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Friday, May 22, 2009

Jan Peerce: An American Original And A Sentimental Favorite

The saga of Jan Peerce’s career must leave a European singer wide-eyed with astonishment. Possessed of a great tenor voice, Peerce was a success story that happened not “because of,” but "in spite of.” I knew Peerce slightly, having had a long and pleasant conversation with him at a social event in North Carolina some years ago, and having been involved with him on several other professional matters. I always had the highest possible regard for him. He was an amazing man; one of the most hard working, serious and dedicated musicians you can imagine. He was both a popular and  ethnic triumph here in the United States, and an international singer of great reputation. His beginnings were certainly not auspicious, especially for a public performer. He was born Jacob Pinkus Perelmuth, in Brooklyn, in 1904, the poor immigrant son of Russian Jews. He was a short, stocky, plain man with very poor eyesight. He had no professional connections, and no money. As a boy, his mother saved pennies so that he could study the violin, and he became good enough to perform popular Jewish music in public. It was soon discovered, however, that he had an extraordinary tenor voice, and he abandoned his violin for vocal studies and was finally heard by enough people so that he was able to find a job, in 1932, at Radio City Music Hall, largely singing popular music and sentimental favorites. His story from there is easily consulted. There is a particularly good video biography on the web, nearly an hour long, narrated by his good friend Isaac Stern. It is in six videos, easy to follow. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this extraordinary tenor. His met debut was in 1941. He became particularly associated with Arturo Toscanini. It has been said by many that he was Toscanini’s favorite tenor, and it is not hard to see why.

He, like Lawrence Tibbett, Mario Lanza, Gigli, and others, made films, and Peerce also made popular recordings, many of them songs for the Yiddish audience. To fully understand Jan Peerce, it is necessary to view him both within the traditions of Yiddish vaudeville and cantorial singing. He was on TV and Radio a great deal during the 40’s and 50’s, and was very widely known and admired in America, and this in a time when it was not always easy to be an ethnic and publicly proud Jew. His cantorial work was extensive and excellent. I think it is important to hear him first singing a well known Italian song, to gauge the extraordinary quality of the voice. Here is the old warhorse "O sole mio," which every tenor, I suppose, feels compelled to sing from time to time:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qm1-mT4Sju0


Can anyone deny that this is a great tenor voice? I think not. I would go so far as to call it one of the outstanding voices of the 20th century. Peerce was remarkably consistent. I don’t believe I ever heard him when he was not in good voice. But this is only one side of this many-sided man. His recording of “The Bluebird of Happiness,” hopelessly corny as it would be today, was in fact the number one song on the hit parade in 1943. It is at this point that the listener coming to Peerce for the first time really must bear the traditions of Yiddish vaudeville in mind. ( If you don’t know it, just listen first to Sophie Tucker singing “A Yiddishe Mama.” It is on Youtube.) In “The Bluebird of Happiness,” the fractured English phrase “So be like I,” The long rolled R’s, The highly over-dramatic 19th century recitation is perhaps an acquired taste outside Yiddish theater:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmAVX2vdyc0


His recordings of cantorial music are excellent. His recording of the popular and stirring “A din toire mit Gott,” [A plea to God] is the best I have ever heard. An old rabbi challenges God, asking him what he has against the Jews, why he berates and abuses his people. “The English and the Italians say a king is a king, but I say that only God is king, etc..” This song is short…do please hear it to the end, which is extremely dramatic and shows the intensity and richness of the voice to an exceptional degree. The ending of this prayer will send chills up your spine:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3I-_ZzdFw4


Finally, to end, here is the international Peerce, under Arturo Toscanini, singing a passage from Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations.” To save a little time here, you can move the cursor forward to 3:05, (as soon as that much has downloaded), which is where Peerce starts to sing. Prior to that is Toscanini looking most forbidding, and an orchestra and chorus looking most petrified:) Peerce was an exceptionally good musician and stylist, however, and Toscanini, whose violent temper was legendary, never, in his 17 year association with Peerce, said a single cross word to him. This tells us something.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9B70Ku5qSg


A man for all seasons, and a true American original!

