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Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: ‘It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba’

A new compilation revives the once ubiquitous, now mostly forgotten Latin-Jewish connection of the 1940s to the ’80s

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Left to right: Ruth Wallis, Herb Albert, and Larry Harlow. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original images courtesy of Idelsohn Society.)

You learn so much listening to It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba, the new two-CD set of mambos, rhumbas, and cha-cha-chas from the 1940s to the ’80s. For example, that Jews had a reputation as great dancers. Or maybe pretty good dancers. Or good enough at tapping our feet, and maybe if we took some lessons, I don’t know.

And you learn that we could blow—man, could we blow—not just the walls of Jericho with our trumpets, or the walls between klezmer and jazz on clarinets like our kings of swing, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but with the heavy-metal slide of trombones at the forefront of salsa music. If nothing else, It’s a Scream puts a long overdue spotlight on stellar trombone players such as Barry Rogers and Mark Weinstein. It also gives room to better-known Jewish musicians who worked the Latin beat occasionally (Stan Getz, Herb Alpert) or full time (Larry Harlow, Andy Harlow, Harvey Averne).

When the fictional 1950s Jets gang of Hell’s Kitchen were fighting (or having dance-offs) against the Puerto Rican Sharks in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, a much more peaceful but no less lively interaction was taking place nearby at 53rd Street and Broadway, at the Palladium Ballroom. That’s where mambo maestros such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito were playing percussion, piano, and brass-driven dance music for a hard-partying mixture of Jews and Latinos. When not booked in ballrooms or theaters, many of the same musicians—by the 1960s a mix of Jewish and Latin players—sustained themselves on the bar-mitzvah and wedding-band circuit. That partly explains the three variations on “Hava Negila”—by Celia Cruz, Damirón, and Pérez Prado—in this package.

It is this once ubiquitous, now mostly forgotten subculture that is celebrated in It’s a Scream, put out by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, the culture vultures who’ve provided restorative surgery on audio relics from the diaspora dumpster on compilations such as the vaudeville package Jewface and reissued previous Judeo-Latino rhythmic classics such as Bagels and Bongos, by the Irving Fields Trio and Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos, by Latin and jazz greats Ray Barretto, Clark Terry, Doc Cheatham, and Charlie Palmieri working undercover, performing swinging versions of Yiddish tunes as Juan Calle and his Latin Lantzmen.

“The Latino-Jewish story is really crucial to understanding the complexities of identities and cross-cultural connections that have shaped and continue to shape multiracial and multicultural American life,” said Josh Kun, a co-founder of the Idelsohn Society and a professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

It’s a Scream develops chronologically, from vaudevillean Irving Kaufman’s “Moe the Schmo Takes a Rhumba Lesson,” complaining about every ache and counting every penny. Among the musical-historical jewels is “Mambo Shevitz (Man, Oh Man),” a tribute to the most famous of kosher wines by the Crows (backed by Melino and his Orchestra), the doo-wop group whose sole 1953 hit, “Gee,” was one of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest hits. And it ends with Larry Harlow, nicknamed “El Judio Marvilloso,” among the most prolific musicians, arrangers, and bandleaders of the late golden age of salsa. We’ve selected seven representative tracks to explore, and so—bailemos!

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“It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba” by Ruth Wallis
Wallis may have been the most clever of the risqué female comics (Belle Barth, Rusty Warren) who played the “blue” piano bar, hotel lounge, and resort circuit with “adults-only” material in the repressed postwar years. The unmistakable sexual innuendos and gamy double-entendres of Wallis’ material made her popular from the theaters of Australia to the gay underground of the 1940s and 1950s. (Her “Queer Things” is a celebrated curio of closeted double lives in the pre-Stonewall era.) In the package’s title song, Levine’s ardent pursuit of rhumba dancing has him saying “don’t wanna” (nicely phrased by Wallis as “Don-Juana”) to Mrs. Levine’s needs when he gets home. On the dance floor, he pretends to be a Casanova “south of the border,” which leaves his wife “needing a boarder.”

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Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: ‘It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba’

A new compilation revives the once ubiquitous, now mostly forgotten Latin-Jewish connection of the 1940s to the ’80s