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Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

Cinderella Rockefella

What with all the Jew-hate around on the streets of Europe in recent days, I thought it would be nice to have a big Europop hit from that fleeting cultural moment when the Continentals regarded Israel not merely as a normal sovereign state but in fact a rather cool and enviable one. Half-a-century ago there was a slightly goofy Israeli zeitgeist that made global stars of such unlikely figures as Topol.

The great cultural artifact of the era was a nutty novelty song that I last heard in London a couple of years back. Zapping my remote, I came across one of those Channel 4 specials in which various style gurus dote snidely on naff pop culture. In this case, it was the all-time Top Ten duets: there was John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease, Frank and Nancy doing "Somethin' Stupid", a ton of Peters and Lee – and Esther and Abi Ofarim singing this:

Try it the next time you're strolling round the Place de la Bastille and you come across some excitable young lads from les banlieues besieging a synagogue. At least then they'll have a reason for denying Israel's right to exist:

You're the lady
You're the lady that I love
(I'm the lady, the la-ady who)
You're the lady
You're the lady that I love
(I'm the lady, the la-ady who)
You're the little lady
(I'm the little lady)
Oooo-oo-oo-oo…

"Cinderella Rockefella" was everywhere in 1967 and '68: Number One in Britain , Number One in Germany , Number One all over the Continent, and in multiple languages – English, French, German – and Hebrew. The Ofarims were an Israeli husband and wife and, in the United Kingdom, one of only two spousal couples ever to get to the top of the charts, Sonny and Cher being the other. And at least Mr and Mrs Bono got "I Got You, Babe". Imagine that every time you turn to your loved one and say "Darling, they're playing our song", it's this:

I love your touch
(Thank you so much)
I love your eyes
(That's very nice)
I love your chin
(Say it again)
I love your chin chinny chin chin…

Oh, but le tout Europe sang along to that chinny-chin-chin line day in day out in the late Sixties.

Abi Ofarim was born Abraham Reichstadt in Tel Aviv, in British Mandatory Palestine, in 1939; Esther was born Esther Zaied in Safed, near Nazareth , in 1941. They met at the Israeli National Theatre, married, started singing at home and, by the time of "Cinderella Rockefella", had amassed a bunch of credits. Well, Esther had. Nobody seemed to have much use for Abi, though he bravely took it on his chinny-chin-chin. Esther appeared in the movie Exodus, opened for Frank Sinatra's Israeli gigs, and represented Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest. On that last point, don't ask me why - Eurovision has very strange eligibility rules, and Switzerland even stranger: my compatriot Céline Dion also represented the Swiss at Eurovision, but then, in mitigation, her own country isn't eligible. Like Canada, Israel isn't in Europe (despite President Ahmadinejad's pitch to the Germans and Austrians that that's where they should put it) but for some reason it is a Eurovision member. The last Israeli entrant I recall was a glamorous transsexual called Dana International – a transgendered vocalist representing a transMediterranean country.

Anyway, Esther and Abi thought the Swiss had hired both of them to sing "T'en va pas" ("Please don't go") for Eurovision, but the gnomes of Zurich decided dumping Abi would increase their chances of winning, so Esther sang "Please don't go" solo, while Abi was told please go. She was invited to New York and made an album with the alarmingly punctuated title of Is It Really Me! Unfortunately it was, though the liner notes did their best:

When was the last time you were knocked over by an impossibly great and new talent? If you can remember how you dusted your pants off and straightened your tie, then prepare yourself once again for that particular kind of rare moment…Esther is that one in a million combination of all the right ingredients that make for stardom, and when I say stardom, I don't mean it in the loose sense. What I mean is, she will sit eventually on one of the highest peaks of the entertainment industry's Olympus... Prepare yourself now to be knocked over and as you fall, be sure you don't hit me laying there.

For all I know, he's still laying there. Esther flew back across the Atlantic and had a few minor Europop hits in assorted tongues. I'm quite partial to "One More Dance (Your Husband Is Worse)", but it was no "Cinderella Rockefella". I see some Dutch radio expert has described "Cinderella" as "written somewhat in a 1920s style". The instrumentation certainly is. The main tune is in a 12-bar blues form, so, if you want, you can sing along some "My baby left me..."-type lyrics and come up with the perkiest blues you've ever heard. Yodeling was around in the Twenties, too. But the sum of all those parts doesn't really add up to a 1920s song, other than I suppose the sort of thing Kurt Weill might have knocked off if he and Bert Brecht had been asked to do a jingle for a carbonated beverage or a soap powder. Even more than most big novelty hits,it seems to exist in a category all its own. An instant smash, it was first heard in Britain when the Ofarims sang it on "The Eamonn Andrews Show" in early 1968 and were such a sensation that viewers demanded the song be released as a single. It's one of those insinuating pop songs full of tricks that once stuck in your head are hard to dislodge but manage to stay just the right side of murderous rage-inducing. There's that chinny-chin-chin thing, and the yodelesque "You're the lady, you're the lady", and the "ooo-oo-oo-oo", and the repetitions for no good reason of the word "Rockefella":

