An Interview with Simon Spiro

The gifted cantor and pop star shares his insights on singing, arranging and recording for the Milken Archive

TO JEWISH SINGERS, BECOMING THE CANTOR AT ENGLAND'S MOST PRESTIGIOUS SYNAGOGUE, St. Johns Wood, would seem like a dream come true, particularly if they could achieve such an exalted position at the age of 19. For Simon Spiro, it was undoubtedly a crowning accomplishment in his life. But it is only half the story. Just a few years later, he scored another major triumph when his disco version of "Adon Olam" became the number one song on Israel's pop music charts. It was the fulfillment of a dual musical identity-Simon Spiro the Cantor and Simon Spiro the Pop Star-that has existed since his childhood and continues to flourish today.

MILKEN ARCHIVE: One of the most interesting aspects of the Simon Spiro story is your professional harmonizing of cantorial singing and pop singing, a difficult balancing act for most, but one that you seem to have down to a science. Was it always easy to balance these two aspects of your musical career?

SIMON SPIRO: Well, early on, I thought it would be. I thought of it in a very simplistic way: I said to myself that because of the level of my observance of Judaism, I would sing in the synagogue on the Sabbath. But I would also perform on a secular level during the week. And sometimes it didn't always go that way, because obviously we have in the Jewish religion so many different sects and varieties of people that what is acceptable to one section of Jewish people, another might find offensive. So I was sometimes treading on thin ice. But my need and desire—my crusade, rather—was to effect a sort of outreach program. I wasn't trying to preach to the converted. My job was to sing my Jewish music to people who hadn't been exposed to that sort of music but could be turned on to it. As for my performances on Broadway or my popular music—that's just purely entertainment, something that's been in my heart since I was a kid. I always try to tread a careful path between the two. And it's worked up to now. (laughs)

Cantor Simon Spiro


MA: Has the process evolved over the years? Did you find that you started out a little more hesitant to combine the two and then it just became a part of your life eventually?

SS: Actually no, I wish I did. I was much more headstrong early on. I was certainly headstrong when I was 17 and 18—very opinionated, very self-motivated. I knew exactly what I wanted and how I wanted to go about it. Now it's not always so cut-and-dry; there's much more of a gray area. Back then, I said, "Well, I'm going to be in a synagogue on Friday nights, I'm going to take services on the Sabbath, and then I'm going to be in a nightclub on Saturday night—and it's okay!" It was quite difficult sometimes, because being at the Chief Rabbi's synagogue in London in the late '70s, there was a certain standard to keep—which I did, but it was hard keeping that other side of my life quiet. Now I appreciate that there are many more levels, colors and dynamics to the whole sensitive issue of performance. The modern day cantor is no longer limited by a single dimension stereotype (vis-a-vis) balancing religious and secular musical pursuits. Each musical world can actually enhance the other, depending upon the personality of the particular cantor. However, I am still alone in this genre, being the only observant traditionally trained cantor also actively working in the pop music field.

MA: You became a cantor at the age of 19. Is that particularly young for a cantor?

SS: No, most cantors who are brought up to take an active role in being a professional cantor are already singing in synagogues by the time they're 15 or 16. For me, though, it was quite strange, because I went to a very small orthodox synagogue (a shtib’l) when I was a child, and I wasn't exposed to any cantorial or even choral music. So for me, the transition was pretty steep and sharp, finding myself, at a relatively young age, singing in one of the largest synagogues in the United Kingdom. That for me was quite a coup at 19 years old. (smiling) It was a bit difficult—you had cantors who were 20, 30 years older, who were pretty upset that this young newcomer had arrived from nowhere while still in cantorial college and landed such a prestigious position, which is fair comment.

MA: Can you describe the difference between being a cantor in a specific synagogue versus working freelance?

SS: Again, every synagogue is different. Every synagogue has its good sides and its negative sides. You just have to bring out the best in every community and congregation. The plusses of being a freelance cantor are that you get to visit so many different cultures and communities all across the globe and you get to experience so many different varieties of Jewish people and liturgy: how they pray, how they approach their musical prayer. I also get to travel and concertize—and that's an important part for me. The one good thing about being in a regular synagogue is that you can build a wonderful fan base and then be a sort of roving cantorial ambassador of Jewish music, so to speak.

MA: That's probably a similarity with the pop side, because it's like going on tour and feeding off the energy of the new faces.

