Sam Glaser has been a fixture on the Los Angeles Jewish music scene for years, spreading his enigmatic blend of biblical lyrics and heartstopping rock and roll in three solo albums which paradoxically blend Judaism's most profound wisdom with cutting-edge contemporary music. His captivating style and comet-like rise in nationwide popularity are due to a mixture of many variables, including his innovation in arrangement, his connections with the best backup musicians Hollywood has to offer, and his self-effacing warmth which seeps into everything his sings.
Sam welcomes a visitor into his elegantly appointed home, in the yuppie-and-coming Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Shabbos "blech" (stove cover) is still out, lilies grace every room, and the silver of the Shabbos candles sparkle. But he escorts his visitor straight into the bathroom... to meet his obviously favorite treasures, sons Max, 3 1/2, and Jesse, 2, preparing for bedtime, and wife Shira, in mommy clothes of sweatshirt and baseball cap.
The living room of Sam and Marcia's home says a lot: it is dominated by a massive ebony Steinway grand piano and a double stroller, symbols of the two passions in their life. Balancing the muse and the babies has been a struggle. He felt compelled to build a state of the art recording studio in his garage, so the obsessive work of musical creativity wouldn't come between him and his family.
Sam grew up in a musical household, to a conservatory-trained mother and father who played the trumpet. He attended Castle Heights school, just blocks from where he now lives, and graduated from Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades. As a seven-year-old third grader, he began writing poetry for a class assignment. When his mother tried to put the cadences to music, he corrected her, and dictated his first compositions. By the time he was eleven, he had recorded his first album of original songs. "I had twenty songs that I had put together that I would play for anybody who would listen," he recalls. Music lessons were compulsory, and "I practiced every day until I cried, and I am eternally grateful."
He was weaned on a myriad of musical influences. He loved rhythm and blues, musical theater and jazz and listened to the Beatles, Tower of Power, War, Earth Wind and Fire, Yes and Kansas during high school. He was passionate about pianist/songwriters Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Billy Joel. In high school, a teacher doubled as a piano bar performer, and snuck him into smoky clubs giving him his first real taste of performing when he was only 15 years old. "He was able to get me to improvise. Finally, I was able to get all these melodies out of my imagination and into my fingers." As a youngster, he remembers it being absolutely surprising to find out that other people didn't hear complete compositions in their heads. "I have always heard symphonies I thought that was normal," he says. Completely arranged songs come to him effortlessly, and he just works out the details after recording them into with a strategically placed walkman which he carries around and puts by his bedside. About half his compositions appear to him in dreams, he confides.
Sam pauses for a moment to hug Max who has finished his bath. He stops to make "havdalah" for Marcia, and his resonant voice booms out the traditional prayer, bouncing off the white ceramic tile in the kitchen. Max and Jesse share the spice box as the golden glow of the flickering candlelight reflects on their intent faces, still infused with the departing Shabbos.
That trademark resonant voice, thunderous and gentle at the same time, and the warmth which permeates every word of his songs, is natural and understated. That voice was trained in opera in college, and gives him a marathon stamina. "I've been leading prayers for the high holidays for years. I'm doing "pesukei dezimrah" (early morning opening prayers) through
"neila "(evening prayers closing Yom Kippur) as well as blowing the shofar. My voice somehow grows stronger throughout the day. No food, no water!" Even he sounds amazed.
After college in Boulder, Colorado, Sam joined a successful band for a year and studied film scoring. Then he received a fellowship to study at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. It was the beginning of a long road back to his Jewish roots. "It was the first time I was ever asked to reassess my priorities in life. The majority of us go through life without asking ultimate questions." So he took what he thought was a free trip to Israel six weeks in Jerusalem's Old City seemed like it would be paradise. He paid little attention to applying the religious teachings, but they paid attention to him. "Torah resonated so soundly inside me. If you are not ready to take on "mitzvot "(commandments), well, it's insidious. It festers." He became one of many young people on this program who "suddenly, they have a concept of the value of their heritage, instead of some nebulous chicken-soup style attraction." That six-week trip lasted four months. It could have lasted more if he had not run into the Jewish tradition of counting of the "Omer", when Jews in Jerusalem refrain from listening to music. "I was itching to get back to my recording studio, and no one wanted to hear me play music for a few months." So he winged back to LA, and eventually formed Sam Glaser and the Thursday Night Band.
