When did music first start playing a part in our young lives? What did it do to and for us?
Chazzie D, happy to be with you again, Tappers, here at Words and Music. Today I want to talk about my introduction to music and get you to think about yours. I’m guessing this is not something you think about much, if at all, so I’m asking you to comb your memory and get assistance from the web, which as you know has everything and more (helpful and dangerous). As you listen to my gleanings, and the songs I’ve selected this time, please think about and tell us about the tunes that formed the basis for your Music 101, Introduction to Music.
I’m not really talking about the snippets of songs in childhood that we heard relatives singing, imprinting the words and music without thinking of them as “music,” and certainly without thinking of them as “our” songs. But while we’re here, I’ll provide a couple of examples of those kinds of songs too, the better to stoke your memory juices.
I remember hearing my father and his brother Ralph singing a drinking tune that originated with German-Americans in Michigan in the late 19th century: “Is das nicht ein Schnitzelbank? Jah das ist ein Schnitzelbank.” And I remember my aunt and surrogate mother for a time, playing a record by Frankie Laine and Jimmy Boyd that reached #4 on the pop lists in 1953: “Tell me a story, tell me a story, tell me a story, remember what you said, you promised me, you said you would, you gotta give in so I’ll be good, tell me a story, then I’ll go to bed.”
I sort of learned those songs but I never “owned” them. So what were the first songs I counted as my own favorites, and how did they come into my life as the purposeful and joyful experience of music?
My oldest sister Janice was 17 when I was turning ten, in 1957. She was straight out of Grease: What’s this nice Jewish girl doing hanging with the Italian kids combing and preening their pompadours with cigarettes rolled up in their t-shirt sleeves? She was also what we then called a tomboy, and she and her male friends on the block taught me to play punch ball and stoop ball and especially handball. And she introduced me to this first song I loved. Was it the cowbell? Was it the falsetto spicing up the doo-wop? Was it the deep speaking part? Or was it just the new, faster beat of incipient rock and roll? It was all of that, and also her obvious pleasure in sharing it with me, I’m sure. You’ll remember it: Little Darlin’ by the Diamonds.
I also had a brother who was 17 when I was ten – long story, never mind. My brother Joe was easily mistaken for Steve McQueen. He squeaked through high school, went to NYU for phys ed, rode through it on the shoulders of his friend Jerry, and came back to his high school – my high school! – to teach. Fortunately, he had a different last name so no one knew he was my brother, or I would have been tormented by girls wanting to know if he was eligible. Anyway, I can’t recall for certain (and he certainly can’t either) if he introduced me to this song during the period when he was seeing his girlfriend, Doris, or during the period when he was mourning their breakup. I think it was the latter, and I think it was the same time he bought what I later came to consider Sinatra’s greatest album (and it’s said Frank did too), 1958’s Only the Lonely. Happy non-ending: He and Doris have had 50-odd years and counting of happy marriage (notice I’m not leaving room for the old joke here). So here is my brother’s contribution to my musical education: The Platters’ great Great Pretender.
There were other songs in my Music 101 during those formative pre-adolescent years. I’m remembering in particular Tom Dooley, the Appalachian folk song recorded in 1958 by the Kingston Trio, and The Banana Boat Song (often known as Day-O), by that profoundly great human being, Harry Belafonte, in 1956. But let’s not omit some of the music accompanying the earliest and most humiliating dance lessons administered by my sisters in those years. The lindy I could never get the hang of, and that’s probably why I don’t associate any one song with that frustration. But coming up is a dance I could kind of learn, and one of the songs I remember learning it to. The legendary and still vastly underappreciated Mr. Sam Cooke will send us off, so until next time, this is Chazzie D asking you to send us your kindred memories, fellow Tappers, and let’s meet again soon.