At the beginning of lockdown last spring, Madeline Forman and her husband, Joseph, decided to downsize. While rummaging through a closet she found a dusty old box. Inside was a stack of recordings of the songs she made in 1946 and one of her singing at her wedding reception in 1953. They included jazz standards like “Nobody’s Baby,” “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine,” “Begin the Beguine” and Yiddish classics like “Oy Mama!” It was her voice, but from another era.
Ms. Forman, 94, was astonished.
As a girl growing up in 1930s Newark, Madeline Millman, as she was known then, sang everywhere she could. Weddings. Bar mitzvahs. On the street with her friends. Like many of her generation, she idolized Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald. But she was more than just a fan. There was something magical about her voice.
“I had a two-and-a-half-octave range,” said Ms. Forman, her voice still mellifluous and clear, despite her years.
One afternoon when she was in high school, Ms. Forman cut class to compete in a talent contest at the Adams Theater in downtown Newark.
She won. On her way out, the M.C., the comedian Joey Adams, stopped her. “He told me I had a very good voice and I should pursue it,” she recalled.
If this were a Hollywood movie, she would have done just that. But real life interfered. Her father, Simon Millman, a Russian immigrant, sold bananas out of a pushcart. The family of seven lived in a cold-water flat with no heat. Madeline, the second youngest child, had to help support the family and care for her younger brother; college was out of the question.
“I sort of learned to put a wall in front of me so I wasn’t disappointed that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” Ms. Forman said.
She took a job as a secretary but sang whenever she could, like the day in 1946 she went to Hertz Studios in Newark. For a few dollars, anyone could record a song or two with the in-house band. On the spot the studio would cut a 78 r.p.m. record for you.
“I remember going there, seeing a microphone and getting up and singing,” Ms. Forman recalled. “I probably closed my eyes.” At the end, she was given the 78 as a souvenir, and that was that. Seven years later she married Joe Forman, an accountant, and they had two children and eventually settled in West Long Branch, N.J. The recordings from her wedding and the studio were put in storage and pretty much forgotten.
Until the pandemic hit.
After her discovery, Ms. Forman called her son, Glenn, 61, a physiatrist who lives 10 minutes away in Long Branch. They borrowed a friend’s turntable and listened to the record together. He was stunned. He and his sister, Adrienne, knew their mother had liked to sing, but they had no idea there were recordings. She had never even mentioned it.
“She would always tell me things were difficult and ‘I did what I had to do’ and leave it at that,” he said. “I’m playing amateur psychiatrist here, but I think the decisions that she made to stop her potential career were very difficult to make,” he said. “Her way of getting through life when she was growing up was to isolate the good things and just block out everything else.”
He called a cousin, Howard Forman, 63, a musician and producer based in Montreal, who has been nominated for two Canadian Academy Awards. Mr. Forman instructed his relatives not to touch or play the records again, because they could disintegrate.
Howard Forman put them in contact with a guy he knew in San Diego who restores old 78s and reel-to-reel tapes, Eric Van der Wyk of King Tet Productions. Mr. Van der Wyk, 65, has been in business for 25 years. Last year, he said, was his busiest ever.
“I’m working 11-hour days,” he said. “The pandemic has driven demand for what I do. So many people are cleaning out their homes.”
He was impressed with Ms. Forman’s records. “I hear recordings that sometimes sound a little amateur-y,” he said gently. “She has character and accuracy in her voice. This is pro level.”
Howard Forman agreed. “People have ears full of love for whomever made the music or writing, but Madeline’s stuff was really good,” he said. “Her pitch was beautiful, her phrasing was beautiful.” He commented on her lovely portamentos, which connect one note to another in descending or ascending order.
He was especially taken with her rendition of Henry Nemo’s “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.” “It was like a little diamond,” he said. “It had no mistakes.”
He picked up his guitar and played along, as if they were together in that studio back in the ’40s. In his home studio, he added drum tracks and posted the result on his Facebook page. Within a few days, he had received hundreds of comments from around the world, including from Grammy and Academy Award winners.
“It’s like an amateur ballplayer who played in the minors and you go, ‘Gee, I could have been in the big leagues,” he said.
All seven songs are now available free on SoundCloud or at MadelineForman.com.
Ms. Forman has been delighted with all of this. She said she rarely sings anymore. But on a phone call with a reporter, she broke out a few bars of “Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” made famous by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. “There’ll be a hot time in the town of Berlin/When the Yanks go marching in,” she crooned, and for a second she was a 17-year-old back in Newark.
Glenn Forman recently bought his mother a keyboard, and she’s now learning to play the piano. “I could play by ear, but I never took lessons,” she said. “It was too expensive.” Singing was free.
And almost every day, she listens to the old recordings of herself with her eyes closed.
“Every time she listens to the music she hears something new,” her son said. “It makes her happy to just sit there and listen.”
A few weeks ago, Ms. Forman went to Shorefire Recording Studios, in Long Branch, to rerecord “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.” Because of Covid, Ms. Forman was alone in the studio, and the musicians were recorded remotely. (A vocal coach helped her warm up properly for the session.) She did eight takes, and Howard Forman edited together a final performance. “She still swings,” he said.
“They said, ‘Sing. If you don’t like it, try it again,’” she recalled. “There was equipment all over the place. They told me the microphone I recorded on was the microphone that the Beatles used, and that Bruce Springsteen practices in that studio. I said, ‘Look at how lucky I am, five minutes from my place.’”
The Beatles and Mr. Springsteen have had quite a good run, but it remains to be seen whether they will approach the longevity Ms. Forman has had.
“I never heard of anyone else who recorded the same tune twice in recording sessions 75 years apart,” she said.
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