Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A life in (and mostly out of) Music

"I could have been a contender.  I could have been somebody." 
--Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront" lamenting his failed boxing career.

I fell in love with the clarinet when I was 10 and saw one played by a boy who lived up our street in Greensboro, North Carolina. The following year we moved to the small town of Lenoir in the foothills of Appalachia where the high school marching band had won a state championship.  I was in fifth grade at the elementary school where the music department was the farm team, and interested students were given free instruments.  I picked the clarinet and became a student of George Kirsten, the brother of operatic soprano Dorothy Kirsten who was world famous in the 1940's and 1950's.

Kirsten loved music and gave me a firm foundation which I took to Atlanta where I joined the marching band at Henry Grady High School.  The school's colors were red and grey and the band's uniforms were spectacular.  I particularly remember the white buck shoes which were awesome.  Learning to read music attached to the clarinet while performing intricate marching moves was a bit of a challenge, but I looked forward to the bus trips to away games.  Years later when I worked for MCA Records I went to a club opposite the field where the band practiced to hear one of Al Kooper's southern discoveries (the other was Lynyrd Skynyrd).

I had my first glimpse of fame in Atlanta when Johnny Ray, famous for his passionate songs about crying, came to perform at the Fox Theater, a large hall known for the stars and clouds that moved across the ceiling.  I went to see him on my own, an independent 12 year old.  Inspired by such diverse influences as Kay Starr and LaVern Baker, Ray moved his fans like Sinatra before him and Elvis after.   His first big hit in 1951 was "The Little White Cloud That Cried,"  and he was probably touring after his first LP when I saw him. Ray has been viewed as a possible bridge between late 40's pop and rock and roll.  Somehow I ended up backstage after the show and I remember seeing an adoring woman remove one of Ray's cigarette butts from an ash tray and wrap it in her handkerchief for a souvenir.  Ray, who was mostly deaf and wore hearing aids, was not exactly a matinee idol.

In Southern California where we moved next, there was no marching band but I played in the junior high school orchestra where I studied theory and harmony.  I soon met a drummer who was organizing a dixieland band.  We met regularly at his house and were taught the ropes by a music veteran paid for his efforts (it must have seemed like a real come-down to him).  We debuted at the Youth House and played a series of dances over the summer to some acclaim.  My father, who'd played the drums in his 20's, used to stand at the back of the hall to listen (I only learned this many years later).  Sadly, there were no groupies at this venue so I remained a virgin well into my music years.

For my 14th birthday in 1953, I was given an RCA Victor 45rpm player and my next door neighbor gifted me with "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley.  Friends introduced me to rhythm and blues and I listened to Huggie Boy and Hunter Hancock's late-night shows in bed on my transistor radio (the double-meaning lyrics were verboten during daylight hours). I added "Gee" by the Crows and "Earth Angel" by the Penguins to my growing record collection.  My first job was sweeping the floor at a local record store and I got to know the stock, particular the jazz LPs (then mostly 10-inch) like Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic series.

At John Muir High School in Altadena, I joined the marching band but my heart was no longer in martial music.  Another drummer, this one from the tony suburb of San Marino, invited me to join his band, and he got us a few gigs at college fraternity parties.  At one we shared the bill with a comedy duo called the Smothers Brothers.  In order to get to the dates he arranged, I had to sneak away from the band after the halftime show.  Eventually I was caught and received a grade of F in band, the only class I ever failed.

At some point I acquired an alto sax and tried my best to play speedy bebop jazz solos.  But I was no Charlie Parker just as my clarinet playing fell far short of Benny Goodman's standard.  Still, I put together another combo and we won a Battle of the Bands contest at my high school.  the master of ceremonies was John Tynan, west coast editor of Downbeat magazine.  Coming in second was a group that included the 17-year-old vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson who went on to fame and fortune beyond my wildest dreams.  If truth be told, Bobby's group was much better than mine and only lost because there were more white parents clapping in the audience than black ones.  A few years later, someone I knew burned down a garage containing his vibes and Corvette because he was dating a white girl.

The prize for winning the contest was several appearances on a radio show for teens that had been started by two high school teachers.  Soon I was reviewing records with a soon-to-be Rose Queen, giving them a "hit" or a "miss" like the popular Jukebox Jury TV show.  When the teachers started The Teen Scene, a weekend page in the Pasadena Star-News, I wrote a record review column called "Tracks on the Wax" and cultivated industry contacts who would send me free records. My mentor, a seasoned reporter who reviewed jazz, told me he had a collection of over 1,000 LPs, none of them paid for.  The humor column in the teen section was written by David Felton who later covered the Manson trial for Rolling Stone and was a founder of MTV. On the radio I interviewed musicians like Bud Shank and Red Norvo and in the paper I ran columns from interviews with the Kingston Trio and Nat King Cole.  Performing began to take a back seat to writing.

