Left to right: Yiddish music icons, Merna and Claire Barry, entertained generations of Jewish Americans with their jazzy versions of Yiddish songs. (photo from rsa.fau.edu)
For more than 40 years, the Bagelman Sisters, later known as the Barry Sisters, were the darlings of Jewish entertainment. Their recordings could be found in almost every Jewish household in the 1950s and ’60s. The younger of the two sisters, Merna, passed away in 1976. The older sister, Claire, died on Nov. 22, 2014, in Hollywood, Fla., at 94.
Who were the Barry Sisters?
On the surface, they were two beautiful girls, dressed in the latest fashion, hair perfectly coiffed, singing with sultry voices that could make your heart leap. But their impact was great.
Born in New York, the two sisters were originally known as the Bagelman Sisters. Many saw them as the Yiddish answer to the popular Andrews Sisters in the 1940s. They combined Jewish folk songs and Yiddish theatre ditties with swing arrangements and perfect harmony. When Clara and Minnie changed their names to Claire and Merna, the Bagelman Sisters became the Barry Sisters. The duo has often been credited with creating Yiddish swing, a music genre that did not exist previously.
The glamorous Barry Sisters were regular guests on Yiddish radio programs like Yiddish Melodies in Swing. They toured with The Ed Sullivan Show to the Soviet Union and performed in Israel in October 1962. The popularity of their catchy and jazzy tunes may have paved the way for the Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof and the klezmer revival of the late 1970s.
The Judaica Sound Archives at the Recorded Song Archives at Florida Atlantic University has 41 recordings by this dynamic duo of Yiddish music, including: “Abi Gezunt,” “In Meine Oigen Bistie Shain,” “Channah from Havannah,” “Bublitchki,” “Dem Neyem Sher” and many others.
For more Barry Sisters recordings, visit rsa.fau.edu/barry-sisters. Due to copyright concerns, only snippets can be heard on the public website, however, full versions are available to users of the RSA Research Station, rsa.fau.edu.
Niels Falch is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and is currently writing a dissertation on the influence of Jewish music in American popular songs. This article appears courtesy of the Recorded Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, rsa.fau.edu.