Sam and Thursday played the club circuit, Club Lingerie, Sasche, and At My Place in Santa Monica, and recorded three albums with the band. But his father wooed him with a job in his sportswear manufacturing company, where Sam managed international manufacturing and distributing. Every month he travelled to another exotic locale: China, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka. Europe several times a year. Even Israel, where the firm had two locations. But despite its allure and his success, music was his passion, and he was known to sneak off mid-day to his studio built in one of the warehouses.
Through the garment trade, he began to compose scores. He began with informercials and jingles, including work for Jordache and ESPN. He never looked back, and still makes half of his income from scoring television. His latest coups include scoring the new Dodgers theme, "Dodger Blues," and the ad campaign for the Wherehouse chain of record stores. He does game shows, dramatic TV. He just completed a docudrama for PBS. If you turn on the TV, you've undoubtedly heard Sam's scores without realizing it. But, "the Jewish stuff is clearly my passion," consuming 90% of his energies. For years he has produced the prestigious American Jewish Song Festival and was named Executive Director of the Jewish Music Commission. He also opted to reach young people as the musical director of the Yad b'Yad theater troup, which has performed several Glaser-composed musicals.
His own spark was reignited on another trip to Israel in 1991, this one an invitational seminar for Jewish composers around the world sponsored by the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He found himself arguing the religious point of view with secular students in the same program. A mentor advised him to choose one mitzvah, one he could dedicate himself to wholeheartedly, to enable him to take Jerusalem back home with him to Los Angeles. His choice? Tefillin. "I dusted off the tefillin I got as a bar-mitzvah gift. I hadn't put them on in the sixteen years since. I opened the prayer book to the Shma. The phone rang." He stopped himself from answering it, telling himself, "this is my time to talk with G-d." He then overheard the answering machine recording a message; a TV producer was calling to report that he had been given a Sports Channel music contract. "I'll try this again tomorrow!" he thought and has been putting on tefillin daily since.
His road back to observant Judaism was cemented when he met Marcia in 1992. "I don't think I would have made it if she hadn't been in my life." They were hooked on the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and they both fell in love with the Aish HaTorah community "I just flipped out over what I saw.: a community which is a thousand-member family. People care for each other. The outpouring of kindness is unbelievable. As my wife and I were taking each other more seriously, we began looking at these families." Families are now the main focus for his musical lens.
Sam plays concerts in over fifty cities around the country each year, like the two-week tour of the east coast which he just concluded. More often than not, he plays to Reform and Conservative audiences. Many of his engagements are for concerts following shabbatons where he teaches Torah and leads prayer by day, and then sings at night. He translates. He explains. He cajoles and coaches and encourages. Frequently the children in the audience receive a Jewish education at school only to find themselves facing a brick wall of ignorance at home. That's why he emphasizes "family education," attempting to bring under-educated Jewish parents into the act by infusing them with enthusiasm for observance and idealism that he finds so easy to ignite in the children. He jokes about the phenomenon of "pediatric Judaism," or people who return to their roots because of their children. Nevertheless, he realizes that it is a motivating factor for many of his listeners. "The way kids learn is seeing it done," he teaches. "I play at so many Hebrew schools. I have one day to make an impression. I try so hard, " he confides, as if the whole word rested on his being able to affect change in his young charges. Modestly, he admits, "I get invited back, so I must not be coming on too strong."
His enthusiasm is contagious. He has turned two of his brothers toward Torah, and they both live in Israel and study full time. One has become a Breslov Chassid. The other has just become a rabbi at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. His parents have become Sabbath observant and are now active at the Chabad of Pacific Palisades.
