The kingmaker of pop

By
November 12, 2015 12:39

Veteran music reporter and presenter Benny Dudkevitch looks back on 41 years of pop stars, presidents and politics.




Benny Dudkevitch

Benny Dudkevitch holds a ‘With The Beatles,’ one of his – and the country’s – first international records. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Benny Dudkevitch can pinpoint the very first place and time a song by the Beatles was heard in Israel. That’s because he was the one playing it – a besotted 15-year-old music fan blasting a 45 of “She Loves You” out of his Tel Aviv bedroom window.

“It was 25 Pines Street in Neveh Tzedek on the second floor. I know I was the first because I had a pen pal in Rhodesia who sent it to me before anyone in Israel had even heard of The Beatles,” said the veteran Israel Radio music reporter and presenter who retired at the end of September after 41 years. “I put in on and I couldn’t believe it – it sounded totally different from anything else I had ever heard, and I played it over and over again. The neighbors didn’t know what was happening.”

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For the next five decades or so, Dudkevitch made it his mission to make sure the neighborhood of Israel knew what was happening in popular music from Europe and the US. First, from 1974 to 1990 as the editor and presenter of Reshet Gimmel’s weekly international hit parade, and later, until last month, with his daily Pinat Pop segment on Reshet Bet’s foreign news roundup and regular reports on the arrival of rock royalty to Israel’s shores, Dudkevitch was Israel’s Mr. Pop.

“He was definitely a taste maker for anyone in Israel who grew up listening to music on the radio,” said Menachem Granit, an Israel Radio colleague of Dudkevitch and a fellow music fanatic who used to host a weekly pop music show on Channel 1. “Benny introduced artists and songs to Israel that people would never have otherwise known about.”

To some, that might seem trivial, but Dudkevitch is one of those blessed souls who has spent most of his waking hours searching for the meaning of the world in the grandeur of a three-minute pop song.

Aside from the news beat he took on covering the President’s Residence for Reshet Bet beginning in 2001, Dudkevitch’s journey has been one-track – or rather one sound track filled with English-language pop and rock.

Nestled in the forest-like garden surrounding his spacious home in Ramat Raziel near Mevaseret Zion – where he’s raised three children with his wife, journalist and former Jerusalem Post staffer Margot – is a specially built and fortified warehouse in which is stored his massive collection of tens of thousands of LPs and 45s, which he claims is the largest private vinyl collection in Israel.

As he enthusiastically shows visitors around his upstairs study – surrounded by presidential and music memorabilia and dozens of framed photographs of a younger, scruffier Dudkevitch with the likes of Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton – it’s clear that the 67-yearold music fan is still as smitten as his 15-year-old self.

“The music bug first hit me when I was 13 and a religious scout,” said Dudkevitch. “That’s when I used to go to the British Embassy on Hayarkon Street where they had magazines in English from around the world. I put an ad in a British youth magazine advertising for a Boy Scouts pen pal.”

That’s how his relationship with his pen pal from Rhodesia began and blossomed and how he began to receive singles in the mail by artists besides the Beatles, like The Searchers and Cilla Black. Around that same time, Aryeh Golan, now an institution as the Reshet Bet morning news anchor, began to broadcast a weekly international hit parade on the radio.

“I would leave school at 10 a.m. every Friday and turn on my transistor radio to see which songs would be in the Top Ten. I was hooked,” said Dudkevitch.

It took a while for the Israeli public to join in the “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” however. The mid-’60s were a time when the burgeoning Israeli airwaves were primarily full of army marching band hits and patriotic ballads and anthems.

Infiltration from the outside elements – and languages – was looked on suspiciously, as demonstrated by the 1964 decision by an interministerial committee to refuse an offer by the Beatles to perform in Israel, because, according to the Israel State Archives, “the band’s music was of no artistic value and its appearances had led to mass hysteria among the youth where they performed.”

FOR DUDKEVITCH, there was a wealth of artistic value in the new music and ideas that had been opened up to him as his various pen pals began to also send him music magazines from England and the US, like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, 16 and Tiger Beat.

“It was all new and exciting, and I would read and listen nonstop. It opened up my mind and I only got more attracted to it the more I learned,” he said, adding that he never developed the same love affair with Hebrew-language pop and rock.

A skill for writing developed hand in hand with Dudkevitch’s obsession with international pop music.

By the time he was 17, Dudkevitch was writing about music for youth papers like Ma’ariv Lanoar. Following his army service, while studying social work at Bar-Ilan University, he returned to writing, this time for the popular bimonthly Olam Hakolnoa.

“They gave me five pages for pop music, including the back cover, and it became so popular that eventually they decided to change their format and put the emphasis on music instead of movies,” said Dudkevitch, citing an explosion of interest in music from abroad in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967.

“Until then, you just had the army bands, the ‘beautiful Israel’ songs and a few bands like the Tarnegolim. But what happened in 1967 and after was that young volunteers from Europe and America began to show up and brought that whole hippie/Woodstock spirit with them and along with it all this great rock, soul and R&B music. Everything began to be different.”

Dudkevitch’s position with Olam Hakolnoa continued to grow, and promoters grew to rely on him not only to write about the artists they were bringing over but to sometimes act as a babysitter. Not every act was a household name, and back then there was no Guy Pines covering all of the pop culture developments.

When Dudkevitch ended up hosting artists like the Marmalade (“Reflections of My Life”) and Christie (“Yellow River”) on their preshow jaunts around Tel Aviv, he would often run out of ideas of how to keep them occupied.

