Bette Midler’s Bei Mir Bist du Schön — the curious story

Bei Mir Bist du Schön — curious story of The Andrews Sisters’ 1937 hit

Adapted from a Yiddish musical comedy number, the track became a sensation — and was used by the Nazi propaganda machine

In 1937 The Andrews Sisters were a little-known trio of close-harmony singers from Minneapolis looking to make a name for themselves. They had recorded a cover of the Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It” for the Decca label, but a B-side was needed. The improbably titled “Bei Mir Bist du Schön” was chosen, meaning “To me you’re beautiful” in German.

The jaunty, romcom lyrics, written by Tin Pan Alley wizards Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, had just the right amount of sass and verve: “Of all the boys I’ve known, and I’ve known some/Until I first met you, I was lonesome/I could say bellabella, even sehr wunderbar/Each language only helps me tell you how grand you are.”

Arranged by Vic Schoen as an exuberant swing number, it became an overnight sensation. Record stores across the US were inundated with requests for that record called “My Mere Bits of Shame” or “Buy a Beer, Mr Shane”.

“Bei Mir” had its roots in a Yiddish song, “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn”, composed by Sholom Secunda in 1932, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs. It was written for the Yiddish musical comedy I Would If I Could, which closed after a single season at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn. The lyrics included such dulcet lines as: “And even if you had a little limp/Or had wooden legs/I would say, ‘It doesn’t bother me.’”

At the time, New York was home to more than 2mn Yiddish speakers, and the centre of that world was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where bustling theatres and cabarets put on as many as 30 shows a night. In 1936, Secunda and Jacobs sold the song to the Kammen Brothers Music Company for $30. With its new Germanised title and (mostly) English lyrics, “Bei Mir Bist du Schön” would go on to gross upwards of $3mn dollars.

In the late 1930s dozens of covers were recorded by big names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Guy Lombardo; probably the best known was Benny Goodman’s big band arrangement, with the sublime Martha Tilton on vocals. Goodman’s recording was immortalised on his seminal album The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.

“Bei Mir” also featured in Hollywood films, including Swing! from 1938, by pioneering director Oscar Micheaux. Before long it had crossed the Atlantic and was translated into languages including French, Swedish, Norwegian and Polish. The song’s reception in Nazi Germany in 1938, where it also became a smash hit, remains a testament to swing music’s electrifying energy.

With its novel title, German radio quickly picked up on the song. Although propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels had decreed that jazz and swing were “degenerate”, it would prove impossible to shut them down because they were so popular with civilians and troops. In the case of “Bei Mir”, however, a ban was immediately put into place after the embarrassing discovery of its Yiddish origins.

But the song was then hijacked by Goebbels’ music propaganda machine, Charlie and His Orchestra, which would pump popular jazz songs, including “Bei Mir”, back into allied airwaves, but repurposed with lurid fascist lyrics: “Our land is bella, bella, it will soon be the world/Because in London and in New York the red flags unfurled.”

After the war, when the song’s rights eventually reverted to Secunda in 1961, the composer created a new musical named after his biggest hit, but by then the thriving prewar Yiddish theatres were largely shuttered and swing had given way to bebop and rock’n’roll.

In the 1970s and 1980s, “Bei Mir” would be given new wings, helped by a renaissance of the Yiddish language and klezmer music. In 1993 a cover by Janis Siegel featured in the soundtrack to Thomas Carter’s film Swing Kids, which explores swing music under Nazism. Simon Spiro’s 2001 Yiddish recording with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra beautifully captures the gentle playfulness of Secunda’s showtune.

In the 21st century covers have proliferated. The Hot Sardines amp up the dance in their 2014 hot swing cover, while Bette Midler’s take (also 2014) is joyously retro. Electro-swing versions by Klaus Waldeck (2007) and Duo Stiehler/Lucaciu (2023) fuse electronic dance music with old-fashioned swing, a musical coupling that would surely delight the original songwriters.

True to the exuberant spirit of its crossover origins, “Bei Mir” still sounds fresh today. Nearly a century on, it reminds us that nothing ages quite so well as unabashed joie de vivre.

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