SS: Correct. It's always very exciting when you visit a new community and you're presenting your music. But then again, when you're in your own synagogue, you build up your own following and you have people who look forward to hearing your signature pieces. And so it's more of a long-term journey, which is also very exciting.

Cantors Alberto Mizrahi, Simon Spiro, and Raphael Frieder

Cantors Alberto Mizrahi, Simon Spiro, and Raphael Frieder at the Milken Archive CD launch
party in New York.

MA: You mention your arrangements. As your career has progressed, you've become more involved in the process of arranging and writing the music that you work with. How has this process developed for you?

SS: When I was a teenager, I was the lead singer in a pop band. And in those days—this was the mid-'70s—I wanted to move on as an entertainer and use an orchestra. Well, an orchestra needs arrangements. I couldn't just say, "We'll do the song twice in A-flat and then modulate to A and take it home." You can't do that sort of thing on a serious concert stage—you have to have arrangements. So I would get in touch with orchestrators and I would sit down and routine with them. Now, I had never studied this. I only studied performance and singing for my music degree; I never studied orchestration or orchestral arranging per se. So I started reading books on the subject, and when I would go to work, I would take my MacPherson's Rudiments of Music. I started with Volume One, and went forward from there. I then found other books on orchestration and arrangements—I would literally devour reference libraries for music. I would listen to gospel music, Christian music, early church music, Gregorian chants, even film scores—and I would understand how those beautiful harmonies were actually made. I've always been able to dissect music in my head. I can listen to a piece of music and separate the winds from the strings and the divisions within the strings, and so on with the various brass sections. I would pick up a book and learn how to write for that particular instrument. Now, of course, with the advent of computers—my handwriting being slightly better than that of a really bad doctor—I've been able to utilize computer programs and they've served me well. The wonderful thing is that from every orchestrator I ever worked with over the last 25 years, I have been able to absorb each varied style and to learn what works and what doesn’t. Something else I experimented with was writing for an instrument outside its normal range. It’s a very personal thing, but sometimes an oboe has an unusual passage which places a couple of notes outside its prescribed range, but the effect can be magical. If it sounds good, you keep it in! So I was able to eradicate bad habits and embrace certain motifs and styles that I love, which are now my trademark.

MA: Your vocal technique is really astounding and your voice is so powerful and compelling. How did you cultivate this talent over the years?

SS: It's funny—I didn't study voice until relatively late. I didn't have a voice lesson until I was 18 or 19 years old. My voice teacher was Florence Norberg—quite an amazing woman. She was a fascinating Hungarian lady with a deep voice reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, who in the '60s had taught Tom Jones and worked with Rex Harrison to enlarge his speaking voice on the English stage. She really did know her craft. She had a special ability to combine a focused, straightforward classical singing voice with more of a pop sound. I explained to her that I'd always sounded pop, but now that I was also a cantor, I wanted to be able to save my voice and sing both styles. She worked with me and gave me the ability to keep the natural sound in my voice and to know where my breaks were. She taught me to be able to disguise those breaks and sing around them. To me, the sign of a great singer is a person who possesses great ears. If a singer has great ears, then he or she will know what his or her limitations and strengths are. I've always known my strengths as well as my limitations. If you know your limitations, then you basically want to sing in your "money notes"—i.e., the notes within your range that give you your best sound. That's what I try to do, and sometimes my voice sounds bigger than it really is. It's just that I try to sing in the most comfortable part of my voice. I’ve spent my whole life cultivating my middle range. Too often, singers (especially cantors) don’t realize the strength of singing beautifully within a middle range, and attempt to push for a higher note when their middle range has not yet been refined. The result, unfortunately, is an unpleasant sound.

MA: You grew up in a very musical family. What impact did that upbringing have on your musical sensibilities?

SS: It was everything. My mother and father would often sing together on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder when they had down time on an evening. I would always bring home new melodies from school and introduce them to my family sitting at the Sabbath table on Friday night. Together with my late mother and father, my late brother, and my two elder sisters, we would literally produce a sort of Von Trapp sound. (laughs) And it was lovely. I was five or six years old and I would dish out the parts and I would always hear three- and four-part harmonies—I didn't even know if we were singing a major seventh or a sharp ninth! All I knew was that it was beautiful, just to hear the sounds we all made. That had a huge impact on me. And of course, even though my father comes from a Chassidic family, straight after the war he went into the Yiddish Theater in London's famous East End. That obviously was passed down to me, even though I wasn't yet alive when he was on stage. By the time I was born in '58, [my father] had given up the stage and gone into business, because he had decided Yiddish Theater wasn't the respectable thing for a Chassidic family member to do. But he always loved music, and he could cry listening to a beautiful passage. It was the same with my mother. And that still rings true for me as well: when I hear something really gorgeous musically, it can tear me up. Music is so powerful.

