Before TV we had records. There was a large console radio/record player belonging to my parents that played 78 RPM records. Music provided another world that I could escape to from the day after day depression I was beginning to feel. There is a saying that music has charms to soothe a savage breast, which I thought was savage beast. Apparently I am not alone in my mistake, this seems to be a common misquote, just as the saying is often attributed to either Shakespeare or The Bible. You know, when in doubt of a source Shakespeare and The Bible are always good guesses. This particular quote is from neither, I fear, but is the first line from a play by William Congreve titled, The Mourning Bride.
Some of the guys who terrorized my streets at times may have been savage beasts, and music may have given me respite from them, but it also was an alternative to the savage breast if you count those imaginary pirate ladies that haunted my imagination. Often, since much of my time at home was alone, I simply plopped down on the floor before the great music console and listened to my parent’s records, an eclectic collection.
It ranged from my dad’s varied Hillbilly singers, such as Montana Slim (Real name: Wilf Carter), Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, to recordings of Horace Hite and his Californians, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Kay Kyser, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Whitman, Jo Stafford and Bing Crosby. Think about it, from Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys to Vaughn Monroe crooning “Ballerina”. Not to mention such hits as “We Gotta Put Shoes on Willy” and “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap”. You can throw into this mix a guy that quickly became one of my favorites, Spike Jones & his City Slickers (pictured).
I received a portable record player between Grade School and Junior High. What they considered portable then was often heavy enough to need a hand truck to move.
The size of the player was not the only difference between my player and my parent’s console. Mine would play 78 and 45-RPM records. A 45 was about half the size of a 78, except for the hole that was many times larger. The record player had a removable spindle to allow for this center hole differential. This also allowed me to own my own records.
I bought a lot of Gateway Record covers of hit songs down at Newbury’s. Gateway was a knockoff record company and their recordings were half the cost of the big name labels like RCA, Decca, Columbia or Okeh (which became Epic Records in 1953). I figured if I liked a song it didn’t matter much who sang it, but I did mix in some name artists when I could afford it.
There was a new sound on the market at this same time. The songs were mostly covers of older Rhythm ‘n’ Blues songs sung by White bands. The lyrics were sometimes “cleaned up” a bit. This kind of music was really catching on by 1954 and ‘55. Alan Freed, a disc jockey known as Moondog (pictured right) is credited with the term Rock ‘n’ Roll. Freed was the king of the airwaves for a period, but his career plummeted in the Payola Scandals of 1960.
Rock ‘n’ Roll had also taken over afternoon TV. After school I would turn on the TV for a local show out of Philadelphia called “Bandstand” hosted by Bob Horn (pictured left). Horn had a show on radio called “Bob Horn’s Bandstand”. He moved to TV in 1952, replacing movies on Channel 6. At first he showed short films, the grandfathers of music videos. He didn’t like this format. There was another radio show at the same time called the “950 Club” hosted by Joe Grady and Ed Hurst. (Remember those names they will come up again.) The “950 Club”, despite being a radio show, invited teenagers to dance to the music in the studio. Horn stole that idea for his TV show and “Bandstand” became ahit and Horn a area star.
Horn hosted the show from 1952 to 1956. He ran afoul of the law by then. A teenage dancer accused Horn of statutory rape. They never convicted him on this charge, but he was convicted for drunk driving. His DUI got him fired on July 9, 1956. Walter Annenberg, owner of both WFIL and The Philadelphia Inquirer, hired a 30-year old TV host, who looked like he was about 18 years old, named Dick Clark to host the show.
An example of the revamped Rhythm “n’ Blues songs was “Hound Dog”, a big hit on the R&B Charts in 1952 for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. The first successful Leiber and Stroller song, it became a big hit again in 1955 when released with slightly altered lyrics by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. (In 1958 it would again be a hit when done by some southern boy with the odd name of Elvis.)
The musician who really put Rock ‘n’ Roll on the map in the early 1950s, though, was a guy from Boothwyn, Pennsylvania (not far from where I now live) sporting a strange loop of hair on his forehead. Bill Haley and the Comets (pictured left) had a string of hits, including “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, “Dim, Dim the Lights” and what would become the signature song of the era, “Rock around the Clock”.
