's clearly elements, I think, the more we looked at a lot of the stuff and especially talking to a lot of the kids of the artists that, you know, saw him as someone who wanted to put stuff out quickly. And there is a rushed quality to a lot of the records. They sound real good on the anthology but when you listen to a lot of the original vinyl, you can hear the edits on the vinyl.

You know, you can hear where the tape comes together in a lot of ways. So he would rush through them but it's clear he had to love the music. I mean, he spent, you know, from the late '40s to the '70s collecting this stuff and putting it out and, you know, I doubt he was making a fortune off of it.

So I think that the love had to be there. And I think that shows in the range of materials and in the joy that so much of the music has within it.

GROSS: Now, the Idelsohn Society which you're part of which produced this new Tikva Records anthology, among other things, they're named after Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the musicologist who wrote "Hava Nagila." Now, when I read that I thought somebody wrote "Hava Nagila?" I thought that was like an old folk song by anonymous.

KUN: Yeah. The melody is actually an ancient Hassidic tune, but the lyrics were written fairly recently in the 19-teens by Idelsohn and his students at the music school that he started in what is now Israel but then was Palestine. And Idelsohn was the, you know, the man responsible for giving us these lyrics that, you know, has become the kind of great global Jewish anthem.

GROSS: So what do the lyrics mean in English?

KUN: They are a command to be joyous and be happy and rejoice, rejoice, rejoice. One of the happiest songs ever written and, you know, again it's – but I think what's also important for us about that tune is it's something that people think of as so Jewish. I mean, it's the ultimate Jewish song and yet it's been covered by everyone.

I mean, it's been covered at least, you know, in the U.S. something like 200 times and it got famous in the United States, you know, by Harry Belafonte.

GROSS: I didn't know that.

KUN: That - yeah. I mean, when he performed that song live at Carnegie Hall in, I believe it was 1959, it pushed that song into the folk music world and kind of made it into a pop anthem, something that so many people have grown up with. I think that's also what is kind of symbolic of the work that we're interested in, is this stuff that is in a way Jewish at its core and yet it is also not Jewish in its routes and its travels. And we're kind of interested in following all those pathways.

I mean, what's also, I should say, interesting about Idelsohn is he's someone that as a musicologist devoted much of his life to – you know, we often think of him as like a Latvian Alan Lomax, that, you know, he would roam the Middle East, you know, looking for songs that he could compile to say this is Jewish music.

He would do multivolume encyclopedias of music as a way to try to define Jewish identity.

GROSS: So as you pointed out, there are so many recordings of "Hava Nagila" yet none of them are on your anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Set." Did Tikva not record "Hava Nagila?" Or did it not record good versions of it?

KUN: There were some "Hava Nagila" versions, none of which were as outstanding as "Hava Nagila" should be. One of the projects we have in the near future is to do a compilation of only "Hava Nagila" versions. It's going to be about 20 different versions of "Hava Nagila" which will either make you completely insane...


KUN: ...or will bring you nothing but endless joy.

GROSS: Okay. So, you know, it's interesting. I think probably the majority of Jewish-Americans who came of age in America while Tikva was releasing records – 1950 to 1973 – are the progeny of Eastern European Jews. But the next recording I want to play from your anthology is by a Sephardic Jew, someone who was from Morocco.

KUN: Yes.

GROSS: And this is an interesting recording and he has an interesting personal story. So tell us a little bit about him before we hear the record.

KUN: Yes. This is the "Moroccan Prince" as he became known, you know, in the U.S., the great Jo Amar. And Jo Amar was born in Morocco but ends up coming to Israel and within Israel becoming the main importer and popularizer of Sephardic melodies and so-called Eastern melodies. And he was instrumental in popularizing, you know, the musics of Morocco, of North Africa, of the Sephardic past, into a kind of hybridized pop and spiritual sound.

GROSS: Well, Josh Kun, thank you so much for talking with us.

KUN: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Josh Kun is one of the producers of the new anthology "Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: the Tikva Records Story 1950 to 1973." We'll close with a recording by the singer we were just talking about, Jo Amar. It's called "L'Oriental," and as you can guess by the title, it's sung in French.


JO AMAR: (Singing in French)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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