Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: What’s in a Name?

We mark the birth on July 8, 1935 – 89 years ago today – of the American Grammy and Emmy Award-winning singer, actor, and comedian Steve Lawrence, in Brooklyn, New York.  He died just four months ago, on March 7, 2024, in Los Angeles.

Steve Lawrence (1935-2024)
Steve Lawrence (1935-2024)

Steve Lawrence, one might ask?  Have potential topics for Music History Monday become so depleted that after nearly eight years (my first such blog was posted on September 9, 2016) I’ve been reduced to profiling baritone-voiced male pop singers of the second half of the twentieth century?  Who’s next: Dean Martin? Perry Como?  Andy Williams? Tom Jones? Jack Jones? Vic Damone? Al Martino? Robert Goulet?

And what of it, I would rather AGGRESSIVELY ASK IN RESPONSE?  Over the years, I’ve profiled the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett, Otis Redding, and Chubby Checker, among others.  SO WHY NOT STEVE LAWRENCE?

Okay, I will admit that there is an ulterior motive here, and we’ll get to that ulterior motive behind this profile of Maestro Lawrence in due time.  But first, permit me, please, to reminisce.

“Fitting In”

Brooklyn Map

As I have mentioned more than once, I was born and spent my first years in that Olduvai Gorge of American ethnicity (pronounced “et-nicity”): the New York City borough of Brooklyn.  Three of my four grandparents were born there as well (the fourth – my paternal grandfather – was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey but moved to Brooklyn as a toddler and grew up there). Both of my parents and my stepmother were born in Brooklyn and grew up in Brooklyn.   

That’s a lot of freaking Brooklyn.

While I grew up in the New Jersey ‘burbs and was shaped by the lower middle-class suburban experience of the 1950s and 1960s, my grandparents and parents were all New Yorkers to the bone, and were shaped by the dual experience of growing up in Brooklyn and by being the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from Belarus.  That meant maintaining something of their ethnic and religious identity while, paradoxically, at the same time, trying to blend in – to assimilate – and be, as my paternal grandfather Sidney would say, “real Yankees!”

When my extended family got together, you could count on certain conversations to always take place.  The alte kaker (meaning the old men; literally “old poopers”) would play pinochle and complain about politicians, taxes, the stock market, the weather, and the New York Mets.  Boring and predictable. It was the women of my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations whose conversations I would eavesdrop on, because they were interesting and they were funny. (If they saw me listening, they’d start speaking in Yiddish, so I’d have to keep my distance and look as if I wasn’t listening to them at all.)  

I recall their conversations as representing gossip and innuendo raised to high art, conversations more often than not fixated on other women: who was married to the worst/best husband (sometimes the same thing: “he slaps her around, but he makes a BUCK”); who had the best/worst clothes and jewelry, and what they paid for their best/worst clothing and jewelry; who was too fat or too thin (these were Jewish ladies, so it was indeed possible to be “too thin”); who wore too much makeup and who wore too little; whose teeth needed fixing and hair needed cutting and/or coloring; who was drinking too much and popping diet pills (meaning methamphetamines, which were legal at the time); who was sexless and who was shtupping the mailman; etc.  The comments I enjoyed the most were about the people I knew: my girl cousins, some of whom were these ladies’ daughters.  This one needs to go on a diet, that one needs a nose-job; this one needs to see a dermatologist, that one has to dress more appropriately; this one needs to do something with her hair, that one needs braces.  

Genuine compliments for anyone were few and far between, though the greatest compliment that these women could bestow on any fellow female is burned into my memory:

“She could pass.”

“She could pass”: meaning, she could pass for a goy, for not being Jewish. The beneficiary of such a compliment would be slim (but not, God forbid, skinny); her hair and teeth would be straight; her skin would be clear, her accent undetectable, and her nose a button. 

Sidney Liebowitz

Which – finally! – brings us back to Steve Lawrence.  He was indeed born Sidney Liebowitz, in Brooklyn, on July 8, 1935.  He came by his musical bona fides honestly: his father, Max Liebowitz was a cantor (a professional singer and prayer leader) at Temple Beth Sholom Tomchei Harav in Brooklyn; his mother Anna (born Gelb), was a homemaker.…

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