Stuart, Ronald and I had been making little recordings of our own at the Farmers’ Market. Stuart said to me one afternoon, “Let’s start our own Rock ‘n’ Roll band.” (Have you notice that Stuart was quite the idea man. I’d say he still is, but we'll wait to many, many years in the future to continue that thought, if we ever get that far.)
I wish I had a picture of our band. We were closer to a Salvation Army Band than any Rock Band you ever saw. There was no guitar in sight. Our drummer was Bill Brookover, who had but one snare drum to beat rhythm upon. Most of the band was brass, Teddy Miller on Trombone, Stuart Meisel on his Baritone and I on Trumpet. Gary Kinzey may have snuck in there on his Saxophone. We practiced in one of the parlors at Stuart’s house and at one point we tried playing back on a plank platform we built in the woods. We didn’t build this for our band; it was all ready there. Perhaps it was the remains from our old lean-to. We were downright awful. We probably scared every squirrel and chipmunk out of Downingtown. Our attempt at Rock fame and fortune did not last for long.
Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t completely dominating the charts yet. One of the biggest hits of 1955 came out on October 17. Tennessee singer-comedian-actor Ernie Ford sung it. “Sixteen Tons” stayed at the top of “Billboard” so long the TV show, Hit Parade was running out of ways to present it each week. The song became one of my earliest poem parodies since “The Ballad of Peppy the Pup”. I wrote “Rich Man$ $ixteen Ton$” in ’55.
Some people say a man is made out of mud.
A rich man is made out of money he loves;
Money he loves and dollars and cents --
A wallet that’s thick and a safe that’s strong.
He loads sixteen tons of cash every day.
Sixteen tons and that ain’t hay.
Saint Peter don’t you call him,
‘Cause you all know.
You can’t take it with you,
So he won’t go!
As much fun as it was fooling around with music with my friends that fall, I still had to face my worse school year to date, Ninth Grade. I think the school photos captured my descent through junior high.
A photographer took class pictures every year in public school. I have my portraits showing my changing features for each grade except those at West Whiteland. West Whiteland is the black hole of my life. The records of those years are gone and the memory erased from my brain. I didn’t even find any photographs among my mother’s collection.
This photograph is sixth grade and I am looking straight on at the camera for the last time. My face is getting the roundness it took on in early puberty.
Seventh Grade was my first year wearing spectacles. I use that older word because glasses made you a spectacle of ridicule in the 1950s. Note how my head is turned and tilted to my left. Here was another setting apart from others. The photographers would no longer take me full face because the glasses lens reflected their lighting.
My face grew gaunt by eighth grade and even my faint smile disappeared. At least the photographer had my head at a less awkward angle. I believe you can see some of my growing inner torment in this picture.
I had been going to Clarence Miller’s Barber Shop since dad forced my first haircut on me as a toddler. I had been to a couple other barbers briefly during grade school. I went to a new young barber who had a shop somewhere on a cross street off of Chestnut near Pepperidge Farm. His name was Tony. It was at the time when the “Teddy Bear” cut was popular. I don’t know why I needed a different barber for that. The barber basically ran his electric clippers all over your head and left you with a layer of fuzz.
The other temporary barber was my grandfather’s idea. He took me to this barber on the West Side. This man’s shop was next to the pool hall and he charged a quarter less than Miller. But I always came back to Clearance.
Other kids even razzed me about the sideburns. It isn’t like I had Muttonchops down to my chin, but sideburns were another little different between us; that is, they were weird for about a year until Elvis Presley made a splash and then everyone suddenly had them.
I choose Ping Pong as my club in Ninth. I had never played the game before as far as I know. Ronald was also in that club with me. Whether he choose it because I did or vice versa I don’t know. There were three separate Ping Pong clubs with nearly fifty kids altogether. Near the end of the year they held a Round Robin tournament among the three clubs. I finished fifth.
I was fairly good in any sport requiring a net except Basketball. (Boys didn’t play Hockey, which was strictly a girl’s sport in those days. I probably would not have played Hockey well.) I was good at Volleyball, Badminton and later Tennis.