“What did you do with the money?” Bernie asked me on our way home from St. Gabriel Elementary with Joey and Ronnie.
“The money your mother gave you for singing lessons,” he responded with a small sputtering laugh. Ronnie and Joey joined him with unrestrained laughter.
Then I realized I had been quietly singing “My name is MacNamara. I’m the leader of the band, a credit to old Ireland is MacNamara’s Band. Da Da Dah…” It was one of the Irish songs Sister Miriam had taught us to sing just for fun at the end of the school day. A little flustered, I responded, “You’re assholes.”
I knew the tune well because we had to memorize the Civil War Poem which could be sung to the tune of MacNamara’s Band. It began, “The president was Lincoln, and the year was ’61. The Civil War ‘tween North and South in earnest had begun…” It went on for ten pages, and singing it was the easiest way to learn about all those generals and their battles.
Sister Miriam showed us how to enjoy singing, but was also serious about choral music. She stood us in the front of the room with sopranos, tenors, and altos grouped together. No one, not even the eighth grade boys, could yet sing base, but we could sing three-part harmony. She blew into her round, silver pitch pipe to start us on the proper key.
We also learned hymns, the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and other parts of the mass. Keeping some of us on key and coming in on time was more challenging. She conducted with a wand and often signaled to me and a few others by raising her left hand to alert us that we were singing flat. On some Sundays, our class sang in the choir loft at Mass. Sister Miriam’s passionate endorsement made me believe privately that there must be something valuable in the complex religious music created over the centuries. Of course, I complained about practicing our music as much as my classmates.
At home, Mom and Dad raved about the 1940s big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Paul Whitman and the lush dance music of their large orchestras. They almost swooned when they described the romantic music and the rich full sound of the big bands. “Now, Michael, that was was something to behold,” said Dad with Mom beaming her affirmation.
I nodded respectfully as I recalled old black-and-white movies with bands playing before smoke-filled clubs with palm trees arching overhead. Waitresses with trays on their fingertips glided between the tables. Beautiful women checked guests’ furs and fedoras at the entrance, and cigarette girls presented their products to patrons in tuxedos and gowns.
“Michael, this rock and roll you listen to on the radio is a fad. It’s not sophisticated and it won’t last. Elvis Presley and his ilk will never perform at the Stork Club or the Rainbow Room in New York.”
“It’s a new day. No one under thirty watches Lawrence Welk. Back when you were young, there was no TV and no portable transistor radios. Elvis is sure catching on with my generation,” I asserted, but some doubt had entered my mind.
“First of all, it was not that long ago that your mother and I were young, dancing to a wonderful big band at Valley Dale. Second, there’s no comparison between the twanging guitars and pounding drums you hear on the radio to the lush sound of an orchestra with a tinkling piano and soaring violins.”
“Bob, you’re not going to win this argument. Someday Michael will understand.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll always my love rock and roll. It’s the coming thing.”
Dad and I stopped at Grandmother’s apartment near campus to pick up some candy she had purchased for the little kids. She enveloped me in a “powerhouse hug” and kissed me on the cheek even though I was too old for kisses.
“I am so glad you are here. I have a new recording of Gounot’s “Ave Maria. It’s simply divine. You have to hear it.” Without waiting for a response, she turned to her high-fidelity phonograph and carefully positioned the needle. Her hands were clasped and eyes closed when the music began and was soon accompanied by the a bell-clear feminine voice. Dad’s hand on my shoulder guided me to the couch.
“Now, Michael, was that not the most splendid music you have ever heard?”
After a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “It was OK.”
“You must learn to appreciate the finer pleasures in life, Michael. You’ll enrich your life.” Dad and I left as soon as we could without rushing away.
Joey, Ronnie and I were completely captivated by the Top Forty pop songs, counted down on the “The new WCOL, 12:30 on your AM dial” as the station identified itself. In the sixth grade, we became avid listeners, evaluated new records by Little Richard, Connie Frances, Ray Charles and others, and predicted their progress on the Billboard chart. We followed them like sports teams.
Dr. Bop was the disc jockey on WCOL. Joey thought he sounded colored, but Ronnie did not. We had our transistor radios tuned in every evening as he spun records and extolled their melodies and messages. Teenagers called in to request songs and asked Dr. Bop to dedicate them to Susie, Bobby, or a nickname of endearment for the current boy or girl of their dreams. Some sent commitments of undying love, and others lamented thier break up. Br. Bop did all of this in velvet tones with a dramatic flair. His patter of conversation often referred to “all the fine and superfine tan and silver foxes out there.” With the volume down, we listened under the covers after our parents ordered lights out.
