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A young Mort and his Mum

Mort as a baby

Mort as a baby

Mort as a baby

Mort as a baby

Mort as a baby

Mort on Mort


© 1991 Mort Shuman

Mort as a babyMort Shuman was born in Brooklyn, NY just before the start of World War II, child of Louis Shuman and Esther Shuman, nee Drucker. Louis and Esther were immigrants.

Louis left Warsaw (where he murdered a German officer), just after World War I and almost didn’t get to see the Statue of Liberty.

He ran out of money in Glasgow and worked for a Jewish barber there who had an eligible daughter. Mort might have wound up being a Scotsman and there would be no story. Anyway, Louis was already married with three children, decided to continue to America, make his fortune and then send for the wife and kids. Esther came over direct with her parents, two sisters and two brothers.

While living in Warsaw, Esther had a secret fiancé who she was mad about. He was a secret. He was secret because one, Esther was too young and two, the fiancés mother was a little crazy. She had four sons and demanded total love and obedience from all of them. So Esther and her love met in secret and vowed one day to run away and marry. But it was not to be and Esther found herself, along with the thousands of poor and hungry Jews escaping pogroms and persecution on the lower East Side of Manhattan. There were many parties and fetes amongst them. They were poor but lebedig and lustig. On one of these occasions, Esther saw a man on the other side of the room and almost died. It was her fiancé! He was in America! Overcome with emotion, she approached him and said “Max?” The good looking man turned around and said that his name was Louis. But it was too late for Esther, she was madly in love. And Louis as well it seemed for they became inseparable. A long while later, Esther found the courage to tell Louis why she approached him and why her heart went out to him. Louis asked what was his name. She only knew his first name “Max”. Louis could not believe it, “My younger brother’s name is Max” She took out the photo. It was Louis’ brother. How strange destiny. Then Louis told her about his wife and kids. He decided to divorce by proxy and marry Esther. And so they did.

Louis and Esther came from the same milieu: working class. He in the factories since the age of eight and she since the age of ten.

And they came from the militant worker community. The old German + Polish Bund and others. They and some of their friends formed an organisation: The International Workers Order which was investigated during the McCarthy era, but more of that later.

As Louis and Esther got better jobs, they kept moving; out of the ghetto and into larger apartments with hot water, in the Bronx and Brooklyn. They had no children at first. Louis had three already in Poland and Esther was an obedient wife. But she convinced him to bring over his eldest son, Izzy. (His first wife and the youngest died in the camps, a daughter joined the partisans, went to Israel after the war and is now married and lives in Paris. Izzy stayed with them for a while but was too restless so moved out and lived alone.

BrooklynThen they found an apartment on the top floor of a house in a street with trees about 100 meters from the sea. Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Last stop on the BMT subway. You got used to the noise of the trains (they were overhead, like you see in the movies). At the turn of the century, Brighton was the Deauville of New York. There was a racetrack (now the Boardwalk). By the beach, there used to be grand hotels, theatres and restaurants. Now there were council flats and run down houses by the sea but it beat the lower East Side and there was a breeze on the hot summer nights and so thirteen years after they married they had their only child; a son.

It seems he was long and thin and bald as a sausage, but Esther loved him as only a poor Jewish mother can. She went to the opera about a dozen times during the pregnancy which maybe accounts for MS musical inclination.

Brighton Beach at that time was a hotbed of progressive workers.

Politically, socially and culturally they were organized. Esther and Louis sang in the Community Choir, Louis played in the Mandolin Orchestra, there were readings and Kugel at home and Mort took part as a spectator. Best of all they loved the Saturday nights in the summer, when it was too hot to stay home and so they all met on the Boardwalk with Iced Tea and cookies and the children could stay up late and Mort and his cousins and friends listened while Uncle Manny played the violin and Esther and her two sisters sang and the others joined in. And sometimes there was a big crowd, mostly friends. Because in reality it was their shtel on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

The ………Mort
And all this in Yiddish, because English was what the Goyim spoke, what you had to speak when you went for unemployment checks or ration cards or to talk to the teacher, otherwise life in Brooklyn by the Sea was lived in Mama Loschen. All the neighbours, the merchants, the milkman even spoke Yiddish. Mort spoke it until the age of five when he learned English in school. It was his second language even though he was born in America. And he sang in Yiddish and played an old guitar that Louis bought for him. And had piano lessons and went to Art School on Saturdays but he was never Bar-mitzvahed. Louis was a free thinker. Organised religion was medieval. So Mort never became a man.

