Gary Eckstein, pioneering Israeli rock guitarist, dies age 73

For anyone under the age of 50, or who made aliyah after the 1980s, the name may not be instantly recognizable.

 GARY ECKSTEIN – one of the originals of the Israeli rock scene. (photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
GARY ECKSTEIN – one of the originals of the Israeli rock scene.
(photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)

Gary Eckstein, one of the stalwarts of the Israeli rock scene, died on Sunday at the age of 73.

For anyone under the age of 50, or who made aliyah after the 1980s, the name may not be instantly recognizable.

Eckstein’s heyday as a front man was largely spread across the 1970s-’80s, after which he increasingly worked behind the scenes, and became one of the most sought after production professionals and recording technicians in the Israeli pop and rock arena.

He also contributed his polished guitar playing skills as a session musician and sideman, to recordings and shows by some of the biggest names in the local entertainment industry across a range of styles and subgenres, including the likes of Arik Einstein, Shlomo Artzi, Zohar Argov, Shalom Hanoch and Svika Pick.

Svika Pick  (credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)Svika Pick (credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)

ECKSTEIN WAS born in Rehovot in 1948 and, in an interview with veteran radio show presenter Yoav Kutner, said he experienced his first musical light bulb moment when he was eight years old, when his mother took him to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He recalled being totally bowled over by the music of Tchaikovsky in the 1940 animated classic.

Still, it was rock music that tugged on the youngster’s heartstrings and, subsequently, his own guitar strings. As a teenager he was fascinated by British guitar-based The Shadows group and its leader, Hank Marvin, who were initially best known as the backing group for megastar vocalist Cliff Richard, aka “the British Elvis Presley.”

Offshore sources of inspiration notwithstanding, Eckstein was undeniably Israeli and firmly locked into his own culture.

When he became proficient on guitar – almost entirely self-taught – he picked up valuable hands-on experience playing with a bunch of local bands. During the course of the 1960s he worked with groups with such eye-catching monikers as Kovshei Haketzev (The Rhythm Conquerors), Hametapsim (The Climbers) and Mitriot (Umbrellas).

During his army service – he rejected an offer to serve in an IDF band, preferring to do his bit as a combat soldier – he kept up his musical pursuit on his weekends off and gradually honed his instrumental skills.

Word got around that there was a talented guitarist to be had who also did some singing, and he landed a berth with a group called Hanesichim (The Princes), which did all right for itself on the Tel Aviv dance club circuit.

It was around this time that he started writing his own songs, and was one of the first Hebrew-language rock songwriters, penning such numbers as “Shalechet” (Fall) and “Shir Shel Shalom” (Song of Peace). That was in stark contrast to the likes of Ha’arayot (The Lions) and Hachurchillim (The Churchills), the so-called rhythm bands, who exclusively performed covers of hits by top British and American bands of the day.

Eckstein’s professional learning curve took on a much steeper gradient when he moved to Germany, in 1970, with other members of Hanesichim – the band was soon renamed Phoenix – originally coming under the aegis of Avi Ofarim, who had achieved worldwide success alongside his then-wife, Esther Ofarim, and was based in Germany.

After a couple of months in recording studios, Eckstein was itching to get out and strut his stuff in front of live audiences, and he spent much of the next couple of years playing across Europe. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, in October 1973, Eckstein hopped on the first flight available back here and joined some pals in entertaining the IDF troops in Egypt. Eckstein was back here for good.

He made first recordings with a mid-’70s band called Kaleidoscope, with “Haya Lee Tov” (I Had it Good) gaining plenty of radio play and making good sales in the stores. His biggest hit, “Captain Jack,” hit the radio airwaves in 1977, and later that year he put out his debut album, Mahzor Alef Tashlaz (First Group 5737).

His eponymous sophomore effort came in 1979, and featured several hit singles, including “Boogie Iti Halayla” (Boogie With me Tonight), “Ani Holech LeBeit She’an” (I’m Going to Beit She’an) and “Ru’ah Stav” (Fall Wind).

Meanwhile, he kept up his sterling sideman duties, gaining particular notice for his solo work on Artzi’s big-selling “Tzavta” release. He also got into the showbiz side of things, and wrote the core for the Tremp LeMavet (Ride to Death) musical in the late 1970s.

In 1980 he founded a group called Stav (Fall), and wrote the soundtrack for the Ze’ev Revach movie Pitz’ei Bagrut 80 (Growing Pains). The following year he put out two widely contrasting albums, firstly rock effort Lo Leshidur (Not for Broadcast), which included “Aya VeDan” with which Eckstein appeared in the local preliminaries of the Eurovision Song Contest, and, later that year, he surprised Israeli rock fans by releasing Fata Morgana, with reworkings of Israeli folk-pop classics.

The memory lane line resurfaced with the Bli Millim (Wordless) 1993 record, which also revisited a bunch of local staples, and he maintained his songwriting work, providing the chart and lyrics for “Nashkini Na” (Kiss Me), performed by Yaacov Nave in the Eurovision Song Contest preliminary round.

He put out his ninth album, Gary Eckstein 9, with nine originals and seven bonus covers, in 2006. Two years later he suffered a stroke, and combated kidney disease in his later years.

Eckstein was one of the originals of the Israeli rock scene, and his distinctive guitar style will surely continue to resound for many years to come.