My Parents' Music
It's Got a Good Beat. You can dance to it.
“It's Got a Good Beat. You can dance to it.” was a common answer on “American Bandstand” when they asked the kids to rate a new song.
My parents (look how well people dressed back then, when they didn’t have any money!), both RIP.
Martha and John both grew up in Roseland, on the far South Side of Chicago:
Here’s my mom with her mom
Her dad had died, I think of the great Spanish Flu epidemic.
Here’s my dad’s dad, Leon (unfortunately we have almost no photos for his family. Hard as it may be to believe, people did not walk around with cameras in those days.
His mother, Gelena, ran away when he was eight and was never heard from again. I’ve tried pretty hard to trace her and come up empty. Possibly she went back to Lithuania, or changed her name. We found out fairly recently through my niece’s DNA analysis that Gelena’s brother lived about five minutes from my parents in the 1940s, so I don’t think Dad ever told us the whole truth; it’s pretty inconceivable that they didn’t know of each other, the immigrant community being as tight-knit as it was. People back then weren’t so much into digging up painful memories, so maybe there was bad blood and he didn’t want to talk about it.
Dad had a brother, Albert, who was killed in an accident at Swift & Co. in the Stockyards on his first day on the job. That’s where I get my pen name Albert.
To finish this brief history: Dad was working at Swift & Co. all through the Depression, in the office. He even had a car, although he wasn’t rich. Mom was working at Eastman Kodak, and, amazingly enough, they lent her a 16mm movie camera and film, with the only “cost” being that she had to let them develop the film, for quality control! That’s where that photo at the top comes from: it’s a still from one of her films. So I have these amazingly good quality color films from 1940 and thereabouts.
Unfortunately, people didn’t know what to do in front of a movie camera back then, other than wave, so the films aren’t that interesting. And “editing?” Forget it, there was no editing.
Anyhow, this isn’t a family history but rather a musical biography; theirs and mine. We’ve set the backdrop, so onward.
They both loved to dance. They met at the Trianon in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago.
Let’s pause for some geography here: as you can see above, the Trianon was at 62nd and Cottage Grove. Mom lived at 118th and Prairie, and she didn’t have a car, of course. Here’s Google Earth’s view:
So Mom lived 11 miles from the Trianon. She had to take the bus or street car (I’m not sure which) to get there. Google Maps now estimates the trip at about an hour. I doubt it was much less back then.
The Culture at the Trianon
Unfortunately, the popular culture makes you think all dancing back then was like this:
My dad was watching something like that once on TV, and he said, “Boy, if you tried that at the Trianon, the monitors would tap you on the shoulder and tell you to cut it out.” As this article says,
To match its aesthetic reputation, the Trianon would be the first venue in the city with a strict dress code—coats and ties for gents, gowns for ladies. To enforce “appropriate” behavior, the venue employed a troop of “floor men” who were tasked with policing the room, keeping an eye out for dancers engaging in lewd or overly physical displays of affection. And for those with insufficient knowledge or two left feet, weekly dance classes were also held on-site. Of course, if patrons wanted to dance the jitterbug or dance along to some jazz, they’d be disappointed to know about the Trianon’s strict policy forbidding both.
My dad was one of those teachers the Trianon employed (I don’t actually know if he got paid for it). Maybe that’s how he met Mom; I wish I’d asked them.
What They Liked
Wow, did they ever love Lawrence Welk.
Someone to Watch Over Me
First performed in 1926, this song has been recorded over 1,800 times, according to Wikipedia. It’s almost hard to find a singer who has not recorded it.
Nonetheless, I managed to remain ignorant of its greatness all through childhood. My bad.
The Romantic Strings Orchestra
This was the sort of music we’d hear during dinner, from the FM radio on top of the fridge. That kind of thing was my introduction to this song.
Maybe I also saw this version on his TV show, which my mom loved.
Sometime in my senior year in college, I started spending lunch hours at the library, because I had classes nearby, before and after lunch. I checked out jazz records and listened to them, took books off the shelf and browsed them, and generally educated myself about jazz. One of the first things you discover when you do that is, a lot of the songs the jazz guys improvised on were those Great American Songbook songs that I’d despised, in my ignorance. Songs like Someone to Watch Over Me and All the Things You Are.
So I’d listen to jazz versions of those songs I had thought of as Easy Listening, and a light went off in my head: “Good grief. These are great songs! Duh.”
The Chairman of the Board
Modern singers have jumped on the bandwagon. Nearly everyone’s done an album of standards. Back in the 60’s that would have been unthinkable.
All the Things You Are
This song is sometimes sung (as we hear in the Andy Williams version), but more often it’s done instrumentally. Nearly every jazz musician could play it, then and now.
Andy Williams and The Lennon Singers
So those sorts of syrupy renditions were how I thought of that song. I got educated at the library.
[Wow, did I ever have a good time collecting all these jazz versions!]
Now for some comic relief.
Spooky was a great Top-40 song. It still stands up, 55+ years later. So I’m putting that version first:
Here’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section playing it live:
Kind of a cool, jazzy feel. Unfortunately, Lawrence Welk’s producers thought it would be a great idea to do their own version. This is not a Saturday Night Live parody.
Wow. They eliminated the sax solo, and managed to drain every last ounce of swing from it. Is it any wonder that Baby Boomers detested this TV show?
So What Did the Folks Prefer?
I’m pretty sure that my folks, as well as almost everyone from their generation, would pick the Lawrence Welk version of Spooky without even a moment’s hesitation. Here’s a page that explains swing rhythms; they would undoubtedly choose Example 3 in that page, the one with “straight eighths.” No swing for them!
You may want to try the option to play the example in Spotify, so you’ll have the time shown at the bottom. You need that to understand the text.
Their favorite band was not any of the big bands you hear about nowadays, like Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, or Count Basie. No, Griff Williams was their favorite (I know, you’ve probably never heard of him). They also liked Jan Garber.
Griff Williams Orchestra
The first song in this show is I Could Write a Book (a standard by Rodgers & Hart).
(You’ll notice the first song is All the Things You Are)
Those Band Names!
One of my favorite things about this era is the names of the bands! Here are a few (all the links are to actual performances, not Wikipedia pages):
Les Brown and his Band of Renown (with Doris Day!)
Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd (which lasted into the 80’s)
Why Did They Prefer That?
Music was for dancing. Not sitting and listening. And by “dancing” I don’t mean:
Let’s not be snobbish about The Greatest Generation’s tastes. They didn’t buy records, probably, and maybe didn’t even hear music on the radio very often. Going to a dance was almost the only way you heard music, and if you had to fix your hair and dress up, and then you got to hold someone of the opposite sex, well, that was even better! I think they had it pretty good, all things considered.
Did They Miss Out?
Lots of people make the facile observation that everyone prefers the music that was popular when they were 18. Not true, in my case. If I look over the songs in the Great American Songbook, nearly all popular before I was born, I think they’re better than anything produced by my generation and all the generations after it.
The jazz artists who came along well before my 18th birthday were also the defining giants of the genre (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, etc. etc.). Same for the big bands (I’m not talking Griff Williams and Jan Garber here). But not everyone who lived through the 30s and 40s experienced them that way. What can we say? There are Baby Boomers who hated the Beatles and thought The Fifth Dimension were the best thing about the 60’s, too. There’s no accounting for taste.
Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
When you talk about jazz singers, there’s Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and then there’s everybody else.