The Sound of Music

“Just take those old records off the shelf.
I’ll sit and listen to it by myself.
Today’s music ain’t got the same soul.
Just gimme that Old Time Rock n Roll.”

My children got so sick of hearing that song – every time it comes on, it has to be played as loud as possible. I think that Bob Seger song is from 1975 or so but the music started a long time before that for me.

I don’t remember much from the days before I started school but one thing is clear – Mom had the radio on a lot. I couldn’t even tell you what she listened to. I am certain it was an AM station (no FM back then) and around lunch time was the farm market report. I think my first words were – “hog futures are up today”. (I personally don’t believe any one hog has much of a future.)

If I had to guess I would say that some “big band” music mixed with some country music would be playing on the old red radio in the kitchen. In addition to that there was a beat up old record player that was kept in the closet of my bedroom. Surprisingly, I was allowed to play records on the thing as long as I didn’t turn it up too loud. The volume limit thing was more of a function of keeping the needle from skipping around than it was a hearing protection thing.

The only song I remember from those days was “How Much is That Doggie in the Window”. You would really have to dig to find that one today. The records played at an amazing 78 RPM and weighed about 15 pounds each (ok maybe that’s a stretch). Every song came with the appropriate amount of hissing, popping, and cracking. In my mind, I can still see that old black record player sitting on the floor with the record spinning.

I can remember a few of the words to the song. My brother could have not cared less about music but by the time I was 8 or 9 my older sister was a teenager and fully engrossed in the latest rock-and-roll tunes. That just added to the concert that was already in my head.

To listen to your own radio in our house you had to somehow get your hands on the latest in high tech gadgetry – a transistor radio. What could be better than a radio with a really crappy sound pulling in a really weak radio signal, powered by batteries that lasted 30 minutes. I guess we had to listen a lot faster back in those days to soak up the tunes before the music died.

Every radio came with a set of ear plugs (that what they were called before ear buds). If you plugged in the ear plugs, you could really crank up the volume and in theory, no one would know. In reality everyone within a 5 foot radius of you could hear what you were listening to – the ear plugs didn’t plug your ears. The sound was crude from these things but it didn’t take me long to figure out that I could “run away” without leaving the house. I would put the ear plugs in and I could listen to Indianapolis Indians baseball on WIBC out of Indianapolis or “today’s music from the 50,000 watt voice of WOWO” in Fort Wayne. My little radio was set to WOWO most of the time.

With my ears plugged, my mind would take me elsewhere. In these escapes, I had new baseball equipment or new bicycle or whatever my young mind could conjure up. I could be best friends with a cartoon character of my choice or throwing touchdowns like John Unitas (I was a Colts fan even then). Whatever brain I had back then must have connected music with good feelings and mental vacations because it’s been that way ever since.

Somewhere in this time frame, the record people introduce something called an LP which stood for “Long Play” records. They spun at a much slower 33-1/3 RPM but you could get about twice as many songs on a record as before. They had the same little hole in the middle as a 78 so if your record player could run various speeds, you were all set. Once this idea hit, someone thought that slowing things down even more would be good so the record industry tried to sell 16-2/3 albums. They never really
took off but some old record players still have 4 speeds 16,33,45, and 78.

The 45’s for some reason came out with big holes in the middle and you had to buy these little adapters to make them play on the normal record player. If you tried to play a 45 without the adapter, it actually almost worked but it made most singers sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

It seems like the introduction of LP’s was well received at my household because our record collection began to grow some. We had a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs album – these guys are pure hillbilly country. We had a couple by the McGuire Sisters, a few Lawrence Welk, and several by my Mom’s favorite artist, Ken Griffin (no vocals just organ music). Not exactly a collection that would appear in the Music Hall of Fame. It didn’t matter – I could play the records. I could sit on the floor, which was cool in the summer time or sit on the heat register in the winter. All of this made me feel good and represented being home.

When I was 11 (5th grade as I recall) we were called into the home-ec room at old Central School which was in the basement. On the table was an array of the finest band instruments money could buy. They were beautiful. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Music Man” – this was close – a travelling salesman convinces the townsfolk (or school in this case) that music will keep kids from doing bad things.

