My earliest memory is of lying in my crib, flat on my back, hearing "Red Sails in the Sunset" play on my parents' radio. This must have been in the summer of 44, the year I was born. I can still hear the woman singer's voice -- I'm very confident it was Patti Page -- yet Page did not record the song till 1955. Indeed according to my friend Wikipedia she did not even become a recording artist till she signed with Mercury in 1947. Therefore what I remember must have been a live broadcast of the unknown young Patti Page, perhaps as part of a NYC area talent contest of some kind.
Did I understand the song's words at age six months? Certainly not. The main thing is that I remembered the syllables along with the melody and the timbre of Page's voice. Understanding will have come later, when I learned to speak, just as ten years later I came to understand the meaning of the song lyrics couplet "La cucaracha, la cucaracha, Marijuana que fumar", which is also an early memory.
You see, folks, I'm cursed with an eidetic memory for music, complete with all the instruments and vocals, and in the correct key. Music runs in my head 24x7, even when I'm asleep. I can interrupt what's playing to bring up a specific piece but I have no control whatsoever over the long term playlist. This can be a real problem sometimes. Imagine having to listen to Katrina and the Waves' "Walkin' On Sunshine" non-stop for three weeks, which did happen to me. I'd much rather hear something like Googie Renee's 1958 instrumental "Sidetrack", which is what's been on in my brain for the past four days. Here it is ...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePPneWmKMWc
Note the short talking vocal part in the outro, at 2:28. I strongly suspect that James Brown liked that bit just as much as I do. Also note that I haven't given you a link to "Walkin' On Sunshine". This was not an oversight on my part because, you see, I don't believe in the use of torture.
Sometimes I hear original compositions for bands, but only while I'm sleeping. (More than once I have heard full orchestral pieces but they are always very short, just a few bars.) Since I can't read or write music these pieces are always lost forever. Why can't I read? Because I have a mental block against it. Let me explain ...
I wasn't aware of it at the time but apparently I was some kind of musical prodigy, or so my parents thought. My mother made me take piano lessons at age five, at the apartment of a music teacher on Barrow Street in NYC's Greenwich Village, a few blocks from where we lived on Leroy, just off Bleeker. It would be child abuse today, and maybe it was then too, but I walked to and from the music teacher's ground-level apartment on my own. (I had been a latchkey kid since age four.)
Anyway, the teacher taught me to read and play. I caught on to sight reading fairly quickly but it all came to an abrupt end one afternoon when she had me playing some Chopin etude or other. You see, I had decided that I didn't like what Chopin had set down and had begun improvising an improved version of my own. The teacher stopped me. "You're not playing what's written" she said. "I know" I replied, "I don't want to." She told then told me that I had to play what was on the sheet music. "No, I don't" I told her. We went back and forth a few times and then I went home, never to return. The teacher and my mother both were stunned and furious. Too bad. I felt like the child of the angry father in Pink Floyd's "Brick in the Wall" -- "If you don't eat yer meat you can't have any pudding. How can you make pudding if you don't eat yer meat?" The full-length recording is here ...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ISBnBkivjk
The Part 2 recording that we're all familiar with begins at 4:44. The passage in question is at 5:50.
And that, folks, has been the story of my entire subsequent life -- I cannot be managed. Led, yes. Managed, no.
I didn't touch musical instruments again till I took up harmonica at age ten and guitar at age twelve. (It was almost twenty years before I could bring myself to touch a keyboard.) I was entirely self taught. I tried several times to learn to read music again but always failed. Not until the late 80s did I learn that half of keyboard session players, and 80% of session guitarists, also don't read.
I was quite a good rhythm guitarist but for lead I could only cop parts. In high school I was the best rhythm guitarist I knew, and the best that any of my friends knew, so a career in music was an obvious possibility. However, being an inveterate fan of AM radio -- everything from the gospel Mighty Clouds of Joy to the pop group Dickie Doo and the Don'ts -- I saw that performers came and went whereas studio guys like Mickey Baker ("Love is Strange") seemed to go on forever. That's what I would seriously consider -- session work.
All the while I was hearing fabulous guitar performances like that of Glenn Campbell on "Tequila" and Jimmy Nolen on "Willie and the Hand Jive", both in 1958. These recordings made me question how far I would be able to go because, while you might not have been able to tell the difference between them and me, I would know, so would they and so would producers. And when I heard Paul Anka's "Lonely Boy" for the first time in late 1959, I dropped Life Plan B Is Music because I knew -- absolutely knew -- that while I was already a very good player, I would never ever play as well as whoever was on that recording. I would not learn till fifty years later that it was Al Caiola of "Never on Sunday" mandolin work fame. It turns out that Caiola did 50+ albums of guitar music in his own right yet I had hardly heard of him. I knew him only as an author of guitar instruction books.
From that moment on I continued to teach myself for fun, but I consciously gave up any thoughts of turning pro. Early in 1960 I bought a Stratocaster. A high school friend, Jimmy Hernandez, was the son of the maitre d' at Upstairs at the Downstairs, NYC's premier jazz supper club, downtown in Greenwich Village. Jimmy played sax and was quite good. One Friday morning he flagged me down at school said that he would be sitting in after hours with MJQ -- Modern Jazz Quartet -- that evening. Would I care to bring my Strat and join them? No, Jimmy, it wouldn't work. Those guys are at the top of the profession and I would only embarrass all of us.
I would bump into Jimmy a few years later in the spring of 63, on a train from NYC to Peekskill, 40 miles north of the city. I had my sunburst Strat with me and was traveling to show it to my cousins. Jimmy was in the company of the Kingsmen, whose "Louie, Louie" was just beginning its climb up the charts. I had heard the recording and loved it. (Nobody doesn't like "Louie, Louie".) Jimmy introduced me to them as someone who played really well. At their suggestion we jammed on the train unplugged, fascinating the passengers around us. The Kingsmen were on their way to Albany to open for ... I forget whom. Jimmy seemed to be their manager and he invited me to come with them. I declined because I had already decided against a career in music, but I've always wondered what would have happened had I not gotten off the train at Peekskill.