He would sit around and listen to Rhythm n’ Blues records. MS started playing that music on the piano. He thought it was the greatest sounds he had ever heard. When he was very young, his Uncle Murray who was a drunkard, would make him listen to classical music and MS would have to tell him the difference between Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann while Murray finished of a bottle of Bourbon. How’s that for Kultur? Then there was the crap they played on the radio ie: Perry Como, Jo Stafford, Georgia Gibbs. Too white for Mort who was starting to question the origins of his “soul”. With R’n’B, he found, musically, what he was searching for. It would be a short step with the help of the weed until he became what Norman Mailer wrote about in one of his essays: A White Negro

Three things happened that were to affect Mort profoundly and they all happened about the same time. Louis died (of a heart attack, what else?), He met Doc Pomus and he enrolled in City College.

When Louis died, Esther said, no more husbands. MS started getting paranoid about being a momma’s boy for the rest of his life. So he started making life difficult for Esther. She was not allowed into the living room, which was transformed into a drinking club for young Jewish potheads.

At the same time Mort met Doc, Pomus who was a White Negro before it became fashionable, crippled by polio at the age of six, Doc took refuge with the people who had the patent on suffering in America: the blacks.

Doc wrote and sung the Blues. He sang in clubs that even some of his black friends were afraid to enter. Doc met Mort, heard some of his songs, introduced him to Herb Abramson, Jerry Wexler and Ahmed Ertegun. Atlantic Records published and recorded Mort’s first songs when he was sixteen, sang along with him when he played them (just like Brighton Beach), and gave him $25 advance for every song taken. They were along with Doc, his spiritual fathers now that Louis was gone, then Doc decided that they should write together. So Mort started going to University studying foreign trade during the day. Then working at whatever part time job he could find cause his mother could only give him a train token and a sandwich and then at night going to Williamsburg, the other end of Brooklyn to get a Blues education from Doc and sometimes to write a song.

In university Mort spent most of his time playing his songs in the lounge and organising the parties. While there he met a West Indian girl and they became good friends, but only friends. One night there was a Calypso concert at school and Mort took Keris. When his white friends saw him, they were polite but you could feel the tension. Afterwards Keris invited them to a party in Harlem. They all refused except Mort of course. One more step down the road. The party was great. The drink, the food, the good pot and the black girls who started working their hips when they danced. MS freaked out. How could he ever go back to Brooklyn?

So life became school; doing badly (except in Philosophy). Doc; writing better and better. Mom; home was hell, and the Palladium, home of the mambo, cha-cha, merengue . Mort became a mabonik. He wrote Rock n Roll but lived, ate, drank and breathed Latino, and mostly in an old funky ballroom on West 53rd Street and Broadway; the Palladium. The PalladiumThe Palladium, Wednesday night at the Palladium was a New York institution. Stars of stage and screen danced and drank with cleaning ladies, seamstresses, pimps, pushers and MS was in the middle, not only on Wednesday night but Friday, Saturday and Sunday too. And there fell in with the inter-racial crowd, the outcasts – not wanted by either side.

The Mambo became important and so did Jazz. And so did the black experience. His curly hair helped. He imagined that somewhere in another life he had black ancestors. He started hanging out with second-rate Latin and Jazz musicians and Mambo dancers. All black. Walk black and eat black. Because as everyone knew, black was “soul” and white, Jewish, lower middle-class America had none. Mort stayed away from home for longer periods of time, sleeping where he could, usually with armies of cockroaches marching across the blanket and rats nibbling in the corner. He was still writing with Doc in Williamsburg. The lone ranger of the subway system. College was worse, but he organised great parties in the lounges and getting young singers like Dion and Bobby Darin to perform for all they could eat and drink. And he started hanging out with better known Jazz musicians: Horace Silver, Art Taylor, Johnny Griffin. And he wanted to be a great rock n roll writer and the white Thelonius Monk.

Horace Silver

Sugar Hill, the chic neighbourhood of Harlem, Mort started taking piano lessons with Duke Jordan. They would meet in front of Birdland. Beg until they got enough money for a meal. Still trying to get a hit with Doc, he got kicked out of University. He was getting very thin. And then one Christmas week after loading crates all day long with no food he walked about 5 miles in a snow storm to meet Doc and Elvis Presley’s publisher. The man took one look at Mort and gave him $10 to go and get a meal and when he came back Mort signed an exclusive songwriters contract with the Aberbach Brothers and Freddy Bienstock.

