Biography - Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz


The Story of Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz

Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz

This is the history of a person whose influence as a guitarist and composer is still being felt to this day, yet somehow almost no one knows his name. I am referring to none other than Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz.

The youngest child of Amyankl Yitzchak and Golde Rayne Lefkowitz, he was born Myron Murray Lefkowitz in Shiletz, Belarus, a small Jewish village on May 19, 1901. His father was an orthodox rabbi while his mother was not only the Rebbetzin but also did a little matchmaking and yenta-ing on the side.

A year later to escape persecution, the family left Europe for America and settled in Pierre Part, Louisiana. The spot was chosen in the Letkowitz patriarch's belief that, "no matter what, nobody will bother to come screw with us in such a remote place." And although he was correct, the location also made it hard for a rabbi to earn a decent living. As a side note - a clerk at Ellis Island, who after noticing that Amyankl was left-handed, thought it would be funny to add an extra "t" to the family name.

When it came time to transition to solid food, little Myron proved to have a very finicky appetite and went from being a healthy child to a thin and sickly one. As he continued to lose weight and become more and more lethargic, his parents, desperate for a cure, tried every medical and folk remedy to no avail. They had nearly given up all hope when a traveling schmaltz salesman suggested a diet of matzoh fried in his product.

"Make it mit a bisl onion and salt. If he don't eat that, then that's a little shegets you got there."

It worked and the boy thrived. His mother called this transformation the "Matzoh Miracle" and began calling her son "Matzoh Boy." Not long after, "Boy" was dropped but the nickname, "Matzoh," forever stuck.

The definitive cause of his blindness is not known but a reasonable assumption is that the early health crisis was at the root of it. It wasn't until months later that anyone noticed his failing eyesight and by then there was nothing to be done to reverse it. The only thing Matzoh would ever say on the subject was that it was due to a freak accident at a bootleg Manischewitz operation where he worked as a boy.

Matzoh showed a natural talent for music very early. At three, he could memorize and sing back any tune after a single listen. He built a rudimentary, yet playable guitar out of random household items at five, and began figuring out what was to become his signature playing style. Anything he heard; sacred chants, folk and gospel tunes from all heritages, popular songs of the day, and of course, the blues all became grist for Blind Matzoh's mill. With so many varied influences, it is no wonder why music mavens have difficulty pigeonholing Leftkowitz's music and that his influence can be found across the entire spectrum of American popular music.

To his father, this gift could only mean that his youngest was destined to not just follow in his footsteps as his other sons had done, but go even further to become a cantor - the first Leftkowitz ever to do attain such a lofty position. But being the youngest, Matzoh was fully aware of the difficulties his father and two older brothers faced just to eke out a mere existence. It would not be long before he began to dream of a much different and more financially rewarding life.

Due to his blindness and because there was no nearby yeshiva, Matzoh was home-schooled by his parents in the Torah and Talmud. Although he did learn to read Braille, the unavailability of the Torah and other Hebrew texts in that form made it necessary for him to memorize everything.

He would say later of this period, "My good memory made it easy but my heart was never in it. I don't know about Papa, but Mama knew because after my morning lesson, my reward was being able to go and play my guitar. She liked to listen but when I'd sometimes take a chant and goyishe it up with a little blues, she'd laugh but then warn me, 'Don't ever let your papa hear you do anything like that. He'd go meshuge! Besides, what does he know from fancy?'"

Eventually though, the elder Leftkowitz did hear, and the resulting friction between father and son soon caused an irreparable rift. Matzoh struck out on his own less than a year after his Bar Mitzvah.

He made his way to Shreveport and found work playing at various brothels in the then legal red-light district of St. Paul's Bottom. Matzoh's style, a unique blend of simple melodies, sophisticated harmony, syncopation, and unusual phrasing quickly caught on, making him much in demand as both soloist and sideman. It was during this period that he wrote what were to become two local favorites, "How Much Is That Shikse In the Window?" and "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Plotz." Both of which were heard and eventually turned into hits by others.

Despite his success, in a few years Leftkowitz grew restless and started to seek greener pastures.

From a 1965 interview: "I could have stayed in Shreveport, I guess. The work was steady and I was treated very well. I just wanted a bisl more than that life had to offer and there's not much nachas from working in a whorehouse, ya know? And to be honest, all that fake shraying from the hookers was beginning to get on my nerves."

He headed for New York City but only made it as far as Detroit, Michigan. It didn't take long to establish himself there, splitting his time between playing in clubs with African-American clientele and doing weddings and bar mitzvahs for his own people.

Blues fan/promoter, Stephan G. Packer, a well-to-do local proctologist, signed Matzoh to his first and only recording contract for his fledgling record company.