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article; Peerce is one of the great singers, that are almost unknown in Russia. Definitely, Americans can be proud him – a great voice and personality. Not a handsome man, of course, but that doesn’t mean anything. Gigli and Caruso were not handsome either.
It’s easy to imagine that Toscanini worked with him without problems, because they seem to have similar “perception” of music. Peerce not only sang like Toscanini wanted him to, it looks like he had the same style in general.
As I understood, he sang a lot in English. Was it dangerous for him , like it was for Tibbett?
His cantorial singing was amazing. Folk singers rarely can sing opera, but it seems that Jewish cantors have almost classic technique. I read somewhere ,that Caruso admired Gershon Sirota ( the only famous cantor I had heard before I listened to Peerce). http://www.benjaminmuller.net/sirota.html Cantorial singing sounds very “eastern”; is it technically “dangerous” for an operatic singer?
n.a.

Jing said...

Edmund, what a lovely and touching tribute, deeply enriched by the personal dimension you bring to the man as well as the musician. The diversity of your musical selections are very enlightening and sustain your conclusions beautifully. Thank you!

I can only offer a few random thoughts. How interesting is the contrast with Tibbett. They were both "Made in America" artists. Yet Peerce avoided the pitfalls of a popular career - movies, stage, radio, singing in English, etc. that you note so limited Tibbett's greatness. Perhaps this was due to the depth of Peerce's personal integrity and religion convictions. Incidentally the two men were good friends. Peerce made his big-time opera debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1941 in Rigoletto with Tibbett. Cheers greeted his portrayal of the Duke at the curtain, and Tibbett graciously insisted he take an additional solo bow, for which Peerce was always grateful.

I saw Peerce quite late in his career as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" on Broadway. I had a good friend in the cast, but was shocked by how shoddy the production had become and poor the performing by most of the cast. Yet Peerce was quite good. Though he certainly lacked Zero Mostel's zaniness and agility, he brought a directness and dignity to the part (though there he was with milk-bottle thick glasses)that really saved the production (for me at least).

The personal lives of opera stars are frequently fascinating. Peerce's wife, Alice, was Peerce's fiercest critic and greatest supportor, and this made for an extremely devoted, yet very tumultuous relationship; still I suspect she was vital in keeping his ego in bounds. Their son, Larry, became a successful Hollywood director ("Good-bye Columbus" - in which he cast his father as a carpet merchant). And, Edmund, you might wish to comment on the relationship between Peerce and Richard Tucker, who had married Peerce's sister, Sara. Very complicated. So many operatic rivalries are silly and ego-driven,and some artifically created for publicity purposes. This one, however, was serious and painful for both men - as only family rifts can be. To the credit of each, though their mutual alienation was well-known, both men generally refused to discuss it in public. Thanks for another great post!

Edmund said...

Thank you. For Jan Peerce, singing in foreign languages was not difficult. For starters, English became his native language when he started to go to school, but his home language was Russian Yiddish. As a result, he sounded very authentic in German, and possibly Russian. I'll send you a youtube address where you can hear him sing Lensky's aria, although he was 61 years old when he recorded it, and his highly dramatic cantorial style of singing will probably strike you as very funny for Lensky. His case was unique. Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and possibly Russian were his childhood languages, so he was very well adapted to pronouncing many languages. His Italin, by the way, was excellent. I hear no Jewish accent at all in "Hymn of the Nations," "O sole mio," or any of the operatic arias he recorded. There are many. He sang over two hundred performances at the Metropolitan Opera, in eleven different roles. He was a real workhorse...very hard working, very serious, very studious. He continued to vocalize every day until the day he died, at 80. He was still singing in public at 79. Yes, the cantorial singing is very thrilling. This is where he excelled, I think. The other work was all very good, but it is hard to compete with the Italians. But in Yiddish and Hebrew singing, he was a great master. Finally, it is not dangerous to the voice, if one is well trained, and cantors do study very carefully. I have known several--their training is as rigorous as an opera singer's training. There have been some truly great ones. Yossele Rosenblatt is commonly considered the greatest of them all.

Edmund St. Austell said...

без комментариев:) :)

Anonymous said...

I wrote that Peerce was “almost unknown in Russia”, but in fact he sang in the USSR in the 1950’s! I’ve just come across this post:
http://listserv.cuny.edu/Scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind0012D&L=OPERA-L&P=R2619
I imagine that he was a great success; it’s strange that our opera fans forgot about him.


n.a.

Edmund said...

Thank you very much for this! I appreciate it. I read the response you got, and it is really interesting. I didn't know about that trip in the 50's. I have his autobiography around here someplace, but I don't recall having read that.

Thanks again. Ed.S.A.

Anonymous said...

Hello:

Should opt to sent me some CD's and the biobraphy which you know best of Jan Peerce, you shall find me the eager listener and reader. I love tenor and soprano voices if they are really expectionally good.

With my warmest regards,

Frieda

Edmund St. Austell said...

Frieda: There is a great deal of material on the web about Jan Peerce. A good place to start would be with the 6-part video biography done by his good friend, Issac Stern, the great violinist. You can find the first installment of this biography at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR6tr1yPVdY

After you have seen part 1, you can easily find the remaining 5 parts in the sidebar on the right side of the screen. After you have seen this biography, you can find many more songs simply by googling Youtube Jan Peerce

You will find quite a bit. He wrote an autobiography late in life. It is called "The Bluebird of Happiness" and can, I believe, be found for sale at Amazon.com. It is not expensive.

I'm glad you like him. I knew him personally, and he was a great tenor and a great man.

Edmund

Mike said...

IN 1967 in New Zealand I took a record to Jan's hotel and he invited me to his room ahere I spentover an hour in the copany of him and Alice.Next night he invited my wife and I backstage after his concert. I have most of his recordings. We will be in NY in October and would love to know where he is buried.Can anyone Help?

Anonymous said...

I met Jan in New zealand in 1967 and he invited me to his hotel to sign a record of Neopolitan songs I spent an hour with him and Alice and then next nighr my wife and I were invited backstage I now have most of his records and as we will be in NY in October would love to visit his grave. Can you help?
Thank you

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll see what I can find out for you. He was a great guy.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Jan Peerce is buried in Mount Eden Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York (Westchester).

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure.

lenatsky said...

I knew the Peerce's quite well during the 1960's and 70's from performances in Phila and NYC.When I told them that I sang opera and Jewish music but had never studied voice and could use some advice ( I was 18 at the time )Jan, without hesitation, invited me to his house to sing for him. I told him I would come to New York for his next performance at the Met.He checked his schedule, gave me the date of a forthcoming performance of "Don giovanni", and when I agreed said simply and sinhcerely, "you'll be my guest." Sure enough, after the performance, my name was on the backstage guest list. I hung out in the dressing room as was my custom fascinated as always by Peerce's endless and remarkable interaction with an always interesting array of fans, always, incidentally, including many admiring cantors and fellow musicians. When everyone had finally departed, he gave me the directions I needed to get to his house in New Rochelle for breakfast the next morning. I spent the night in a cheap hotel; first time for me in NYC. The next morning I took the train to Newe Rochelle, had a wonderful, typical Sunday morning Jewish breakfast of smoked fishes and bagels, and then sang the Flower Song from Carmen accompanied at the piano by the other breakfast guest, Gershon Kingsley, a conductor, arranger, and composer.

Edmund St. Austell said...

What a lovely testimonial! I am so happy you were good enough to write and share that! How many great singers would do that? He was a gentleman, and was really grateful for the success that he had, and was, in the very best Jewish tradition, ready to give back to his audience, his country, and his art. A great man and a wonderful tenor! Thanks again for sharing this story!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, I saw him sing. He stood absolutely still with his head raised. He barely moved. Here is a film that shows him standing and singing. Toscanini is conducting. You need to wait about 2 minutes after the film starts before he starts to sing, but when he does, you will get a very good idea of how he stood and sang.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9B70Ku5qSg&feature=related

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

I think every tenor learning to sing must be known of Jan Peerce. Here is the good proof that a tenor can employ the head voice AND sound virile.

Peerce's compass was so well even in the old age because he sung with the head voice, as can you see from the nasality which he sings.

This is the factor of why the soprano, even though she has as many, probably more, demands than the tenor, is usually the one who will last longer: the soprano always tries to use as much of the head voice as possible. Over time, tenors have used less and less, with bad results.

Consider of the tenors of vocal longevity: Giovanni Martinelli, Georges Thill, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Francesco Tamagno, Alfredo Kraus, Tito Schipa, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Nicolai Gedda; all these mastered the usage of the head voice, enjoying careers long and successful.

Once, I read that Jan Peerce's voice sounded huge if he could be closer than ten meters to the microphone; meaning that his voice recorded well, but it was not so well projected in the big theaters, especially the New York houses, and he was to début there in 1941 only because there was not enough of the European tenors: less competition.

