You’re going to enjoy the fruits of the journey Dr. Barry Pascal undertook after seeing a live performance of Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays. (It’s especially timely because Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” plays a central role in my story, Meridian.) You can find Barry‘s humorous works for sale here.—EGF
Billy Crystal’s “Uncle Milt” and Strange Fruit
By BARRY PASCAL, Pharm.D.
Humorist, Satirist, and All-Around Nice Guy
Judging by the number of people standing during the final ovation, the entire audience loved Billy Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show, 700 Sundays, as much as I did in 2006. Crystal’s heartwarming autobiographical look at his family scrapbook was poignant, clever and humorous. We could feel the love and emotion as he talked about his parents, his aunt, and his brothers, and about growing up in New York in the early 1950s. We laughed as he painted word pictures of all those funny things that happen to all families and that are really hilarious when someone else describes them.
As a kid, Billy Crystal grew up surrounded by famous jazz musicians. He clowned with and was entertained by the likes of Billie Holiday; Eddie Condon; Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong, to name a few. You see, Billy’s uncle created the Commodore Music Shop, the first independent jazz record store in the country – for that matter, probably in the world.
I was really surprised to find out how influential and insightful Billy’s uncle, Milton Gabler, was. He was responsible for recording some really important hit tunes—You’ll Never Know;Lover Man; Rum and Coca-Cola; How High the Moon; Goodnight Irene; Glow-Worm; It takes Two to Tango; and Little Things Mean a Lot—the list goes on and on. The entire jazz-loving world and jazz musicians, especially African-American jazz musicians, owe much to “Uncle Milt.” Gabler was linked to Billie Holiday’s revolutionary and moving tune, Strange Fruit (probably the first recorded protest song). It was originally a poem written and scored by Lewis Allen, even though Holiday claimed that she, Allen, and her piano player, Sonny White, added the music. Allen (whose real name was Abel Meeropol) was a member of the American Communist Party, a union activist, and a Jewish schoolteacher at De Witt Clinton High in the Bronx.
In 1937, after seeing a photograph of the lynching of two black men in the South, Allen wrote the poem Strange Fruit. After adding the music, he showed it to Billie Holiday one night after a performance at Barney Josephson’s Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub. Allen knew that she was acutely sensitive to the issue of prejudice, since her father died of pneumonia earlier that year because several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him. Holiday tried to get the song recorded, but her recording company, Columbia, refused to touch the haunting, brooding, and tragically descriptive song because they feared lost sales in the Deep South.
So Billy Crystal’s uncle, Milt Gabler, recorded Strange Fruit under his Commodore Record label on April 20, 1939. The melodious and richly jazzy blues classic, Fine and Mellow (which Gabler helped write), was on the flip side. The record attained 16th place on the music charts in July of that year. Since then, Strange Fruit has achieved cult status. When it first debuted, Time Magazine denounced the song as propaganda, and hailed it as the song of the century 60 years later.
Here are some more surprising facts about each of the Strange Fruit principals:
Milt Gabler (1911-2001) also wrote or collaborated on Danke Schően; Choo Choo Ch’Boogie; L-O-V-E; and In a Mellow Tone, in addition to Fine and Mellow. In 1954 while at Decca Records, he helped launch a new era in music, Rock‘n’Roll, by recording the groundbreaking Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets. Gabler is also credited as the first to record Broadway shows.
Lewis Allen (Abel Meeropol 1903-1986) also wrote (probably with Earl Robinson) the 1945 Frank Sinatra classic about religious tolerance and prejudice, The House I Live In, as well as penning Strange Fruit. Childless, he took his pseudonym from the intended first names of his two sons who died in childbirth. He and his wife, Anne, later adopted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s two sons, Michael and Robert, after their parents’ execution for treason on June 19, 1953.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959), whose given name was reputed to be Eleanora Fagan and was also affectionately known as “Lady Day”, closed all her club shows after 1939 with a poignant rendition of Strange Fruit. Just as the song was about to begin, waiters would stop serving, the lights in the club were dimmed, and a single pin spotlight would illuminate Holiday on stage. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
The lyrics to Strange Fruit:
Strange Fruit by Lewis Allen (1939)
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Internet References (May 2012):
The House I Live In
Frank Sinatra (1945)
1945 10-minute short film, The House I Live In, released November 9, 1945, was made to oppose anti-Semitic and prejudiced views in the post-World War II United States. Written by Albert Maltz, produced by Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Frank Sinatra, the short captured an honorary Academy Award and special Golden Globe award both in 1946. The House I Live In was selected in 2007 by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The title song, sung by Sinatra, became a national hit. Sinatra would perform the song again most notably in the White House during Richard Nixon’s presidency and for Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ceremony in 1985.
Billie Holiday (video 1959)
About the Author: Barry Pascal, North Valley’s former Honorary Mayor and Honorary Sheriff, owned Northridge Pharmacy for 32 years and is now retired. He has written seven comedy books and writes a humorous column for the California Pharmacists Association Journal as well as for the North Valley Community Connection.
© 2012 Barry Pascal