What was the soundtrack to the Vietnam War demonstrations of March 1968 (see below)? Surely something like Street Fighting Man by The Rolling Stones? Perhaps, but top of the pops was this weird little one-hit wonder – Cinderella Rockefeller, by Israeli husband-and-wife Esther and Abi Ofarim.
Esther Zaied was born in Safed on 13 June 1941 to a Syrian Jewish family. She was performing as a child, and loved singing Hebrew and international folk songs. In 1958, she met musician and dancer Abi.
Born Abraham Reichstadt in what is now Israel on 15 October 1937. He was also a precocious talent, attending ballet school at 12 and owner of his own dance studio at 18. The duo married in either 1958 or 1961 depending on where you look, and were performing as Esther and Abi Ofarim from 1959 onwards. At the same time, Esther would perform solo and won the Song Festival in Tel Aviv in 1961.
Two years later she entered Eurovision, representing Switzerland with the French song T’en vas pas. As the competition drew to a close, Esther looked to be the winner, but due to a last-minute change in the scores from Norway, she lost out to Denmark.
After this disappointment, their career as a duo went from strength to strength in Germany. They had their first hit in 1966 with Noch einen Tanz, and the following year their biggest hit in that country, Morning of My Life, which was written by Barry Gibb as In the Morning, which the Bee Gees had recorded before moving to the UK.
Later that year they recorded Cinderella Rockefella. This bizarre novelty song had been written by US Grammy award-winning classical guitarist Mason Williams and folk singer Nancy Ames, known in America at the time for being a regular on their version of That Was the Week That Was. Together they had written the theme to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
What fresh hell is this? Cinderella Rockefella comes across as a demented version of I Got You Babe, set to the theme of sitcom Steptoe and Son. I was aware of the tune beforehand but assumed it was sung by, I don’t know, perhaps a pair of old comics or actors. So it came as a shock to see it was actually a young Israeli married couple who resembled models. It is, as far as I’m aware, the only song by Israelis to reach the top, and it’s the first to feature yodelling since the days of Frank Ifield.
I do normally love the more unusual, eccentric side of pop, and I don’t actually mind the rickety 20s-30s-tinged Cinderella Rockefella to begin with. But after 30 seconds or so Esther’s shrill yodel in particular becomes a little bit like some kind of torture, and Abi’s almost as awful in his smugness. The lyrics are awful. And yet, you will end up with that mad bastard of a tune in your head for some time afterwards. So there you go, proof that the late 60s may have been a great time for music, but the charts were still prone to irritatingly catchy weird stuff at times.
Apparently Cinderella Rockefeller was the final song played on Radio Caroline. What an awful way to go out. Williams recorded his own version of the duet he co-wrote later in 1968 with Jennifer Warren. Warren was later very well known for duets, too – as Jennifer Warnes, she recorded Up Where We Belong with Joe Cocker, and (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life with Bill Medley, for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Dirty Dancing (1987) respectively.
As for Esther and Abi Ofarim, well, they recorded the promo you can see above, in which they parade the streets of London, one glammed up and one in top hat and tails. Their song topped the charts elsewhere too, and they toured the world in 1969. However, they divorced in Germany in 1970, and inevitably the musical partnership was over too.
After going their separate ways, Esther ended up performing on the late Scott Walker’s 1970 album ‘Til the Band Comes In (their manager, Ady Semel was also Walker’s, and he wrote lyrics for the album). Semel even talked up the idea of the duo becoming more permanent, but nothing came of it. She recorded an eponymous solo album of folk songs with orchestral arrangements in 1972. Since then, she has disappeared into obscurity, but there are videos out there if a beaming Esther performing in Hamburg in 2017.
Abi continued in music too, but developed alcohol and drug problems. He also became a manager through his company PROM, and, somewhat bizarrely, managed one of the greatest groups of all time, Can, before he was sacked in the early 70s. He mounted legal challenges but they ended badly for him. In 1979 he was arrested for posession of drugs and suspected tax evasion and sentenced to a year on probation. Abi documented his issues in his autobiography Der Preis der wilden Jahre (The Price of the Wild Years) in 1982.
In 2009 he released his first album in 27 years, Too Much of Something, with his long flowing locks on the cover, he looked rather like Iggy Pop with a tan. Five years later he began running Jugendzentrum für Senioren (Youth Center for Elderly People) in Munich to help lonely old people. Abi Ofarim died on 4 May 2018, aged 80.
Written by: Mason Williams & Nancy Ames
Producers: Abi Ofarim & Chaim Semel
Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 February-19 March)
Actor Daniel Craig – 2 March
Actress Patsy Kensit – 4 March
Conservative MP Theresa Villiers – 5 March
Labour MP Paul Marsden – 18 March
1 March: Spring began with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968. It reduced the right of entry for immigrants from the British Commonwealth to the UK, so I’m sure it will have made Enoch Powell a happy man.
2 March: Coal mining in the Black Country, which had played a big part in the Industrial Revolution, came to an end after some 300 years with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley.
12 March: Mauritius gained independence from British rule.
15 March: The Foreign Secretary George Brown resigned from his post. One of the most colourful Labour MPs of the decade, Brown had a big drink problem, and following his resignation, Private Eye coined the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ to hint at his alcoholism.
17 March saw a demonstration in Grosvenor Square, London against the Vietnam War. The protest became violent, leading to 91 police injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.