Monday, May 24, 2010
There was a time, long ago, in which I never knew Benny Goodman or George Gershwin existed.
It was a sultry summers day in central New Hampshire and I had just finished work. I was fifteen and a caddy at the local country club. I whizzed my 10 year old bike into town the ra-a-a-at-t-t-a-a-t sound of the ace of spades clothes-pinned to the spokes; drowning out the cicada's droning; hidden high above in the elms still not hit by the Dutch blight that would wipe out those giant green shade trees in a few years.
I had a few bucks in my pocket from tips after staggering through 18 holes of golf, carrying fat bags owned by even fatter golfers.
So I stopped in to see Hi.
His real name was Sherman, but everybody called him Hi. He owned the only music store in town and I always found time to drop by and see if a new Kingston Trio album was in. Or, just to touch the guitars hanging from the walls. I couldn't play yet. But I soon would find myself in hock to him when, several years later, and out of the Army, I walked out of his store with a new Gibson safely tucked in a guitar case.
He had something on the store turntable. There was always music humming in the background. The door tinkled behind me.
"Hi, Hi." I always laughed at my clever play on his name and a greeting. He smiled as though it was the first time he had heard those double syllables together. "What's that?" I asked, pointing to the spinning disc. It was an LP.
"Oh, some Benny Goodman.", he handed me the record jacket. "The 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert". It was a re-release of the famous Columbia live recoding first issued in 1950. It captured a moment in musical time that, up until then, I had never been aware of.
The Goodman quartet, with Hamp, Gene Krupa, the impeccable Teddy Wilson and the King of Swing himself grooving to "Avalon", an old Al Jolson standard. It caught my ear.
"This is pretty good.", I said as I scanned the notes on the back. I was tapping my feet and suddenly I began to feel happy. I had never heard this kind of music before. It had always been "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window', or "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane". Then later "Tom Dooley", "Thunder Road", by Robert Mitchum (yeah, he could sing!) or the "Theme From Peter Gunn" by Ray Anthony.
But this. This was something else. My hormones were expanding at a rapid rate and I asked Hi about Benny.
Hi was about to become my "Yoda". My Jedi master who would teach me the ways of "The Force". Music. All kinds of music.
Again, it would be decades before any of us knew who that short green Oz-voiced muppet was.
Hi had been in radio for years, locally. He was first and engineer and later an announcer for the local station which had first went on the air in 1923. I later worked for the same outfit. He knew all there was to know about the business of broadcasting. In fact he was the engineer on duty the day CBS veteran newscaster Lowell Thomas came to town and did a live broadcast.
Hi was my parents age and a link to a time and place before the war I had only read about.
"That's good stuff." He smiled. He always smiled.
And then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.
"You do realize that those musicians are making up all that stuff on the spur of the moment?"
What? I pondered that fact.
"You mean everything they play is off the top of their heads?" Hi nodded.
I ran with that thought for several months. And I mean completely. I thought that those musicians had never played together before and was making stuff up on the spur of the moment. Well, not really. Most of the songs the guys had played over and over again from radio studios to sweaty bandstands and freezing basement clubs for years. And most of them were trained to read and write music.
Everything those guys are playing on that record, except for the melody, was all extemporaneous. That idea blazed in my head and I was hooked on jazz. And especially Benny Goodman.
I bought the album for three dollars and ninety-eight cents. I went home and played it over and over again. But when I got to "Sing, Sing, Sing" my jaw dropped. It hasn't returned to a closed position since.
In the second half of the piece, when Krupa rat-a-tats-BANG and Harry James comes blazing in from the balcony and holding on to dear life as he rides his horn like a mustachioed Valkyrie to the end, when even business men in penguin tuxedos are shagging in the aisles and stomping so loud you can hear it on the record, I was mesmerized. I couldn't believe the intense rhythm I was feeling nor the sense of joy I felt as Jess Stacey played his piano like Bach or when Krupa changed the beat in Benny's solo to a gut wrenching tom-tom stomp.
That one cut from that one album changed my life forever. I never looked at music the same way again.
I began seeking out other big bands, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. I looked into solo recordings from current musicians, like Ruby Braff, Stan Getz and then back to the early days again. Django Rheinhardt, Earl Hines, Louis and the rest.
