The secret Jewish history of everyone nominated to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame this year
If you quickly scan the list of the 16 artists and groups nominated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, only one name jumps out as Jewish: Carole King. But a deeper dive into each nominee reveals some surprising or unlikely Jewish stories.
First, a little more about King. How, you might ask, is Carole King not already in the Rock Hall? Her landmark 1971 album, “Tapestry,” virtually created the genre of sensitive singer-songwriter, gaining critical praise, multiple Grammy Awards, and setting a contemporaneous record for most time on Billboard’s Album chart until it was surpassed by Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” It still holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number one by a female solo artist and regularly places high on lists of the greatest albums of all time.
King is indeed already in the Rock Hall, but only as one-half of the Gerry Goffin-Carole King songwriting duo, which supplied dozens if not hundreds of hit songs to other artists beginning in 1960, when King was still in her teens. They certainly deserve their place in the Hall as songwriters. But only now is King being recognized for her solo career, 51 years after she released her first solo album.
King is not the only nominee this year who is finally being recognized for long-overdue admission to the Hall as a solo artist. Like King, Tina Turner has been in the Hall for decades, but only as one-half of Ike and Tina Turner. Turner’s years with Ike Turner were a veritable horror story of physical and emotional abuse, such that when the duo was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1991, Tina Turner did not attend the ceremony. Out of the clutches of Ike Turner by the late-1970s, Turner rose to superstardom in the 1980s, but only now is she being considered for a place of her own in the Hall. Ike Turner converted to Judaism in 1994. But what’s Ike got to do with it? Tina is not Jewish — she is an adherent of Buddhism — but that didn’t stop vandals from defacing a mural of Turner with a red swastika outside a North Carolina record store in December 2019.
Chaka Khan is being considered again for a place in the Hall. In 2012, the one-time lead singer of Rufus became something of a Jewish hero when she stepped in to replace Stevie Wonder after the music legend, bowing to pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, backed out of a scheduled performance at a benefit for the Israel Defense Forces in Los Angeles. Ironically, Rufus’s biggest hit, 1974’s “Tell Me Something Good,” was written by Wonder.
Superstar R&B singer Mary J. Blige, a candidate for admission this year, is almost as well known for her philanthropy as for megahits including “What’s the 4-1-1?” and a version of “Sweet Thing,” first recorded by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan in 1975. Blige used some of her earnings to fund the Mary J. Blige Center for Women at Westchester Jewish Community Services.
Another long-overdue candidate for the Hall, Dionne Warwick, whose most fruitful musical collaboration was with Jewish-American composer Burt Bacharach, who recognized her unique talent while she was singing backup for The Drifters. Warwick and Bacharach worked together on 39 chart records from 1962 to 1972. Seven of them became Top 10 hits, including “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Bacharach’s writing partner, Hal David — the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants — wrote the lyrics to most of these hits. In May 2015, Warwick had a public spat with Roger Waters, rock’s most active anti-Zionist, who seems to care more about enforcing a cultural boycott of Israel than he does about making music. Upon announcing an impending concert in Tel Aviv, Warwick issued a statement saying she would “never fall victim to the hard pressures of Roger Waters, from Pink Floyd, or other political people who have their views on politics in Israel.” In response, Waters called Warwick “profoundly ignorant of what has happened in Palestine.”
L.L. Cool J can’t seem to catch a break — this year’s nomination to the Hall is his sixth. The Queens, N.Y.-born actor/rapper once reminisced fondly to a reporter from the Jerusalem Post of his New York City upbringing, saying “My grandfather was from the Bronx and he came home with gefilte fish every week.”
Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti received his first nomination to the Hall this year. Guitarist Jon Madof makes no bones about his debt to the late Kuti, who was the inspiration behind Madof’s band, Zion80, one of the funkiest Jewish jazz outfits on the downtown scene. The group plays a horn-heavy, spiritual blend of Jewish melodies — sometimes inspired by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — atop a foundation of heavy Afrobeat rhythms. Even the group’s name pays homage to Kuti ensembles, including Afrika 70 and Egypt 80.
Jay-Z is also vying for admission to the Hall for the first time this year. Considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all time, Jay-Z got into some hot water during the summer of 2017, when he fumbled a tribute to Jewish self-empowerment in the greater context of calling on African Americans to step up their own entrepreneurial efforts. His song “The Story of O.J.” included the couplet, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit / You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.”
Never mind that Jay-Z lit a Hanukkah menorah in 2012 at the inauguration of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in a “rededication” ceremony (he was an original investor in the arena and the Brooklyn Nets basketball team). Nor the fact that in 2006, Jay-Z joined fellow rap impresario Russell Simmons to film a public service announcement explicitly equating anti-Semitism with racism. Nor that on tour in Europe with his wife, Beyoncé, Jay-Z visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Jay-Z got caught peddling a Jewish stereotype—even though, as he told one interviewer, he knows as well as anyone that Jews don’t own everything, because being a billionaire himself, he owns plenty. “Of course I know Jewish people don’t own all the property in America. I mean, I own things! So I know that they don’t own all of the property in America. It was an exaggeration,” he said.
