The Jewish British Invasion

by Scott Benarde June 21, 2010


After the Beatles conquered America, many of the British bands that followed were supplied with songs by Jewish songwriters.

Forty years ago, in June of 1965, a British band called the Yardbirds, featuring a guitarist named Eric Clapton, reached the American Top 10 with a song called “For Your Love,” now a rock classic. While the Beatles-led British Invasion of the ’60s was already into its second year, “For your Love” — marked the beginning of what could be called “The Jewish British Invasion.”

Although the Beatles wrote the lion’s share of the songs they recorded, many of the British bands that followed them relied on contributions from outside writers. Among the most successful — and most unheralded in the United States — were three Englishmen: Graham Gouldman, who wrote “For Your Love,” Keith Reid and Pete Brown.

The three had a lot in common.

They loved to read, but were bored with school and left early. They wanted careers in music, had the ambition to follow that dream, and ended up writing or co-writing songs that have stood the test of time, including “For Your Love,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” And another thing: Gouldman, Reid and Brown were all Jewish.

Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky may have spotted the Jewish British Invasion early. When asked what it was like to be an American band competing with waves of groups from England, Yanovsky joked that the secret to success was to “Dress British and think Yiddish.” Looks like he was on to something.

It would be not to mention keyboard player/arranger Manfred Mann, a Jewish rocker from England, born Manfred Lubowitz in South Africa. His band, which he reluctantly lent his name to, was one of the first to follow the Beatles to the top of the U.S. record charts, but ironically, they got there using songs by American Jewish songwriters. Manfred Mann reached No. 1 in the States in late 1964 with the Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich ditty, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” and also found success on both sides of the Atlantic re-arranging Bob Dylan songs, including “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo).” (The Eric Burdon-led Animals out of Newcastle, England also would have great success with their renditions of songs by the Jewish husband-and-wife songwriting teams of Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) and Gerry Goffin-Carole King (“Don’t Bring Me Down”).

But few songwriters were as singularly successful during the mid ’60s sonic assault on the U.S. as Graham Gouldman.

The Manchester, England native, a multi-instrumentalist who wrote both words and music, was only 19 in the summer of ’65 when his song “For Your Love” began pouring out of American radios.
Gouldman had given the Yardbirds a major hit. Two months later, Gouldman again put the Yardbirds in the American Top 10 with “Heart Full of Soul.” “Evil-Hearted You,” a third Yardbirds song penned by Gouldman, reached No. 3 on the British record charts the same year.

Gouldman, it turns out, was just getting warmed up. The following year, The Hollies had Top 40 hits with Gouldman’s “Look Through Any Window” and “Bus Stop,” and Herman’s Hermits reached No. 3 with Gouldman’s “Listen People.”
Herman’s Hermits would take another Gouldman song , “No Milk Today,” into the Top 40 in early 1967.

Gouldman grew up in an observant household and regularly attended services at his orthodox Shul. He was moved by the music he heard there, especially minor-key melodies of the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur. Minor-key chord progressions would later find their way into many of Gouldman’s songs.

At 16, smitten by the tunes of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly, Gouldman quit school to pursue music. He viewed his early songwriting success as the sweet revenge toward anti-Semitic schoolmates who often referred to him as a “Jewish bastard,” and high school teachers who predicted he’d end up as nothing more than “factory fodder.”

Gouldman again struck gold in the disco era, co-writing a string of hits for the group 10cc that included “I’m Not In Love” and “The Things We Do For Love.” In the mid ’80s, he successfully teamed with American musician Andrew Gold in a duo called Wax. He remains poplar in Europe and England, where he continues to perform.

Throughout his life, Gouldman has drawn musical and spiritual inspiration from his numerous visits to Israel, especially while hiking in the Negev. “I like the desert,” Gouldman says. “You think it’s empty, but it’s not. It’s harsh, but everything is provided. It’s a metaphor for faith and trusting in God.”

Keith Reid was another British kid who faced anti-semitism in the classroom. Like Gouldman, Reid knew he wanted to be a songwriter. Unlike Goldman, Reid was the child of a Holocaust survivor and grandchild of Holocaust victims.

As lyricist for Procol Harum, he provided the band with 10 albums worth of song lyrics, including the international hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” He has admitted his family’s history had a profound effect on his writing (and his identity as a Jew). “The tone of my work is very dark,” Reid says, “and I think it’s probably from my background in some subconscious way. It goes back to my dad and what happened to him and the events of those times.”

His father, Irwin Reiter, a prominent Viennese lawyer, was one of more than 6,000 Jews arrested in Vienna on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, and sent to Dachau. He was released several months later after promising to leave the country. He, along with a younger brother, fled to England. The fate of their parents remains a mystery.

In late 1965, Reid connected with singer and pianist Gary Brooker, the man who would put music to his words. Reid’s literate, cryptic poetry, filled with surreal imagery, fit Brooker’s plaintive singing style. A writing team was born, and it hit a grand slam with its first effort. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” released in May of 1967, charged up the record charts on both sides of the Atlantic. A couple more hits would follow, “Homburg” and “Conquistador,” but nothing would have as huge or enduring an impact as “Pale.”

Pete Brown used to start food fights at his Jewish day school in London as a form of rebellion against the tyrannical rabbis who taught there. While Brown enjoyed studying Hebrew and loved the music he heard in synagogue, “the religious side of things was banged into you quite brutally,” he recalls. Looking back, Brown, who was born in 1940 and is six years older than Gouldman and Reid, believes much of that strictness was born from a sense of post-war urgency to make sure Judaism didn’t die.

As mischievous as Brown was, he credits the school with instilling in him a love for language, a passion for poetry and the desire to become a musician. He would go on to form one of rock music’s most successful songwriting teams with Cream bassist-singer-songwriter Jack Bruce. The pair wrote most of Cream’s best material, including “White Room,” “I Feel Free,” “Politician,” “SWLABR (She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow),” “As You Said,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart” and, with Eric Clapton, “Sunshine of Your Love.”

Brown was born in the midst of World War II in the south of England. His family had been evacuated from London after a bomb blew up the family’s house and shoe shop. As a teen, Brown (the family name was originally Labovitch or Leibowitz), began reading poets such as Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg. He eventually tried his hand at poetry, and by the time he was 18 he had published his first work.

In 1965, he gained notoriety reading his work at the Royal Albert Hall on the same bill with Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Soon afterward, Brown got a call from drummer Ginger Baker. Baker had formed a new band called Cream and wanted Brown to write with the group. “The magic,” Brown says, “happened between me and Jack (Bruce).” Brown, Gouldman, Reid and Mann all remain active in the music business, mostly in England and Europe. None have “invaded” America in decades.

Scott Benarde is the author of Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories (University Press of New England, 2003).

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4 thoughts on “The Jewish British Invasion

  1. Marc Bolan also. And, according to Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts.

  2. Michael, Marc Bolan was only half-Jewish (If there is such a thing on his Father’s side) So that doesn’t count. And yeah, according (Emphasis on according) to Stanley Booth… Yeah I’ve heard that Charlie Watts is Jewish too. But he’s NOT! It’s just a rumour!

  3. Stanley Booth quoted Charlie Watts verbatim in his book. I show it on page 67 of the hardback edition, 3rd paragraph down where Charlie is discussing his apprenticeship at a graphics design firm.

    ”And then from there—-I’d done three years apprenticeship, and wanted more money, being Jewish, so I moved to a bigger firm, which sent me to Sweden, ah Denmark.”

    Charlie Watts is an incredible gentleman, scholar and musician. He’s still married to Shirley Sheppard and only had one child, a daughter. Charlie is ”the salt of the earth.”

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