MS met another black hipster and they moved into a flat on the Upper West Side. The hits weren’t coming, but at least there was a cheque every week to pay the rent. Steve was a drummer. During the day MS was a white rock n’ roll songwriter, at night he was a black soul musician. Talk about schizophrenia!

No one in the business knew about his life at home. Even in show business at that time it wasn’t the thing to do.

And then it happened. Success. Not one hit but two songs in the Top 10 at the same time. “Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts and “Turn Me Loose” for Fabian.

Mort made the demos and sang on them. He and Doc had a soulful style. (Normal for two white negroes) and it was in. And then the royalties started coming in. Mort started buying clothes and renting cars and going out for prime steak dinners and drinking.

Becauase the Auerbach’s and Freddy thought it would be a good idea to send them off to California, Los Angeles to meet Snuffy Garrett and try to write some songs. Doc and Mort stayed there for a month. Nothing much came out of it but Mort was not too impressed. He never went back. They wrote “Little Sister” and “Surrender” for Elvis and bumped into Bobby Darin who now was a big movie star living in Bel-Air and married to Sandra Dee. Bobby took them to the studios, to his home, but Mort could not come to grips with a city where no-one walked on the streets. New York here I come, but not for long.

And now the Drifters needed songs, like “Sweets For My Sweets” and “This Magic Moment” and “I Count The Tears” and “Save the Last Dance For Me”. And Elvis needed songs like “Mess Of Blues” and “His Latest Flame” and Mort would make the demos and play and sing and he thought ‘ why don’t I make records as well?’ but Doc and the publishers wanted him as a writer and so they gave him BIG cash bonuses and extended the contract …………


Her closest childhood friend, a survivor of Auchwitz, was living there with her husband. Mort could make up for the heartache he gave his dear old Jewish mother.

Eretz Isarael, Home. But of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t home for Mort but it was wonderful and would you believe? Yes, after a few days he left Esther with an apple and a banana and pockets filled with Israel pounds and decided to walk the length and breadth of the Holy Land as the old Prophets. What amazed him most was that everyone was Jewish. Most Jews living in other societies know a few of their own; their family, some friends, a business acquaintance. But the overwhelming majority are Goyim. So a Jew is always on the lookout. Here in Israel, apart from a few mangy Arabs, they were all Jews: the street cleaners, the cops, the hookers, the thieves, even the President was Jewish, so Mort was feeling at home but soon he felt hot and thirsty and tired. And he saw a gate and a road and he discovered his first Kibbutz. And his first Sabra. And she took him into her monks cell and taught him the modern version of the Psalms of Solomon. And she was like a Sabra, hard and dry and thorny, and it was hard to share the bed. (she snuck meals into him at night). So after three days and a run in with her father, Mort decided he wasn’t cut out to be a Kibbutznik and went back to Tel-Aviv via the Galilee and the Gaza Strip.

Willie DixonWillie DixonOne night he went to the Jaffa, the Arab twin city which was becoming an area for many of the creative people in Israel. And he got his first gig singing and playing in a club for food and drinks. And he played with Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim and had the owner’s wife thrown in. Sometimes it was rock. Sometimes it was folk, sometimes it was jazz. But what more could Mort want than eating a pork sandwich on Pitta bread with a beer overlooking the Bay of Jaffa with the minarets silhouetted against the eternal sky and whispering sweet nothings in Yiddish?

This time as it was relatively civilised, the calls and the cables were flying. You’d think Tin Pan Alley would disappear if he didn’t get on the first plane. So sadly, he once again said goodbye to the land of his forefathers and came home.

But this time it was no good. MS just couldn’t face reality. He slept 20 hours a day, only getting up to eat and drink, watched TV and slept again. He didn’t answer the phone, he didn’t do anything that would bring him back to his real life. And then he received a letter from a friend in Tel-Aviv who told him that he had to go and see an Israeli singer who was appearing at a Jewish-Israeli nightclub uptown called “The Sabra”. He dragged himself out of bed, shaved and got dressed and went to catch the show.

From the first bite of hummus and a glass of bad Israeli wine, he was feeling good again. And then in a great fanfare, the chanteuse appeared. She was sultry, smoky, with a great body and she used all of it to great advantage. Mort was falling more in love with every drink. He met and introduced himself. She strung him along for a few nights. He was there at the same table. Bad champagne. She had flowers in her room in the hotel upstairs, but he never saw it until he was ready to break down the door and then she let him in. The spider lady found a big fat fly. Mort should have known a little more about Jewish tradition before it was too late. They say that you should never marry someone with the same name as your parents and her name was Esther. But at this stage, Mort couldn’t care if her name was Louis..he was hooked. When her contract was over, they got married at City Hall and then flew to Israel to meet her folks in Jerusalem They were married again in the temple of the University of Jerusalem.

