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Jewkbox: Jewish Musicians who Changed Rock Music

January 28, 2018 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Six members of the tribe, from Bob Dylan to Joey Ramone.

Jews have changed the face of music in America. As I’ve written in the past, our contribution to Broadway alone (Jerome Kern. Oscar Hammerstein II, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to name just a few) created the landscape of enduring and legendary new sounds in America. Jews also wrote some of the most popular Christmas and patriotic songs, the master being Irving Berlin.

In rock music, Jews are lesser known, so the following may be surprising. Let’s look at a sampling of six.

* KISS: Both Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are Jewish.

- Gene Simmons: The singer, songwriter, record producer, entrepreneur, actor and television personality, also known by his stage persona The Demon is the bass guitarist and co-lead singer of Kiss, the rock band he co-founded with rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley in the early 1970s. Simmons was born Chaim Witz at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. In 1949, he immigrated to the U.S. with his mother, Florence, a survivor. In 2011, Simmons visited his home country, Israel. He described the trip as a "life changing experience … I'm Israeli. I'm a stranger in America. I'm an outsider.” Simmons also accepted a 'successful native son' award from the city of Haifa .He remains an ardent supporter of Israel. A major influence on Simmons was the Beatles. His hard-rock group ,KISS, exploded after 1975 with "Alive!," bringing songs such as "Rock and Roll All Nite" – along with their distinctive hard rock to worldwide fame. "Beth" brought Kiss to the top 10 of the Hot 100 in 1976; "Forever," which peaked at No. 8 in 1990, returned them to the top 10.

- Paul Stanley: He was born Stanley Bert Eisen was born January , 1952, in upper Manhattan. Stanley’s mother’s family fled Nazi Germany to Amsterdam, and then to New York City. His father's parents were from Poland. In a 1979 interview with Tom Snyder, he described himself as the only Jewish kid in an all Irish neighborhood while growing up. Early on, despite an ear deformity that affected his hearing, he loved music, from Beethoven to Jerry Lee Lewis. At 13, he received his first adult guitar. Ultimately, he was inspired by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

*Bob Dylan: A Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Dylan has become the standard bearer in both folk and rock music. After the 1963 release of “The Freewheelin” he burst onto scene. His work has included the legendary songs/albums: "Blowin' in the Wind” and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." With his next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', he soared as the sound of the 1960s protest movement.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew name: Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham) in Duluth, he had a strong Jewish upbringing in the tight Jewish community of Hibbing, Minnesota, where he was raised. His parents were both presidents of Jewish service organizations and his grandparents spoke Yiddish. His family observed kashrut, and he attended the Zionist summer camp, Camp Hertzl. While his stance on religion has been, much like him, complex , contradictory, and self-mythologizing, his Jewishness shines through his work where his strong knowledge of Judaism is clear, for example, his “Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues” and the inclusion of a section of the Tanach in “All Along the Watchtower.”

*Donald Fagen: Steely Dan. Born Donald Jay Fagen in January, 1948 to Jewish parents, the Grammy winner was raised in New Jersey. He is best known as co-founder (with Walter Becker), singer, and keyboardist of Steely Dan. While Fagen has classified himself as both a self-taught pianist and vocalist, he did study formally, at Berklee College of Music and took some private lessons in the mid-1970s. Steely Dan's bestselling album was 1977's Aja, which was certified platinum. The jazz-rock legend, whose work includes “Morph the Cat,” “Brite Nightgown” and after Steely Dan's breakup in 1981, “The Nightfly,” was influenced by the heavily Jewish Tin Pan Alley and Jewish songwriters such as Burt Bacharach.

*David Lee Roth: Van Halen. The multi-talented vocalist, musician, actor, writer and songwriter, best known as lead singer of the hard rock band Van Halen, was born on October 10, 1954 in Bloomington, Indiana. His dad, and other relatives were affluent and renowned surgeons. Interestingly, David says that he found his voice while studying for his Bar Mitzvah. His stage presence comes from the showmanship of performers like Al Jolson. Medicine wasn’t the only “medium” around Roth. His uncle, Manny Roth, spearheaded the famed Café Wha? In Greenwich Village. (The place to be for New York boomers.) At age seven, he was inspired by the club’s performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. As a solo artist, he’s been highly rewarded with Gold and Platinum albums. In 1960, Uncle Manny was one of Roth’s first interviews on his radio show in New York.

*Joey Ramone: One of a number of Jews who founded punk rock, could there be a less Jewish name? (Actually, the “Ramone” was the name Paul McCartney used when he wanted to check into places incognito.) Ramone was born Jeffrey Ross Hyman on May 19, 1951 in Queens, New York to Charlotte (née Mandell) and Noel Hyman. Joey Ramone's parents met at the Borscht Belt, where Jewish families vacationed, performed – and looked to make shidduchs. Joey co-founded the Ramones in 1974, bringing a new counter-culture sound to rock. His music was loud, fast, and in part represented the outside status of Jews. The icon died just shy of his 50th Birthday after a long battle with lymphoma in 2001. In 2005, Ramone was honored posthumously at the first Jewish Music Awards, receiving the Heeb Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award. After his death, the city of New York, named a corner for him (2nd Street and the Bowery), calling it “Joey Ramone Place.” In 2010 the Associated Press reported his tribute was the most stolen sign and later placed it 20 feet above the sidewalk!

Of course there are many other great rock musicians, too many to name, but if you have a favorite, include him or her in the comments section below!

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