Mildred Pressman, rock n roll housewife dies at 85

Not every Philadelphia housewife had the opportunity to be lampooned by Jewish legend Milton Berle in front of millions of television viewers.

But, then again, not every Philadelphia housewife penned a hit song for the nation's most popular rock 'n' roll musician.

Mildred Pressman did.

A lifelong poet and songwriter, Pressman died of heart failure on Nov. 11 at the Jewish Home in San Francisco. She was 85.

Throughout her life, Pressman would drop everything and pen a tune whenever inspiration hit. Not musically inclined, she would then often run out of the house to "enlist the aid of anyone who could play the piano," according to her son, David, a San Francisco attorney and author.

Pressman was nearly 40 when she struck gold with her lifelong hobby, penning "Mambo Rock" in 1955 under the pseudonym Mildred Phillips. The song was soon recorded by rock pioneers Bill Haley & His Comets, and spent two weeks as the No. 14 song in the nation.

Along with tunes such as "Rock around the Clock" and "See You Later, Alligator," "Mambo Rock" remains one of Haley's best-known songs, having been covered by many other artists and appearing on several Haley greatest-hit albums.

David Pressman estimates royalties from the song earned his mother several hundred thousand dollars over the years.

Earning a place in the rock 'n' roll history books didn't come easily for Mildred Pressman. According to her son, she "knocked on every door in the city," promoting her work both before and after her big break.

"New York City was 90 miles away and there was a building there called the Brill Building," he recalled. "She went there all the time to submit lyrics and collaborate on songs. But she was never successful until 'Mambo Rock.'"

When Haley's song hit the airwaves, Mildred Pressman was overjoyed, and David became very popular as the son of a "rock 'n' roll mama." Mildred took Berle's hi-jinks in stride as well, as Uncle Miltie cavorted in a bizarre costume singing about "mambo rocks in your head."

In addition to the Haley hit, Pressman wrote around 500 songs during her life, publishing 80.

At the behest of a Philadelphia-area rabbi, she penned the lyrics for "Happy Holidays," an album of songs about the Jewish holidays. Songs explain the origins of, among others, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Sukkot and, of course, Chanukah ("Chanukah is the festival of light/Eight little candles burning bright").

After years of pleading, David Pressman was finally able to convince his ailing mother to move from the Philadelphia area to San Francisco in December of last year.

Stricken with spinal stenosis and arthritis, she began using a walker and, in recent months, a wheelchair. Still, she showed a fervent dedication to her poetry and songwriting.

"Even on her deathbed, she was hardly able to write and eat in the last few days, she had these copyright applications and demo tapes with her, and she was still looking to submit them to publishers," recalled David Pressman. "She never stopped trying. She just never gave up."

Mildred Goldberger Pressman is survived by her only child, David, and sister, Shirley Jaschik of Phoenix. Her husband of nearly 40 years, Harry, died in 1973. Donations in her name can be sent to the Montefiore Senior Center, c/o the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 1808 Wedemeyer St., S.F., 94129.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.