In all, Peerce was an artist who deserved more recognition. When I talk in Italy or Australia about great tenors and mention him, nobody knows him, a grand shame. His "Rigoletto" of 1950 with Warren and his "Traviata" of 1946 with Merril and Albanese are sublime testament to a fine voice.

Thank you for this insightful article, Mr St Austell. It is wonderful that you speak so accurately of cruelly-shaded talents.

Edmund StAustell said...

You certainly know your tenors and singing technique well! Yes, I agree with what you say! The head voice, or simply said, singing on the thinner edges of the vocal cords, is the whole secret of tenor singing. It was recognized a very long time ago by Manuel Garcia, whose "L'art du chant" the classic text of bel canto singing technique, starts out by stating that the "tenor voice is built upon the falsetto." As you so accurately point out, the tenors who have very long careers (and very beautiful voices!) understand this. Gigli basically sang the same way as a grown man that he did as a child, when he sang alto and was almost indistinguishable, vocally, from a woman.
Thank you for a very good comment.

michaelbos said...

I just click to follow this blog after I found it, by a google search of Jan Peerce. I'm not an expert on Jan Peerce. I write this as a fan of good music from the days when entertainers had real talent. I am a fan Of Peerce. I first heard his voice when I was young ( late 60's early 70's) when I heard his voice over a AM station, when AM ruled the waves and it was a couple of his jewish hymns, since it was around the holidays ( something they would not dare do today ) Once I heard that voice, I was hooked and years later I found that album and many years later, I started to find alot of his recordings on ebay. Besides he had a great voice, his voice was very rare, since tenors have a short shelf life, but Peerce's voice was still stong and powerful in his 70's, which was and still unheard of today. It was also the days when you could hear souch voices and others on TV, like the Ed Sullivan show etc, which sadley again, no such shows wil ever grace the tube. Thank GOD for youtube. I enjoyed the article and all the comments.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a great comment! And be assured that I share your enthusiasm. Jan Peerce was my childhood hero, and I never lost my admiration and affection for him, from the day I first heard him, until the day he died. Thanks again for your comment.

David said...

As a peerce fan and collector I want to thank you for your article. I just have a few comments on your choice of material to represent him. I myself am a cantor and to me he was not a great cantor. He sang it well in a more operatic style than the great cantors who took more liberties and sang their pieces with more artistic freedom. There are some recordings that better show his vocal and stylistic qualities. In 1944 he recorded for RCA 4 Neopolitan songs. The singing is mind-blowing. The recording you posted is from a session in 1950 with a much weaker arrangement. The Din Toire mit Gott that you posted is from 1960. He sang it well but not as good as his recording from 1947 when the voice was much fresher and stronger. I love Hymn of the nations. There are many great recordings from the operas he did such as 1941 Lucia Tomb scene( my personal favorite), 1945 Parmi Veder from Rigoletto,several recordings of Che Gelida Manina with the high c, The entire Toscanini Boheme, The duets with Leonard Warren, The tosca arias recorded on RCA. Anyone who listens to these recordings will be pleasantly surprised at how great he once was. Again, I am so very grateful to you for your attention to Jan Peerce.

Matthew Peerce said...

I've enjoyed following this blog, and all the nice comments on JP's career. I saw him perform many times in his later years, and knew him well, as I am one of his grandchildren. It's a joy to have to see so many of the posters enthusiasm for his work, to know that he isn't forgotten. I love his music, and still get chills listening to several of the pieces linked here. I'm grateful for this tribute to a great musician, and a fine man.
Regards to you all.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Peerce, for your comment. You can be extremely proud of your grandfather! He was a fine man, an exemplary American and a great artist. Opera and opera singers have been the biggest part of my life, and I can assure you (and you already know) that Jan Peerce was one of the greatest tenors in the world, and one of the greatest voices every produced by this country. Someone for all of us to be very proud of!

Anonymous said...

