Growing up poor in Tel Aviv, Haim Saban never had money for a car or taxis. He would walk everywhere, which is how one Wednesday evening, the then 20-year-old found himself at a swimming pool-cum-club in Tel Aviv, smelling an opportunity to make some money.
“There was a band playing at the pool that was pretty lousy and the place was empty,” Saban remembers. “I was not in a band, but I thought, ‘let me try something.’ So I went to the owner of the pool and I say to him, ‘You know, you have this beautiful place here and the reason it’s empty is because this band sucks.’ And he said, ‘Well, people don’t like them so much, but you know, they’ve been here for a while.’ So I said, ‘I have a band and if we played here this place would be jam-packed.’ In those days, in the 1960s, big stars didn’t come to Israel. I told the pool owner, ‘I have the right kind of band and we are fantastic!’ And he said, ‘Well, do you guys play somewhere where I can come and hear you?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, of course!’”
But Saban didn’t have a band. In fact, he could barely play guitar. He didn’t even own a guitar.
“So now I have a client who’s willing to buy my wares, but I ain’t got no wares,” he says.
Saban immediately approached a friend who owned a music store, asking if he knew of a band into which he could finagle his way as a member. His friend didn’t have a personal connection to any local band, but he did know of an apartment building close by from where live music could be heard streaming through the window at all hours. Perhaps there was a band there in need of a bass guitarist. He pointed out the apartment building, and Saban spent the next three days waiting for his chance.
“No music comes out the first day, no music comes out the second day, but music comes out the third day,” he says. “So I go and start knocking on doors and I identify the musicians and I say to them, ‘Where do you guys play? I might have a gig for you.’ They tell me and I say, ‘OK, thank you.’ That was it. So now I have a band that I don’t really have. So I’m thinking, how do I wiggle myself into this deal?”
With zero knowledge of the music business and guitar-strumming skills that didn’t extend beyond the ability to pluck a few chords, Saban hatched a plan. He wrapped his hand in a bandage, pretended he’d broken his arm, and convinced the pool owner that while he was out of commission temporarily, he’d be back on stage soon. In the meantime, he told the pool owner, he’d found a replacement bassist. They walked to the venue where the band was playing, Saban slipped the bouncer the $2 cover charge, and they awaited the start of the performance.
“It’s the first time I hear this band and the guy who was singing sounded exactly like Paul McCartney,” says Saban, still marveling decades later at the sheer serendipity of the moment. “They were fantastic and I’m thinking ‘S–t, I’m halfway there.’”
The pool manager wanted to hire them immediately, and Saban negotiated a deal that paid the band members twice the amount they’d been making previously.
There was just one catch: the band needed to hire Saban.
The bandmates agreed. In two short weeks Saban learned how to play bass guitar and Lions of Judah, its name plucked from a biblical story, was born.
“We used to play for three hours [on stage] so they taught me how to play for an hour and a half,” says Saban. “Half of the playing time I had the amplifier on, and the other half I shut it down because I didn’t know the songs. I’m not a good musician, but I did my homework and I knew this was my way out of profound poverty. Some people, because of their needs, go and become criminals. I have been very fortunate that I wasn’t attracted to these kinds of solutions. But when you live with five people in a place where when it rains it drips on you, you try everything you can possibly try. Necessity is the mother of all inventions.”
Over the next couple of years, Lions of Judah, with Shuki Algranati on vocals and rhythm guitar, Ilan Dudman on bass, and Moshe Buyanjo on drums, grew in popularity and amassed a steady following. In 1969, Dave Watts from the British band the Tornados joined the Lions and they traveled to England where they performed in London nightclubs. They signed with Polydor Records and recorded a single, “Our Love’s a Growing Thing.”
Eventually, its members decided that in order to take their act to the next level they needed to make some changes. Haim was out as bassist, but they offered to keep him on as band manager.
“One thing led to another,” says Saban. “At first I was managing one band, and then two bands.”
Within time Saban was heading the largest music tourism operation in Israel, a skill he’d eventually parlay into producing records, composing music and creating his children’s television empire.
But while his rock and roll days were over, he never lost his affection for the guitar.
“I have a lot of fun playing the guitar — still. Everywhere I go I have a guitar, even when I travel, I take a guitar with me, this is how I get my head straight. Some people roll a joint, others do a line. I do guitar.”