January 16, 2019

The Gifts

From 1955 to 1967, Magnificent Montague was the most riveting rhythm-and-blues disc jockey in the nation, presiding over the birth of “soul” music. In addition to working as a DJ in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and several other cities, he became a passionate collector of African American memorabilia, assembling a museum-sized collection of 6,000 items. Montague is best known for his trademark on-air scream of “Burn, Baby! BURN!” — which, to his horror, became the battle cry of the Los Angeles riots in 1965. But his new autobiography, “Burn, Baby! BURN!” (University of Illinois Press, $24.95, written with Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Baker) is devoted as much to history as music, including Montague’s admiration of Judaism.

You could not be a Negro in the record business in the ’50s and not be curious about how these two tribes — blacks and Jews — had

mingled together in rhythm and blues. You would have to have been an idiot, first off, not to notice the number of Jews who ran independent companies specializing in black music: Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records in L.A.; the Chess brothers, Phil and Leonard, in Chicago; Syd Nathan, who owned King records in Cincinnati; the Mesner brothers in L.A. with Aladdin Records, and Jerry Wexler, one of the hearts of Atlantic Records. You’d have to have been only a little less blind to ignore the fact that Jews, like blacks, had gravitated to the music business because there were so many covenants locking them out of more respectable professions. I knew that just about the only white people who’d ever given me a break in this business were Jews, and a fair number of times they did it not only because they knew I could make them some money, but because they recognized my talent and genuinely wanted to help–genuinely identified with being on the wrong side of society’s line. If you had ever considered the Old Testament, you would instinctively understand what Paul Robeson explained in a 1927 issue of The Jewish Tribune: “The Bible was the only form of literature the captive Negroes could get at, even those who could read. It was natural for their quick imaginations to find a … similarity between their condition and that of the enslaved Hebrews.” Listen to the black voices sing: “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go!”

The more I collected history, the more it pained me that Negroes knew so little of our struggles and our remarkable successes. By contrast, I realized, the Jews had managed to educate so many generations of their own. I thought, vaguely, that if I studied the Jews, I could learn: What kept them going in the face of so much hatred? How did they survive?

This curiosity came to a head in 1960 when I was working on KXLW in St. Louis and met Rabbi Julius Nadel. My wife, Rose, and I and our baby boy, Martin, were living on the border between a black neighborhood and a Jewish section. I could see Nadel’s synagogue from my window, and one day some unseen hand touched me on the shoulder and I walked over. Everybody looked at me, wondered what I was doing there. The rabbi came over and shook my hand, and we went into his office and hit it off. He, it turned out, was interested in blacks. It was a hard time to reach out. St. Louis was still intensely segregated.

“Why don’t you teach me how to be Jewish, and I’ll teach you how to be black?” I say half-jokingly. “We’ll trade this off.”

“I like it,” he says.

We agreed that I would come every evening and study, and for every evening I would give him an hour on the history of blacks. For six, maybe eight weeks this went on. I learned the story of the Jews, the Diaspora, the holidays, the rituals, the foundation of ethical monotheism that paved the way for Christianity. And on the 14 of Adar in the Hebrew year 5720 (more commonly known as March 13, 1960) Rabbi Nadel issued me a certificate of conversion.

We went to dinner and celebrated, and he asked me to sum up what I’d learned about Jews and blacks. It was so personal I had trouble finding words. I’d found similarities in the spirituality both sides bring to the table, I told him, but Jews have an advantage I envied: Each of their religious holidays represents something historically significant to their people. Imagine, as a parent, the power that gives you — the tools it gives you by presenting each holiday to your child as a lesson in how to live his life, a lesson tied directly to real life, a way to reinforce values so the old mistakes or injustices will not occur again. That is what bands the Jews together, that and their intense pride in achievement.

Rabbi, I said, the only thing that bands my people together is our religious fervor, but we don’t have a racial religion, or holidays significant enough to loop it in right with our religion, with our hand-clapping.

We do have one thing that no one else has, though. We have “The Gift,” the gift of song, the touch that song has given Negroes. God gave the Semitic people certain gifts, and in the same regard he gave us music. Music had been so wrapped up in so many phases of my life, I took it for granted. It was as common as the air, and just as essential to my people’s survival. In the years that followed, my collecting of the black experience would intensify in the hope that I could give my people something similar to what Rabbi Nadel gave his.

More information about “Burn, Baby! BURN!” can be found