The Secret Jewish History of ‘You’re Sixteen,’ That Song Joel Pollak Was Yammering About
The old rockabilly standard “You’re Sixteen,” first made famous by Johnny Burnette in 1960 and then revived by Ringo Starr in 1973, is back in the news again after right-wing commentator Joel Pollak, of Breitbart News, referred to the pop hit in defense of Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of preying upon girls as young as 14 when he was an assistant district attorney in his early thirties.
Speaking on Monday morning to CNN host Chris Cuomo, Pollak said, “In 1973 Ringo Starr hit number one on the Billboard charts with the song, ‘You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine’…. He was 30-something at the time singing about a 16-year-old — you want to take away Ringo Starr’s achievement?”
A stunned Cuomo replied “You can’t be serious. You think that Ringo Starr’s song is supposed to be a nod toward allowing 30-year-old men to prey on teenagers? You don’t believe that, Joel. You’re a parent, you don’t believe that.”
Earlier this month, Pollak argued on MSNBC that Moore’s conduct isn’t scandalous because the age of consent in Alabama is 16. “The 16-year-old and the 18-year-old have no business in that story because those are women of legal age of content,” Pollak said, seemingly ignoring allegations that one or more of Moore’s victims were underage.
Pollak was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in South Africa in 1977, and attended Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie, Illinois. He went onto Harvard College before earning a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from the University of Cape Town in 2006. Pollak went to work for Breitbart News after losing a race for Congress from Illinois’s 9th congressional district – which includes parts of Chicago – in 2010. He began as in-house counsel for the right-wing website before becoming editor-in-chief.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields alleged she was attacked by Donald Trump presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Leaked internal memos showed that Pollak ordered Breitbart staffers to stop defending Fields, who eventually quit Breitbart, along with fellow editor Ben Shapiro, a graduate of Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles.
“You’re Sixteen” was written by the Jewish-American songwriting duo the Sherman Brothers. Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman – the sons of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman. Their grandfather, Samuel Sherman, was a violinist in Kiev until he fled a Cossack pogrom on 1903, settling in Prague before immigrating with his family to New York City in 1909. The Sherman Brothers were a hugely successful songwriting team, best known for writing for family shows including “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Johnny Burnette’s version of “You’re Sixteen” cracked Billboard’s top 10 in December 1960, and was revived when it was featured prominently in the soundtrack of the 1973 film “American Graffiti.” Early the next year, Ringo Starr’s version hit the top of the charts.
Until now, no one has ever accused the Sherman Brothers, Johnny Burnette, or Ringo Starr of advocating child molestation or statutory rape. The song’s lyrics don’t specify the narrator’s age; for all anyone knows, he could be 16 too, or even younger. For that matter, it’s not even clear if the narrator or the subject is male, female, or transgender.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He frequently mines popular culture for hidden Jewish affinities.