19 Oct AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY JEWISH MUSIC PRODUCER SHEYA MENDLOWITZ ABOUT R’ SHLOMO CARLEBACH ON THE 27TH YAHRTZEIT
The career of Sheya Mendlowitz is one of great magnitude. His name is prominently displayed on hundreds of stereophonic systems, tapes, cassette, and compact discs. He was the first to combine a fundraising affair with a musical celebration. He is the essence of everything professional. He is the creator of the HASC “A Time for Music” concerts. Ari Hirsch from The Jewish Vues had the opportunity last week to sit with Sheya, who was very close to R’ Shlomo, & reminisce about R’ Shlomo on his 27th Yahrtzeit.
How are you doing these days? How are you feeling?
Boruch Hashem, coming along. I’m here and that’s what’s important. Everybody needs to take stock and think about THAT before anything else and realize that we are still here Boruch Hashem to tell the story.
Boruch Hashem! That’s great to hear.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s 27th Yahrzeit is this week. How did you meet Reb Shlomo? How many years ago did you meet him and when did you meet him?
When I got married in 1983, I moved to Kew Gardens Hills. I was renting an office on Jewel Avenue and Main Street and the person who I was renting from knew Shlomo. Shlomo told him that he wanted to meet me so he gave him my number and Shlomo called me. Now, you need to understand, I was fairly new to the business then. I actually was on my third Avraham Fried album and I did some other albums, but I was fairly new to it. Shlomo came down to meet me in Queens. He told me that he remembered my father from Mesivta Torah V’Daas when he and his brother came from Vienna. When Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim came to Mesivta, they didn’t speak any English, and Shlomo told me that my father was mekarev them. My father saw two boys that looked very lost. My father told me that when they put them into a shiur with boys their age, it took a day or two, but then they promoted them two grades up because they were so advanced in their learning. They were both big Talmidei Chachamim; a lot of people don’t know that about them. So Shlomo asked me to set up a meeting with my father. He wanted to meet him again; he hadn’t seen him in about 42 years. He also wanted to meet with me about doing a show. At that time, Shlomo was not doing a lot of big concerts, but he sang and spoke all over the world. He sang in small cafes and places like that. Until today, he was and is the most popular name in Jewish music, but he was never in it for the business. He was in the business to do Kiruv and to bring people back. At that time, he wanted to do something like a Brooklyn College type concert. He wanted me to produce it, but we had to come up with a whole new kind of marketing scheme because people were seeing him every other day in small venues like bars and restaurants, so it wasn’t anything special. So we needed to promote this show differently. Many people felt that his way of doing things and his approach to them was questionable and controversial. I’m not here to discuss that, but for that concert we decided we would do his first & only separate seating show. Then we had to promote the show. Back in 1984 the way to promote a show was to be in every newspaper; we had articles in the Yiddish newspapers and the Jewish Press, the (TV) Vues and any other Jewish publications. We also promoted him on the radio with Zalman Umlas & Art Raymond. We did that show in March of 1984 and I recorded that album; which features the famous “Moshe V’Ahron.
Fast forward thirty some odd years later; Shlomo Carlebach came to see me in the studio I was working at in Brooklyn. He wanted to discuss with me taking over as his agent for bookings. Just at that time, I had just finished the first Shlomo Simcha album and we were starting to work on Shlomo Simcha’s second album. I told Shlomo Carlebach that I just finished an album and I’m starting to record another album with this fellow Shlomo Simcha, and the song I want to do is Moshe V’Ahron. I told him to listen to Shlomo Simcha sing this song for him. I wanted him to see that we were doing it exactly the way he had done it at that concert in March of ‘84. He said he would love to hear it. I told him that the only thing I changed was the very end so that he could hit a real high note. He gave the biggest Haskama and he loved it!