“Kids – here’s your options: you can decide to play one of these fabulous instruments and make unbelievable music or you can choose to play the flutaphone.” He held up a flutaphone (now called a recorder). It looked like a funny red and white whistle. He then held up a brand new Conn Constellation trumpet in one hand and an equally impressive saxophone in the other. Give me the trumpet. The sax was just another overgrown whistle and probably started life as a flutaphone.

“When can I start?”
“What do you mean I have to get permission?”
“What do you mean it costs money?”

This must be some kind of scam. I had to get my parent’s permission then get them to pay some money – my music career was doomed before it even started. We’ve got trouble right here in River City.

I took one more look at the new trumpet, picked up a permission slip, picked up something called a “rent to own” agreement, and left with visions of flutaphones in my head. A lot of things happened that I know nothing about. I remember Mom calling the Music Man. The following Saturday we drove to downtown Muncie (a place we never went). We walked into the
basement of Muncie Music Center (most important things in life come from basements). I looked at the best horns money could buy. I knew that those cost money we didn’t have. When we left, I was the proud holder of a slightly used coronet (little brother to a real trumpet). It didn’t matter – it wasn’t a flutaphone. My band career was underway.

Being part of the band was a popular thing to do. All through my high school years we competed in the state fair band contest. There were over 100 bands there. We had 106 marching members, 18 “Raiderettes”, and a drum major – pretty good for a high school of about 450 kids. We
qualified for the top 25 my senior year which meant we came back for the finals at night. That had never been done by a small school before. I was appropriately proud. Bad part was that we wore the old black and red wool uniforms that weighed about 20 pounds each. They had high collars that were always too tight for me. Since the band contest was in August, we had some kids get sick from the heat. I still remember the song we played (“I’ve Got Rhythm”).

Somewhere along the line my original coronet got replaced by an equally used trumpet. The instrument didn’t matter that much to me. I never could figure out why that for Christmas my senior year Mom and Dad bought me a brand new trumpet. I never asked for that and I knew that in a few months, I was going to be done with high school and probably done with trumpets. It was a nice gesture but I never did make sense out of what prompted them to buy it.

Band turned out to be a great opportunity for me. There were a lot of girls in the band and I was really shy. It was a chance for me to be around girls and boys my age without a lot of pressure. The music part was fun and being in band was seen as a plus on the cool factor as opposed to a minus. I was good enough (not great) to be part of the “dance band” which later became known as the “stage band”. We played for a lot of formal dances at schools and lodges all around the area. We got to wear really cool jackets – I still have one of them. If you haven’t seen it, just ask me. We also had a very special arrangement of the national anthem that was done in 4 part trumpet harmony. It was well done and when we got screams for playing at the New Castle sectional, I felt like a rock star.

All of the previous talk about band was just to show you again that almost everything associated with music was a positive in my life growing up. It gave me an appreciation for a wide variety of music. When I was a teenager it was groups like the Beatles, The Monkees, Dave Clark 5, and lots of other
people you’ve probably never heard of. We went to see BB King recently because I love the blues at the right time. I now listen mostly to country music because I love the stories it tells.

I moved from the ear plugs that came with the cheap radios to some of the best stereo headphones I could find. I always have a nice stereo. My current motorcycle has every kind of music source I could put on it – AM, FM, XM, CD, and iPod. I was always a good math student and tutored kids– on one occasion I was given a guitar as payment. I love guitars but make no mistake, I can’t play anything beyond a few notes even though I want to. If desire was all it took, I’d be famous and on stage with really long hair.
(You have all heard me sing – you don’t want to go there.) Someday, now that I’m retired, I’ll learn to play the guitar and pack it on the motorcycle and truly have music wherever I go.

There are days when I can just barely remember which car I am driving but there are songs that I never forget the words to. The first few notes of a song on the radio can bring all the words right to the front. Just like the opening song of this story – Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock n Roll – there are a wide variety of tunes that I can recite without effort. This “skill” has never brought me fame or fortune but it as been fun to lay the words to “Gilligan’s Island” or “Car 54 Where Are You” on my friends from time-to-time.

Ask my kids about “I Love Rock and Roll”. There are certain phrases in songs that just seem to capture how I feel or touch something inside me that is beyond my ability to explain. Picture a shy bashful kid in a very dark bedroom late at night hearing “One is the Loneliest Number” for the first time. You have to listen to the words to understand. That’s true of most things in life.