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Bagels and Bongos

Lawrence Bush
August 3, 2017

Irving Fields (Schwartz), who infused beloved Jewish songs (such as “Raisins and Almonds”) with the Cuban rhythms that he learned as a Caribbean cruise ship pianist, then sold two million copies of his 1959 album, “Bagels and Bongos,” was born in New York on this date in 1915. He began playing piano as a child and quickly became a songwriter who was eventually best known for his bar mitsve staple, “Miami Beach Rhumba,” which Xavier Cugat made into a hit in 1947. Fields also added Latin rhythms to Italian standards on “Pizza and Bongos,” to Hawaiian melodies on “Bikinis and Bongos,” and to French standards on “Champagne and Bongos.” He and his orchestra appeared frequently on television in the 1950s, and as he turned 100 in 2015, he was playing six nights a week at Nino’s Tuscany, an Italian restaurant in New York. Fields “could play almost any request,” writes Joseph Berger in the New York Times, “especially if it was for a Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers or Porter tune. If a woman said she was from Texas, he would run off a medley that might start with ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ . . . He even became something of a phenomenon among the internet generation, when, by his account, at a fan’s request, he took 15 minutes to compose ‘YouTube Dot Com Theme Song.’ It has had close to 900,000 views.” Fields died in 2016 at 101. To see his trio playing “Miami Beach Rhumba,” look below. To see him playing his YouTube theme song at the age of 92, look below that.

“People ask me, ‘How do you remember so many notes?’ It just comes to me. It’s like God is in my mind.” --Irving Fields

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.