Music Lessons | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Miscellany

Music Lessons

My parents had their songs. We had ours. Cecil, Joe, and Jenette had theirs. That's just the way it was.

by

comment

We sat on our front porches at night and sang "our songs." It was a tradition we had learned from our parents: Mitch Miller sing-alongs at family gatherings--birthdays, communions, or picnics in one of the city's forest preserves. The adults gathered in a circle around a keg of beer, swung their feet up on it, and sang "Bicycle Built for Two," "Danny Boy," and "Sweet Rosie O'Grady"--the "old songs," the best songs. I remember sitting on splintery wooden benches, watching the adults' faces change at dusk from yellow green to gray to black, occasionally made visible again by a cigarette's red glow. We sang "Heart of My Heart" and I'd catch the eye of an aunt sitting next to me. As the song ended, we'd toss arms around each other's shoulders, lean our heads together until our temples touched, and croon "Heart of my hear-ar-ar-art." We'd laugh and clap as though we'd spontaneously dreamed this up, although we did it every time. If someone joined the circle late, usually one of the women who had been cleaning up, someone would wave to her to come sit down and she'd obey, never speaking a word, never interrupting the song, joining in as she moved to her seat, shaking her head as if to say, "Yes, yes, yes. That's right. I know this spot. I know this song. I know these words. I belong."

When I sang their songs in the darkness, my mouth opening wide like a choirboy's, I felt as though I were touching something ancient. They were my grandparents' songs, and my grandparents smiled with pleasure when they heard a song such as the Herman's Hermits rendition of "Silhouettes" blasting from our tiny transistor radios. "That's one of our songs," they'd say smugly. "It's from the Gay 90s." Even a British rock group could get the OK if the songs they sang were written before World War II.

But we kids didn't care when the songs were written. We only cared who sang them then. That's what made them our songs. They were sung by rock stars who knew us, who spoke to us and for us. At ten o'clock each summer night we gathered on the front porch to listen to Dick Biondi, the DJ for WLS radio, the DJ who understood us, the DJ who shouted "Let's blow this pop stand." We listened for the three request songs, and were rarely disappointed. Somewhere out there were other teens just like us who knew and voted on the newest songs, usually Beatles songs such as "She Loves You" or "Till There Was You." All over the city we kids were in tune with each other, and I imagined teenagers on front porches everywhere singing their hearts out with John, Paul, George, and Ringo just as we were.

On Saturday mornings some of us kids from the block went downtown to WLS radio. For hours we waited in line outside the studio to be let into a small room, where for five minutes you could stand and watch Biondi or some other favorite DJ at work--a soundproof plate-glass window between you and him. You stood there and smiled and mugged and held up signs and offered presents and hoped the DJs would notice you and say something about you on the air. Then you were herded out and the next group of teenagers shuffled in.

The biggest downtown deal of all was the autograph parties at the Sheraton-Chicago Hotel on North Michigan Avenue, next to the Tribune Tower. Once a month or so, you actually got to meet your rock-star idols. If you bought 12 tickets to Arie Crown Theatre performances, you were able to go to three autograph parties, where Dick Biondi and the stars sat on a makeshift stage. We waited in line for hours, then walked up onto the stage, passing in front of our idols. A long series of tables separated us, and we got 30 seconds to declare our love, to make an impression that would set us apart from the thousands of other fans who were dressed exactly like us and get, if not the marriage proposal we dreamed of, at least a decent autograph we could show off to the front-porch crowd that night. Afterward we waited outside the hotel for the chance of one small touch of his hair or clothing, one small glimpse of him through the gray smoked glass of the departing limousine.

The break from the south-side sing-alongs came when I was introduced to music without words. I had just attended a citywide interracial retreat put on by a group called the Young Christian Students. I began hanging out with the YCS kids on the near north side and downtown, where it was safe for black and white kids to be together. We had what we called YCS study days--speakers, panels, and small group discussions on some moral or political question of the day. I met kids from all over the city, and after the study day we "made music."