The newspaper reporter and I started a jazz club that met Sunday afternoons at Zucca's Cottage in Pasadena when underage kids could attend.  In addition to Shank and Norvo, I recall seeing Chico Hamilton there.  The reporter had a late night show on the all-jazz radio station KNOB in Long Beach and one night I accompanied him in his convertible with the top down.  On the seat was a book he had just bought called "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac.  When my family went to visit my uncle up north in Tiburon, one evening we drove down Grant Street in San Francisco past Coexistence Bagel Shop and the infamous club with the swing in the window.  My mother kept the doors locked and the windows shut for fear beatniks might run into the street and attack our car.

I tried to see as much live music as possible for someone not yet old enough to drive.  Sitting in the last row of the last balcony at the Shrine Auditorium, I saw Ella Fitzgerald, lit only by a candle, sing "A Foggy Day."  Older friends took me to Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse down in Hermosa Beach which held Sunday jam sessions, and I went to clubs in Hollywood to hear Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and the Jazz Messengers, all before I was 16.  I also went to rhythm and blues shows at the Shrine where I saw a young B.B. King while outside the hall customized cars cruised the sidewalks.

During my first week at Pasadena City College, I got drunk at a fraternity rush party and passed out at the wheel of my car on the way home while negotiating a turn.  I drove into a candy store and broke my right femur.  The result of this mishap was two months in traction at the hospital (back before medical costs hit the roof) and four months in a half-body cast in bed at home.  My world changed forever.  I read voluminously and wrote letters to friends on a portable Smith-Corona.  I collected college catalogues (which used to be free) and travel brochures, and at some point decided to sell my clarinet and alto sax.  Playing in Kenton's band no longer seemed a realistically goal (though my friend Keith joined his trumpet section a few years later).  I decided I would become a writer, and among the topics I would write on was music.

Recovering from the accident, I reenrolled at PCC and quickly became an A student.  In a music appreciation class I remember the teacher played Bach's "Air for G String" and wept while the class listened.  She instantly converted me to a love of classical music.  It took a little longer to appreciate hillbilly and Hawaiian music, among the many genres out there.  This was the era of the folk music revival, and at Berkeley I started a folk club with guitar teacher Barry Olivier while working on the Daily Cal.  Olivier opened a nightclub in Berkeley where I saw Jesse Fuller, the one-man band.  I wasn't ready to study however and dropped out of school, twice in fact, and got a job as a copy boy at the Star-News, working my way up to city desk reporter and feature writer. I wrote a record column called "Jazz, and All That" to fuel my record collection, and covered acts like Hoyt Axton and Barry McGuire who played the Ice House in Pasadena that had just opened (and is still going nearly 50 years later).  I promoted a concert with Mike Seeger, brother of Pete, and met Jim Kweskin, later of the jug band, and David Lindley, just getting his start with the Mad Mountain Ramblers, at my roommate's coffee house, the Cat's Pajamas in Arcadia.  Later Lindley would form the band Kaleidoscope with some of my neighbors in Sierra Madre Canyon.

Looking back on this period, I often wonder if I might have succeeded as a performer had I tried harder, practiced more diligently, and cultivated ambition.  Music was my second career goal (the first had been acting, pretty much a non starter), and writing was the third.  What if I had not sold my clarinet and alto sax?  What if I had applied myself to writing songs?  All of the great names in popular music today were cutting their teeth during these early years as musical styles in America changed dramatically (from Lawrence Welk and Perry Como to the Grateful Dead and Lady Gaga).  So while I gave up any dreams of performing, I turned my attention to listening to and writing about music, but always as an outsider.

In my next blog post, I'll tell the story of my encounter with folk music in New York City and London where I lived for two years, and the glory days of the 1970's when I worked as a PR man for several West Coast record companies and went on the road with Led Zeppelin, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, The Who and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.


Janet Brown said...

Love this! It's not too late--start a band in Bangkok...

Catherine said...

I love these stories WIll! This one gave me my second smile of the day.

Ed Ward said...

Nitpicky me reminds you that Mike was Pete's *half* brother, from his father's second marriage.

Tom said...

We are apparently age-mates who's paths have crossed in Arcadia and Berkeley, CA. I was an early devotee of the Cat's Pajamas and the Ice House. I'd love to know who your roommate owner of the Cat's Pajamas was. (tvawter@wells.edu).

Tom said...

We are apparently age-mates whose paths have crossed in Arcadia and Berkeley, CA. I'd love to know more about your roommate owner of the Cat's Pajamas, an important place in my adolescence. (tvawter@wells.edu)