They spent their honeymoon at her parents house where only Arab was spoken. His wife was a shrew, lets face it. The old prophesy came true. They were always fighting and making up and fighting and after a year, Mort went to court, divorced, and started the first Alimony payments. The hits were still there “Little Children”, “Suspicion”, but Mort was sorely disillusioned.

He had changed apartments about five times in one year (a habit he soon grew to like), was living in and out of hotels, in and out of love affairs. He found a little place down on Lexington Avenue which he liked. Started learning how to cook (which he continued until today) and discovered model girls.

Izzy and Louis were long gone. Esther was more of a swinger than she realised and the rural joys of New Jersey were too much for her. She was bored stiff. She made her husband sell his house and they moved to Miami Beach (where else?) so that she could be with her sisters and friends in the same complex.

Even though Mort’s first marriage didn’t work out, Esther was forever telling Mort that he had to get married and have a family and settle down. He would fly down to see her, but only because the weather was nice and hot.

And all through the years until recently, it was always the same leitmotiv in his brain.

So anyway back to New York and the model girls and the Improvisation Café on West Forty Fourth Street where Mort would spend nights drinking and jamming with Dudley Moore and Albert Finney because it was the very beginning of the English invasion and ‘Tom Jones” and ‘Beyond the Fringe’. And stretch limos and Burt Bacharach writing some of the most original pop songs. What the world needs now is another glass of champagne.

The first one was an English girl who became his ward. Their relationship was platonic (a rarity) but she had a good time with Al Capp the creator of L’il Abner and David Merrick the producer.

Then he met a little model who was lost and suicidal and she finally did try to commit suicide in his flat while he was away. It inspired him to write a song. He was still travelling quite a lot mostly to the French Antilles where his favourite climate combined with his favourite food to calm his turbulent spirit. Back in New York, he met an interesting woman who was locked in a body brace which inhibited movement. Mort had to try it, which he did. The affair ended when she got better. Then the parties in New York with all the beautiful people, especially at Eileen Ford’s house with the top world models floating around. Mort had his share of them, followed them from collection to collection in Rome and Paris. Life became a glass of champagne and Mort was more and more dissolute. He lived for a while with a top American model and started writing some songs with Jerry Ragovoy, one of the top soul writer-producers of that time. Mort and Doc had practically stopped writing. Its sad but that’s life.

Then on a trip to Paris, Mort met Eddie Barclay who took him under his wing. Eddie was one of the great swingers of all time and life was a fete.

His idea of a meeting of the company was to take everyone to lunch three times a week at ‘Sebillion’ for three or five hours. Mort took part and said that Broadway was never like this. Mort came back to New York and then back to Paris.

He also went over to London again. This time falling right into the swinging sixties. This time no sausage and mash and bitter. It was pasta and vintage port and Aretusa and Eric Burdon and Mick and Keith, Paul and John, Alan Price and Jimi Hendrix and Julie Driscoll and Ray + Dave Davies and Club 55 and The Adlib. And anything goes and anything went and Mort wrote “Sha La La Lee” and songs for Cilla Black and rode in the psychedelic rolls and in Andrew Oldham’s rolls while Andrew cooled out in health farms. And his flat became like a stop-over when most of them came to New York, and the world went from “ondine” to the “scene” where groups like “Buffalo Springfield” and the “Doors” would play for groups like the Stones, Kinks and The Who who came to listen.

It was rock n’roll heaven and our boy was one of the archangels. Pot was gone but poppers and Black Russians were there and tho’ he escaped the hard stuff, many others were not so lucky. Like Jim Morrison and Jimi and Janis Joplin who Jerry Ragovoy and Mort started writing for. Mort also found time to fall in love again, this time in Hamburg. It ended sadly for Mort and he drowned his sorrows in Maltesers and Urguell in every dive and house on the Reeper Bahn and it just goes to show that favourite things, things you love the most, sometimes evolve from unhappy , desperate experiences. Nowhere was he sadder than in Hamburg and yet it remains one of his favourite places. Every night it was; Do I drown myself in the Elbe or the Alster? But it usually wound up drowning his sorrows at the Cheri Tanz Bar next to the Haubtbanitof.