Although Sam is not a rabbi, as a minstrel singing biblical verse, "I find myself being looked at as a spokesman for the faith with all the liability that comes with it." And he has passionately absorbed the teachings of many rabbis out of necessity to field the challenges and questions of his audiences. "I started learning in order to become a maven." Although versed in the finest classical secular literature, he reads nothing but Torah-oriented books now. "I just have to know my stuff, " he says, ticking off the works of Aryeh Kaplan, Ezriel Tauber, Luzzato, Solevechik and Kook among those he has voraciously consumed.
The songs themselves make it necessary to educate, he says. His song "Lulav" allows him to explain how during the Succot holiday in Jerusalem secular and religious Jews dance together ecstatically in the streets. "V'haer Eyneynu" "(Enlighten our Eyes) compels him to convey the majesty and passion of the Jewish love for learning Torah. In a classroom setting, he has taught an "Introduction to the Music of Prayer" at the University of Judaism for years. He also teaches his "Five Levels of the Soul" at seminars and Shabbatons, challenging people to connect with the spiritual side of their being.
The reason the songs on Sam's three Jewish CDs seem to captivate and motivate is that they are so real. "I fill my life with this stuff, and that's essentially what comes out." His last album, A Day in the Life was essentially about prayer, "I was living and breathing prayer," in order to educate himself to pray more effectively. A Day in the Life is a musical trip through the human psyche on a given day, with an enthusiastic outbreaks, magnificent highs, and anguished lows. That 1995 album contains a haunting Holocaust-remembrance piece, "Born to Remember," which recently received its first symphonic performance since he rearranged it for full orchestra.
His newest release is called Across the River, and represents "a year in the life," focusing on lifecycle events like weddings and births, as well as the Jewish holidays. It's his attempt at producing a cohesive work from the creme of his latest compositions. He had 35 candidate songs for inclusion on the album, and fewer than half survived. "I wanted this to be the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (the classic Elton John 70's album) of Jewish music." he says, ambitiously. He even patterned the artwork for Across the River after the Elton John album jacket. Sam is thrilled that his "Asher Bara" from his latest release seems to be breaking through to the elusive east coast yeshiva world. And his "Mi Chamocha" was featured as the pick of the week on the www.jewishmusic.com website.
These two albums have added significantly to his popularity since the release of his best-selling Jewish debut Hineni , and his many fans in Hollywood gush over the depth of his work. Kirk Douglas is an avid fan, and unabashedly claims to sing Sam's "Modeh Ani" in the mornings. The late TV mogul Lou Rudolph would call him from his car, with "Oseh Shalom" blaring in the background. Producer of the Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man miniseries, Rudolph was quoted, "Five minutes of Sam's music takes me to the spiritual level of five months of learning with a rabbi."
In his community, Sam reaches out by teaching, as he did by leading the recent "Shabbas Across America," where unaffiliated Jews telephoned an "800" number and found themselves at his extended Shabbat table at Aish HaTorah. Or via the "Bart Stern Shabbat" program, named in honor of a charitable legend who recently passed away, which attracts over two hundred young singles each month. For those less than comfortable at a fast paced Orthodox service, Sam recently instituted the new "Understanding Minyan" every other Saturday morning at Aish.
He relates to the challenges of those unaffiliated Jews testing the waters of faith for the first time, "the hardest thing about the concept of G-d is understanding Him to be more than a 'force of nature'...to see G-d in your day-to-day life, that's a big challenge." Sam explains, "for me, to have a concept of G-d in my life on a day-to-day basis is not quite as hard, because of these songs that just come to me. Secondly, I don't have a 'day job'... I guess it's easier to see that I'm dependent Hashem for everything. "Emunah "(faith) is easier to come by for a musician."
The challenge to explain the universality of Sam's appeal, and his unprecedented effectiveness with teaching, seems very simple. "A lot of my songs are prayers," he adds, saying, "a prayer is any music that comes forth that is directed toward the Divine." Sam continues to reach out to the divine in all of us.