The Giant Jew Band was a group of five extremely energetic and talented Jewish musicians who invented Rock and Roll in 1894, six decades before the musical form went mainstream.
"In their time the Giant Jew Band was bigger than the Beatles," said the Rolling Stone cover story upon the 1977 death of Morrie Abrahamson, the band's last surviving member, "at least in the rural backwoods of Southwestern Maine. Few people still remember the group, but Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and all of the other 1950s Rock 'pioneers' trace their roots right back to these rural backhills Jewboys, and gave them proper credit during their lifetimes." This is their story.
Roots of Rock and Roll
When Sy Roth, the Father of Rock and Roll, woke up on the first day of Spring, March 21, 1894, he didn't anticipate that he would change the world before lunch. Roth had just turned 16 the week before, and upon awakening all he could think about was to find a way to once again try to talk with Nancy, the fetching young lady who lived down the street from his Rangeley, Maine home. He wasn't really friends with Nancy, but he'd spoken to her on several occasions - shopping at the General Store, in the hallway at school, that time he helped her find her dog when it escaped from the backyard--and after each of those chance meetings his heart would flutter and the world would seem brighter for the next several days.
Sy didn't know he was in love. There was nothing in his schoolbooks about how love should feel, and none of his friends talked of "being in love" or of hoping to find love. But he was, without knowing it, deeply and pleasantly in the throes of something far beyond his understanding or conscious thought.
So it was that soon after eating breakfast, and as he started to walk in the direction of Nancy's home, Sy Roth began to hum. His humming, and the accompanying tapping of his fingers on the schoolbooks he carried in a satchel by his side, took on a quicker pace, and then started to form a rhythm. Without thinking or planning or conscious thought, Sy's footsteps beat the ground, once, double-time, and his body began to move side-to-side as he walked, hummed, and groooooved, to an inspired four-beat.
By chance, or by the Gods and Goddesses guiding human events and mischief, Nancy emerged from her home just as Sy was about to pass her gate. She, on the porch, looked at Sy, and he stopped outside her fence---but his fingertips and his feet and his humming and his gyrations side-to-side continued and wonder-of-wonders, Sy began to sing.
The words are long lost, but we know from interviews with Sy and Nancy that the flow of history-echoing sounds rumbling sensuously from deep within his throat, diaphragm and psyche, spoke of love, but spoke of it in a way never before witnessed by eyes or heard by ears. Lyrics intertwined with conviction, movements of limbs and spine treated Nancy's tender vision with sights anew, and Gabriel's horn in heaven had never sounded so directly into a human soul as this siren-song of legend, put to a beat of jasmine and riding atop Cupid's scented arrow itself before nestling deep within her heart.
Sy kept singing, and his body kept moving, and Nancy's feet took up the beat and danced off the porch and into the street, and the two of them circled and twisted and threw their arms up into the bright Springtime sky. Then and there the intense whirlwind of the moment touched three other boys as they walked by on their way to market--Sy's friends Ben Simons and Morrie Abrahamson, and Morrie's brother Sid. They caught the beat, how could they not?, and as they danced and hummed and took on the groove Sy looked into their eyes, and they all looked at Nancy, and everyone immediately knew: Once we've done this right, it could be duplicated at will.
The rest, of course, was history. Sy, Nancy, Ben, Sid, and Morrie, enchanted by the glow of the moment, hugged and talked, and Sy vocalized what they all now took for granted: "Let's form a band!" The group instantly agreed, and a half-hour later Nancy, after a brief necking and make-out session with Sy, suggested the name "Giant Jew Band" (her 1895 song My Giant Jew is credited with containing the first overtly suggestive song lyrics in Rock history).
The invention of the Electric Guitar by a Serbian Jew
The addition of Ben Simons to the Band was serendipitous. When Sy and Nancy broke into the rhythms and movements of Rock and Roll, and Ben Simons happened to be walking by and thus was caught up in the historical magic of the moment, the Simons family happened to be hosting their longtime friend, inventor Nikola Tesla. As they all ate dinner that evening, Ben explained what had occurred, and tried to give them a feeling of the exhilaration he felt by singing a portion of the siren song that Sy and Nancy had been singing when he was captivated. Tesla excused himself from the table, went to the garage, tore some metal strips from its walls, undid the garage's primitive electrical system, emptied and reshaped Ben's father's toolbox, propped together something from the buggy and the horse stable, and within 25 minutes had invented the first electric guitar. Ben Simons told the story of what happened next in his autobiography Ridin' the Lightning (Southwestern Maine Publications, 1904):
"'Here you go kid,' Tesla said, tossing me something heavy made from silver metal. 'And this boxy looking thing here is an amp. You plug the dohickey in here, turn this dial, and the movement of the strings translates into electrical current. You don't have to be a rocket scientist kid, just play it.'"
The Giant Jew Band practices
Later, after Tesla scrounged around the neighborhood for another hour or so, he came up with enough odds and ends to make another electric guitar, an electric bass, a keyboard, and what he called a "micro-phone". Ben hauled this bounty down to Nancy's home, where the group was meeting over lemonade and ginger snaps provided by Nancy's dear ol' mum, Kate. Since they had all met in the road outside her home, Ben jokingly labeled Kate a "roadie". Everyone laughed about this, and then the roadie swept out the garage, set up the instruments, did a final sound check, and arranged drinks and refreshments on a table before fading into the background as the band began to practice. . .
