Music And Me -- Part 1

Tell us about yourself and your involvement with music at as much length as you like. I've spent most of my life trying to escape a music addiction that keeps drawing me back in. Now it's happening again.

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Mike McCarthy
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Music And Me -- Part 1

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri May 01, 2015 7:20 pm

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 ...
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 ...
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.

However ...

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.

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Re: Music And Me -- Part 1

Postby BlueStrat » Fri May 01, 2015 8:12 pm

Mike, that is such an interesting story, and forces out memories I had long forgotten ! It was amazing how in "Our Days" we could do things that parents would be Crucified for in modern times. When I was 10 or 11, I remember getting $0.40 from my mom to go to the movies, ($0.20 admission) but my friend and I would walk up to the nearest Rail Road Crossing and wait for the next freighter to come by, they slowed to around 5 mph and we would start running and grab onto one of the ladders at the back then hang on for dear life as it came up to speed. When it reached the downtown area it had to slow again coming into the stockyards, where we would jump off and walk up just three blocks to the "Big" theater. Having saved the $0.20 round fare bus ride, we could get extra popcorn or candy ! Like you I was interested in music from an early age, probably by the age of 6 or 7, listening to the radio spinning greats like Benny Goodman, Glen Gray, Glenn Miller (my favorite), Harry James and the list goes on. But my absolute best performer of that day, was none other that the GREAT Gene Krupa, with Buddy Rich and "The Hamp" falling in close behind. I would grab wood spoons and start trying to keep up with them as best I could. Song wise, I best remember "Cherokee" and "American Patrol", and as for singers Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney, and the "new kid" Frank Sinatra. By the time I turned 11-12, my Big Band love was tossed aside for this "New" kind of music the kind made by the new generation of singers like Bill Haley and the Comets (my very first 45 which I still have ! ) then others like Elvis, Little Richard, Gene Simmons, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even little known singers like Guy Mitchell (singing the Blues) and Jim Lowe (Green Door), I would go around finding/begging empty soda bottles for the 2 cent return OR the quart bottles for a FIVE cent return. Then when I had my $0.49 saved up, would run down to the local record shop and try to find the hottest disc out, and closely scrutinize it for scratches before I made my purchase ! That was when we could go into a "Listening Booth" to try out the records before buying them.

Mike McCarthy
Site Admin
Posts: 145
Joined: Thu Apr 16, 2015 8:07 pm

Re: Music And Me -- Part 1

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri May 01, 2015 9:16 pm

On Leroy Street in NYC we kids did something equally risky. On roller skates, we would hang onto the rear bumpers of buses and get towed along the cobblestones of 7th Avenue. It was a rough ride and if you fell off ... well ... you only fell off once. After that you either knew how to do it or you found something else to do -- like building fires in the street out of whatever wood happened to be lying around.

Thanks for the reminder about "Singin' The Blues". I was fascinated by the chord progressions. I didn't realize it at the time but when you analyze the piece you find that it's actually strongly influenced by Cajun music. The move from the tonic chord (the I) up to the V, then back to the I and down to the VII, is typically Cajun. Let me see if I can find an example on YouTube ...

.... Yes. Here we go, Doug Kershaw's "Louisiana Man" ...

When the piece begins at 0:00 we're on the tonic chord -- the I -- and we stay there till 0:32 when we go up to the V, where we stay till 0:37 when we are taken down to the VII chord, but only for the briefest moment. I believe the Cajun fascination with the tonic-up-tonic-down progression -- I-V-I-VII -- has to do with the way violin strings are laid out. The progression would be a natural for any fiddler.

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