Eddie Fisher, from shul choirboy to Jewish Sinatra

By Michael Freedland, September 28, 2010
Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor on their wedding day in 1959. He was as famous for his wives as for his singing

Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor on their wedding day in 1959. He was as famous for his wives as for his singing

To those who remember him at all, Eddie Fisher was the husband of Debbie Reynolds who left her for Elizabeth Taylor and went on to have a sex life that made him more headlines than his career ever did as a singer.

On the other hand, to Jews of a certain age, particularly in America, he was the young, clean-cut man who had a voice that was so perfect they called him the "Jewish Frank Sinatra". They heard him sing Sunrise, Sunset, and the women swooned and the men kvelled.

Fisher, who died last week after hip surgery at the age of 82, was one of the last products of that nursery of Jewish entertainers who had their big breaks in the "Borscht Belt" - the hotels in the Catskill Mountains near New York - following in the footsteps of Eddie Cantor, Danny Kaye, Zero Mostel, Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis .

Unlike them, however, he was never a performer who believed that to please the customers - who ate more corned (salt) beef in a week's holiday than the whole of the rest of the year - he needed to go on stage and wow them till they virtually collapsed. He sang "nice 'n' easy", as they used to say in the business, "a regular crooner" as some of those guests were heard to comment.

They loved him for his looks and for his voice and because he told them that his biggest influences were the two men whom they considered to be the greatest entertainers of all time - Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor.

He was one of the last entertainers to get their big break in the Borscht belt

At home in Philadelphia, Fisher was known by his immigrant parents, Kate and Joseph, as Sonny Boy after the child in Jolson's 1929 weepie, The Singing Fool. In 1968, he released a Jolson tribute album, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet.

At one time, it seemed as if he could have been the heir to Jolson's crown as the man who called himself "the world's greatest entertainer". Jolson died in 1950 - when Fisher was about to be shipped to Korea as part of his US Army service. It never got near to happening, but thanks to Eddie Cantor, Fisher did become a very important figure. It was Cantor who discovered him. The performer, known as "Banjo Eyes", heard him sing at the most famous of all the Borsht Belt hotels, Grosingers, and offered him the chance to join his famous group of discoveries on the radio.

It was an age when so many stars of American showbusiness, like Cantor himself, were Jewish. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Sinatra and Perry Como were the obvious exceptions to the rule, but list most other singers and comedians of that pre-rock-roll age and the Jews were the big names.

What his Jewish audience liked about Fisher in those days was that they could so easily identify with him - that he had once been a synagogue choirboy and that while he sang so smoothly with a trademark velvet touch, they could detect just a feeling of chazanut too. Listening to his recording of Sunrise, Sunset - Fisher beat Zero Mostel and Topol, both stars of Fiddler on the Roof, to get the chance to release the song - Jews would sit in their rocking chairs on their front porches in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, smiling to themselves.

They were the ones who were seen at the Catskills, watching his act with forks in mid air - they might not normally have had enough time to shovel all the food they had in front of them between their teeth, but when Fisher sang, the mouths were open in wonder at the joy this then young, dark-haired boy brought them. If they thought there was any hope in it, they would have lined up to introduce him to their daughters - which they still managed to do when they heard that the marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, the superstar of the age, was on the rocks.

But not enough people appreciated the few movies he made - notably Butterfield 8, in which he appeared with his then wife, Ms Taylor, who won an Oscar for her role - and he soon gave up hope of being a serious actor.

Alas, his career on television, where he had one of the most successful early series, and on record, went into freefall at about the same time as his marriage to Taylor in 1959. Yet, in the late 1980s, he made a comeback of sorts on the nightclub circuit and at first it seemed as if he were going to reach the top again - particularly when he released a new album, which the critics appeared to love. He even engineered a publicity stunt in which he arranged to be photographed by the press before and after a facelift. Sadly it did not give enough of a lift to his career.

He married twice more after the Reynolds and Taylor interludes and fathered four children. His sexual habits were given a full airing in his book, Been there, Done That, which left little doubt that he was telling the truth on both counts.

His daughter by Debbie Reynolds, Carrie (Star Wars) Fisher could not hold back her comments. "I'm going to have my DNA fumigated," she said. Her father's response was not on the record. His own DNA spelt out the word "disappointment".

Last updated: 4:01pm, October 5 2010