. . .and practice, and practice, and then practice anew. For weeks, then months, they learned each others moves, emotions, phasing, timing, and began to merge together to became one with their music. The Giant Jew Band carried their magic to new heights as their lead vocal, Sy, gyrated his now exercised-enlarged muscular hips in ways that none of them had ever imagined or seen (except Nancy). They began to play point-counterpoint guitar notes and drum beats to the movements of Sy's hips, swinging, pumping, rolling and shaking ("A whole lotta shakin' goin' on," Nancy thought to herself, smiling). The songs came, one by one, a further musical melding occurred, and finally, enthusiastically, the Giant Jew Band was ready for its first "gig" (a word their roadie had thought up after having just a wee bit too much sacramental wine one warm Friday eve).
Their First Gig
"Welcome to Joseph Rubenstein's Bar Mitzvah" the sign read, and the ceremony went very well as the Rabbi made Joey into a man (remember, "making Joey into a man" has a far different meaning in the Jewish tradition than it does in, say, the Roman Catholic church). When the ceremony reached a climax, Joey's relatives carried him around the room on there shoulders, then settled in for the festivities and traditional meal. As they began to eat, the Giant Jew Band took the stage.
"Are you READY?????" Sy screamed into the micro-phone. The crowd froze, stunned. Someone dropped a glass. Others stopped in mid-sentence. "I said, ARE YOUUUU READDDDDDYYYYYYYYY!!!" and the Bass guitar sounded VROOOOOMMMMMMMMM Sid's drum joined in CLLLMMMUUOUDDDD KACAALOUDDDDDDD and all of the instruments rang with sound as Nancy at the organ gradually piped-in ten different variations of the rhythm being played in extending rapid order overlayed by Sy's voice screaming and Sy and Morrie gyrating as Ben's instrument spoke the words via the first public exhibition of a guitar master's use of feedback: IIIII SSSAAIIDDD AAARRREEEE UUUUUUUUUUUUUURRREEEADDDDYYYYYYY.
In the audience, way in back beyond the grandmothers fallen into or stupifiedly frozen in their chairs, beyond the strong men just becoming aware that they could once again move their mouths and hands, beside the young women - the corners of their mouths unconsciously turning up, not knowing what that feeling was that they were starting to feel - stood Tesla, smiling faintly, chuckling to himself, seeing the future in vivid detail all the way down the chain to a bluesjazzpsychedelicgrungehouserapcrownquanta hybrid, letting himself laugh a little louder, then louder still, and his feet began to tap, faster now, and soon Nikola Tesla himself was dancing near the stage - whirling and twisting with hands raised in the air and feet seemingly moving five directions five dimensions at once - as everyone in the audience started to come to their senses, senses forever-changed-molded-bombarded with what the band's roadie would later drunkenly describe as. . . "a wall of sound". Then one by one they joined in the dancing. Old grannies, shaking that last shake from their failing hips; dignified Rabbi's, bouncing, whooping, hollering like grade-school children; and at last the group of young Jewish women, hair loosened and flying with energetic movement, dresses whirling in umbrella shaped tornadoes, and eyes watching the finest dancer of them all, Joey Rubenstein, a man at last, sliding across the floor doing the splits.
Then and there, Rock and Roll was officially and wailingly publicly introduced, its sound and mystique to be tied forever, in the minds of those who remember or know, to the timeless ecstasy of this very moment within the walls of a Temple in the backwoods of Southwestern Maine.
Their brief but extraordinary career
The Giant Jew Band played together for two years, or until Sy, Nancy, and Morrie went to college. In that time they performed at high school dances, a few other Bar Mitzvahs, and on a large farm -now a golf course - near Rangeley in what their now rehabilitated roadie named a "music festival". It was at this festival that several tourists from the great American west (in this case, West Virginia) heard and befriended them. It was these same tourists who later arranged for Sy and Nancy, who married in 1899, to meet and tutor some of the early ragtime, jazz, and blues musicians from Chicago, New York, and Mississppi. They continued, without fanfare and with a generosity born of their love for each other and for the music, to teach others what they knew for the rest of their lives (Sy, for example, was tutoring a polite young hillbilly singer in guitar, singing style, and hip movements when he mysteriously drowned in 1954). Although their playing days were few, their influence is felt, of course, until this very moment.
Before we leave the days of yore, and the legendary times of Sy and his band, imagine it is 1895 and Nancy, with the help of what Tesla jokingly called his "extension cord", prepares to perform under an apple tree at the Mingo Springs Music and Arts Festival. The band, rocking the crowd, backs and fronts and elevates her as she belts out the lyrics of her monster hit song (at least in the crystal-clear blue-sky covered rural backwoods of Southwestern Maine) My Giant Jew:
Never knew that it could be so big/Never held so much in my own little hand/Baby, don't you leave me until I totally fill/My smiling mouth like hourglass filled with sand/O, Giant Jew! O, Giant Jew!/Your needs are simple and your pleasures so cool/O, Giant Jew! O, Giant Jew!/I'll lend you my "lucky penny" while you lend me your tool.
The only known tintype of the Giant Jew Band. Top, left to right, Nancy (in Jew drag), Sy, and Sid. Bottom, left to right, Ben and Morrie. (Courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, circa 1895)
Not many remember the Giant Jew Band, but they remember in Southwestern Maine, where the Rangeley High School "Giant Jew Band Giant Tribute Marching Band" performs before every home game. (Sid's great-great-grandson Henry, following in his ancestor's footsteps, is the drummer on the far right)
The Band's first guitar, thrown together by Tesla from odds and ends from the Simon's garage including--as coincidence has a knack of doing--the word "Gibson" from an old beer can. (Courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, historical artifacts collection)