Cantor presents his favorites in Standing Ovation

Former Oakland Cantor Sheldon F. Merel may be retired and living in San Diego now, but his voice carries the more than 400 miles to the Bay Area, thanks to his new album, "Standing Ovation."

Merel's collection of recordings from live performances will no doubt strike chords of nostalgia at Oakland's Temple Sinai, where he served as cantor for 11 years from 1958 to 1969.

And now he is back, or at least his voice is.

Merel calls the album "my legacy for my family and friends and congregation members."

He left Oakland's Reform congregation because he wanted to focus primarily on music rather than on education, which was a significant part of his responsibilities. "I loved teaching and the kids and the school," he says, "but I am an artist."

He moved to Toronto, joining the 2,500-household Holy Blossom Temple as cantor and musical director. But after 10 years he and his wife, Marcie, had had enough Canadian winters for one lifetime and decided to move back to California.

Merel was 55 when they moved to San Diego, and he began working at the smaller Temple Beth Israel. He says that it was a step down but that he and Marcie had always planned on retiring on the West Coast.

Ten years later in 1991, Merel retired but remained an active performer, traveling to London and receiving honors. A year and a half ago, he and his wife began to work on producing his album.

"I did it for my own ego," he jokes. He calls the songs beautiful moments that he wants to share with everyone.

Merel had been saving reel-to-reel tapes of his live performances for years. The couple dug them out of the boxes in which they had been stored and were amazed to find the tapes so well-preserved.

"It was a dream," he says of working on the project with his wife. The experience gave the couple an excuse to go through old photos and hours of cherished music. The two had performed together a number of times, with Marcie as accompanist.

Now she took on a new role, writing Merel's biography for the album. He, in turn, found having his wife write the liner notes was "fun and helpful."

"She took the job so seriously that she sat down and interviewed me." He considers her addition to the project to be her gift to him.

Using the old recordings meant that he didn't have to go back into the recording studio. He also claims that his voice isn't what it used to be. "If it works, don't change it."

But more importantly, Merel believes that part of the strength of the album comes from using live recordings. "When you are on stage, there is electricity."

And he's not the only one to sense it. The album has received rave reviews in the Jewish Post and Opinion as well as the Canadian Jewish News.

In fact, one man in Florida was so impressed with what he had heard about "Standing Ovation," he tracked Merel down in San Diego. The article the man had read in the Jewish Post and Opinion had not included where people could buy the CD. After he talked to Merel and found out where it could be purchased, he wrote the cantor a letter praising the music.

With each complimentary letter, Merel's pride in his work grows stronger. One thing he particularly enjoys about the album is its diversity.

The songs range from psalms and Chanukah blessings to hits from such Broadway shows as "West Side Story." Merel's work had always focused on Jewish music. "Standing Ovation" gives him a chance to share songs in Hebrew, English and Italian.

"They're all my favorites" Merel says when asked which are most important to him. "There is just some music that lays right with your voice."

The cantor can feel good about helping the songwriters who mean so much to him. He hopes that his album will introduce people to the works of Albert Hay Mallote, who wrote the songs "Mister Jim" and "David and Goliath."

Merel is also corresponding with Gordon Meyer, the writer of "The Love of Spike Malone." The song tells the comical tale of two cats that somehow find love despite becoming violin strings. Merel says he finds it exciting to make friends with people who create the music that he loves.

Although the disc has so far sold only 500 copies, Merel is confident that the album's popularity will grow through word of mouth.

"I hope that people get a lot of pleasure out of this CD," he says. "They are beautiful moments that have finally come out of the closet."

Merel says that he wants to be added to the list of great performers along with the Three Tenors. "People really like tenors," he says with a chuckle, referring to his own range.

This project also has allowed Merel to show the world another of his passions. On the CD's cover is a photo taken by his son of a clay bust that Merel made of himself.

Merel says he didn't create this album for the money and he doesn't expect that it will break any sales records.

"I am bringing new music, a new sound to new people, even to people that don't know me," he says. "If we break even, I would say, dayenu!"