The music that combined strains of country, gospel, and blues that was becoming known as rock and roll was considered disreputable, deplorable, and perhaps even dangerous to impressionable teenagers. Juvenile delinquency was emerging as a major social issue to be confronted by America, and rock and roll was considered a major contributing influence. A scourge sweeping America. Father Faistl and clergy of all denominations condemned rock and roll from the pulpit.
Sister Neri, our principal, dismissed the new music with a strong backbeat as “jungle music.” She made her views known when she visited our class that combined the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. She was particularly put off by Elvis Presley who she described as crude and barbaric.
With Father Faistl’s support, Sister announced that boys would not be permitted to wear their hair like Elvis in ducktails, and girls must have skirts that modestly covered their knees. Anyone who violated these rules would be sent home after a single warning. Some of the girls who already despised the mandatory blue jumpers were outraged, but their strongest protest was sullenly pouting.
Ronnie, Bernie, Joey, Angelo and several of us with our hair swept back on the sides but not forming tails in back grumbled that it was a violation of our rights. We caucused on the playground, quickly reached consensus, and decided to make our case. I nominated Ronnie as our spokesperson. He protested, but was swept into this dubious honor by acclamation.
We approached Sister Neri’s office before lunch recess was over as a group with Ronnie reluctantly in front. He began by apologizing for bothering her, continued with eyes downcast and his voice barely audible, and quickly concluded by saying, “We’re not juvenile delinquents or rock and roll singers, we just like to make our hair look cool.”
“Ronnie and the rest of you should know that I will not tolerate the work of the devil at St. Gabriel School. I pray for you every day. Good day.” We backed out of her office as the bell blared. We considered ourselves oppressed, but further protest was not an option. Appeal to our parents would be dismissed, possibly with swift punishment. The lesson was that life was unfair.
One afternoon at Joey’s, as we complained to each other about the violations of our rights, Dr. Bop announced the numbers on his playlist, and one rock number featured guitar and drums. Bernie said Sister Neri would flip out if she heard it. After some hearty laughter, I asked Ronnie, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“No! You’re not going to make her listen to it over the phone?”
“Why not she’ll never know who did it,” I said as I opened the phone book to find the number. Joey rubbed his hands together and chuckled. We waited until the song was a up, and dialed the number. I held the receiver up to Joey’s portable radio as she answered as the pounding rhythm began.
“Who is this?” she sputtered twice and then slammed the phone down. Joey was on his feet, bent over at the waist and whooping. Bernie was giggling with his hand over his mouth, and Ronnie and I were howling.
The next day I was called to the principal’s office. My facade of denial was quickly demolished. She indicted me as the ringleader and listed the other suspected perpetrators. I assured her that two of those she mentioned were not present thereby implicating those she had named. I realized that I was now in trouble with the principal and my co-conspirators. Sister sent for the other malefactors. After a long silence while she stared into the eyes of each of us for several seconds, she simply said “Disrespect of teachers and parents is unacceptable. Each of you will write that sentence three hundred times neatly and legibly, sign it and deliver it to me tomorrow before class. If you do this, I will not notify your parents. I trust you have learned a lesson.”
Dad was wrong. Rock and roll was not a fad, but our obsessive interest in the Top Forty faded. We continued to listen to Dr. Bop and the songs that rose and fell on the Billboard chart. Ohio State’s quest for the NCAA Basketball Championship and the Big Ten crown became bigger concerns as we read the entire sports pages and debated OSU’s chances for success.
An ad in the Columbus Dispatch announced a special on FM radios:
“FOR $19.95, ENJOY continuous instrumental music, no commercials, superb sound quality, perfect ambient music for your office or home. Block out noise and distractions with an FM radio.”
The television blared Woody Woodpecker’s noisy taunts, Porky Pig’s gibberish, and Howdy Doody’s chatter during the day to mesmerize my three younger siblings and sitcoms, dramas, comedies in the evenings. These programs and the even louder commercials penetrated the dining room where I did homework and lost myself in the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Zane Gray. Mom, also a reader, preferred civil war history and historical fiction from that period. We relished the time when the younger kids were in bed, the TV was silent, and we could hear the refrigerator motor humming.
I handed Mom the ad, and said, “Mom, let’s buy one and have some peaceful music in the dining room to block the noise from the television. I can do homework and you can read. I’ll pay half from my paper route money.”
“You know this will be show tunes and classical music? Bach and Mozart. Rogers and Hammerstein. No Top Forty songs. Is this what you want?
“Well, yes. Just as background music. I’ll be able to concentrate on my homework and you can read your Bruce Catton books. Better than the television. I still like rock and roll and I’ll listen to Dr. Bop on my transistor, but we need some relief.”
“Michael, sometimes you surprise me – in a good way. Let’s go to Long’s.”