SHOLOM
SECUNDA

The Story of

Bei Mir Bist du Schön


Camden Courier-Post - January 26, 1938



Bei Mir Bist du Schön"
How Sholom Secunda (1894–1974) gave away the rights to his popular classic...for a song

There is a popular myth that when the Andrews Sisters released their hugely successful recording of Sholom Secunda's "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" in 1938, the composer's mother was so distraught, she fasted for a week to expiate her sins.

The reason for her distress? Only two months earlier, her son had sold the rights to the song for a mere thirty dollars!

While the extreme reaction of Secunda's mother, perpetrated by a sensational article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, is most likely an exaggeration, the amazingly low amount of the sale is true.

Of course, the composer had no idea the song would become such a hit. Written in 1932, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (translation: "To Me You Are Beautiful") was part of a Yiddish operetta called I Would If I Could, written in 1932 by Abraham Bloom, with music by Secunda and lyrics by his writing partner, Jacob Jacobs.

The trio had attempted to sell the show to Hollywood, with no success. Even Eddie Cantor, who years later would feature the song and its composer on his radio show, originally turned the show down. With no greater prospects in sight for their song, Secunda and Jacobs decided they might as well sell the rights to a publisher.

“At the time, it was considered good publicity in Yiddish theater circles to have your songs published," said Secunda in a 1961 interview with The New York Times. "Most of the time we would publish our songs at our own expense. If you could sell it to a publisher later on, you were that much richer. I had sold hundreds of songs for thirty dollars and was happy to get the money for this one. Jacobs and I split 50–50.”


An Enormous Success

Within two months of the sale, a then-little-known musical trio called the Andrews Sisters recorded a newly adapted English-language version of the song, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. The only Yiddish that remained was the title, repeated throughout the song.

Released by Decca Records, it became the Andrews Sisters' first major hit record.

Even Americans unfamiliar with Yiddish bought the song in droves. Undaunted by the title, they requested the recording or sheet music using such approximations as "Buy Me a Beer, Mr. Shane" or "My Mere Bits of Shame." However it was pronounced, the song was an enormous success.

“Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. The Russians loved it so much that they claimed it as their own, recording a Russian-language version with the State Jazz Orchestra of the Soviet Union and crediting composers O. Kandat and Fidrovsky with authorship.

It was even a hit in Germany under the Nazi regime—that is, until it was discovered that the composer and lyricist were Jewish, whereupon the song was promptly banned.

During the 28 years that the copyright of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” was owned by Kammen and other entities, it is estimated that the song grossed $3,000,000. Many illustrious musical stars shared in its success, including Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Nelson Eddy, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, and Bette Midler. Lyricist Sammy Cahn bought his mother a house from the money he earned from the song. It seemed as if everyone was reaping the rewards of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön."

Everyone, that is, but the composer.


Recreating the Original Sound

In 2001, the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music decided to revisit the old standard by recording a new orchestration featuring soloist Simon Spiro and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, led by Israeli conductor Elli Jaffe.

Though original orchestrations of many Yiddish theater shows have been lost or discarded over the years, the Milken Archive—through extensive research and collaboration with some of the world's finest reconstruction orchestrators—was able to reconstruct the full-pit orchestra sound and style of the time. Thus the Milken Archive recording of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" is the first time audiences will hear the song as it might have sounded in a Second Avenue theater in New York City in the early 1930s.

When asked why the Milken Archive decided to record the song in its original Yiddish format rather than the Andrews Sisters' English/Yiddish version, marketing and A&R director Paul Schwendener replied, “It is, in fact, a Yiddish song from the beginning. Because of the catchy tune, it became a huge international hit and was translated into many languages. The Archive naturally wanted to record the original version.”


A Happy Ending

Remarkably, Secunda was not bitter about losing out on more than $350,000 in royalties throughout the years. As he told The New York Times, "It bothered everyone else more than it bothered me. I've been more interested in my symphonic music."

Fortunately for Secunda, the story of his most popular composition has a happy ending. In 1961, the copyright on "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" expired, reverting ownership to Secunda and Jacobs. They immediately signed a contract with Harms, Inc., the music publishing company that had acquired the rights from the Kammen brothers. This time Secunda negotiated for himself the full percentage of the composer's royalties. Current copyright law holds that this will remain in effect until 75 years after his death.

And in 1964, Secunda's oratorio, If Not Higher, premiered in New York featuring opera stars Richard Tucker and Norman Atkins. It received great critical acclaim.

The Milken Archive recording of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön," featuring Simon Spiro, is forthcoming on the Naxos label.

Milken Archive of American Jewish Music

 

Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (Means You're Grand)
- words by Jacob Jacobs, Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, music by Sholom Secunda
- originally written in Yiddish by Jacob Jacobs (lyrics) and Sholom Secunda (music)
for the Yiddish musical "I Would If I Could" in 1933.
 English lyrics written for
The Andrews Sisters by Sammy Cahn within a couple of days of the Nov 24, 1937 recording
- "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" means "To Me, You Are Beautiful"


Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some
Until I first met you, I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me

You're really swell, I have to admit you
Deserve expressions that really fit you
And so I've racked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me

Bei mir bist du schön, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schön means you're grand
Bei mir bist du schön, again I'll explain
It means you're the fairest in the land

I could say "Bella, bella", even say "Voonderbar"
Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are

I've tried to explain, bei mir bist du schön
So kiss me and say you understand

Bei mir bist du schön, you've heard it all before
but let me try to explain
Bei mir bist du schön means that you're grand
Bei mir bist du schön, it's such an old refrain
and yet I should explain
It means I am begging for your hand

I could say "Bella, bella", even say "Voonderbar"
Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are

------ instrumental break ------

I could say "Bella, bella", even say "Voonderbar"
Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are

I've tried to explain, bei mir bist du schön
So kiss me and say that you will understand

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