Claire Barry, with her sister, Merna, on the cover of their 1961 album ‘Side by Side.’
Claire Barry, who crossed over from the world of Yiddish entertainment to global pop stardom as half of The Barry Sisters, died Monday in Aventura, Florida. She was 94.
At the height of their popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, Claire and her sister Merna conquered television as regulars on the Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar shows.
Claire Barry’s last performance for an audience was in 2009. “I was there,” Corey Breier, a close friend of Barry’s and the longtime president of the Yiddish Artists and Friends Actors Club, told the Forward from his home in Aventura. “She was being honored by the Footlighters’ Club, which is Florida’s version of Friar’s club. She sang ‘My Yiddishe Mama.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was the last time she sang publicly.”
Born in the Bronx to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Kiev, Clara and Minnie Bagelman first performed as the Bagelman Sisters on a New York children’s Yiddish radio program in the 1930s.
“People told us that we had perfect harmony,” Claire Barry told the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, which reissued The Barry Sisters’ last album, 1974’s “Our Way,” in 2008. “But to be honest, we didn’t know what harmony meant! We had no training, no schooling in this type of thing. There is a Yiddish word beshert, which means ‘meant to be.’ I always say, it was beshert that we would sing like that.”
According to the Idelsohn Society, the sisters made their first records in the late 1930s for RCA Victor, harmonizing over a stellar quintet that featured the John Coltrane and Miles Davis of pre-WWII Jewish music: klezmer clarinet king Dave Tarras and composer/arranger Abe Ellstein. They followed it up with a collaboration with tenor great Seymour Rechtzeit, the ubiquitous and celebrated king of Yiddish radio.
By the 1940s, the Bagelmans — now the Barry Sisters — had become sensations through New York radio programs like “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,” where they would sing jazz recordings in Yiddish. Their first full-length album, “Sing,” appeared in 1954; it included Yiddish standards like “My Yiddishe Mamme” and “Romania.” Their Yiddishized versions of popular tunes like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” — “Trop’ns Fin Regen Oif Mein Kop” — became huge crossover hits.
The Barry Sisters “didn’t look like the typical Yiddish theater stars or singers of that era,” said Breier. “They looked glamorous. And they spared no expense for their orchestrations — they always had the best orchestrations possible.”
In 1959, the sisters — by then international stars — toured with Ed Sullivan on a groundbreaking visit to the Soviet Union, where visits by Western performers were rare. They earned a fiercely loyal following among Russian Jews.
“In communist countries, at that time, Yiddish was banned, but their recordings were snuck in,” Breier said. “There wasn’t one community in the world where Yiddish was spoken where Barry Sisters’ records were not played.” And in 1973, they also performed for grateful Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war.
Stateside, the sisters played to packed houses, including concerts at Catskills resorts where Jews summered. “I saw them for the first time at the Nemerson resort in South Fallsburg, NY in 1968,” Breier told the Forward. “I was in awe. They were major stars.” As late as 1975, Claire and Merna Barry would continue selling out Catskills venues. “It was at the Concord hotel. There were 3,000 people there — a full house. They were unbelievable.”
Did Claire Barry know what her music meant to the world?
“I hope she did,” said Breier, who told the Forward he and Barry considered each other family. “I accompanied her for the last 20 years to almost every event. And I would see the love. People would come with tears in their eyes.”
A new generation is indeed appreciating Claire and Merna Barry’s contributions to American pop culture. As the Idelsohn Society’s 2008 liner notes put it:
If adapting Jewish music to the rhythms and contours of the American pop landscape can be considered one of the dominant aesthetics of early twentieth century popular music, then the Barry Sisters ought to be considered crucial bi-cultural pioneers, part of the same treasured artistic genealogy that usually starts and stops with the Tin Pan Alley likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen. They didn’t turn America Jewish, they made Jewish sound more American.
Merna Barry died in 1976. Claire Barry is survived by a daughter, Joy Pargman.