Let me get into this on a personal basis. Peerce #1 was never a Cantor as for for a living and in a Cantorial contest with Tucker who did make a living as such until he became a met. opera tenor but he was a was a fine Cantor who did continue on holiday's, alter every year in Chicago. His recordings of Cantorial music where not the same of course as his live chanting in the temple These will never be heard as none where recorded, if so not available. They where more in the traditional older style of the great Cantors, not like his recordings of the liturgy. Tucker was the leading cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, which was a very important post. He also held a position earlier in NJ. and the Bronx. In Chicago Tucker was highly paid but Jan who studied and knew the liturgy very well also did Cantorial work in Florida. Peerce did appear on the holidays in 1970 in Chicago as did Tucker who did it from the 1950's in Chicago. David is correct in his comments. Edmund--Tucker did not really have a big mouth. Jan was quite blunt when you knew him. Much info also in his book, Blue bird Of Happiness. Maybe that Cond. mentioned meant Blunt for Arrogant! I never noticed a big ego from him about himself or bragging. Actually when you knew them both well they where very different men. Jan had made a lot of money early on radio. He was paid very well in the 1930's on the great moments in radio show and also sang opera excerpts on radio, even Wagner. The feud was not just because of any one thing between them. Tucker was a Spinto especially later and sang many more roles then Peerce did, naturally that and over 700 performances at the Met. earned him quite a lot but he actually lived in a modest home in Great Neck NY. He drove a Cadillac sedan, not the top model either and Peerce drove an older conservative Rolls Royce (his wife drove) his eye site not being good. He was a great artist and like Tucker always in good voice. He did at one time get along with Tucker who looked up too him when he was dating his future wife and before that. Peerce never put down Tucker's singing and Peerce told me Tucker had a beautiful voice, especially early. JP's voice was not small really and in fact in house sounded medium sized as lyric tenors go. I heard him in house first in 1958 and heard Jussi that same year in the house. Peerce had a somewhat larger voice then Bjorling did at that time, so this business of his voice being too small for the big house is nonsense. He sang in all the big houses and was brought back again and again, so if you cannot project you don't get called again and again. Bjorling did not have a powerful voice but he also was heard in the house and was engaged all over the world. Many Jussi's fans seem too think it was a big powerful instrument, unless you heard a singer in house and not amplified you really don't know how big or small the voice is. I heard both of them (RT and JP) many times in house. Tucker's was a very powerful voice. Peerce had one thing that the records don't show much of and that was fine Squillo in the middle voice. His singing of POP music was excellent because that was how he started singing on radio-- besides operatic. He had fine diction and a good ear and as was said was dependable and in voice, with a rich resonant sound that carried very well in any room. I also attended his last operatic performances, both of them in Illinois. Traviata and Cav. in the 1970's. In the end he did not vocalize every day as was said here. He could not speak from a stroke, so his last days where silent, very sad but he lived 80 years and in good health for most of it, A great artist.

Anonymous said...

His voice was abit larger then Jussi Bjoerling's in the opera house. I heard and saw them both in 1958. Peerce was larger in the middle especially then Bjoerling was and projected just fine in the opera house when he was in his prime and even later. His voice as with Bergonzi and Bjoerling could give the impression on records of being larger then it was of course. I heard him in his last operatic performances in the 1970's when he sang in Peoria IL.in Trav. and also Cav. Tucker never talked down to Peerce about opera anyhow and when he was dating Jan's sister Sara, Peerce was one of Tucker's favorite's. He looked up to Peerce back then.The fall out was later on. Peerce was as tall as Gigli, Tagliavini and Labo, yet most people would never dare say to those tenors anything about being short. Perhaps some anti Semitic feelings mixed in with that rudeness.

Anonymous said...

Actually his Voice projected very well in big theaters and I heard him many times in house and in opera and concert with Orchestra, recitals too. Yes even in Los Angeles in the big Music center on Temple street in 1968 when he was 64 years old with Peters and he still could project very well as far as vocal power. His voice was larger then several famous lyric tenors in his own time, so that small voice thing is a myth. Sure it wasn't spinto big but neither was Bjorling's. I heard them both the same year back in 1958.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, for this string of comments! your knowledge of Peerce is extraordinary, and your personal acquaintance with him amazing. Your comments taken together constitute a welcome and most interesting addendum to the article, which I greatly appreciate! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you foe a wonderful Blog on so many fine artists. Peerce BTW did not sound huge close up or far away as was said but sounded good sized for his roles. A nice round rich sound much like his records but never a nasal sound in house as he could sound on some studio recordings. HE IS IN THE MOVIE GOODBYE Columbus with his Brother Mac in one scene. His son produced it, Larry Peerce.

Anonymous said...

He was in Goodbye Columbus, in the wedding scene. He and Mac played brothers in the carpet business, and they walked the ballroom measuring the carpets. It was a cute cameo. Larry P directed the film, but Stanley Jaffe was the producer.
Regards,
M.Peerce

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Peerce.