Like Tina Turner, guitarist Jane Wiedlin of the early-1980s New Wave pop group the Go-Go’s — up for admission this year — is not Jewish, but that hasn’t stopped her from falling victim to antisemitic hate speech. Wiedlin once told an interviewer from the Riverfront Times, “I made the mistake of Googling myself once. I’ll never do it again. It was so horrifying. The first thing that came up was a white supremacist site, and they had me on one of their hate lists…. And it’s for being Jewish. And I’m not even Jewish! So it’s like, God, not only do these people hate me, but they hate me for something I’m not even! I mean, I would be happy to be Jewish, but I’m not. It’s really bad.”
Kate Bush got her second nomination to the Hall this year. Bush was reportedly a volunteer at Kibbutz Kissufim during the winter of 1977-78. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was a mentor to Bush early in her career; somehow Gilmour’s bandmate Roger Waters wasn’t able to derail her career over her Zionist sympathies.
Glam-punk pioneers the New York Dolls hope to enter the Rock Hall this year. The group’s guitarist, Sylvain Sylvain (who died last month), was born Sylvain Mizrahi to a Jewish family in Cairo, eventually making their way to New York City by way of France and Buffalo. Sylvain also worked in the rag trade as a side gig; he ran a clothing company called Truth and Soul.
New Wave art band Devo, best known for their hit “Whip It” and their cool yellow jumpsuits, are nominated this year. According to a childhood friend, the group’s drummer, the late Alan Myers, was in a Jewish youth group, where his nickname was “Aleph Ernie.” The friend explained, “Aleph was a title of respect, and we called him Ernie because he resembled the be-spectacled Ernie on [the TV show] ‘My Three Sons.’”
Dave Grohl, already a member of the Rock Hall as a member of grunge-rock avatars Nirvana, is up for membership again for his group Foo Fighters. The group shocked fans this past December with an eight-night series of new releases, one for each night of Hanukkah, each a cover of a song by a famous Jewish artist. Although Grohl is not Jewish, the band’s producer Greg Kurstin is, as is the group’s keyboardist, Rami Jaffee, who was a founding member of Jakob Dylan’s band, the Wallflowers. Grohl announced the “Hanukkah Sessions” with this Yiddish-inflected statement: “With all the mishigas of 2020, Greg and I were kibbitzing about how we could make Hanukkah extra-special this year. … So hold on to your tuchuses because we’ve got something special coming for your shayna punims. L’chaim!” The sessions included songs by Lou Reed, Justine Frischmann of Elastic, Peaches, Leslie West of Mountain, Drake, Bob Dylan, and, of course, the Beastie Boys.
Along with his career as a musician, Todd Rundgren — nominated for the second time — has also enjoyed success as an engineer and record producer, having worked with such Jewish artists as Robbie Robertson of the Band; Daryl Hall, a convert to Judaism; and the New York Dolls (see above).
It may surprise some to learn that several members of nominees Rage Against the Machine boast Jewish ancestry. Singer-lyricist Zack de la Rocha of the politically inclined hard-rock group claims Sephardic descent through his Mexican-American father. And drummer Brad Wilk, who cofounded Rage with de la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello, is of Polish-Jewish descent.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is to learn that Bruce Dickinson, the non-Jewish lead singer of heavy-metal pioneers Iron Maiden — garnering their first nomination this year — has been outspoken against Nazi imagery in heavy metal; talks passionately about the horrors of Auschwitz; and has no truck with the likes of Roger Waters over performing in Israel.
Dickinson and Iron Maiden visited Auschwitz in 1984. “It’s a very spooky place,” Dickinson told Newsweek. “It really did my head in. You can smell the evil of the place.” In his memoir, “What Does This Button Do?”, Dickinson wrote about Auschwitz: “It is the banality of industrial execution planning contrasted with the screams of the gas chambers that is the true measure of the terror…. That terror, I believe, is the secret fear that we may all be such monsters deep down. It makes me shudder even to think it…. I cried a lot after the visit.” After an incident at a Vancouver concert, Dickinson told the CBC, “Nazi salutes have no place whatsoever in any kind of music community I want to belong to…. I think people need a little bit more of a lesson in history, rather than a lesson in ignorance, which seems to be dished out far too often.” Iron Maiden first performed in Israel in 1995 and had been scheduled to perform again last year before the COVID-19 virus shut down concerts across the globe.
This year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees will be announced in May.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He often mines popular culture for its hidden Jewish stories.