Back to New York and the discos and the parties and to the morning afters. And the abortions and weekends in the Carribean. The night they invented champagne went on for two years and you must excuse him if some details were hazy and the chronological order is not exact. Life wasn’t very logical in those days.

Then back to Paris where the Aberbach’s like patrons of old, put their flat at his disposition and Eddie Barclay invited him to spend the summer at this house in St Tropez. Eddie said they would write a melody a day. And they did. And many were recorded. And a couple became French hits. And every day there were at least twenty for lunch. Sometimes it was the local Chamber of Commerce, sometimes Aznavour, Delon, Belmondo. You never knew who was coming but it was always interesting. Mort was alone at night to discover the joys of the St Tropez summer.

Mort and Eric BlauHe thought that he must be having a wonderful time but he wasn’t too sure of anything anymore. And then one day someone made him listen to Jacques Brel. And he saw the light. All became clear and clean and bright once again. And he knew what he had to do. He went to see Brel perform, became his number one groupie, followed him on tour, bought all his records and flew home to translate Brel’s songs into English for America. He met another Brel fanatic, Eric Blau, and together they started working but America wasn’t interested.

America wanted love songs. They didn’t want songs about old people and prostitutes and wars and the human condition. The record companies all said no, but that made Mort want to fight even more. Dylan’s work was becoming very popular at this time so it helped to make people more receptive. And Eric and Mort conceived and wrote the musical “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. And Mort finally got up from behind his piano and went on the stage of the Village Gate in NY with three other performers and started an experience that became the second longest running off-Broadway musical and is still being performed all over the world today.

Mort found a new raison d’etre. Every night he sang the songs as if his life depended on it and the show became the talk of the town.

Brel came over to see it and gave his approval. Mort worked the lights for Brel’s Carnegie Hall concert and took him to see “Man of La Mancha” and they all ate and drank themselves sick at Mort’s place. After a couple of years, the show started playing all over America. And Mort started losing interest again.

But something always happened to keep it moving. Norman Granz, the great Jazz impresario brought the Brel show to London with the original cast during a summer. The show was a great critical success but Granz was not a producer so they were hurting at the Box office. Mort didn’t mind too much. He always loved London and besides every Saturday night he would dine, go to a club and alone or accompanied, catch a flight at three in the morning (they discontinued it pity) to Nice. Drive to Cannes, check into the hotel, sleep for a couple of hours and just in time for the aperitif on the beach of The Croisette. Wonderful meal in the evening, Whisky-A-Go-Go’ and the flight on Monday morning to do the show Monday night.

Then French TV recorded the show at The Olympia in Paris for a TV special and they performed Brel for a month in the cellar of the Olympia. The French were quite amused and Mort realised more and more that life for him was meant to be lived in the old world.

Brel always said an American should live in Europe and vice versa. But he had to go back to give New York a last chance.

But New York was not doing it for him, so he went off to the Greek islands for a summer. On the way back, he stopped off in Paris, got rid of his American girlfriend, took a place on the Ile St Louis and this time decided to stay.

Rock n’Roll was dead. Long Live Rock n’Roll. Doc was out of his life. His contract with the Aberbach’s was finished and now he would live in Paris. As he knew since that first weekend so long ago.

He threw himself into his new persona with gusto. Gitanes, wine, Left Bank bistros, Right Bank call girls. Lots of old and new friends. Gene Kelly couldn’t have done it better. Mort was the new American in Paris, more Parisian than the Parisians, or so he thought, but most of the time he was pretty lonely. Then with a new friend, a lyric writer, they decided to write an album with Mort singing in French. But first they had to go off to New York because the album was to be called “Amerika”. And then after that they took a monstrous house for the summer to write the songs and have lunches like Eddie Barclay. If you happened to drop by at about three pm, on a hot summer afternoon, you’d find everyone asleep, in the bedrooms, on chairs and sofas, on the floor, the grass, all over.

Then Petanque, aperitif, and off to the night. So whats new?

How as the LP he recorded and that went Gold one month after its release. At the age of thirty five a new pop star was born in French with English subtitles.

Now the worlds most beautiful courtesan was his. The new prince of French pop. Man of the year (France-soir said it so it must be true). And for a dozen years Mort was in the limelight of French pop culture, if not always in the center, still moving around on the edges.

The French experience is a story in itself, which with the three years lived in London now brings us up to today. Because of many reasons Mort is reticent to go into details, suffice to say that it was a glad time, a wonderful time that has brought him love and children and a real reason for living. It can also be told if he cheque is adequate, in the meantime as Duke Ellington used to say, “I love you madly!”