Harry Chapin describes the obsession of a certain Dayton, Ohio, drycleaner in his song, Mr. Tanner. Of Tanner, a popular singer at local venues, Chapin said, “Music was his life.”
I know how the fictional Mr. Tanner felt. While my life has been filled with religion and its commensurate guilt, with love and its share of heartbreak, and with friends and acquaintances I will never forget, mostly my life has been made up of music. Some people say their life should have a soundtrack; perhaps mine had a score.
The first movement began offstage sometime in the 1930s when my dad, his brother-in-law Hank, and two other young men from Grace Church formed the Grace Gospelaires. From then almost until his dying day Pop was singing. Hymns, gospel choruses, opera, standards, and showtunes filled his repertoire. He sang in the shower, in the kitchen, and while cutting the grass. I’m sure, along with Mom’s sweet alto voice, Pop’s tenor glided into my ears as soon as they were formed. It wasn’t long until I caught the tune bug.
I learned the children’s choruses we all sang at Grace Church in the fifties: Jesus Loves Me, Jesus Loves the Little Children, Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam. The Sunbeam song never made much sense to me. I never saw a sunbeam. I drew sunbeams coming from every sun in my watercolor and Crayola masterpieces, but they beamed in my imagination. Maybe not even my own imagination. I think sunbeams are drawn from a collective child-consciousness. That’s why they all emanate so perfectly from every sun, whether the child uses purple crayons, yellow finger paints, or pink watercolors. But no one really sees them, and who would ever want to be one—pressed for all time on a sheet of white paper.
I sang along with the other kids in Sunday school, but my love of singing really began when I started memorizing songs my brother listened to late at night on his little Philco table radio.
The first song I recall hearing on that radio was Fats Domino’s version of Blueberry Hill. Something about the way Fats articulated every one of the first four words so succinctly: I. Found. My. Thrill. I can still hear it clearly after sixty-plus years. I remember Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue too, but only because his staccato Sue-uh-oo grated on my preschool ears.
By the time I entered P.S.114, I’d developed a taste for Top 40 music and began adding to my repertoire. The first song I sang in public was Burl Ives’ A Little Bitty Tear. I was sitting in the rocking chair at Grandma and Gramps’s house on East 94th Street on a Saturday night. I don’t know why, but I felt like singing; so I did:
A little bitty tear let me down
Spoiled my act as a clown
I had it made up not to make a frown
But a little bitty tear let me down
Why did I learn that song? How melancholy must an elementary school kid be to want to sing about a guy whose true love is walking out the door and he’s trying to hold it all together? I was a hopeless romantic before I knew those words went together.
After taking requests for Little Bitty Tear Saturday after Saturday for a few months, I finally learned another song: Crying in the Rain by the Everly Brothers. Can we identify a theme here?
Grandma’s rocking chair evoked emotions throughout my childhood. From the exuberance of a preschooler bouncing up and down while singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme to the gut-wrenching tween singing about raindrops mingled with tears, that rocker summoned my deepest feelings and expressed them through music.
I guess my feelings during my preteen years were feelings of loneliness, maybe a fear of abandonment by someone who loved me. I did, after all, admit to having no friends, only acquaintances. Why did I claim that? I had Judy and Kurt. I had Scott. Was I so afraid I’d lose them that I couldn’t bear to call them friends?
Looking back to my earliest years, and then through high school, I can convince myself I had few deep relationships. But the wonder of social media has returned some of those “acquaintances” to my life. They tell another side of the story. So many times in recent years a face I haven’t seen since Canarsie days shows up in social media and mentions the impact I had on their lives. Apparently more people knew me than I realized. I wonder how things might have turned out had I believed in the love I was receiving every day. Maybe I’d have spent less time in the rain.
Along with listening to the radio, which brought about dramatic changes in me during my last two years in high school, I also listened to records. It began in Uncle Freddy and Aunt Barb’s basement.
Uncle Freddy’s collection of 78 rpm albums was small but legendary. It featured hits by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Gene Autry, and Arthur Godfrey. My favorites were the songs by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. I loved their parodies so much that Uncle Freddy actually gave the box of 78s to me when they moved to Florida. The whole Gang would come over to hear and laugh at Jones’ tongue-in-cheek takes on Cocktails for Two, My Old Flame, and the William Tell Overture, aka the Feitlebaum song. That was the song about a horse race featuring such memorable lines as “it’s cabbage by a head” and “banana is coming up to the bunch.” Eventually the long shot, Feitlebaum, proves victorious. It’s a comedy classic. I still have Uncle Freddy’s copy.
I began accumulating my personal record collection some years before Uncle Freddy’s gracious gift. My first LP was Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks. I was thrilled when I discovered it under the tree on Christmas 1959. I received the second Chipmunk album for my eighth birthday. The next Christmas I added Around the World with the Chipmunks. Judy, Kurt, and I learned all the songs. Our favorite was the one about the Japanese banana. Spoiler alert: according to the song, no such fruit exists.