Two of the black kids I got to know, Cecil and his friend Joe, dragged long conga drums from the back of the cafeteria and set them between their legs. They paused, looked at each other, nodded, and then let loose their hands in a flurry of motion across the skins of the drums. The solid rhythms reverberated off the tiled walls, shaking my rib cage as though someone were drumming inside me. Jenette, a girl from Cecil and Joe's parish, danced. Joe was the tall, skinny goofball; Cecil was the serious one; Jenette was the star. While Cecil and Joe beat on their drums, Jenette stretched her arms out and puffed her chest out. She tossed her head back, then swung it around in circles in a Las Vegas kind of African dance--very showy and very black. Occasional jazz riffs sprang from her mouth, syllables that never added up to words but told a wordless story. Joe lapped up the attention, tilted his chair back against the wall, and smiled at us as he played. He was the master of ceremonies without a mike. When he saw someone having a good time, he'd shout out, "That's right. That's right."

Cecil didn't say a word. His thick glasses slid down his nose as he pushed his short body into the beat. His drumming started at the base of his spine, climbed up his back, then streamed into his arms, moving his hands so fast they blurred. His head was always cocked, one ear down to the drum to monitor whether the intent and the result were one and the same. Occasionally Cecil would laugh at Joe, but the smile escaped like a mistake, a burp. He'd excuse himself by quickly getting back to the music, to the truly important matter at hand.

Even though in my all-white neighborhood any mention of Africa was cause for ridicule, the music stirred something deep within me. There was an excitement about it that made me want to break into a chant, flap my tongue, and warble as we did when we were little and ran through the woods playing Indians. We kids watched Cecil and Joe until we could stand it no longer. We grabbed for anything in sight that we could pound on--wastebaskets, tables, walls, each other. We were energy, we were possibility. We sat entranced, so proud of ourselves for keeping up with Cecil and Joe's rhythms. All these white kids keeping up and mesmerized with being a part. "Yes. Yes. Yes," our faces said. "This is it. What I'm playing fits with what you're playing. That's right. That's right. That's right."

One day, after our study day and music making were done, the north-side and west-side kids went to their various bus stops, and we south-side kids--Cecil, Jenette, Joe, and I--decided to extend our time together by walking downtown. We planned to walk down Michigan Avenue, then take the Englewood el home. They would get off at their stops in the black neighborhoods; I would ride till the end, 63rd and Ashland, the newest dividing line, and hop a bus that would take me into the white neighborhoods and home.

"Who do you think is better?" Joe asked Cecil. "Art Blakey or Shelly Manne?"

"Art Blakey," Cecil answered. "Most definitely. How 'bout you, Sue?"

"Art Blakey, I guess," I said slowly. "Yeah, I guess."

"Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers," Cecil said, helping me out.

"Oh, yeah," I lied. "He's great." The only jazz I knew was from the one jazz record I owned, Concert by the Sea, which I won at a neighborhood picnic when my father and I finished first in the polka contest. While the emcee made jokes about the Irish father and daughter winning, my eye was caught by the shiny red album on the winner's table. "I'm picking this prize," I said to one of my neighbors. "What do you want that for?" he stated more than asked. "That's jazz."

"And it's always been going on," Cecil said, as we walked past the boutiques of Michigan Avenue. "Like this George Cohan character. At the end of the century he writes something called "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and makes a fortune. Only it's got nothing to do with the ragtime our parents were playing, and the real ragtimers, Negroes like Scott Joplin, they're living without a cent."

At the time I didn't know that "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was written by Irving Berlin, not George Cohan, or that Scott Joplin was already dead. Cecil's knowledge seemed indisputable. His instructive if sometimes distorted information came from hanging around the few remaining blues clubs on State Street, where he learned the craft as well as the history of black music from his uncle, a saxophonist, and other musicians. All shyness seemed to leave Cecil when he stated musical facts. He pushed his thick glasses up his nose each time he made a point. His hands sliced through the air with great authority. A street professor, he was urged on by Joe and Jenette's murmuring, "That's right. That's right." But I had seen James Cagney's movie about George Cohan three times. How could you argue with "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or "You're a Grand Old Flag" or "Mary's a Grand Old Name"? And my mother's name was Mary. Were all these songs now somehow bad? I didn't dare say a word.

