JUF's Jewish Celebrities

Ben Kweller

Ben Kweller

OK, say you are a rock guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s band. And say you have this friend, and this friend has a kid. You have known this kid since he was a baby, and now he has a band. And you know what? He’s not bad. What do you do? You tell your producer about him, that’s what.

That “kid” is Ben Kweller. He was discovered by the great guitarist Nils Lofgren. When Ben was three. By then, Ben was already holding a guitar and doing that rock-star pose. When he actually started to learn how to play, at 7, he used the drums. Then Ben had received an honorable mention in a songwriting contest held by Billboard magazine. When he was 9.

Ben soon learned the guitar and piano, but even he couldn’t play them all at once by himself. So he formed a band, then another and another, until he formed one called Radish. When he was 12. Then, in time for his bar mitzvah, Radish put out its first album called, simply enough, Hello.

After their second album, Nils called his producer. They got signed to a major label. When he was 15. They toured America and Europe and showed up on Conan O’Brian and David Letterman. They recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. But his band broke up in 1999. When he was 18.

Then he signed, as a solo artist, to another label and played with Guster and Juliana Hatfield and toured with (former Lemonheads frontman) Evan Dando and Ben Folds. Evan had liked an album Ben had recorded on his own laptop.

His second album, Sha Sha, is like Nirvana crossed with Weezer. He toured with his new band to support the album. And then, he (Ben Kweller) and his new friend (Ben Folds) and this Australian guy (Ben Lee) formed a group called, simply enough, The Bens, just long enough to tour Australia. Which sounds like a fun way to do that!

So then he recorded his next album, and started playing for bigger audiences. One of his players left to play with another band called The Wallflowers, headed by another Jewish rocker, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob).

In 2006, he released his new solo album, and it was waaay solo. Turns out, when you play one instrument at a time and record them, but then play them all back at the same time, you really can play all the instruments yourself! Which is what Ben did on his latest album, called, simply enough, Ben Kweller. When he was 25.

His fifth album, which came out in 2009, is called Changing Horses, and it's about 50% rock and 50% country, but still 100% cool.


In New York, there is a skyscraper called The Brill Building. It is where many early rock-n-roll hits were written. They were written by teams, usually one person for the music and one for the words. And almost all the time, both people on the team were Jewish!

We’re talking about teams like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. They wrote songs for Elvis, and also for two harmony groups, one serious (The Drifters) and one silly (The Coasters). Their songs were put together in a musical called “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, which is the name of one of their hits. The others include “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion #9,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Stand By Me.”

Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) teamed with Mort Shuman to write for Elvis and The Drifters, too: “Viva Las Vegas,” “(Marie’s the Name) of His Latest Flame,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment”... and “A Teenager in Love” for Dion. Doc also teamed with Lieber and Stoller, and with Jewish producer Phil Spector.

Howard Greenfield teamed with Neil Sedaka, whose last name is another spelling of “tzedakah”! Together they wrote classics like “Oh! Carol,” “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Neil also had a comeback in the 1970s, too, with “Laughter in the Rain,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and a slower version of “Breaking Up.” He recently got back in touch with his roots by recording a Yiddish album.

Another team was Jeff Barry and Cynthia Weil, who continued to have romantic hits into the 1980s. Ones you can still hear on the radio include “Blame it on the Bossa Nova,” “On Broadway,” “Don’t Know Much,” “I’m Gonna Be Strong,” “Just Once,” “Never Gonna Let You Go,” “Shades of Gray,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”… and two huge hits for the Righteous Brothers— “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.”

Still another team was Carol King and Gerry Goffin, who we wrote about in the Bonus here.

Then there were Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who were even married for a while! Their “babies” included “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” and also “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “The Chapel of Love” and “Leader of The Pack,” songs for “girl groups” like The Ronettes and The Crystals. Then they had rock hits like “Hanky Panky” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” (That one was a #1 hit for Manfred Mann, who was really Manfred Lubowitz... and Jewish!). Later, they teamed with Phil Spector on hits like “I Can Hear Music” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Ellie also helped further the career of a solo singer-songwriter who started at the Brill Building. We wrote about him here, and his name is Neil Diamond.

All of these amazing songwriters— some of whom also became hit singers like Carol King, Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond— knew each other, worked together, and created some of the best and most enduring music of all time. And they were all Jewish!

Zoe Wannamaker
Liza Weil
Odeya Rush
Grant Heslov
Jared Gillman
Ike Barinholtz