When Shlomo said he wanted to meet my father, I asked my father if he would like to see Shlomo again. He said that he would of course love to see him, but he hadn’t seen him in such a long time. He said that he heard he talked funny and what would they talk about, anyway? He wanted to invite him for supper at my house. I said, don’t worry Dad, he’s going to talk exactly like he talked in yeshiva back in the day, but at least he’ll speak English now. I spoke to my mother, we set a date, and I told Shlomo. This was right before the concert. I took him for a haircut and I made him take off his Magen David necklace. It was a whole makeover; it was kind of strange. It was a bit of chutzpah on my part, though it wasn’t intentional. I just wanted to do something so that people would really give him a chance and love him. I told Shlomo that we were going to go for supper and he should talk regular, none of that “holy brother” stuff. He said okay, no problem. Everything was going fine, they ate whatever the appetizers were, and the conversation was going really well. The two of them were catching up when my father asked Shlomo if he was still in touch with Reb Moshe Wolfson. Shlomo says “Mamish Rav Moshe Wolfson is one of the holiest brothers alive today.” He looked at me and said: “What do you want? I held out for 20 minutes!” They both started laughing and the ice was broken; the rest of the conversation went pretty well. Except for the holy brother business, you know? But it was very cute, there was nothing wrong with it, Boruch Hashem.
How did the concert go?
The concert was in the middle of March and I would say it was half full. There were people there that would never, never have come to see Shlomo. Not only that, they wouldn’t have come to see mixed-seating shows, but they heard this whole build up that he’s doing a separate seating show so they came. We didn’t come right out and say that he did teshuva, but we gave the impression in the articles that things were changing. I got an anonymous call where someone said that if what they were reading was true and Shlomo had really done teshuva, then he wouldn’t have to work another day in his life. They were prepared to build him the biggest and most beautiful shul in Boro Park. I told them that I didn’t know if that’s what Shlomo would want. He was always on the go, doing lots and lots of kiruv. I explained that he was a one-man operation that reached all over the world. In any case, everyone who came loved the concert. It was a very interesting experience. After that, I stayed in touch with him until the end. Plus, we honored him numerous times. He was a very, very special person.
Everybody felt that they knew Shlomo well. Often people came over and said, “Rav Shlomo! Do you remember me?” He didn’t want to hurt the person so he answered, “How can I not”? He made everyone feel good. He had an unbelievable memory; he would remember a person even if he met that person once, maybe after a concert or on the road someplace, for thirty seconds. He would tell that person when he met them. He was unbelievable.
Can you please share with Jewish Vues readers one or two classic stories about Reb Shlomo?
Shlomo did a concert once and Yisroel Lamm was the conductor. The show was great and after the show, the producer paid Shlomo with a bundle of cash. Everybody liked to talk to him after the show, many about their problems. People waited patiently to talk to him and he answered each person patiently. Then a lady came over to him crying and he said “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?” She answered, “My son has to have an operation that needs to be done now and I have no money or insurance for an operation.” He asked her how much it was going to cost and she told him what it was, somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000. He took out the money that he was just paid, gave it to her and said, “Don’t worry about this issue; he should have a refuah shleimah. Please keep me posted.” Then Shlomo Carlebach went over to Yisroel and said, “So can you give me 20 bucks? I need to get home. I have no money; I just gave her my last penny.” That’s a true story and there are countless stories like that!
Here’s a really funny story. Shlomo was in a concert, but it wasn’t a Shlomo Carlebach concert. There were many different singers that were there and it was either at Queens or Brooklyn College. It was a full house. His turn came and he went on the stage to sing. The crowd wasn’t doing much. There were a few people clapping, but nothing major. He sang a few songs and he tried talking to them, but they weren’t connecting. Nothing was happening. It was a weird crowd. He finished his five or six songs, and after the last song, he said kaddish and walked off. Someone came over to him and asked, “What happened? What’s going on? Why did you say Kaddish?” He answered, “Nebech, the crowd is dead.” Sometimes you get this weird crowd and you just can’t get them, you know?
What made Rav Shlomo’s music connect with people in general?
It’s two-fold: He didn’t just get up and sing a song. In general, his songs were simple enough that you could hear it a couple times, and easily pick it up. The Gadlus of his music was the simplicity of his songs. Whatever the words or the nignunim were, he would set it up. When he told a story about some little village deep in Europe somewhere, he took you 6,000 miles away and transformed you as you listened to his story. He took you to that place, and set you up as if you were there in that place, and then you would feel what that nigun was about, where it came from, and what the backstory was. He had numerous songs that were complicated, that were not just the three chord songs that he knew on a guitar. He made up some incredible masterpieces.