“My solution was to bring them to my mother’s house, and she made them big meals. Everyone was happy,” he said.

DESPITE THE adventure and experience at Olam Hakolnoa, Dudkevitch’s dream was to host his own radio show and play all the music that he had been collecting over the years, including the late 1960s invention of bootlegs of the major artists of the time like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and, a little later, Led Zeppelin.

That hobby provided the break that eventually led to the fulfillment of his dream, when just after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Haaretz published a story about Dudkevitch’s bootleg collection. The story piqued the interest of Gila Ben Shach, who was then the head of the pop music radio station Reshet Gimmel.

She offered Dudkevitch the opportunity to come to the studio and present a show featuring some of his rare music collection.

“I told her that Jerusalem was too far for me to go to,” he said with a laugh. “But she convinced me, and despite having no experience in radio, I prepared and presented a 55-minute show and it was perfect.

“I just had the right instinct. I knew that you put a record here, one over there and you talk in the middle. It came naturally. Ruth Nevo, who was the editor of the program, told her colleagues: ‘This kid knows what he’s doing; you should use him.’” Within a short time, Dudkevitch moved over to radio full-time, and in 1974 he began presenting the weekly international hit parade program, which became a national institution until he left to join Reshet Bet in 1990.

“Every Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m., I would present the top 20 and it was one of the most popular programs in the country. We’d play the top US and British songs on the charts and reserved positions for the most popular songs in other countries such as Germany and Australia,” said Dudkevitch. “That’s how a band like Men at Work from Australia became popular in Israel before they broke into America.”

ACCORDING TO Granit, Dudkevitch was determined to focus on the music and its popularity as opposed to trying to be an arbitrator of hipness.

“There were two approaches to music on the radio in the late 1970s and ’80s – the album rock approach with long jams and concept albums and the hit parade Top 40 approach. Benny was a Top 40 guy the whole way,” he said.

“I remember that we would get singles in the mail from all over the world, and Benny would have this special marker with which he would write “hit” on some of them. That way other DJs knew that it had been given his seal of approval.”

After 17 years of being the kingmaker, in 1990 Dudkevitch broadcast his final hit parade for Reshet Gimmel (which transformed into an all-Hebrew music format in 1997) and moved over to Israel Radio’s flagship station Reshet Bet, where he became the pop expert- in-residence.

“Reshet Bet’s Shalom Oren recruited me by saying, ‘A lot of artists are coming to Israel all the time and we don’t have anyone to interview them. You’d be great at that,’” recalled Dudkevitch.

To sweeten the pot, Oren also offered Dudkevitch a “pop corner” at the end of the daily foreign news roundup every weekday afternoon where he could have total freedom to report or comment on any aspect of music and pop culture.

“I loved every second of those last 25 years on Reshet Bet,” said Dudkevitch, adding that an unexpected twist emerged in 2001 when he was asked to begin covering the President’s Residence for the station.

“I said, ‘What? I’m a T-shirt guy. What am I going to do there?’” said Dudkevitch. “And their answer was, ‘Don’t worry, politicians and pop stars are the same – there’s no difference.’” That advice proved accurate during his 14 years covering the meetings of presidents Moshe Katsav, Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin. And at times, both of his beats would converge, when visiting pop stars would arrive at the President’s Residence to pay their respects.

Occasionally, a conflict would arise that would demand Dudkevitch be in two places at once; but for him, there was only one possible outcome.

“I would always choose pop. One time there was an important meeting at the President’s Residence at the same time that Charles Aznavour was arriving for a press conference ahead of his show in Tel Aviv,” he said. “I went and told my editor, ‘Listen, I can’t miss this. Please get a replacement for me at Beit Hanassi.’ And they did.”

DESPITE MEETING world leaders and VIPs via his presidential beat, some of Dudkevitch’s most warming memories are of spending time with visiting musicians away from the glare of the stage. For someone who’s interviewed a who’s who of the music world, there are some encounters that still stood out from the pack.

“I went to the airport to meet Ray Charles when he came here in the 1970s, and we’re sitting next to each other talking and he keeps tapping me on the arm, saying, ‘You see? You see?’ I got a big kick out of that,” said Dudkevitch.

“And there was the time in 1979 that I got to sit with Elton John backstage at Binyenei Ha’uma in Jerusalem, and in a relaxed atmosphere, without any star trappings, just talk to him. He was so nice, even when I asked him for an autograph but was too embarrassed to say it was for me, so I told him to write it ‘To Margot,’ my wife.”

Like most music fans that came of age in a certain era, Dudkevitch professed that much of the music being made today doesn’t touch him and that he prefers “that old-time rock and roll.”

But even in his own familiar milieu, he’s getting used to the new reality of no longer having a forum to share his passion with thousands of listeners. For Dudkevitch, it hit home a couple days after his retirement when Bon Jovi arrived for their show at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv.

He had planned to attend the show with his wife, but at the last minute gave the tickets to one of his children.

“I’ve never been to a show in decades where I’ve seen the end of it. I’ve always had to leave 15 minutes early to get back to the studio and report about it. That’s how I missed Leonard Cohen’s famous birkat kohanim at his show in Ramat Gan Stadium,” he said.

“For Bon Jovi, I didn’t have any place to run off and report on the show. It was too sad for me. So I gave the tickets away. I’ve finished my career; it’s time for someone else now.”

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