"And Cohan was just the beginning," Cecil complained. "Today it's worse." He launched into a description of how the white rock-and-roll singers were ripping off old blues and gospel melodies that black families had sung and that had been on the black radio stations for years. That was all I needed to hear. I didn't want black people to be ripped off. I was done with rock and roll. My magazine pictures of Fabian and Frankie Avalon had already been replaced with collages from YCS study days, pictures of Selma marches, and Dr. Martin Luther King. But now I was going to add pictures of these Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson people Cecil kept talking about.

"Look at that!" Jenette shouted, pointing to a group of about 100 girls with picket signs in front of the Sheraton.

"What the hell is it?" Cecil said, his jaw hanging open, his eyebrows knitted together.

I knew exactly what it was--an autograph party. It was as though, just as I had renounced it, my former life came back to haunt me. A black limousine pulled away from the hotel, and the girls chased after it. A line of policemen strained to keep them back as the limo sped away, but as soon as it passed over the Michigan Avenue bridge they let down their guard. The girls broke through their lines, pushing and shoving each other, running right down the middle of the street toward the bridge, spearing the air with their picket signs.

Cecil tugged at my arm. "What the heck is going on?" he asked.

I wanted to sound knowledgeable, but not too knowledgeable, now that I knew these were girls who were maiming themselves over white musicians who weren't even playing their own music. I said something about them being rock-star groupies. "They have autograph parties," I explained. Cecil just stared at me.

"Look at that one," Joe said, and pointed to a girl with a miniskirt, blue-eyeliner eyes, and long, Marianne Faithfull ironed hair. A year earlier I would have looked exactly the same. Another crowd of girls came running out of the hotel and past us, jabbing their homemade placards into the air. "Can you see the limo? Can you see the limo? Are they still there?" they cried. One girl stumbled at our feet. "Did you see him? Did you see Dave?" she wailed, and brushed the dirt from her skinned knee.

"Who's Dave?" Cecil asked.

"The Dave Clark Five," she answered, staring at us as if we were aliens. "They're here!"

Cecil held his hand out to the girl.

"Aw," Joe said, "it ain't even the Beatles these girls are getting all riled up over."

We walked over the bridge toward Wacker Drive. In front of the Executive House Hotel stood even more girls than were at the Sheraton. "OK," Cecil said. "If that was an autograph party, then what's this?"

One circle of these girls had "Dave Clark Five Go Home" and "Beatles Forever" signs. Another circle of girls had posters that read, "Dave, We're 'Glad All Over' That You're Here." As we approached them, one of the Beatles fans broke ranks and raced across to the Dave Clark Five circle and screamed at the opposition. "The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan first! Dave Clark is a copycat!"

The Dave Clark Five fans, with an air of great superiority, ignored the girl and chanted, "We want Dave! We want Dave!" The Beatles fans sang back, "We love you, Beatles. Oh, yes we do." Every few minutes, from about the 20th floor, a head peeked over the balcony and the girls in the Dave Clark Five circle went wild. "It's Dave! It's Dave!" they squealed.

"Aw, they don't even know if it's him," Joe said.

Cecil agreed. "It's probably just a guest at the hotel looking down on all the craziness."

"Oh God!" said one girl as she fell against Jenette. "It's him. Dave looked at me! He looked right at me!"

"See," Cecil said to me. "Blues and jazz musicians do not put up with all this. They just play their music."

Well, that's what I was into now. No more idol worship. I wanted to learn all about music, real music. I could tell Cecil was disgusted at this travesty, and I was embarrassed to be there. "Come on," I said. "Let's get out of here." Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something white streak by, and I felt a tap on the top of my shoe. I leaned over and picked up a note wrapped around an English coin to weigh it down. The note said, "We like the Beatles as well, but they have to take a holiday sometime. When we play tonight, we'll play for everyone, Beatles fans included."

"Oh my God!" I said to Cecil, then gained control of my voice. "See," I said nonchalantly. "They are nice guys." I handed the note to Cecil, Jenette, and Joe.

