Gospel Music’s Jewish Genius
The Fan Who Knew Too Much collects Anthony Heilbut’s essays on politics, culture, and gospel music
One night during Hanukkah in 1961, a special guest arrived at the Forest Hills apartment of two German Jewish refugees named Otto and Bertha Heilbut. She was Marion Williams, one of the foremost gospel singers in American history, who was in New York to perform in Langston Hughes’ Christmas musical Black Nativity. At one point during dinner, Mrs. Heilbut whispered into Williams’ ear and the guest slipped briefly into the bathroom. She emerged smiling, having removed her girdle at her hostess’s knowing invitation.
As the evening progressed Mr. Heilbut sang a few Hebrew songs, more somber than celebratory, more a testament to his uprooted life and slain relatives than to the triumphal holiday. Then he turned to Williams and asked, in his impeccable yekke manners, “Perhaps you would like to sing some hymns.” And there in the Heilbut apartment, she launched into “Touch Not My Anointed,” a gospel classic drawn from verses in 1 Chronicles and Psalms. From that night on, for decades to come, Williams would always refer to Bertha Heilbut as “my Jewish mother.”
The entire unlikely episode only happened, though, because of the Heilbuts’ eldest son, Anthony, a college student at that time and a regular attendee of gospel shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The Hanukkah dinner, as much as any moment in Anthony Heilbut’s life, anticipated his ultimate role as gospel’s Jewish genius. Over more than a half-century of immersion in the gospel world, Heilbut has written the definitive book on the music, The Gospel Sound, has produced albums that have earned both national and international awards, and been the friend, collaborator, and confidante of many of the finest gospel artists, including Mahalia Jackson, Alex Bradford, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
This week, Knopf published a Heilbut anthology that covers many of his trademark subjects. Fittingly titled The Fan Who Knew Too Much, the collection of essays deals with gospel music, German Jewish emigrés, soap opera, blues, and the gay experience. What might seem on first inspection to be a miscellany is on deeper reading a kind of artistic autobiography, one that traces Heilbut’s path from a childhood among the displaced and dispossessed to a lonely adolescence fixated on soaps to an emerging maturity in which gospel, literature, and gay identity each gave his life meaningful definition.
“I am a weird combination,” Heilbut, now 71, says of his boundary-crossing role. “I’m a gay man with strong heterosexual tendencies. I’m a lefty who doesn’t trust the plebs. And I’m an atheist who loves gospel music.” More than that, he is an atheist of a very particular sort, one whose parents barely escaped the Holocaust and one who grew up knowledgeable about the Judaism he ultimately chose not to practice. Yet in ways that even the loquacious and eloquent Heilbut cannot always articulate, his specific Jewish identity prepared the soil of his soul for gospel’s music of spiritual transcendence and political liberation.
Anthony Heilbut’s parents embodied the lesson of Nazi Germany: Every Jew, no matter how wealthy or well-connected, was vulnerable. Otto Heilbut, the grandson of the chief rabbi of the British Empire, helped run his extended family’s elite department store, N. Israel. With his resources, he donated money to the Zionist movement and relief for Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe. Bertha was blond enough to pass for gentile. During Kristallnacht, however, the N. Israel store was destroyed. Bertha began hiding Jews in the family’s vast apartment. Thanks to the combination of a cousin’s British papers and the Dutch passport Otto held thanks to his birth in Holland, he and Bertha were able to leave Berlin in 1939. By then Bertha’s disabled brother had already been interned by the Nazis. Otto’s nephew and two nieces, unable to flee Germany, died in the Holocaust.
When the Heilbuts reached America in 1940, and even more so after the war’s end, their destinies diverged. Otto, the Berlin aristocrat, was reduced to hustling as a textile broker, and his brokenness was visible to Anthony from an early age. Bertha, almost 20 years younger than her husband, went to college to become a social worker, with Anthony sometimes writing her term papers. She ultimately developed a specialty in interracial adoption.
A proud nonbeliever, Bertha nonetheless listened to the radio broadcast of Friday night services from Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, the virtual cathedral of classic German Jewish Reform. With their more modest means, the Heilbuts belonged to Congregation Habonim, a Reform temple in Queens. Otto presided over a kosher home and accepted Anthony’s explanation that the lobster and crab he sometimes snuck into the house was “flounder.” On the High Holy Days, the Heilbuts brought Anthony and his younger brother to Town Hall for services, and during yizkor the Holocaust survivors wailed at the intoning of the necrology. In retrospect, Heilbut says now, those moments prepared him for the high emotions of gospel concerts.
There was plenty of cantorial music in the Heilbut home and the Habonim synagogue, but not of the genuinely operatic sort that might have made Anthony an adherent. Instead, he began to discover rock ’n’ roll on the radio show hosted by “Moondog,” the on-air handle of Alan Freed. The search for live shows brought Heilbut, at age 14, to the Apollo for the first time, and his parents permitted his racial and musical explorations. Sometime in 1957, Heilbut wound up watching a double-bill of Mahalia Jackson and the Pilgrim Travelers and his life changed.
“The shows I saw at the Apollo—Fats Domino, Big Maybelle, the Clovers, the Drifters—were fun, but the gospel shows were a whole other ballpark,” Heilbut recalls. “You have songs that could sometimes last half an hour. At the gospel shows, they’d have these nurses on either side of the stage. I asked why and was told, ‘Some people may faint.’ I’d seen kids scream for Jackie Wilson, but this—it was far beyond anything I’d seen.”
But there was also a political dimension to Heilbut’s enthusiasm. Having endured and barely survived the Nazi version of racial supremacy, Otto and Bertha Heilbut “had huge sympathy for the treatment of black people in America,” Anthony remembers. “It was very easy for them to make links between that and the treatment of Jews in Germany.” As a 16-year-old freshman, Anthony joined the Queens College chapter of the NAACP and began booking gospel concerts. “They were bringing in all these folksingers,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘Shit, let’s bring in the music black people listen to.’ ”
On his centennial, the kids’ illustrator and New Yorker and Daily Worker contributor is celebrated in Miami