You're the fella
You're the fella that rocked me
(Rockefella, Rockefella)
You're the fella
You're the fella that rocked me
(Rockefella, Rockefella)
You're my Rockefella
(I'm your Rockefella)
Ooo-oo-oo-oo…

When Starbucks gets around to its compilation CD of the Rockefeller Songbook, that's second only to "Sunny Side Of The Street" ("If I never have a cent, I'll be rich as Rockefeller..."). The Ofarims worked out their routine to the song early on. Esther liked to go saucer-eyed on "I love your touch" so Abi went cross-eyed on "I love your eyes". And once they'd got their moves figured out they rarely deviated. The press played up their Israeliness, as if this was the sort of thing the kids were digging down on the kibbutz. Kitschbutz, maybe.

Years after the Ofarims hit Number One, I played "Cinderella Rockefella" on the radio. In those days, we had to fill in the copyright details by hand and I was amazed to discover, on transcribing the writing credits, that it is in fact an American song. It was written by Mason Williams, who later had a monster instrumental hit with "Classical Gas", and Nancy Ames, another figure who's been around the American music business a long time: she had a minor success with her "answer" song to Staff Sgt Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets". Williams and Ames wrote the theme song for the Smothers Brothers, and, after the Ofarims' "Cinderella Rockefella" became a Euro-hit, sang it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hours. I was stunned. "Cinderella Rockefella" sounds as if it's written by someone who's learned English from listening to pop songs on Radio Luxembourg and learned pop music from a Bulgarian wedding band. It's full of askew Americana - Rockefella, Rockefella - and has an exquisite mastery of weirdly dated slang:

I love your face
(It's in the right place)
I love your mind
(That's very kind)
I love your jazz
(Razzamatazz)
I love your jazz razzamatazz…

In other words, it's a perfect piece of Europop. How could two American writers concoct such immaculate Eurogibberish? Mason Williams later cut it with Jennifer Warnes, and Anne and Johnny Hawker had a hit with it Down Under, and Glenn Campbell and dear old Lulu recorded it in the only encounter of these two colossi. And yet in the hands of these native anglophones "Cinderella Rockefella" loses all its goofy power. As I think back on them, Esther Ofarim was a black-eyed creamy-skinned temptress in a kaftan; Abi was just a doofus in a ruffled shirt. But that was very normal in Continental pop duos: hot gals with dorky boys – look at the Abba guys with their dolls. The fact that an Israeli couple could be accepted as just another naff ja-ja-mit-der-Hit-Parade-boogie Europop act seems in hindsight a heartening cultural signifier.

Instead, it was only a moment. The year they recorded "Cinderella Rockefella" was also the year the Arabs loosed another flop invasion against Israel and lost the West Bank and Gaza, leading to the so-called "occupation", and the Arab League's anointment of Arafat's PLO, and Oslo and intifadas, and the transformation of Israel's image in Europe from plucky little underdog to the oppressors of their new pet cause. Esther and Abi divorced in 1970 and that was that: in "Cinderella Rockefella" terms, they were closer to the former than the latter, although Esther's still out there singing Noel Coward, of all things.

About six months after 9/11, I was in a Paris taxicab en route to Charles De Gaulle, when the Ofarims came on the oldies station. "Oh, turn this up," I said to the driver. "I haven't heard this in years." And, until "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro came on and ruined everything, he and I sang along happily, with him eventually taking Abi's part and me doing Esther's, riding through the incendiary Muslim banlieues bellowing out Israel's greatest hit:

Abi: You're the lady
You're the lady that I love

Esther: I'm the lady, the la-ady who...

You're the fella
You're the fella that rocks me

Abi: Rockefella, Rockefella

Esther: You're my Rockefella

Abi: You're my Cinderella

Together: Ooo-oo-oo-oo
I love you…

~Many of Mark's most requested Song of the Week essays are collected together in his book, A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store.

July 20, 2014

 

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