Good music has always had room for "making it up" as they went along. Even Bach and Beethoven allowed places for musicians to extemporize on the score. And I love the fact that it can never be duplicated. Someone once asked the prototypical jazz-age and doomed trumpeter
Bix Beiderbecke if he could play a particular lick over again from a recently recorded set. He said he couldn't. Not that he wouldn't. He just couldn't.
I have happily been immersed in jazz ever since that summer day so long ago. It would be the first time "Yoda" guided me towards new doors in music appreciation. It wouldn't be the last.
© 2010 George Locke
Sunday, May 16, 2010
I was on my way last week to pick up my son from a small, liberal-arts college in north central Massachusetts. The day was brisk, the sun bright and the wheels on the Windstar hummed with vigor. I had my satellite radio tuned to the "50's" channel
Satellite radio is one of the few extravagances I allow myself during these times of family economic hesitations.
I, myself, was humming. Happy at the thought of picking up the next-to-youngest of my nine kids, and bringing him home to begin his last summer with us before graduating and hurling himself headlong into that thing we call life.
There was nothing else on my mind.
When suddenly, erupting from the speakers in the van came that high "F" shriek and the words:
"Well, Long Tall Sally
She's built for speed
She's got everything
That Uncle John needs. Oh baby, oooh, oooh, ohhh baby."
It was a bolt of lightning. My face split into a grin and I twisted the volume knob as high as it would go. Without even thinking.
And I burst into tears.
I'm almost 68 years old, and it takes a bit to pop the pipes in my tear-ducts. And yet; unbidden, tears streamed down my face and I wept like a baby. It frightened me for a moment. But I kept on driving and Little Richard kept on singing, the sound of his driving, boogie woogie piano ricocheted around the inside of the vehicle like some thing gone mad.
What was it? The song? It's a 12 bar blues, written in part by Enotris Johnson, Robert Blackwell and Richard Penniman (The erstwhile "Little Richard). You can barely understand the lyrics, what there is of them.
The singer? The slick-haired, massacred son of a preacher who was to become one himself and invent his image dozens of times throughout his career, eventually winding up in Cleveland at the "Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame"? He beat his piano's unmercifully and screamed out songs with the intensity of a holy-roller.
My buddy's room in the summer of 1958 when I learned to dance, to snap up my collar and love the colors pink and black? Perhaps so.
This friend, who I haven't seen in years, is now old and heavy set and in the middle of the worst financial disaster to hit the small town I live in since the depression. Millions of dollars were mis-spent by him and a partner in a Ponzi scheme that defines the words excess and greed. And he pleads ignorance. They all do.
Were the tears for him or were they for the Thomas Wolfe axiom? Yes. The book, "You Can't Go Home Again" details the illusion of prosperity and the unfair passing of time.
It was this passing of time that caught me off guard and caused the cascade of tears. This old man in a van, weeping his heart out with "Long Tall Sally" and a host of ghosts and regrets. But it was also tinged with real joy and happiness.
Have you ever wept when you heard a song that at first made you laugh?
Saturday, May 15, 2010
It's been pretty well documented that one of the most potent of the cognitive senses is hearing. To be more precise, the sound of music.
Not only are the hills alive with it, but our memories are wrapped in it.
Consider the songs your parents or grandparents would sing to you when you were little. Or certain commercial jingles. ("Use Ajax. Boom boom! The foaming cleanser. Doodle-umpa-dump-dump-dump! Floats the dirt right down the drain. Doodle-doodle-doodle-do!") That one makes me think of a round screened Zenith black and white television our next door neighbors the Kenneys had. They had the first one on the block. The tv. Not the Ajax.
I can never hear "Good Golly, Miss Molly" with out thinking of the first high school dance I went to. And black and pink shirts, with the collar flipped up. And a DA hairdo. And taps on my engineer boots. Except, my parents wouldn't buy me engineer boots.
Of course, there is always, YOUR song that framed your first romance. With me, it was Paul Anka's "Diana". Ah, yes! Korea. 1961. The "Black Cat Cafe" in Seoul. Good times. Good times.
Music was the element that often changed my life. Literally.. A song, a tune or a certain style often opened my eyes to possibilities I had never imagined.
And so it was with, "I'm A Ramblin' Wreck From Georgia Tech".
Now don't ask me where I learned the fight song from the Georgia Institute of Technology back in 1948. I was all of five years old, and I sang all sort of songs. But I loved that song the best. Probably from some uncle on my dad's side.
"I'm a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer." Oh, yeah, I used the "h" word. It was cute coming from the lips of an adorable curly red haired little guy with just the hint of a lisp. .
"A helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva engineer." I would sing and people would clap and laugh. My father thought I should be on the radio.
Well, it just so happened that WKXL radio in Concord NH, where I lived, had a Saturday afternoon "Quiz" show which they would broadcast live from the Star Theater on Pleasant St. between the matinee and the early evening movies.
Now, back then, as many, well, as SOME of you might remember, for fifty cents, a kid could have a full afternoon of pleasure. Twenty-five cents for the movie, which included coming attractions, a news reel, a couple of cartoons, sometimes a travel-log, an action serial (like, "Flash Gordon") a "B" movie, "The Three Stooges" or something and the feature, like, "Prince Valiant" or something. Then for 10 cents you could get a box of popcorn and for another dime, a box of Juju babies. OR....if I saved the dime, I could get an ice-cream cone at Spaducii's on the way home. A"Sunset Cone". which was a combination of orange sherbert and vanilla. Oh, sweet Saturday.
So, anyway, my father knew the guy who was the m.c. for the quiz show, called, "Guessing for Silver Dollars". A very clever title for a quiz show.
A tall, cadaverous man would bring out a big old standup microphone on the stage after the matinee and, with a nervous guy named "Ed", wearing ear-phones and hunched over a glowing black box on a tiny stand in the wings giving him the count down,the towering thin-haired man would shake a big sack full of stamped zinc slugs (the alleged "Silver Dollars"), announce in a booming voice "It's time to play...'Guessing for Silver Dollars'". and the show would be on the air.
I had just finished watching the matinee and, with my friends, was staggering up the aisle filled with stale popcorn and 5 pounds of sugar from the Juju babies when my dad pounced on me.
"Mr Green is going to put you on the air so you can sing." he said, grinning broadly. Mr. Green was the tall, bald m.c. from WKXL with a booming voice and bad breath. I found that out later. The bad breath part.
"Oh, I'm a jolly good fellow. I drink my whiskey clear."
Before I knew what was happening, I was whisked up onto the stage and introduced to everyone in the theater.
Mr. Green, gimlet eyed and dressed in a slightly wrinkled brown suit and smelling of Vitalis with a severe case of halitosis lurking just in the background, picked me up and set me on a stool that had somehow appeared from nowhere.
"Before we introduce our first contestant." he said, with exaggerated gesticulations and over pronouncing every word, "We have a special little guest." He paused and the audience ooood and awwwd. I looked around and noticed everyone was staring at me. I smiled.
This was a good feeling.
"I'm a ramblin' wreck from Georgia Tech and a helluva engineer."
Mr. Green continued.
"Little Georgie Locke of 9 Monroe Street here in Concord is going to sing a song for us." He looked at me expectantly. "His father," and he glanced off to his right where the old man stood beaming proudly. "Says he knows "I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover." Which was a big hit for Art Mooney and his band that year. I nodded, glassy eyed. Mr Green frowned slightly and said, "Well, Georgie, go ahead and sing 'I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover.'"
Ed had come on stage and was adjusting the microphone until it was inches from my little cupid lips.
I opened my mouth and out came the Georgia Tech Fight Song with every "helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva" it was possible to squeeze out hanging in the ether for all to hear. As far as I know, the rafters of that now defunct movie theater still resound with the words.
Mr. Green and Ed froze. The audience whooped and laughed and hollered and clapped and whistled. I ate it up. Every last bit of it. And as I was hustled off the stage by my stunned father to further applause and a slight gagging sound from Mr.Green, I knew that entertaining people was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My mother had been told to gather the neighbors around the radio to listen to her little "Georgie" sing on the radio. Ah, yes. She did indeed hear him sing. And when Dad brought me home, he heard about it too.
I wondered why my mother hadn't said much about my first time on the radio. I mean. I got all the words right.
Nice and loud.
Years later, when I keyed the mike on the control room board and spoke live for the first time as a radio announcer, I remembered that time so long ago when I beheld a microphone and felt it's remarkable power to entertain.
"I'm A Ramblin' Wreck From Georgia Tech".
It was the first song that made a profound difference in the direction my life would take.
It wouldn't be the last.
© 2009 George Locke
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Everyday, between twelve noon and three o’clock, Jonathan Schwartz wedges his way into my life.
Not that I mind receiving a Schwartz audio wedgie.
I am on the soft side of seventy, and there is very little myself and others of my age have not experienced. We have “seen the elephant” as an old Army buddy of mine said, some years ago. Some of us have sighted the proverbial pachyderm more then once.
But each day at noon, Schwartz sends me something that makes me go……”wow!”
I’m driving down the pike after doing some business in a town an hour or so away. I turn on my radio to Sirius 75, and there’s Arthur Schwartz’ favorite son spinning a song by some sweet voiced woman, who’s name I cannot recall. The song is a Cole Porter tune I have never heard. Never heard……. mind you.
I can’t believe that, first off, and then, I listen….. and the lyrics blow me away. “Some Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”. “……..they like to kick it around.”
I hear this woman singing and I’m smiling. I’m humming and smiling.
And then, immediately after the song is over, Schwartz keys his mic and says, in that dry mid-Atlantic voice. “Here’s Billy Holiday and ‘Say It Isn’t So’”.
Lady Day comes on and her voice, juxtaposed next to the sweet sound I just heard, cuts me like a knife. Every drop of pain and sorrow in her life comes bleeding out of that radio speaker and spills on my lap. It was like somebody punched an ice pick into my skull.
When the song is over, Sinatra begins a song that heals the wound a bit. “It Gets Lonely Early” from his “September of My Years” album.
Enough, Jonathan. You toy with my emotions and I love you for it but I have to get out of the car sometime.
I worked a board and played music for many years in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It was something I had dreamed of doing all my life. The Army gave me an opportunity to hone my skills and a few months in a trade school in Boston did the rest. I got my third-class radio-telephone license and I found a job back home in broadcasting.
But, things happen. A divorce. Remarriage. Time goes by. You know the song. And I drifted away from broadcasting. It was a bitter-sweet parting.
To this day, I can still smell the studio booth….the rug…the sound-proof tile…the faint whiff of ozone and the feeling of hard, round, black melamine control board knobs rolling in my hands.
I loved the old songs. I combed the attic of the station I worked for and found discarded albums. The Hi-Lo’s, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Lambert, Hendiricks and Ross and so many others. I goofed with the color coded “music clock” all the jocks had to use.
At ten after the hour, we played a forty-five from the “red” tagged jackets. At eighteen after the hour we could select from the “green” tagged jackets. And so on. At twenty-two before the hour, we could play a tune of our choice. That was the”yellow” pie wedge. I found a lot of yellow on that clock.
The station manager and music director spoke to me.
“How come were not hearing Bobby Goldsboro and ‘Honey’? Who the hell is Chet Baker and what song was he singing? ‘Everything Happened, or Happens or Something To Me’? That sucks. And yesterday you played some group called ‘The Four Freshmen?’ ‘Route Sixty Six?’ Come on, Rusty (my on the air name, honest to goodness) play the stuff on the clock. ‘MacArthur Park’, and Glen Campbell.” There was silence, and then the inevitable choice. “Or find some other place to work.”
I had a family to feed. So I played the clock.
But when I could, I played the American song book, read George Simon and Alec Wilder and collected albums.
This is the music that defined a generation and put this country on the map musically. Up until Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Richard Rogers and the rest of the magical pantheon , (including Arthur Schwartz) America had been ripping off European operettas and Gilbert and Sullivan.
And then the Golden Age of American popular music began, and with it, those musicians daring enough to tackle the songs. Sinatra, Lady Day, Crosby, Torme’, Bennett, Dinah Washington and the rest.
It’s still being played today.
And nobody does it better then Jonathan Schwartz and High Standards. Catch his show. You will not be disappointed.