"You think so?" Cecil asked. "Think that's a note from Dave Clark himself?"

"Let me see," the girl who had swooned on Jenette said. But I took the note back from Cecil and held it in my hands. I let the girl read it over my shoulder. She stared at the note, and we stared at her as though she were the expert on authenticity. She slapped herself on the cheek and dragged her fingers across the side of her face. "Oh my God," she said, "it's from Dave all right."

We all stood motionless for a moment. A few fans pressed into us, trying to get a look at the note. Then from behind me I heard a scream, "She's got a note from Dave!"

"Susan, run!" Cecil called. I was running before I knew why, responding only to the heat in his voice. "Run! Run!" I heard Joe screaming.

"Drop the note! Drop the note!" Jenette called from behind me.

But I didn't want to. If it really was a note from Dave Clark, I wanted to show it to Colleen O'Shaughnessy and the other kids on the block. I ran down Wacker Drive to South Water Street, over to Michigan Avenue, and down the stairs to lower South Water. I heard the group behind me, clanging down the metal stairs.

Joe sped in front of me and I followed him down a small alley. Cecil ran, looking up at the fire escapes along the buildings. "Maybe we should try going up," he yelled.

"Don't stop!" Jenette said, and grabbed Cecil's arm as she caught up to him. "They'll kill us too."

"Here!" Cecil said, and ran to a metal door at the back of a brown brick building. He yanked at the door till it finally sprang open, and we ran inside.

"Oh, shoot. They seen us," Cecil said, leaning against the door as it bumped against his back. Joe, Jenette, and I threw our weight against the door, and Cecil threw the latch. "Whew! That was a close one," he sighed.

We were in the back stairwell of a building, and a long concrete stairway rose in front of us.

"Maybe I should just throw out the note," I said.

"No!" they said in unison. "They'll smear you. Let's see that note again."

I handed Cecil the note and the English penny. He turned the coin over and over again in his hand. "Yep," he said, "it's an English penny all right."

We heard footsteps coming down the stairs and then saw a man. I recognized him. "It's Dick Biondi!" I said. Nothing registered on Cecil's, Joe's, or Jenette's face. I had never thought of WLS as a white station.

"You've got to help us," Jenette said to Dick, not seeming to understand that she was speaking to a star. "My friend got a note from the Dave Clark Five, and now we're being chased for it."

"Wait a minute," Biondi said. "Slow down." He turned to the man who was with him and smiled. The man was carrying a large two-reel tape recorder and didn't look amused.

"Can you help us?" Joe asked, and took the note out of my hand and gave it to Biondi.

Biondi read the note slowly, then placed it back in Cecil's outstretched hand. Biondi sighed as though he dealt with this kind of matter every day. "OK," he said. "Go on up these stairs. They'll take you to the WLS offices." He pointed up the concrete steps. "You can go out the front door and you'll be back on Wacker Drive."

"But can you get a message to Dave for us?" I said.

"We're already late for the interview, Dick," the other man said. "We're going to have to try our luck going out Wacker too. Sounds like they're worse out here in the alley than in front."

"Please, Mr. Biondi," I tried again. "Tell Dave I got his note, and that not all the kids of Chicago feel the way those picketers do. I'm a Beatle fan too, but I think the Dave Clark Five have a right to play here just like anybody else."

Biondi stared at us. I took the note from Cecil and held it in the air like a sacred talisman.

"It landed on her shoe," Cecil explained.

"OK," he finally said. He pulled a notebook from inside his suit coat and leaned it against the wall. "What's your name?"

"God, he's going to hear our names!" I said, then felt stupid for saying it.

"Sue Halloran," I said.

"Jenette Gardener," Jenette said.

"Joseph Beasley," Joe said.

We looked at Cecil. His lips were pressed tight and his arms were crossed against his chest. "It's Cecil Smith," he finally said, and dropped his arms to his side. "That's Cecil with two Cs." Then he paused and leaned toward Biondi as if to whisper a secret. "And tell him I'm a musician too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

Add a comment