The Barry Sisters. The jazz legend about bagels.
Once upon a time there was a Jew called Bagelman. With the surname coming from the nature of his, he lived in Podol neighbourhood in Kiev. Our Jew indeed ran the same business as his ancestors had been running for centuries. He was a “bublichnik” which means in case you would have liked to taste the best bagel in the city, you had not choice but to visit Bagelman’s bakery.
At the same place and also once upon a time, there was another Jew – Jacob Petrovich Davidov. He also lived somewhere in Podol neighbourhood and was the master of all the journalistic genres: from political and satirical reviews to jokes and songs . In 1926 he wrote the song “bublichki”, which at once rolled up to America. There it was translated into Yiddish and suddenly acquired entirely different sense and sentimental character.
Meanwhile, searching for the best life one of Bagelman’ s sons ran away from politically concerned Kiev . He found his “corner” and a wife in the Jewish quarter of Manhattan where the prevailing population were native Russians. After a while our Bagelman became a grandfather of two sweet girls – Clara and Minnie Bagelman.
In the family spoke only in Yiddish. Other languages were simply not required in East-side neighbourhood. Once, on the Jewish radio, little Klara heard an easy-to-remember song, called “Bejgelah” (or “bublichki”). It was executed by children. Klara’s mother heard it too and thought in a manner of all the good Jewish mothers do: “Is it that my girls are less talented?” She grabbed Klara and dragged her off to the Jewish radio.
The debut of little Klara Bejgelman with “Papirossen” was just a first step of the world-famous Jazz duet beginning. There was a long story in between, but their mother always was the tireless engine, who was inspiring, encouraging and supporting us, – recalls 88-years old Claire.
Later on, the sisters changed their names into more “American” ones. Clara became Clare, Minnie changed into Merna. The famous “Barry” was created by Minnie.
“We were not embarrassed by our names, – says Barry. Never embarrassed. It was just better for show business. We knew so many entertainers who did it back then that we thought it was just a good business decision. It wasn’t about culture at all, just business.”
The Barry Sisters never had some particular musical education. According to Clare’s memories, the genius idea of the marvelous “Sister’s Third” came across the mind of Abraham Elshtejn, a talented musician and composer. At their barely first meeting he told:
«Oh, I have an idea! Let Clare sing the melody, as she has a higher voice, and Merna will take the harmony ». This is how the matchless and the purest “Sister’s Third” was born.
“People told us that we had perfect harmony, – says Barry. 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.”
The sisters became popular in the 1940s-1960s on the New York Radio Show “Yiddish Melodies in Swing”, where they would sing jazz recordings in Yiddish. They also would record popular tunes in Yiddish, such as “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head.” All this became possible after they had been noticed by the showman Ed Sullivan and had appeared in his show. He was the one who brought them in the world of big folklore and jazz art, and created the professional duet.
In the repertory of The Sisters there were songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Spanish and Russian. They created their unique style and gained the world popularity thanks to the astounding combination of two entirely different voices . The low, velvet, and gentle voice of Clare – high, sonorous and pure Merna ‘s one.
Songs performed by The Barry Sisters were simple and easily understood not only by a Jewish listener. Jazz melodies of small-town Jewry revived a nostalgia for Jewish tradition, for the language of grandmothers and grandfathers.
Russian-speaking Jewry had indeed a special love for The Sisters. They even had a happiness to listen to alive Jews-foreigners, besides singing in Yiddish. It was the opening of the American exhibition in 1959 in Moscow. On this occasion it was decided to organize a big concert in the “Gorʹkiiy” park . The song “Bublichki” came back to Russia, performed by the fabulous duet. Folks didn’t let them leave the stage when the Sisters synchronously announced in the microphone : ” Ochi Chernye”. The audience jumped up and went into ruptures over the romance. This well-known Russian romance in Abram Elshtejn’s jazz arrangement acquired entirely new sounding and became the hit of the musical world. The first verse was executed in Russian.
In 1980 Merna died of a serious illness and the duet ceased to exist. It’s a pity that today it’s not easy to find some documentaries concerning the life of the Sisters . However Clare is still alive. 88 years old, she lives in Manhattan, but already in the other, aristocratic area. And every time she is being asked about what she thinks about their life she had, she says she is thankful to her mother and to God :
“When I look back on this music, – says Barry. – All I want to say is “Dear God, thank you for giving us the opportunity. What a wonderful opportunity…”
The Barry sisters were the ones who gave people joy, delight and smile through tears. They were charging the audience with bright positive energy. And even though Yiddish, the language they were trying to revive has faded away, the cultural Jewry is still alive. While there are gifted, creative people, who are ready to share their warmth, love and desire to build something new, bright and marvelous!