~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Smasher of the week #19
Occasionally I come across records whose performing artists are a mystery. Take this week’s smasher “Ojos Negras” from 1943 by the South American Gauchos or South American cowboys. Who are these Gauchos?
Googling the name South American Gauchos doesn’t generate any info on this band. Okay, let me check out the label first. The song “Ojos Negras” (translated as “Dark Eyes Memories” on the label) appears on Continental records. This company is founded in 1942 by a certain Don(ald) Gabor, born (1912) and raised in Hungary. He is a student at the Budapest Electronic Conservatory, eager to become a radio engineer. Just before the outbreak of WWII, he manages to reach America and get a job at RCA Victor, the famous American record company that emerged from the takeover of Victor by the Radio Corporation of America in 1929. Starting off as a clerk, Don quickly works his way up to become the producer and manager of the foreign music department, overseeing the production and release of 78rpm records/ songs in different languages.
Continental: Don Gabor
Within 3 years Don has mastered all the tricks of the trade and decides to launch his own label, Continental, a reference to Europe that has fallen into a cruel war. One of Gabor’s first recordings is in New York with the famous Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (Bartók Béla in Hungarian), who plays his own compositions at home on his piano. In addition to classical music, Continental does also release jazz (f.e. Cozy Cole, Slam Stewart, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie), folk and light music. Don mainly uses Eastern European, Jewish musicians who, just like him, have fled Europe in time. He is an astute record boss and a very passionate go-getter. His mission is to sell classical music to the masses at a low price.
After the war Gabor learns that his parents, who had stayed behind in Hungary in 1938, died in a concentration camp. The record boss pursues even more vigorously his mission to promote classical music as if he holds himself personally responsible to civilize the world. He is keeping costs down by continuing to draw on the pool of relatively cheap Eastern European musicians, by using lower-quality bakelite and by re-issuing discs of old recordings obtained at a bargain price. In 1950 he creates the Remington label, dedicated to the production of super-cheap mono LPs with classical music. Mission accomplished! Even renowned classical artists such as Yehudi Menuhin are willing to release their music through Remington. But around 1958 Gabor’s company collapses when stereo discs take over and R&R is ruling the world and the charts.
What does the label tell us about those Gauchos and “Ojos Negras”? The author of the song is called Sula Levitch. A quick search on Google does not produce anything. I have more luck by changing the name to Sula Lewitsch. This is what wikipedia says: “Sula Lewitsch (born around 1900, † after 1930) was a German pianist and (film) composer who played in the late 1920s in the dance orchestra of Dajos Béla, whose recordings for Odeon she was involved in. In 1929-30 she participated in 13 recording sessions … Nothing is known about her later life, especially after the seizure of power by the National Socialists.”
Aha. Dajos Béla (1897 – 1978), born as Leon Golzmann in Kiev (= current Ukraine), is a Russian jazz violinist and band leader, with a Russian father and Hungarian mother. He studies the violin and music in Moscow before continuing his studies at the Berlin conservatory from the mid-1920s. To earn money, he plays in bars and small theaters: he wins a record deal and chooses a Hungarian artist name that refers to the famous Bartók Béla, who is enormously popular. Dajos makes his albums supported by a large dance orchestra, mostly consisting of foreign musicians who have also ended up in Berlin. Bela’s orchestra plays light classical and dance music, and sometimes ventures into more (hot) jazz-tinged songs. Those songs are arranged by Arno Lewitsch (born ~ 1900 in Russia), the band’s prime violinist and “concertmaster”. In the mid-20s Arno has already several “jazzy” records to his name with his own “Lewitsch Tanzorchester” for Parlophone. Lewitsch could be considered the first jazz violinist in Germany. Bela’s orchestral records are big sellers, he reaches millions of people in Europe. Bela frequently tours with his band, also visiting the Netherlands. It gives Arno Lewitsch a chance to make a name for himself in one of the top orchestras of Europe.
Sula and Arno Lewitsch
On the song “Who-oo- You-oo! That’s Who-oo!” from Bela’s band, both Arno Lewitsch and Sula Lewitsch perform as violinists. Are they brother and sister Lewitsch? On photos of Bela’s orchestra from those years, I unfortunately cannot discover any female band members. Arno clearly plays the most important role of the two in Bela’s group, he is in the foreground on many pictures.
The career of the Jewish Béla ends abruptly in Germany. Shortly after Hitler comes to power in 1933, Dajos’ concert at the Berlin hotel Excelsior is brutally interrupted by a couple of NSDAP members. That same night the frightened Béla and his wife move immediately to the Netherlands. From ~ April 1933-1935 the band leader is constantly on tour in the Netherlands, France and England, often assisted by local musicians. In 1935 he embarks on an overseas tour to Argentina, which he decides to make his new home. In Buenos Airos he keeps on playing light classical music from Europe, mixing it with the Argentinian tango.
