Doug Cotler didn't set out to be a cantor like his father and generations of ancestors before him. Nor did he plan on becoming an award-winning composer of contemporary Jewish music.

Instead, he wanted to be a rock star.

"My story is like the 'Jazz Singer,' '' Cotler joked. "Only without the angry father."

Like the hero in the movie, Cotler walked away from tradition to seek fame and fortune in show business. The California native earned it in 1984 with a Grammy award. But not long after, he gave it up to return to his religious roots. "There's a certain path you have to walk if you want to be successful in rock 'n'roll. It's a road I didn't want to take."

Instead, Cotler paved his own way as a singer and songwriter of modern Jewish music, tapping into the traditions of his faith and translating them for the generations raised on rock and rap.

Along the way, he wrote in a variety of styles from the movie "Flashdance" to the silly tune "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Rabbis."

Cotler will bring that contemporary style to Evansville on Saturday when he appears in concert at the Temple Adath B'nai Israel.

The music he'll perform that night is his signature style, ranging from rollicking children's songs to poignant musical celebrations of the enduring nature of Judaism.

Fans of Cotler's six albums already know how far that range runs. "Standing on the Shoulders," one of his best-known titles, is a deeply spiritual song that celebrates the life of his father and the multitude of generations of Jews who came before him.

But they also know "Surfing Passover," his delightfully silly children's song in which a "Rad Dude," otherwise known as Moses, leads his people into freedom by "serfing" away on "matzoh boards."

None of it is meant to be irreverent, nor is it meant to substitute entertainment for religion, Cotler said.

Instead, Cotler creates his music to help the faithful connect. "That's the challenge for all Jews," Cotler said in describing how he creates his music, "to take ownership of the beautiful tradition we have: To read it, love it, understand it, then incorporate it into the fabric of our being and express it in our own way."

It's a belief that reflects Cotler's own spiritual journey. Now 50, he grew up in California as the son of a cantor, and began singing regularly in temple by age 13, but he was lured by the emerging sounds of rock 'n' roll, and in high school formed his first band, Duke and the Ovaltines. He was Duke.

He pursued a liberal-arts degree in college, with plans of going to law school. But after being accepted by several prestigious law schools, he decided to take a year off and join the ski patrol in New Mexico.

It may have seemed an odd turn, but it eventually led him back to music. While in New Mexico, he bought a used piano, taught himself to play and eventually met up with a group of professional musicians. He began playing bass and went on tour with Mason Williams, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Denver.

It was a nomadic life, and one he gave up temporarily after his father's unexpected death. That's when Cotler returned to California and took his father's place as cantor at a temple in Oakland City.

He began writing music, and wrote a symphony, "The Golem," that was later performed by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra.

"But I still wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star," Cotler said.

He moved to Los Angeles to become a full-time songwriter and met with moderate success, winning a Grammy in 1984 for his song "Manhunt" for the movie "Flashdance." Then he quit.

"The success of the song gave me the freedom to move on," said Cotler. "I went from writing for other people to writing for myself."

His music changed, too. He found himself writing songs with a distinct theme, one he describes as "leaving the campground a little cleaner; you know, making the world a better place." In doing so, he found himself reconnecting with his faith.

One of his songs, "Listen," began, he said, as a rock 'n' roll love song imploring a lover to "listen to your heart." But as he revised it, he found himself changing a lyric that read "Listen to your heart" to "Listen, listen to our God." He realized that in writing it, he was hearing the Shema, a traditional Jewish prayer.

His song, "Listen," now includes the lyrics: "If you're lost, You feel afraid, And you don't know what to say, Then listen, listen to our God. ..."

Cotler continues to find inspiration for his songs in his faith and in his role as cantorial soloist at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, Calif. The children there have fueled his imagination, helping him create the songs on his children's album, "It's So Amazing." Among them is a satirical country-western tune, "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Rabbis."

"So much of what I sing about is so serious, so deep, so troubling. I sing about life and death and the struggle of coming to grips with the hardest part of being human. It's important to sing the happy songs, too, the ones that help us celebrate being human."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad