Canarsie High School held an annual event that was more popular, at least among my loose band of associates, than sports teams, clubs, and maybe even Prom. It was known by the simple, almost self-deprecating name of Sing.
It’s been a long time since I saw a Canarsie High Sing. Actually, I only went once. That was during my sophomore year, the one year when almost all the 93rd Street Gang was in the same school building. Being younger than other gang members by one to two years, the only time we saw each other in school was when I was in 7th grade at Bildersee and Billy Knudsen and Eddie Gentile were in 9th, and that one year in high school when both Billys, Eddie, Judy, the Watts brothers, and anyone else who didn’t go to Catholic or specialized high schools were at Canarsie High.
I was so excited to be in school with the gang again. Summers were great, and evenings after school were okay, especially on late spring or early fall nights when it was still warm enough to play hide-and-go-seek after dark. But I missed being in school with the gang. As a lowly sophomore (junior high kids entered high school as sophomores back then), I exulted in walking the halls of Canarsie High and having my existence validated by a nod from a senior.
So, of course when I heard about Sing, I wanted to see my friends perform. I could have performed myself. No, back then I couldn’t have—too shy—and that’s what makes Sing all the more special today.
Having never performed in Sing, I asked Eddie to describe it:
“Sing was a high school original musical competition between freshman /sophomore, junior, and senior classes. Students picked a theme, wrote the script, and re-wrote show tune lyrics all under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Faculty members judged each class' shows on the basis of originality, costumes, scenery, etc. Usually, at the end of the final night's performances, votes were tallied and a winner declared.”
Sing was amazing, according to anyone I knew who was ever involved in it. Imagine being able to write, produce, and perform your work before hundreds of people.
I loved to write. I wrote poetry. I wrote book reports so well that I once got a 90 for a report on a book I’d never read. I loved to sing: at Grandma's, in church, driving 60mph on the Southern State Parkway with the radio blasting. But not in public. Not on a stage.
I knew I wasn’t that good a singer. My dad sang in a well-known gospel quartet for thirty years, but I was no Pop. I was a very good clarinet and sax player; got a lot of solos, and I was scared half out of my mind every time I took my place in band or orchestra and had to play one.
By my own choice, there was never a place for me at Sing. Except in the audience. Once. It might have stayed that way, me watching others perform, were it not for a gift from my father when I was ten.
Tom was part of the local theater community. I learned this secret when I went to see a friend perform as Jesus in Superstar. In one scene, on a platform high above the stage, loomed Tom, singing and dancing as a Jerusalem priest. Tom? My golf buddy? An actor?
I questioned Tom about it. He told me he started a couple of years earlier. Said it was fun and I ought to try it. But that meant auditions; singing in front of a critical music director. It meant standing in front of strangers. It meant emoting, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Still, if Tom could do it, maybe I could too.
I did. I started in the chorus of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, then moved into drama playing Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. My Anne Frank director pushed me hard to let out my emotions. She kept making us repeat a scene where the Van Daans are arguing.
“Do it again. C’mon Van Daan, you’re angry. Angry!”
Over and over we ran that scene until, finally, thirty years of suppressed emotions poured out of me.
Something else poured out as well. I started writing song parodies and singing them to the cast during tech week. Every night I’d walk into the dressing rooms singing some new lyrics I’d written to a pop tune or show tune; lyrics about our cast or the characters in the play.
It didn’t end there. I wrote a totally original song for my daughter about our strained relationship. When I sang it for her we both cried. I wrote a song called When I’m With You that I didn’t even know was foretelling the collapse of my marriage.
A friend said I should sing my songs in public. Public? By myself?
I wrote my songs note by note on the keyboard in the chapel at Earlham. I added chords so I could accompany myself. Never had a piano lesson in my life. If I’d been sixteen—and yes, I wrote songs back then—and at Canarsie High School, I’d have kept everything inside, being too timid to let it out.
Some things get better with age, and some don’t. Grapes don’t, but wine does. Milk doesn’t, but cheese does. Fifty-three-year-old kids sometimes lose their shyness and let out the feelings their teenage selves could not.
In 2009, after performing solo at open mics and the rare paying gig, I teamed up with Brian Rodgers, an amazing tenor I’d met in the cast of My Fair Lady. He could harmonize my original songs before he even knew the words. Our voices blended like we were brothers. We even started singing Everly Brothers songs a cappella. Somebody’s Brothers was born.
For eleven years, Brian and I performed in coffee houses and bars, in churches and at outdoor festivals. We sang a blend of original songs, oldies, standards, and gospel. I’d chuckle every time we sang gospel in a bar. I remembered how Pop’s quartet sang at the Bowery Mission. He tried to reach people one way; Brian and I tried to reach them in another. Same gospel, similar audience, different venue. I never sang for my father, or so the Broadway play says, but sometimes I’d feel like I was singing with him.
One year ago today, Brian left Somebody’s Brothers to join the Heavenly Choir. Sometimes, on quiet Indiana evenings, I can hear him on the breeze.
I do hope you’re enjoying Tales of a Canarsie Boy. I’ll be adding new episodes in the months to come. By the way, if you’re from Canarsie and have a story to share, please contact me via this blog or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’d love to include you as a guest blogger.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.