From "Dallas" to Masada
Shuki Levy, the Israeli-born musician, "made it" in Hollywood when he composed the title themes of television series like Dallas , Dynasty and Starsky & Hutch. Now he is running a new project: the CD release of his musical, "MASADA," featuring Quincy Jones and other American singing stars. "I felt that sometime I have to do something with this heroic story" he explains .
Masada, at the end of the 50s, had among the visitors to this magical place, pupils of a 4th grade class from "Pardes" school in Ramat-Gan, including one child who was very strongly influenced by this visit - an influence that hasn't diminished even today. "I remember that I had already been impressed by the story of Eleazar Ben-Yair and his people, who were prepared to lose their lives rather than lose their freedom," says Levy. "It's not surprising that the motto of our musical is "Let no man be another man's slave."
Wherever his outstanding international career led him, Shuki Levy, 48, was certain that "sometime I have to do something with this heroic story"-- and this "sometime" has arrived. Recently, the Masada CD was released in Israel -- Levy's music with performances by some of America's premier theatre-based singers. This album is the first step on the way to a production which will, for technical reasons, be performed in Cesarea, and not atop the Masada. He promises to produce this musical, written with lyrics by Shell Danielson, in America in a year and a half.
For Levy, who still feels totally Israeli despite his many years in Hollywood, this production will be his personal salute to the 50th Anniversary of Israel. "Even though my career took me from Israel for more than 25 years, no one could ever take from me my Israelity" he declares.
Levy is very easy going. Nothing about him hints that he is a millionaire, except perhaps the Versace T-shirt, that can be seen peeking out beneath his leather coat. He was raised in Ramat-Gan, the son of a Russian-born barber and a Haifa (Israel)-born mother. His family says that he started his musical career at the age of one and one-half years. His sister played the piano and his brother, the violin , as he played "cymbals" using the lids of pans. After a few years they bought him a harmonica and then a guitar. He learned to play by listening and even today, he cannot read music.
When he was 16 , he dropped out of "Ohel-Shem" high school and established the rock group "Telestar". Then, when the group was about to perform in the "Wee Hours" Nightclub in Safed, a tall, thin keyboardist from Givataim named Zvika Pick* joined them . When he finished his military service duty, he performed in the "Air Force Group." When he became a civilian again, he at first tried his luck in London, but had to be content with washing dishes. He returned to Israel and established the 'Chocolate' group with Pick and Gabi Shushan** . Together, they joined the musical, "Hair." Levy says he was one of the only ones who didn't strip there as his role didn't call for nudity. "Already I was feeling that performing was not for me" he remembers.
Afterward, with his girlfriend from "Hair," Aviva Paz, he established the duo 'Shuki and Aviva" in another attempt at success in London. One of the songs that they recorded by the producer Elliott Cohen, "Seniorina Concertina" became a hit which sold 2 million copies. The duo succeeded in its 6 years, performing mainly in France, but receiving plaudits in other places as well, one of them being Tokyo. The formula of success was, as Levy says, "a formula of mine, that used a combination of Greek, Pop and South American styles, things I loved, and Aviva's beauty."
In Europe they had many shows with Mike Brant. "From all the success that was too big for him, he became paranoid" Levy remembers. "We had many 'soul talks.' We were having fun together on the night before he committed suicide. We played Flippers (Pinball), and it was noticeable that he was under the influence of drugs. He was highly excited about renting a new house in Paris the next day. I was supposed to go with him. Instead, I was amazed to hear he jumped to his death…".
Levy separated, romantically and professionally, from his partner in the duo and went with his friend , their producer , Chaim Saban, with whom he had built a small record company in Europe, and they went on vacation in LA. On his way back to Paris, they stopped in NY. "We arrived at the hotel, and were robbed in the elevator." he tells, but we hadn't much time to mourn over it. That evening Aris San*** took us to his club, "Shiroko." Next to him sat a stunning beauty - a former beauty queen of the United States.
The fire of love was lit between the two and they were married for 11 years. Levy had no problem marrying a non-Jewish woman, who was divorced with a child. "Yes, I had a "big package" to deal with," he says, smiling. Suddenly, he found himself in Virginia, and from there he sent songs to Paris -- to Saban, who was still pushing No'am Kaniel's**** career. His next stop was LA. When he tried to bring Saban along, Saban responded with "Give me a break with this nonsense." But Levy, not one for small fantasies, promised him, "One day, a huge building with your name will be seen in Hollywood!"
"We started from zero" he says. "I found a studio at some "hole" in the Valley. To pad the walls for recording, I went with a few Mexicans to a dump to look for some old throwaway mattresses. With a tiny two-channel recording machine, I started to compose songs for TV shows in South America. Things happened coincidentally. A producer I met in France met with me and ordered an opening song for the cartoon series "Ulysses 31".
That was the turning point where it all started to happen. The CD was bought in millions of copies. Since then I made, through "Saban International", the company that we established, the opening songs to 200 series, including Dallas, Dynasty and Starsky & Hutch" says Levy. "But no success was close to what happened to us with the "Power Rangers."
"How did it happen? Maybe because we went against the tide. If you want to be noticed in the huge masses of movies and in the TV industry, sometimes the best idea is to go from the opposite direction. At the same time it became "in" to go with different space characters, we had, in the beginning, something simple that reminded me my childhood -- the days when we played children's games. I believe that children, until society ruins them, are just children - all around the world".
In this series that passed the 350th episode, Levy is maneuvering between music and producing, directing and scriptwriting. "I give us a lifespan of at least 10 years" he says. "Now we are at the midpoint. We even have a union between our firm and the "Ninja Turtles" which we produce now, too."
He completely denies accusations that the series contains violence. "There is nothing to compare with the violence I saw endlessly on the westerns as a child," he states. "There - the cowboys used to kill Indians in huge numbers. Our message is positive and against violence, and that is what we are transferring to the 300 million children who are watching us nowadays."
Levy describes his current living environment as "a little kingdom that I built myself in Hollywood." He lives by himself, in his privacy - as he says, with his own little zoo surrounded by fruit trees. "There is nothing like silence." he says. "When someone enters my home, he doesn't feel LA." He has a good relationship with his former wife. "We couldn't have stayed together" he says. "We went two different directions with our successes. She preferred Hollywood glamour, while with me, the more I have success, the more I like to feel the ground. Understand, I live there because of my career, but I never stooped seeing myself as an Israeli.
"Maybe it sounds naive , but my heart is always in Israel. Maybe from this, the production of Masada, I grew up. I dreamed for many years of creating a musical. I didn't want it to be an artificial "tailored" piece, but something real that comes from the heart. That's why I will be honored to include, in the concert on opening night which will probably be in Cesarea, singers from Israel, beside Broadway stars."
Among the famous artists that Levy has succeeded to draft in his enthusiasm, is also the super musician, Quincy Jones, who agreed to join this production from an unusual point of view from his side: a narrator who is telling the story of Masada. "I have adored this man for many years," says Levy, "and suddenly, after listening to our recordings I heard him saying 'I want to be a part of this!' Nothing helped, and we now have a man who refused to accept even one cent for his work.
My current ambition is to run with Masada toward the second millennium. It's very symbolic that it happened to be precisely at the 50th Anniversary of Israel. I will be happy if this production will help Israeli tourism." To the question about whether he can see the Israeli people going to see his musicals he replies, "One who loves the style, I hope that youth too, will come. But its not Pop, and it's surely not a project that will be in first place in the "Hit Parade".
At the same time he is having fun with the agency of his friend, the producer, Jehuda Talit, in composing Uri Paster's "Hakol Agada." "I want to take the talented Michal Yanai***** to America." he says.
"If there was peace here in the area", Levy adds, "the sky would be the limit for Israel's chances to integrate with the world's show business industry. As one who was born in Israel, I would like very much to be a part of this." In the meantime he hurries with his friend Adv. Chagai Sternweiss to the airport. "For many years I have traveled around the world," he says. "Now I want to enjoy Eilat****** after such a long time."