THE EARLY YEARS
Anyone who knows me probably also knows that music, particularly performing music, has always been an important part of my life. My dad was a musician, part of the time professionally although mostly at church and just for the love of it. I was born in 1947 in Santa Monica, California where my parents had moved from southern Arkansas (Camden) in the late 1930’s. Although he worked as a printer, my dad also had a job singing on the radio (live, obviously). Dad and mom had the opportunity to move to California where a station had offered him a job. It was in Beverly Hills and they moved to West LA, then bought a house in Santa Monica the year I was born.
Dad had a great baritone voice, but his radio singing career only lasted a few years. I think it was a combination of the Second World War impacting radio programming but also many people took jobs in the defense industry, as dad did, while he continued to work as a union printer. He continued to sing and was a centerpiece in many ways at our church.
My dad sang in the choir at First Methodist Church in Santa Monica from the late 1940's until they retired in the late 1970’s; mom was also well known there for her leadership in the Women’s Society, on the church board, etc. It was a great choir. The organist, Tom Harmon, for example, was the chair of the Music Department at UCLA for many years.
I started playing clarinet in third grade at Franklin Elementary School. I was usually 2nd or 3rd chair because I didn’t practice enough to be 1st chair. About the same time I started taking piano lessons with our church choir director’s wife (Lillian Swan, he was Fred Swan). Fred had picked me out in 1st or 2nd grade to do a vocal solo in church. I don’t have a specific memory of that but I recall my mom telling me when I asked about it years later that I’d done fine but didn’t’ seem to enjoy it (clearly foreshadowing my preference for being part of ensembles rather than a solo artist). A couple of years later my dad bought the family an electric organ (a Conn two manual) in addition to our piano and I started lessons with a woman named Christie Jensen – it was a great contrast to Mrs. Swan’s traditional, classical training as Christie always had me playing contemporary tunes – stuff that was on the radio. I thought that was much cooler, although Mrs. Swan was probably a better teacher. I remember the last piece I “mastered” on the piano with Mrs. Swan was “Bumble Boogie” - a boogie woogie take off of Flight of the Bumble Bee – wouldn’t attempt it today!
My sister Linda had/has a great voice so family vacations every summer driving back to Arkansas, Louisiana and East Texas consisted of many days in the car (flying was still too expensive for regular folks) with hours of singing and dad teaching Linda and I about harmonizing. You have to remember that even in the early 1960's, there were long stretches of highway where you couldn't get a radio signal (and cassettes? CDs? ha!) Mom was a good singer too so 3 and 4 part harmonies were common. It was great training (I don’t think people sing in the car much anymore).