MA: What and who have been the inspiration, motivation and major influences affecting you and your music?

SS: The person I grew up listening to as a child was an English pop singer, Cliff Richard—not very well known in America, but definitely famous throughout the rest of the world. He was the British equivalent of Elvis Presley. He is, in fact, still the biggest selling artist in the United Kingdom, outselling Madonna, the Beatles, Elton John, etc. He has sold, I think, over 22 million singles since he began in 1958. I've performed background vocals for him—I've worked for him and with him. He was a huge influence on the way you can sing romantically in a popular way. However, I'm also a huge fan of William Byrd, the court composer to Queen Elizabeth I. I also love chapel music from that particular era. I used to read through the arrangements and literally just sit there and weep over the beauty and the simplicity of the harmonies and how they were structured. That was a huge influence in my life. But as a young person, it was Cliff Richard and Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I was always mesmerized by close harmonies.

One People, Many Voices Milken Archive concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

One People, Many Voices Milken Archive concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2006.

MA: Could you please share some of your thoughts on the importance of the Milken Archive?

SS: Well, there are a million good things about the Milken Archive. There's only one sad thing, which I've been saying for years: I wish the Milken Archive were around 30 years ago. I wish we'd had something of this comprehensive nature 30 or 40 years ago, because if we'd had Lowell Milken doing what he's doing now, we would have saved another two, three, four thousand pieces of music that are really gone forever. And that's the sad thing. God knows the music we could have preserved. So thank God he had the forethought to come along when he did. I mean, I'd never heard of anything like this in my life: to have a person who cares so much about the music that's gone by and to preserve it before it's lost forever. To capture it—and not just capture it, but in certain things like the Yiddish theatre songs that I was part of, to actually recapture and rerecord it to more than its former glory. To actually go one step beyond and recreate it in a way that was comparable to how it would have been played in the '30s, is truly a phenomenal feat. The incredible team that Lowell Milken put together is, to my mind, the key to the success of this entire project. An artistic director of the caliber of Neil Levin has ensured a level of excellence in the sheer scope and quality of these recordings. Paul Schwendener, who brings his marketing and A&R expertise, has been an invaluable asset to this most creative team. The vision of Larry Lesser has enabled the Foundation to operate on par with the best production companies anywhere. I never thought there would come a day when Jewish music would finally be recorded and archived to a world class standard. Personally, it is a most gratifying feeling. I love the fact that this particular album now being released was recorded so well and gave me the opportunity to work with such great professional choirs and ensembles. When it came to arranging the piece, Ba'avur david, which is featured on this new album, I sought to redefine the standard. I started with the basic arrangement that has been the norm and took it in a different direction. I wanted to create a mood that would express the romance and mystique—the mystical part of the text—and then blend it with the classic cantorial motifs associated with this work, refining the harmonies to create a more sophisticated sound. I love vocal effects in a capella singing—nothing compares with that. I'm so grateful that the Milken Foundation has afforded me and so many other hundreds of composers, arrangers and singers, such a wonderful opportunity to explore this material. To be able to come on board and have a fantastic new avenue to go down and explore is very, very exciting.

MA: What do you hope to see in the future from the Milken Archive and in the future of American Jewish music?

SS: Well, Jewish music itself will change, obviously, to match the times. We don't know who the Mozart of the day is going to be. We know that the Rosenblatts and the Roitmans we had in the early part of the 20th century will be followed by contemporary cantorial artists and modern musical genres, though that particular earlier art form will stay the way it was—it cannot be transcended. But there will be a new style of expression with Jewish themes and motifs. And I think the Archive has a very important role to play, taking the best of what American Jewish music can be and archiving it and making it available to the world—and not just for Jewish people, but so that people of all backgrounds and cultures will be able to discover the value and rich tapestry that Jewish music has to offer. I think it's going to go from strength to strength, defining new dimensions of Jewish expression for future generations.

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