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February 02, 1990 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-02-02

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Strike Up The Band.

They've been around for more than 40 years,
but Detroit's Jewish bands are always
right in tune with the most popular music.


Features Editor

e's like a live jukebox — his tunes
stream out one after another and
every one a different style.
He grabs his saxophone and he's
got that hip, wild Benny Goodman
sound. Put on those zoot suits and swing out on
to the dance floor.
Two minutes later, he picks up his clarinet
and plays a melody that Grandmother heard at
her wedding. Friends and family gathered in
an old shul in Minsk. The bride was resplen-
dent in a white gown and veil. The shevah
brachot were recited; the groom crushed the
glass; the music began.
Then Sam Barnett turns to his violin. He


Sam Barnett
plays his clarinet
at a wedding:
"The grooms
are always more
nervous than
the brides."


plays the sweet sounds of a movie love theme.
Reality slowly fades as listeners dream of a
silky skyline of bright reds and glowing pinks
where romance reigns and true love always
Years ago the city was populated by Jewish
band leaders who played at weddings and
entertained at parties at swanky hotels. They
included Seymour Simons, Jules Klein and
Dave Diamond, Sam Emmer, Zan Gilbert, Ben
Katzman, Joe Miller, Dick Stein, Mickey Wolf,
Sammy Wolf, Marty Mitchell, Gene Fenby and
Milt Aptekar, and Sheldon Rott.
All have either died or retired — except
Barnett, Mack Pitt and Eric Rosenow who,
after more than 40 years on the Detroit music
scene, are still playing everything from big
band to hard rock and appearing everywhere
from grand ballrooms to small simchas.
They've seen grooms faint and parents argue.
And all the while the band plays on.
Sam Barnett's parents came to the United
States from Russia, where his father had been
a soldier in the Russian Army. When au-
thorities asked him to re-enlist, he decided to
leave the country. "He'd had enough," Barnett
Young Sam's musical training began when
he was 7; he studied violin with a private


teacher and later, with members of the Detroit
Symphony Orchestra.
After graduating from Wayne State Univer-
sity, Barnett found a job teaching in public
schools. He also continued his musical interest
by performing with bands, where the music
consisted of "everything under the sun,"
Barnett says. He even remembers playing for
three months with a Hawaiian band.
For a time in the 1930s, Barnett played in
the orchestra pit at Littman's People's
Theater. Financial constraints limited the or-
chestra to seven men.
Traveling companies of Yiddish actors, in-
cluding such stars as Molly Picon and Moishe
Oiysher, often performed on Littman's stage.
"And each one was a prima donna," Barnett
"One of them was always screaming to the
orchestra, 'You're playing too loud! Nobody
can hear me sing!'
"And you could hardly read the stuff to begin
with. I couldn't believe the music they brought
for us. It looked like it had been through a
shredder and it was covered with notes from
everybody who had ever played it."
Barnett started his own band while serving
with the American forces during World War II.
He formed his own group "because I decided it
was better to be a leader than a side man." The
15-member band performed popular songs at
the base.
Returning to Detroit after the war, Barnett
started another band and found work playing
in some of the city's fanciest hotels, including
the Cadillac and the Statler. Live music was
in its heyday. Songs like "Oh, How I Hate To
Get Up in the Morning" and "K-K-Katy,"
were big hits. Barnett and his band knew all
the tops of the pop and found steady work
throughout the week and on Sunday after-
As the demand for live music decreased after
the 1940s, so did the size of Barnett's band.
Though he continued to find work in subse-
quent decades, all the original band members
eventually left; his group today consists of
from three to five men.
Band members come from diverse
backgrounds, but they all share a common
love, Barnett says. "I comb the field to find
players who are musically capable and who I
like to be with aside from our music. And they
have to like playing. That's my secret — I
thoroughly enjoy playing."
What hasn't changed over the decades is the
demand for live music at weddings. And here,
Barnett says, he has seen everything.
He has performed "in every kind of weather"
at outdoor weddings; he owns various seasonal
tuxedos for the events. He has seen grooms
faint. "The grooms are always more nervous
than the brides," he says. "If anything is going
to happen, it's going to happen to the groom."
He has played "at the weddings of almost
every rabbi's daughter" and on boats, in back

yards and atop the Renaissance Center.
His specialty today is klezmer music, based
on traditional Jewish melodies, Chasidic tunes
and liturgical motifs developed in Eastern
Europe from the Middle Ages to the 20th Cen-
tury. Sparked by his days at Littman's,
Barnett's interest in the klezmer sound was
augmented by the establishment of the State
of Israel.
Barnett, who has entertained for the past 25
years at the annual Bar Ilan University
dinners, keeps his klezmer music and other
tunes in a large, black notebook. Hand-written
copies of more than 1,000 songs —everything
from traditional Chasidic melodies to
"Memories," the popular song from "Cats" —
are contained in the book. So are some lesser-
known, one-of-a-kind tunes like "Judy's
Nigun," written for a wedding.
"Actually, I've got several different 'Judy's
Nigun,' songs," Barnett admits.
All Barnett needs to hear is several notes
and he can pick out the song in his thick
notebook, he says. And he can play thousands
of songs from memory.
Barnett says the key to his long-standing
success has been keeping up with current
tunes and knowing the audience.
"If you want to make it you have to find out
what people like, then do it.
"I remember once we had a request to per-
form a Beatles' song — in Hebrew — at an Or-
thodox wedding. So what did we do? We played


he Rosenows didn't go to St. Louis be-
cause Eric's mother was sure the city
was too hot. She wouldn't move to Pitts-
burgh because she had heard the air was filled
with smoke.
So Eric Rosenow and his family considered
the last city U.S. officials said was open to new
immigrants: Detroit.
"The name Detroit I had never heard in my
life," Rosenow admits. But with St. Louis and
Pittsburgh out of the picture, what could they
Detroit would be the latest stop on a whirl-
wind journey that took the Rosenows from
Germany to Italy to China and fmally the
United States.
Eric Rosenow was born in Berlin, where at 4
he made his debut — not as a musician, but as
an actor. He appeared in numerous plays and
movies, including the famous M with Peter
Lorre. Playing a newsboy in knickerbockers,
he stood on a street corner and yelled "Extra!
When he was 7, Rosenow began piano
studies not because he fell in love with the in-
strument, but "because my parents wanted me
to. What do you know when you're seven?"
At 13, Rosenow was both a musician, playing
the piano rented as his bar mitzvah gift,
and an actor. He remembers riding in horse-
drawn buggies while performing; "I loved to go

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