It’s no secret that “Over the Rainbow” is a Jewish-written song; its melody was by Harold Arlen, and its lyrics were by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. But there’s another, lesser-known nugget of Jewish pop cultural history there.
Bea Wain died this month at the incredible age of 100. You may not have heard of her, but you should have. She was one of the last veterans of the Big Band Era of music, a recording artist and radio pioneer. She was also Jewish. And she was the original artist to record “Over the Rainbow.”
Her birth name actually was Beatrice Wain, and she was raised in the Bronx by Russian-Jewish immigrants. She was a self-taught vocalist who made it big, as in, Billboard found that amongst college students, she was the top female band vocalist of 1939. #2? Ella Fitzgerald. Wain’s singing career included hits with “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Deep Purple,” and “My Reverie,” the latter of which made Debussy cool for teens way before Twilight popularized “Claire de Lune” (anyone?).
Eventually, Wain and her husband of over fifty years, André Baruch, hosted multiple radio shows over the course of several decades, playing music and conducting interviews. She was still singing as recently as about a decade ago (you know, when she was pushing 90).
Here’s a video of Wain’s famous rendition of “Heart and Soul,” and you can see that she’s lovely and charming, with an amazing voice and a great stage presence (also, absolutely beautiful in a very Jewish, pre-Barbra way):
And what of the “Over the Rainbow” connection? Wain recorded the number with the Larry Clinton Orchestra (the same band as in the “Heart and Soul” clip) in 1938, and that fact might seem odd to movie buffs. Why? Because they’d recall that The Wizard of Oz wasn’t released until 1939. Wain was likely first vocalist to studio record the song ever, but it couldn’t be released until the next year, once the film was out and audiences heard Judy Garland sing it. Wain’s version, along with Garland’s and two other versions (hey, it’s a great song), ending up charting in the Top Ten.
Wain’s version, seemingly effortless and with lush orchestration, absolutely holds up. Have a listen: