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At 26, Sarah Steinberg has the dogged persistence of a door-to-door salesman twice her age. In the face of a changing music industry, how else could the young deli worker/songwriter carry on?
"I want to make it in the pop line," she explains, "but pop is not what it was years ago. There is rap now instead." And even old-time pop is far too worldly for the conservative Jewish community in which Sarah has always lived and worked. "I mean, at Rosh Hashanah this year, I got an anonymous card," she says. "It said, `Stop singing in public. It is a sin. Men will see you and want to be near you.' I mean, what kind of fanatics?"
Not that it always pays to be a good Jewish girl. In one cabaret incarnation Sarah billed herself as Queen of the Yiddish Scene! People came expecting, maybe, a novelty act--but Sarah Steinberg takes herself far too seriously for that.
"People understand me better on the East Coast, anyway," she says. "My sound goes over better. The people are open to trying something new. In New York City this summer, one music executive, he says to me, `Sarah, you're your own best publicist. When you talk, the energy just comes through.'"
Boy, is this ever true. Over the last decade Sarah has written--and promoted, and promoted--over a thousand songs. Her show-biz streak descends directly from her mother, the former Helen Bullock, who broke the wood-chopping record at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and went on to parlay this unusual skill into a comedy act at New York's Latin Quarter. Born in Los Angeles but raised almost entirely in Denver, the Steinberg children--Sarah and her two older brothers, Dov and Mosheh--were brought up on a mixture of Yiddish and English, keeping strictly kosher and living in a small Jewish apartment complex on West Colfax.
At 18, Sarah had her own cable-access TV show, Something Special With Sarah Steinberg. ("And I asked all my guests when disco was coming back," she says, "and they all laughed their heads off, and now look! Disco is coming back in a big way, and the Bee Gees aren't getting nearly enough credit for it.") At 22, she was mobilizing musicians to help her become "the Jewish Amy Grant." And on the fiftieth anniversary of the wood-chopping record, Sarah scored her biggest coup--arranging appearances for her mother on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night With David Letterman. That short-lived proximity to late-night luminaries left Sarah breathless enough to write an album's worth of songs, most of which had the sound of adolescent unrequited love but were actually about various aspects of "the Carson thing" and "the Letterman thing."
Meanwhile, she and her older brother Mosheh continued to live in the apartment they'd grown up in, supporting the family by running Steinberg's Kosher Deli. But perhaps, Sarah hints delicately, for not much longer.
"Big things are happening," she confesses. "It's amazing how it all came together. It's all been heaven-sent. It started," she says, delighted to be telling you this, "with a Sinatra connection. Are you familiar with Taunton, Massachusetts? It's the main point between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. It's a very main area."
It is also the childhood home of Helen Bullock Steinberg, whose chopping exploits are still legendary there--at least on community radio station WPEP. One recent Sunday morning, during the Sunday With Sinatra show, host Ed Texeira invoked Helen's name and invited callers to reminisce about what Sarah calls "big-time celebrities from Taunton, such as my mother."
Word reached the Steinberg household in less than a week, and the very next Sunday With Sinatra show featured a live phone call from Helen Bullock Steinberg. Did she wallow in her past? Deliver the day's fifth request for "My Way"? Offer to sing it herself? No. She plugged her daughter, Sarah Steinberg, and her just-released CD, Sarah Steinberg. "There's even a song about Taunton on it," she pointed out.
"Well," Sarah continues breathlessly, "Ed Texeira played that song, and he played it steady, steady, steady, and he knew people who handled distributing, and now my CD is in all the big chains, and they even have posters up. And at Roseland, a very fancy ballroom in Taunton, they play it. You think I'm crazy about the Bee Gees? You should hear this Ed Texeira on the subject of Sinatra. His show is now about 95 percent Sinatra and 5 percent me."
"It's an interesting novelty song," opines Jay LeForest, sales manager for WPEP. "Sarah Steinberg's music just seems to fit. Here's a girl who's writing about Taunton, and never in her adult life has she ever been here, but she wants to. And we've gotten a number of people wanting to know where they can purchase her record. I would say she is making a splash."
If so, it has yet to deluge Jim McGann, salesclerk at Taunton's Oasis Records. "We've sold, maybe, eight copies?" he asks himself. "I mean, it's different. I listen to alternative stuff, so I'm no judge. But we do have a poster of her on the door."
Her fame in Taunton keeps Sarah going when things turn ugly--such as the day last month when she played a showcase at the downtown MediaPlay, hoping to sell multiple copies of her CD.
"People came by and they didn't listen," she complains. "It was the hardest type of gig in the world. But I did it smiling and happy and cheerful, so the people would know how much I love to play for them."
"Well, it was terrible," recalls MediaPlay's promotions director, Cathy Roland. "We were new at this, we gave her a chance, but it just was not her crowd. And her mother came, and I got in an argument with her about bringing in a whole video crew. Mrs. Steinberg was not happy with me, I can tell you that. I had to say, `I'm sorry, Mrs. Steinberg, Sarah you can take, but not my store! It's company policy.'"
Sarah Steinberg is still stocked at MediaPlay--on the same rack as work by the Samples and the Wild Jimbos--but no copies have been sold. "Perhaps Sarah would do well in cabaret," Roland suggests.
Perhaps? Definitely. With the mature sound of her new CD--featuring a few torrid love-style songs that really are about communication problems with her mother, or "just a mood"--Sarah has decided to take on New York City, the cabaret capital of the world. "I am always working on my show-business connections," she says. "I've been really trying to know the industry face to face. I went to New York this summer to meet the publishers, and Moish came with me to keep me from getting too excited. You know how I get. I am very close to signing a very big deal with a very big company. I'd tell about it, but I got the biggest yentas in this town--they drive me crazy."
The minute the deal goes through, Sarah adds, the Steinbergs and Denver are history. "Not that we're closing the store right away," she cautions. "Not until the contract is signed. Everyone told me and warned me that the city of New York is rough and tough, but that's where I belong, in a place where show business and entertainment are really, really big."
And really, really close to Taunton, Massachusetts.
During this difficult waiting period, Sarah keeps busy helping Mosheh in the deli, checking CD sales and writing new material. "I don't like the day, really," she says. "I stay up all night these days, playing the piano, violin, guitar and, of course, tuning in a little to catch the show-business news on CNN, round the clock. I love those hours. They relax me."
Even her more orthodox neighbors no longer object to Sarah's show-biz style. "Actually, they moved out," Sarah says. "They just weren't ready for me.