"Some of my friends thought I would get nothing but tsures when I told them I was going into the record business. They didn't understand that after dealing with assholes all day long, I couldn't think of a better way to relax than by enjoying some good schnapps while recording some good blues. And Matzoh wasn't just good. He was the best! I had to have him for my little pisher of a label. I called it N.M.A Records. I'd always say to people, 'Give a Listen. It Can't Hurt.' I'm not sure they got the joke, though."

The doctor's home and practice, located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, became the N.M.A. recording facility at night. The basement was allocated for the company's combined warehouse and shipping department. It was at this address that Leftkowitz recorded his only sides as an artist. The most successful among them being "Shtup In the Name of Love" and "Zelda Sue." The latter tune was written for Dr. Packer's receptionist, Zelda Sue Lipschitz, in an attempt to woo her away from her then boyfriend, Peg Leg Horowitz. (Horowitz was a blues harpist and another player signed to N.M.A.) The song and his other attentions must have worked because she left Peg Leg and married Blind Matzoh a year later.

Zelda Sue was later to say, "I liked Peg Leg. He was a good musician but could be mean and meshuge at times. But Matzoh? Matzoh had far more talent and was never, never not a mensch. And besides, I knew if we ever got a car, he'd always let me drive."

For his part, Leftkowitz said, "She was wonderful and everything I could ever want in a woman. Never once did she ask me if an article of clothing made her look fat."

The newlyweds settled down in the Dexter/Davison neighborhood until the 1960's when they moved to the city's northwest side.

Although not a huge success, N.M.A was able to hold its own through 1932. By 1934, the Depression was in full swing and marked two successive years of poor sales. The hard times also impacted Packer's medical practice, making it unfeasible for him to continue subsidizing the label. The Doctor reluctantly yet wisely pulled the plug on the operation. To his credit, he handed all rights to the recordings and compositions back to their respective creators and made the entire remaining inventory available to them as well. Despite this, few additional units were ever sold. Ultimately, all of those records languished in his basement. Fortunately, Packer's wife never threw anything away and left everything as it was even after her husband's death and subsequent sale of the house. This trove of blues history was forgotten until after Berry Gordy purchased the property as the headquarters for Motown Records.

In late 1961, Gordy came across the old 78's and began going through them. He liked Matzoh's work very much and was particularly taken with three tunes, "Shtup in the Name of Love," "Shtup Around," and Schmutz Gets In Your Eyes." After tracking Leftkowitz down, he offered him a publishing deal for the previously recorded tunes on N.M.A and a staff position. Gordy proposed that Matzoh work as a "ghost writer/arranger" at Motown.

The gig would entail coming up with riffs and musical snippets ("meshuge tunes," as Zelda would often refer to them,) while a portable tape recorder captured it all. An office at Hitsville would be available but Matzoh could also work from home. Anything Gordy liked would be passed on up the label's creative ladder for completion and release. As originally conceived, all of this was to be considered "work for hire" for which there would be no royalty participation but with a salary far greater than anything to be earned doing clubs and parties. However, Leftkowitz negotiated in exchange for a slightly reduced annual guarantee, a small piece of the royalty pie. In addition and at Zelda's insistence, a provision was included stating that any material not used by the label within a calendar year would be Matzoh's to do with as he pleased with no strings attached. In May of 1962, over Chinese food at the Ho-Ho Inn on 2nd & Canfield, the contract was signed and Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz joined the Motown staff.

For his own amusement, Matzoh would name his riffs and very often these names would get "un-Yiddished" then lyrics written to fit the result. A few of the more successful ones:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Kvetch
  • I Heard It Through the Yenta
  • My Goy
  • Tears of a Klutz
  • Zayde Passed a Kidney Stone

It is worth mentioning that the "Zelda Clause" as Gordy would later begrudgingly call it, proved to be even more rewarding. In 1964, a fan letter from Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, himself a blues fan and one of the few people outside the USA aware of Matzoh and his music, began a series of letters between the two.

"How about I send you a few of the Motown rejects for your band to potchka with?" Leftkowitz asked in one. Epstein said yes, giving Matzoh a second and even more lucrative musical outlet.

Not everything Matzoh sent was accepted to be re-worked as Beatles material but a healthy amount was. For example:

  • Bupkes Man
  • I'm A Shmendrik
  • I've Just Seen A Punim
  • We Can Handl It Out
  • I'm Only Shlafen
  • All You Need Is Gelt
  • Baby, You're A Schmuck, Man
  • Putz on the Hill
  • Hey Juden
  • I've Got A Shpilke

Between his Motown contract and freelance work, Leftkowitz was on a roll. What Berry Gordy didn't want, the Beatles would audition. What they didn't want, other UK bands would consider. One Fab Four reject got picked up by none other than the Rolling Stones. Matzoh's working title for that ditty was "Paint It Any Color You Want."

