In the early months of 1954, with their debut single “Gee” still climbing the national pop and rhythm and blues charts, doo-wop quartet The Crows entered a Manhattan studio to record a Latin-flavored dance number called “Mambo Shevitz (Man, Oh Man).” Featuring upbeat backing from an Afro-Cuban-style ensemble billed as Melino and His Orchestra, the song riffed on a popular Manischewitz wine radio commercial of the time, while simultaneously spoofing the mambo craze that was then sweeping American ballrooms.
Though “Gee” wound up going down in history as one of the very first rock and roll hits, “Mambo Shevitz” — which missed the charts completely — would languish in obscurity for over half a century, dismissed as little more than an amusing novelty by the few record collectors who even recalled its existence.
But when heard in the context of a wonderful new compilation — “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story, 1940s-1980s” — “Mambo Shevitz” now stands revealed as an important artifact from an era in which Jewish and Latino culture and music collided in delightful ways.
“It’s a Scream” is the latest release from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a non-profit organization devoted to reexamining the Jewish experience through music. Its 41 tracks unearth evidence of this multilayered Latin-Jewish musical connection in everything from 1940s novelty songs to 1960s bossa nova grooves and 1970s salsa jams.
As the collection’s superb liner notes attest, there are numerous theories as to why Jewish and Latino musicians and audiences discovered such a deep affinity for each other’s music, but the magic that resulted from these cultural exchanges is impervious to debate. “It’s a Scream” features such transcultural permutations as Jewish bandleaders fronting Latino ensembles (Harvey Averne’s “Cucaraca Macara,” Larry Harlow’s “Soy Latino”); Latino bandleaders referencing Jewish culture (Johnny Conquet’s “Matzoh Ball Merengue,” Tito Puente’s “Grossinger’s Cha Cha Cha” ); Jewish artists mining the differences in the two cultures for comic effect (Irving Kaufman’s “Moe the Schmo Takes a Rhumba Lesson,” Mickey Katz’s “Yiddishe Mambo” ); three different Latinized variations on “Hava Nagila”; and so forth. The Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass recording of “Belz Mein Shtetele Belz” — in which a Jewish trumpeter specializing in ersatz Mexican music sets a Yiddish theater staple to a slinky “South of the Border” groove — is almost too meta for words.
There are also subtler surprises, such as the gorgeous solo by tenor sax man Al Cohn on Cuban conguero Candido’s 1956 recording of “Cheek to Cheek,” and Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto’s moody 1962 rendition of the theme from the film “Exodus.” “Watermelon Man,” Mongo Santamaria’s 1963 boogaloo breakthrough, will be familiar to most listeners, though far fewer are probably aware that the song’s trumpet solo was played by a Jewish sideman named Marty Sheller. Packed with such edifying revelations, “It’s a Scream” is a pop culture seminar that’s as entertaining as it is educational — and, best of all, you can dance to it.
Dan Epstein writes frequently about the arts for the Forward. He is the author of “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s,” published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2010.