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Andrews Sisters Had Their First Big Hit With A Yiddish Song

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You may have heard already that Patty Andrews has died. She was the last surviving member of the hugely popular, 1940s trio, the Andrew Sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEI MIR BIST DU SCHOEN")

ANDREWS SISTERS: (Singing) Of all the boys I've known, and I've known some, until I first met you I was lonesome.

BLOCK: Well, we have a brief footnote to that news.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's an only-in-America tale of how three Minnesota sisters of Norwegian-Greek heritage came to have a huge hit with a Yiddish song. And it came to them by way of two African-American performers.

BLOCK: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" was issued in 1937.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEI MIR BIST DU SCHOEN")

ANDREWS SISTERS: (Singing) And so I'd rack my brain hoping to explain all the things that you do to me. Bei mir bist du schoen, please let me explain. Bei mir bist du schoen means you're grand.

SHERYL KASKOWITZ: Sholom Secunda wrote the song in 1932 for a Yiddish theater musical, called "I Would if I Could," with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs.

CORNISH: That's ethnomusicologist Sheryl Kaskowitz. She says the song lived on after the show closed. Jewish American hotel guests in New York's Catskill Mountains were taken by it.

BLOCK: And so was a black singing duo known as Johnny and George. They took "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" to the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, performing it in the original Yiddish.

CORNISH: There, songwriter Sammy Cahn and Lou Levy heard it; loved it. They brought it to the attention of Decca Records, where the Andrews were just getting started.

KASKOWITZ: The Andrews Sisters were going to record it in Yiddish and they were, apparently, beginning to do that - to record it in Yiddish. And the story goes that the president of Decca, Jack Kapp, came rushing into the recording studio, telling them to stop and saying that he didn't want to make a race record, and that it needed to be in English.

BLOCK: Sammy Cahn quickly wrote English lyrics, and a gold record was born. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" was a B side - the back of the record - featuring "Nice Work If You Can Get it," by George and Ira Gershwin. But that B side became the Andrews Sisters' first hit.

CORNISH: It did the original composer little good. Sholom Secunda had sold the tune for just 30 bucks, and he later reflected on that decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHOLOM SECUNDA: I thought that $30 was a pretty good sum of money for a song that's not doing anyway. So I told her, give me the $30; here's the song.

CORNISH: In 1961, the copyright expired, and the rights reverted to Secunda and Jacobs.

BLOCK: They finally got more than $30 for the song that launched the phenomenal career of Patty Andrews and her two sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEI MIR BIST DU SCHOEN")

ANDREWS SISTERS: (Singing) I could say bella, bella, even say wunderbar. Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are. I've tried to explain bei mir bist du schoen. So kiss me and say that you will understand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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