In 1938, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" was a number one hit for the Andrews Sisters, then Benny Goodman, then Guy Lombardo. Meaning "To me you are beautiful", (in Yiddish, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, or ביי מיר ביסטו שיין), the song was originally composed by Sholom Secunda and lyricist Jacob Jacobs for a Yiddish musical, I Would if I Could, (in Yiddish, Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht) that ran in 1932 for one season only.
In 1937, as the Yiddish Radio Project tells it:
Lyricist Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy were catching a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when two black performers called Johnnie and George took the stage singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" -- in Yiddish. The crowd went wild. Cahn and Levy couldn't believe their ears. Sensing a hit, Cahn convinced his employer at Warner Music to purchase the rights to the song from the Kammen Brothers, the twin-team music entrepreneurs who had bought the tune from Secunda a few years back for the munificent sum of $30.
Cahn gave "Bei Mir" a set of fresh English lyrics and presented it to a trio of Lutheran sisters whose orchestra leader, oddly enough named Vic Schoen, had a notion of how to swing it. The Andrews Sisters' debut 78 rpm for the Decca label hit almost immediately. The era of Yiddish swing had begun.
"Bei Mir" would soon be covered by virtually every pop and jazz artist of the age, and was even retranslated into French, Swedish, Russian -- and German. (The song was a hit in Hitler's Germany until the Nazi Party discovered that its composer was a Jew, and that the song's title was Yiddish rather than a south German dialect.)
Sammy Cahn claimed that he bought his mother a house with money earned from "Bei Mir." For her part, the mother of Sholom Secunda visited the synagogue every day for a quarter century to ask God for forgiveness, certain that he was punishing her son for a sin she had committed.
If you look at the left hand sidebar on the Yiddish Radio Project link, you can click on a medley of cover versions of the song, including snippets of Ella Fitzgerald and Trinidadian band, Felix and His Krazy Kats. (If it doesn't open for you, try using Real Player). The song has been recorded by, inter alia:
* The Andrews Sisters
* Acker Bilk
* Al Bowlly
* Buddy Clark
* Billy Cotton & His Band
* Dukes of Dixieland
* Booker Ervin
* Giora Feidman
* Ella Fitzgerald
* The Flying Neutrinos
* Slim Gaillard
* Judy Garland
* Benny Goodman
* Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra
* Klezmer Conservatory Band
* Ramsey Lewis
* Guy Lombardo
* Glenn Miller
* Louis Prima
* Willie "The Lion" Smith
* Jack Teagarden
* Budapest Klezmer Band
Interestingly, while hunting for background material, I came across this post to what looks like an old Usenet discussion list:
Date: Thu, 8 Sep 1994 12:36:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: [email protected]
Subject: German spin on "Bay mir bistu sheyn"
This is just a side note on the discussion of the song "Bay mir bistu sheyn." In the early 1970s, while I was studying & working in Europe, a German informant in her mid-20s told me the following, prompted by my asking how it was that she was familiar with this song: She claimed that the song was "really" "Bei mir bist Du schoen", and that the song had to do with American (male) military personnel stationed in Germany, singing to/about German women they were meeting there. The pronunciation sheyn ([ej]), and not [oe] (i.e., the mid, front-rounded vowel) had to do with Americans' inability to pronounce front-rounded vowels. According to the informant, there was no Jewish and/or Yiddish connection to this song. Thus, she explained, even when German performers--who presumably "could" pronounce [oe] "if they wanted to"--would preserve the "imperfect German" of the Americans when performing this song.