My friends outgrew the Chipmunks by the end of the school year. I stopped playing the albums, but the songs sang in my head for...well, I guess Japanese Banana still sings up there from time to time.
Although the Chipmunks dominated my LP collection into the 60s, I had already started accumulating my 45s. 45 rpm records revolutionized the music industry. Whereas 78s were made of brittle shellac and easily broken, vinyl 45s were durable enough for teenagers to play at parties where they might not be as careful with them as their parents were with 78s. They were also cheap and smaller than any other record.
My first 45 was my favorite song, the aforementioned Crying in the Rain. I still have that record too. Then, in 1963, I discovered The Beach Boys. I can’t say I liked their music on its own merit, at least not at first; but I listened to The Beach Boys and begged my father to buy me the 45 with Shut Down on one side and 409 on the other. Pop was my main source of records before I could afford my own. If I was lucky, he’d stop at Sam Goody after work and grab the one I wanted. Why Shut Down? The most basic reason of all for an eleven year old boy: everybody else had it. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but soon enough I did.
That Christmas I became a true Beach Boys fan. I asked for, and received from Santa, the Little Deuce Coupe album.
I have to admit I did not put Little Deuce Coupe at the top of my list due to its title song—I’d never heard it before obtaining the album. I requested it because Shut Down was on it. I might have been a bit obsessed with that song. Maybe it had something to do with my being an avid model maker, and that was the era when Big Daddy Roth’s Outlaw model car kits by Revell were popular. I made the “Rat Fink” and the “Mr. Gasser” cars among others. So, even if I had no aspiration to road or track, I was into car stuff; and Shut Down, along with 409 and Jan and Dean’s Little Old Lady from Pasadena and Dead Man’s Curve, were car stuff to the max.
I opened my Little Deuce Coupe vinyl on Christmas morning, and I took it with me to Aunt Midge and Uncle Paul’s in Lynbrook, where the Baisley clan was having its annual gift exchange. I knew Uncle Paul had a decent hi-fi, and he might let me play some Beach Boys in the guest room with the door closed to keep the rock & roll from corrupting the Christians. That’s where I discovered there was more to the Boys than cars and surfing.
Three songs from the Little Deuce Coupe album grabbed and held my attention. The first was Spirit of America. That song was, indeed, a car song, but it was a tribute to Craig Breedlove who, for a while held the coveted Land Speed Record (LSR). The Spirit of America was one of his record-setting vehicles.
But that’s not what grabbed me; it was the melancholy tune. The song evoked in me a memory of a sad article I’d read in the Reader’s Digest a year or two earlier. (I’ve always had an uncanny memory for magazine and newspaper articles from the near and distance past.) This article was about the tragic LSR attempt by Athol Graham.
Athol Graham was a Salt Lake City native who dreamed of conquering the Speed Record at the historic Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. With ample skill and determination, but not an adequate vehicle for the attempt, Graham’s car crashed at 300mph, killing its driver. It was one of the saddest stories I’d read up to that point in my life. The way The Beach Boys sang that emotive tune by Brian Wilson brought all the pathos of Athol Graham back to my memory.
A second song on the album continued the “tragic young man” theme. It seems The Beach Boys recorded their own take on Bobby Troup’s song about star-crossed lovers, Their Hearts Were Full of Spring. The Boys rewrote the lyrics as a tribute to James Dean, calling it A Young Man Is Gone. The song just about made me cry, even though up to that point I’d never even heard of James Dean or how he died. Now I live maybe an hour from Dean’s hometown and burial site. Heck, he was, and now I am, a Quaker, of all coincidences. But the song about a young man gone too soon became like a portent to me of an early demise. I often told people I didn’t think I’d live past 30.
Finally, Little Deuce Coupe included a song that made me look at an old enemy in a new way. That enemy was school.
By this time I was in sixth grade—top of the heap at P.S.114–I was a hallway Guard, although still rail skinny and non-athletic. But school was a place I mostly dreaded, the best part being the walk home with Blaise and George, or a visit to Mark’s house. Classes I could do without; and I was more than ready to depart the old brick school on Remsen Avenue forever. And then The Beach Boys gave me a reason to love the place.
According to rock & roll lore, and Wikipedia, Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote Be True to Your School as a tribute to Hawthorne High School, Wilson’s alma mater.
Be true to your school
Just like you are to your girl
I never had a girl, but I planned to be absolutely true if I ever did have one. But a school? Man, school was where I was bullied, outrun, outplayed, and even outdone in grades—slightly—by other kids. Be true? Well, if The Beach Boys, who knew about things like cars and girls and surfing, said it, then it must be good advice. I decided, on that Christmas afternoon in 1963, that I’d give P.S.114 my best shot, and my whole heart, for my remaining semester as a student.
And I did. As a matter of fact, I even won the heart of my teacher, the meanest one ever to walk P.S.114’s hallowed halls, with an essay about the next musical turn in my life: the Beatles.
In the mid-1960s, four Liverpool musicians led the “British invasion” of America. I fell in line with Sgt. Pepper and marched with the Beatles through my early teen years. You’ll read about it in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.