In that same year 1933 Arno -and probably Sula Lewitsch too- does follow in Bela’s footsteps and flees to the Netherlands as well. Though his band leader relocates to South America in 1935, Arno Lewitsch does apparently stay behind in Europe/the Netherlands, according to https://grammophon-platten.de. The “Arno Lewitsch ensemble” still performs for the Avro radio in Hilversum as late as January 1939: is Sula Lewitsch perhaps also part of this ensemble? I have not been able to confirm it yet … In May 1939, Arno Lewitsch emigrates to the United States various sources inform. According to those same sources his musical career does end there … as nobody does take into account the name change from Lewitsch to Levitch?
The names of Arno and Sula Levitch appear for the first time in 1943 on Don Gabor’s Continental Records in New York. That year the major record studios and labels are hit by a strike of the American federation of musicians, who disagree with the big label owners about the payment of royalties. Don Gabor of Continental smells his chances: in 1943 his small new label releases a string of records in quick succession supported by his fellow refugee musicians from Eastern Europe. The releases include “Ojos Negras” from the South American Gauchos, as said, written by Sula Levitch. The song is dominated by violin playing, most likely by Arno and Sula Levitch, assisted by a few regular studio musicians from Continental. The same applies to the B-side of this 78 rpm.
South American Gauchos
The South American Gauchos are classically trained Jewish refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe! Sula’s Ojos Negras combines European classical music with tango, just like companion Dajos Béla is doing at the same time in South America! Perhaps the title of the song refers to “Ojos Negros” by the Argentinian composer and bandoneon player Vicente Greco (1888-1924), which is a completely different song, though. Interestingly enough other Latin American musicians do also release their interpretations of “Ojos Negros”, in the beginning purely following Greco’s song with the same title but later on re-arranging Sula Levitch’s “Ojos Negras” , calling these new versions “Ojos Negros” too.
It does not stop at this one recording for Sula. She appears in various bands at Continental: in the “Sula Musette Trio”, the “Sula Musette Orchestra”, the “Continental Waltz Orchestra conducted by Sula Levitch” and with “Red River Dave and Sula’s Texas Rangers”, a country outfit! With the same group of (studio) musicians, Don Gabor attempts to cover different markets and music styles. Sula’s skill as a classical pianist are proven by the solo performance of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” in 1945, also on Continental.
More striking are the names of “Levitch Brothers Salon Orchestra” and “Continental’s Military Band conducted by Sula” and “Sula and his Cuban Orchestra” tied to songs that the record company releases between ~ 1943 -1945. Sula clearly seems to be a man, not a woman regardless of what Wikipedia wants us to believe !! This is further supported by a message in the Billboard Weekly of December 11, 1943, which mentions a little role Sula Levitch is playing in the Broadway show “Get Away Old Man” by William Saroyan: “Sula Levitch -a typical Saroyanesque character_ gets his shares of laughs as the studio pianist ” writes the reviewer.
And what about Arno Levitch? He too is making his musical voice heard in various settings: among others via the “Arno Levitch Ensemble” and “Arno’s Gypsy Caravan” (playing “Russian Gypsy” and via “Hora Staccato”, the B-side of Sula’s “Claire de Lune” ). In the 1950s he pops up as a member of RCA’s studio orchestra that backs up superstar Eartha Kitt on her albums. Yet his post-war career pales in comparison to the fame he had already gained in Europe in the orchestra of Dajos Béla in the 1920s-30s . The Levitch brothers are virtuoso musicians who have to settle for a rather anonymous and unheralded role in America. I do not know whether they begrudgingly accept their fate: at least they escaped WWII and the Holocaust and succeeded in building a new life in the US.
The rise of R&R does probably hamper the Levitch brothers’ careers. The public’s interest in their kind of entertainment music rapidly dwindles after the mid-50’s. I can’t find any of their musical traces after 1960. Arno dies in December 1977, preceded 12 years earlier by his brother Sula in 1965.
Never would have thought an old and harmless 78 rpm record would hold such a fascinating history ……….!
Ps1: After WWII Dajos Béla has a hard time making a living as a musician in Argentina. His entertainment music has lost its appeal and he has no money to keep a large dance orchestra alive. In 1956 he retires and continues to live a simple life, allegedly with the help of a small “wiedergutmachungs” pension from Germany. In 1976 he returns one time to Western Germany at the invitation of the German parliament. Two years later he dies in La Falda, Argentina: he is buried in the La Tablada Jewish cemetery in Buenos Airos.
Ps2: Don Gabor tries invain to breathe new life into his Continental label in the 1960s. Gabor dies in New York in 1970 at the age of 68 following a heart attack