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Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Midhat Serbagi

posted on: Dec 30, 2020

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Midhat Serbagi
Midhat Serbagi Passport photograph, 1923; Ancestry.com
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
What do you do when you find several dozen 78 rpm records all in Arabic and you can neither read, nor speak the language? You research the musicians and record labels and write about them.…at least that’s what Arab America contributing writer, Richard Breaux did. The result is bound to teach you something about Arab American history and heritage in the first half of the 20th Century. Arab America highlights some of the well-known and lesser-known Arab American musicians profiled in this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Midhat Serbagi. 

 

Midhat Serbagi was born to an unnamed mother and Abdullah Serbagi on 24 September 1892 in Tripoli, Greater Syria. According to some accounts, he was a Muslim who ran away from home when a child and traveled throughout Greater Syria while he took odd jobs. For part of this time, Turkish officials held him in a prison in Jaffe, Palestine on vagrancy charges until he was returned to his parents. After experiencing trouble with his vision or his throat (accounts vary) Serbagi visited an eye, ear, and throat specialist, Dr. C.A.B. Peterson, a US citizen from Boston, working in Egypt.  Upon learning of Serbagi’s desire to become a musician, Peterson helped Serbagi get to the US. Serbagi immigrated to the US in 1912, worked as a tailor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1917, and became a naturalized citizen on September 19, 1918. During his spare time, he developed his singing under the expert tutelage of Arthur J. Hubbard and George Ferguson.

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Midhat Serbagi
Midhat Serbagi’s World War I Draft Registration Card, Ancestry.com

In June 1923, Serbagi, then a student, traveled back to Syria to visit relatives and then moved to Italy for a few years to study music. In the 1920s, Serbagi recorded a number of songs on Alexander Maloof’s Maloof record label. A number of sides were recorded in June 1923 and January 1925. Serbagi along with Lateefy Abdou became one of the Maloof label’s most popular recording artists. His star began to rise and by 1930 he earned a living as a full-time musician. He also married Grace E. (Unknown) and the couple eventually had four sons.

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Midhat Serbagi
Photo of Maloof #715, Richard M. Breaux Personal Collection

The rise in the expense of records and phonographs, the accessibility of radios, and the financial devastation of the Great Depression on the record industry forced a number of labels, including Maloof, out of business. Serbagi’s career switched to radio where he became known as one of the most prolific Arab American tenors of the early 1930s. In May 1930, Newark’s WOR broadcast a joint concert that featured Mildred Holt and Midhat Serbagi.

Things took a turn for the worse in 1932, however, when Midhat Serbagi robbed musical patroness, Mrs. Oliver Prescott. According to news reports, one afternoon while Serbagi chauffeured his benefactress to her summer residence at North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, he stopped the car, pulled out a gun, and demanded “a promissory note for $25,000, then took $5 from her pocketbook and left her standing in the middle of the road.” Police later arrested Serbagi in his Roxbury home and took him to jail.

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Midhat Serbagi
From the 31 March 1932, Boston Globe.
What happened with Serbagi’s case is a bit of a mystery. His World War II registration cards list his occupation as a tailor. He and Grace appear in various city directories in Massachusetts and New York through the 1960s. Midhat pops up in the 1960 New York City directory. Midhat Serbagi’s 1974 death notice stands out because he died in Tripoli, Lebanon of heart complications. There is no mention of Grace, but three of their four sons-Richard, a cellist with the American Ballet Company, Roger, an actor television and theater actor, and Midhat Jr., a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera-became performing artists.

 

Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.

 

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