Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.
A record cut more than 40 years ago in Boston is at the center of a new nonprofit organization’s efforts to grab the attention of young Jewish adults. “Bagels and Bongos” was a hit for the Irving Fields Trio in 1959; now, a group of community-minded individuals are hoping “Bagels and Bongos” will strike a chord with unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s.
The folks behind the record launch are Reboot Stereophonics, a division of Reboot, a nonprofit described by Jules Shell, one of its founders, as “starting an open space for conversation … about identity, about who we are.”
Fields is still active at age 90, playing six nights a week at Nino’s Tuscany in midtown Manhattan. Last week, he spoke with The Jewish Advocate by phone to reminisce about the Boston roots of “Bagels and Bongos.”
Fields already had a minor recording career by the time he settled into his gig at the former Sherry Biltmore Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay. However, his singles on the RCA Victor label had been released under the stage name of Campos el Pianista (literally “Fields the Piano-Player” in Spanish) to capitalize on the Latin sound of his music. “I love Latin music,” he explained. “When I was a kid, 17 or 18 years old, I took my first cruise to the Caribbean. In Havana and Puerto Rico, I fell in love with the music, so I brought it back to New York and featured it with my trio.
“Everybody loved my music, my piano style. They thought it was unique and different. I played the Crest Room, and [movie star] Ava Gardner came there three nights a week. She used to take her shoes off to dance. I think that’s why she named her picture ‘The Barefoot Contessa.'”
By the time Fields played the Biltmore, his trio was enjoying the success of two hit songs, “Managua, Nicaragua” and “The Miami Beach Rumba.” One night during that gig, a hotel guest called out a request. “Mr. Fields, can you play some nice Jewish melodies?” He started to play, and suddenly someone started to dance.
“There was no tempo,” he remembered, “so I said to my bass player and my drummer, ‘Fellas, give me a rumba rhythm!’ People started dancing a rumba to [the Yiddish favorite] ‘Belz, Mein Shtetle Belz.'”
It worked so well that Fields set out to arrange a dozen or more Jewish melodies to Latin beats. Before long, Fields, drummer Mike Bruno and bassist Henry Senick rented time at Ace Studios off Boylston Street, near Park Square.
Fields planned to shop the album around to record labels in New York on his day off. “I was still looking for a title the morning before I left to go to New York,” he recalled. At breakfast at a local delicatessen, he happened to be seated next to fans. He was describing his new record, telling one fan, “I added a bongo player to get a really Latin flavor.”
Then, a moment of kismet: “As I mentioned bongos, the waiter brings me over a bagel,” Fields said. “I see a bagel, I say bongos, and the fan says ‘What are you going to call the album?’ I said ‘Bagels and Bongos’; it came to me just like that.”
Fields took the record to Milt Gabler, the head of Artists and Repertoire at Decca Records. Gabler loved the album, and before long, it was a hit.
“Bagels and Bongos” sold 2 million copies in its initial release. “It was not only popular in America, but all over the world,” Fields said. “People, whether they were Irish, Italian, whoever they are, they loved it! There’s no language barrier. Jewish music is beautiful, and there’s every kind from ballads to freilachs, every kind.”
The album proved to be so popular that it spawned a series of follow-ups: “More Bagels and Bongos,” “Pizza and Bongos” (with Latin takes on Italian music), “Champagne and Bongos” (with French music) and so on.
But as is often the case with such trends, once the fad for Latin music passed, the albums fell into obscurity. When the Reboot gang approached Fields about the CD, he was flabbergasted. “I didn’t believe them, I laughed. I said, ‘Geez, you’re all young people, don’t you want rock and roll?'”
This is not an uncommon reaction to the project. “It’s funny, my grandfather is totally bewildered I’m bringing out ‘Bagels and Bongos.’ He can’t believe we’re bringing out the music he listened to,” Shell said.
Since the album’s debut on CD in August, it has garnered considerable buzz in both the Jewish press and the music press – and it has even inspired a hipster remix by The Mexican Institute of Sound.
Fields is enjoying the new audience, and he shows no sign of slowing down. He recently opened a Web site (www.irvingfields.com), and this week he was honored by the Nicaraguan government in Washington, D.C. (Fields says his 1950s hit “Managua, Nicaragua” is still very popular there, akin to “New York, New York” here.) But Fields is happy just to have the opportunity to keep playing.
“I love music,” he said. “Music is like a medicine to me. It’s an orgasm when I play because I love it so much. It’s my best friend, and it keeps me young.”