Enough money was being made, invested, and nurtured so that by 1970, Matzoh and Zelda could live comfortably for the rest of their lives. A good thing because during the next ten years, Leftkowitz's influence on the pop world went on a rapid decline. One could logically attribute this to the Beatles' breakup and/or Motown's move to Los Angeles. He, however blamed it all on Disco, a style he could not or would not ever embrace. He referred to it as 'noise' and complained that the drummers of the day were 'farshtunken putzes playing the same farkakte beat. While everyone else was calling it music, he was calling it 'a sonic hemorrhoid.' This long dry spell was only temporarily broken in 1978 with two pieces, "Three Times a Bubbe" and "What a Putz Believes."

How do I know all this? In the summer of 1964, Matzoh and Zelda purchased a duplex on Detroit's northwest side, right across the street from my family. They moved in a few weeks before my return from my first stay in New York with blues master, Reverend Gary Davis. Zelda had heard me practicing from our side patio one ultra-hot day, came over to introduce herself, and invited me back to meet her husband. "Grab your guitar and come. I want he should listen to you play."

I didn't know exactly what to think when she sent me upstairs and yelled up to him, "Hey, Matzoh! I brought you home a visitor and this yutz can really play!" But my confusion disappeared as soon I walked into his office. For the next five years until relocating to Los Angeles, I would spend more waking hours in the Leftkowitz house then in my own.

The combined tutelage of Rev. Davis and Blind Matzoh not only added to my repertoire and technical skills but also got my tuchas in gear about dynamics, string control, nuance, finesse, and most of all, taste. I remember playing a new thing for my Detroit mentor of which I was particularly proud.

His response? "You don't always have to be so fancy schmancy, you know. That's a nice little tune you got there. But when you get done throwing in all those musical tchotchkes of yours, who can tell what the melody is anymore? And God forbid you should leave a bisl room for another instrument. Farshtaist?"

Although their playing styles were somewhat similar, Matzoh and Rev. Gary had never met until they split the bill at Detroit's Chessmate Club in 1967. Upon hearing Leftkowitz play for the first time, Davis declared, "Matzoh, you must be my brother from a kosher mother!"

Leftkowitz accepting this compliment graciously replied, "Reverend, your playing is better than bacon. Treif but too good not to like!"

It was Matzoh who provided the most encouragement regarding my decision to leave Detroit for Los Angeles in 1969.

"I'll miss you, Boychik, but I know you can't stay here. The club scene is so bad they'll be saying Kaddish for it any day now. And you don't want to be wearing Klezmer clothes the rest of your life doing weddings & bar mitzvahs, do you? Feh! You go to California and give it a shot. We'll stay in touch. You'll call every once in a while? Collect if you have to but just don't make a habit of it. Let me know if any good delis they got out there and maybe I'll come visit. If they don't, I'll have Zelda send for you a little nosh from Lou's Finer on dry ice so it shouldn't spoil. And send me a picture from Disneyland so I can't look at it."

We did manage to stay in regular contact by phone but only saw each other sporadically when I'd fly back for the occasional gig or family function. Matzoh never came to LA even after Motown's move. The idea of flying wasn't to his liking, a train would take too long, and even though they had a late-model Olds 442 with a Turbo 350 automatic transmission, and air-conditioning, Zelda wouldn't drive that far. (It should be noted that the Leftkowitzes preferred performance cars over softer-riding luxury ones such as Buicks or Cadillacs. In their opinions, a car in which one couldn't feel the road or shifting wasn't to be trusted.)

Matzoh could have retired when Motown abandoned Detroit but opted not to do so. From our one conversation on the subject:

"You heard about Gordy moving the label to Los Angeles?"

"I have. Are you moving, too?"

"Nah. We're to old for all that meshugas. And Zelda would never break up her mahjong group. Besides, I don't have that much time left on my current contract. Maybe I should just retire and make room for another guitar-playing yeshiveh bocher over there."

"And then what would you do?"

"I was thinking of klopping my head against the wall in 4/4 time. If I do it long enough, you think maybe I'll understand disco?"

We both laughed but there was no hiding his dismay and disappointment about the situation.

Motown did not renew Matzoh's contract when it expired but maintained a relationship with him on a freelance basis. "Three Times a Bubbe" was the last piece of his material that they would ever use.

Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz passed away in his sleep on January 2, 1981. Zelda phoned to give me the news.

Before I could utter a word she said, "It's all right, Bubeleh. I don't want you should cry and he wouldn't either. It was his time and he had a good life doing exactly what he loved. We should all be so lucky." Then she paused and said, "Besides, you know how our Matzoh always hated winter."

She was right. Her husband had done everything he had set out to do. I will be forever grateful for his friendship, humor, and guidance. And we should all be grateful for the musical legacy of Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz, the most influential blues musician no one ever heard of.