The Hills Were Alive…
To be without a television throughout most of the 1950s was, to my young mind, something of a hardship, but one that I never questioned. My father Blackie simply would not hear of having an ‘agony wagon’ in the house.
There was, however, a compensation in the attention my siblings and I paid to the other forms of media we were not denied access to: the radio and the gramophone.
The record player in our house at 10 Seymour Avenue was probably the only relatively modern piece of equipment the Myers family ever had. It was made by Motorola and it sat on a table in our living room within a wood like box
Recorded music played an enormous part in the life of my family while I was growing up in Mill Valley. The player had a long spindle on which you could stack up a few LPs which would automatically drop down to be played after the previous disk had finished.
This was during the early days of vinyl LPs or Long Players as albums were then called. Their predecessors, the 78rpm disks were the equivalent of singles during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Individual disks were sold in brown paper sleeves but in the early 30s the record companies began packaging collections of songs by one artist into a book like album with photographs and sleeve notes. This also became the way that classical symphonies and Broadway show recordings were packaged.
Each page/sleeve of the album contained an individual 78. Some albums would hold as many as eight brittle breakable disks. My parents had an album of 78s for Finian’s Rainbow as well as Porgy And Bess. When the vinyl long player came along in 1949 the name ‘album’ stuck and we always referred to LPs as albums.
It was probably the case that most of my parents’ record collection came, in boxes, all the way across the country from the east coast with us. I don’t remember visiting Village Music with my mother but they must have bought records there.
Neither Blackie nor Beth were musicians but each had a good singing voice and could carry a tune well. One of my mother’s favourite songs which she’d sing around the house was Molly Malloy. Another song she’d regale us with was all about Barney Google, a comic strip character from the 1920s. When Beth cleaned the house it was always to one of her classical LPs. Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th, Eroica or Schubert’s The Trout could be heard in every room of our abode as she made the beds, swept the floors, scrubbed, washed and generally cleaned the place.
We had a fine recording of Peter And The Wolf with all the characters being played by different instruments and narrated by someone whose name I don’t remember. I would create pictures in my mind as Peter opened the garden gate and wandered out into the meadow.
The Broadway show recordings which were played a lot were mostly those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Each one took me into a world I could only imagine. Oklahoma transported me to a land of rolling wheat which sure smelled sweet. I knew nothing about Ado Annie but her performance of I Cain’t Say No was fabulous and, with repetition, it invaded my soul.
The King And I was equally infectious and its beautifully crafted and memorable songs, once heard, simply became part of you. Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence were on the Broadway recording and, though we did see the Hollywood film, it was the stage version which we heard first.
We also loved George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. That instantly recognizable riff over which Summertime is sung was seductive in the extreme and Cab Calloway’s scat ridden performance of It Ain’t Necessarily So was beguiling. I knew nothing about the Bible so was hearing names like Jonah and Methuselah for the first time. All this music and these lyrics came to me without any explanation and simply took me over.
Jazz was reasonably well represented in my parents’ record collection. Satch Plays Fats was one by Louis Armstrong along with Ambassador Satch. Louis and his glorious horn also turned up on the film soundtrack of High Society which became a Myers family favourite. We went as a family to see this movie, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. The songs were all fantastic: True Love, High Society, You’re Sensational, Now You Has Jazz and Well Did You Evah? This was one of our most played LPs throughout 1956/57.
I knew nothing about these voices I was listening to. I was simply seduced by the vocals and the wonderful orchestral arrangements.
Blackie and Beth had no individual recordings of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby but another collection of Porter songs which arrived in our house was the double LP of Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Songbook. These two records were just wonderful to listen to. I knew no more about Ella Fitzgerald than I did about Crosby or Sinatra but I fell in love with her voice and the musical arrangements played by Buddy Bergman’s Orchestra. Her diction was crystal clear and she sang Cole Porter’s songs beautifully. Also the lyrics were so witty though, at nine years old, an awful lot of the subject matter sailed right over my head. It made not a jot of difference to me. Each number was a masterpiece to be savoured.
We had a comedy LP called The Future Lies Ahead, recorded live at the ‘Hungry I’ featuring Mort Sahl. He was clearly very political as he mentioned President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon a lot. He dropped a lot of other names which meant nothing to me but I was mesmerized by the rhythm of his speech patterns and the sound of his voice. He’d repeat words such as ‘like’ and ‘right’ in his rapid banter and the phrase ‘at any rate’ featured a lot.
In one routine Sahl was talking about Nixon playing more of a role at the White House after Eisenhower’s illness: “So he’s now on the cover of all these magazines. TIME, NEWSWEEK and LIFE. With the exception of TRUE, which has a hidden significance.” The laughter of the live audience was often the only clue I had that this material was funny but it was.
Blackie had been good friends with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger but their music was never played in our house. In fact folk music, like that played by our good friend Jenny Vincent in New Mexico was not of interest to Beth and Blackie. They’d also known Billie Holiday in New York and, though I heard a lot about the song Strange Fruit, which they had seen her perform at Café Society in Greenwich Village, I never actually heard it until I was in my thirties.
My parents’ record collection left me with quite a few surprises for later in life. I never knew that Fats Waller sang because the only recording we had was of him playing the piano. He was, I learned later, a marvellous and accomplished songwriter, pianist and organist.
I also didn’t know that Cab Calloway had been a band leader every bit as famous as Duke Ellington during the 1930s. My only exposure to him was as ‘Sportin’ Life’ from our recordings of Porgy And Bess.
I was completely unaware of the musical revolution which occurred in the jazz world during the late forties and early fifties as my parents had no interest at all in the be-bop of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others who played what came to be known as modern jazz.
Another LP which captivated me was the soundtrack to the French movie Black Orpheus which combined its music by Antonio Carlos Jobim with crowd noises from the carnival in Rio and it, like the movie, was spooky.
I don’t remember my brother Jim or sister Kate ever buying records, but Nellie and I were enthusiasts. She acquired a collection of mostly film soundtracks while I amassed a stack of 45s and a few LPs of mostly rock and roll. I loved Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone and Fats Domino.
When the radio station KOBY came on the air in late 1956 I became an avid listener but I was strangely hard wired to my parents’ way of thinking and, knowing that they would find the disk jockeys’ patter to be ludicrous, I always felt embarrassed by it and never put the station on in their presence. I also never inflicted my Elvis or Little Richard records on them for the same reason.
The rock and roll of that time was such a huge contrast to what had been popular before. The big band sound of the 1930s and 40s was smooth and comforting unlike Elvis the Pelvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Their music was raw and blatantly sexual. I knew instinctively that my 45s were for me, not Blackie and Beth. A kind of musical dual-track developed within me. One track for Ella Fitzgerald and another for Little Richard. Separate but equally engaging.
In the late fifties when we got the recording of The Sound Of Music with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel I found myself, now a bit older at age 12, seduced by a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical all over again. Every song was excellent and I soon knew each one by heart.
So my musical dual-track continued like that for me all the way up to the hippy time when the rock music really did take over. But it didn’t last too long. By the time I was thirty and started singing professionally I had discovered vintage jazz and all but left rock and roll behind.
Music touches us all. Whether it’s the soundtrack of your favourite sit-com or the recording of a string quartet it connects with your heart or your soul. Or both. And sometimes your brain.