On The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ a minyan of notable Jews
It was 55 years ago today – May 26, 1967 — that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, meaning that the Beatles’ landmark album was released. As it turns out, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s lineup featured more than a minyan. More specifically, of the 58 people pictured on the cover of what is widely regarded as the greatest rock album of all time, 11 were Jewish.
Over time, Paul McCartney and John Lennon explained that the people they chose to be represented on the album jacket – which won a Grammy Award for best album cover (along with three other Grammys, including album of the year, the first rock album to be so rewarded) — were those whom they judged to be the most personally influential. Hence, such obvious figures as Marlon Brando, Lewis Carroll and Marilyn Monroe. The Beatles were great comedy fans – in no small way the group was as much a comedy troupe as they were a rock band – and thus pride of place was given to W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The six gurus pictured were all suggested by George Harrison, who by this time was an ardent devotee of all things Indian, including music, meditation and religion. Other celebrities and historical figures included boxer Sonny Liston, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Oscar Wilde, David Livingstone, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce.
A close, careful examination of the cover reveals that approximately one out of every five characters pictured were Jewish or had Jewish ancestry. These were entirely the choices of Lennon and McCartney — Harrison limited his picks to the gurus and Ringo Starr declined to play the game.
The Minyan Honor Roll of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover:
1. Karl Marx: A descendant of rabbis on both sides of his family, Marx was the economist and philosopher whose writings formed the foundational works of Communism. As a comedy group, the Beatles tended more toward Groucho Marxism than Karl Marxism.
2. Albert Einstein: German-born theoretical physicist, peace activist, Zionist, and an accomplished violinist. Einstein’s general theory of relativity was the basis for the idea of black holes, possibly inspiring the song “Fixing a Hole” on the album.
3. Lenny Bruce: Born Leonard Alfred Schneider on Long Island, Bruce’s outspoken, political and boundary-pushing comedy and satire clearly influenced John Lennon. Bruce’s father, Myron Schneider, was British-born. The Bronx-born Jewish record producer Phil Spector is the connecting tissue between Bruce and the Beatles; he worked with both artists.
4. Bob Dylan: The rock poet and the Beatles were the Twin Peaks of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, each influencing the other to a significant degree. Dylan allegedly introduced the Fab Four to the pleasures of pot-smoking; Lennon tried to adopt Dylan’s songwriting style in works including “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Later on, Lennon would renounce Dylan (along with other idols, including John F. Kennedy, Buddha, and Elvis Presley) in his 1970 song “God.” George Harrison, on the other hand, would go on to write songs and perform with Dylan, the two finally teaming up to form a supergroup called the Traveling Wilburys in 1988, along with Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.
5. Tony Curtis: Born Bernard Schwartz to Eastern European Jewish immigrants in 1925, Curtis was a huge movie star in the 1950s, when John, Paul, George and Ringo were Liverpudlian teenagers soaking up American pop culture via radio and the silver screen.
6. Wallace “Wally” Berman: Born in Staten Island, New York, in 1926, Berman was an artist and experimental filmmaker closely associated with the West Coast Jazz and Beat poetry scenes in California in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Berman’s work was characterized by the use of the Hebrew alphabet; his lone film was called “Aleph.” Berman is one of four midcentury American Jewish artists featured on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper.”
7. Larry Bell: It’s hard to find much biographical background information about this Chicago-born and Los Angeles-raised artist and sculptor whose work straddles Abstract Expressionism and the West Coast Light and Space movement. So I called his gallery in Taos, New Mexico, and told the woman who answered the phone, “I’m making a list of all the Jews on the cover of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ Should Larry Bell be on that list?” She excused herself for a minute, and I overheard her talking with someone – presumably Bell himself. She returned to the phone and solidly stated, “Yes.”
8. Richard Merkin: As with Bell, it’s hard to trace much biographical information about Richard Merkin, other than that he was born in Brooklyn. A deep search, however, located the gallery that represents his estate. Much to my surprise, the gallery is located three blocks from where I live, and I know the gallerist. “Hell yes,” she said when I asked her the same question I posed to Larry Bell’s gallerist. In addition to his heavily jazz-influenced painting, Merkin was a longtime teacher at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where among his students were Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who went on to great fame as the rhythm section of Talking Heads.
9. Richard Lindner: Lindner was born and raised in Germany and got the hell out of there just in time in 1933. He moved to the U.S. in 1941 and became an influential painter who taught art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. One might think that it was John Lennon, as the only Beatle who attended art school, who became so enamored of mid-20th century American painters who happened to be Jewish. Or that perhaps it showed the influence of Yoko Ono. But Lennon and Ono didn’t really strike up their relationship in earnest until after the release of “Sgt. Pepper.” Chances are it was Paul McCartney who chose these artists for the cover. Through his relationship with girlfriend Jane Asher from 1963 through 1968, McCartney was introduced to the London art gallery scene, which he took to quite fervently, becoming a collector and eventually taking up painting on his own.
10. Issy Bon: Born Benjamin Levin, Issy Bon was a British-Jewish vaudeville star and BBC Radio entertainer who gained fame for his recording of “My Yiddishe Momme.”
11. Bobby Breen: Born Isadore Borsuk in Montreal to Ukrainian-Jewish parents and raised in Toronto, Breen was a child singer in the 1930s who went on to perform in movies. He was also the first white performer signed to Motown Records.
There were a handful of other characters who were included in the original draft of the “Sgt. Pepper” cover who, for various reasons, didn’t make the final cut. Among them were three Jews: Jesus of Nazareth, Elvis Presley, and actor Leo Gorcey, the New York City-bred son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, who played one of the Dead End Kids and leader of the movie and TV gang the Bowery Boys. Gorcey insisted that the Beatles pay $500 for the use of his image. The Fab Four politely declined the offer.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He frequently mines popular culture for hidden Jewish stories.