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