The Early Days pt 1
Over the last couple of weeks I have had several wonderful conversations about the joys, wonders and sometimes pain of playing music with a couple of friends. I have known some of them for years, and we spent time talking about the early days of our musical endeavors. We talked about people we had met and played with, places we had traveled to, exhilarating experiences that we had, embarrassing experiences we endured, hilarious events, and more. We also had lively reminiscences about some of the amazing places where we got to hear incredible music, and some great places we were fortunate enough to play. I enjoyed these conversations, and they got me thinking about my early playing days and the times. If it is alright, I would like to take the next couple of newsletters to reflect a bit on the early days of my love affair with music and how I got into playing.
I come from a working class African-American family that lived in West Philadelphia. I was the youngest of three children, and I was born in 1950. Our first musical experiences were church-borne experiences; we were in the young peoples’ choir from early on, and we, of course, sang wonderful hymns during church services.
There was music in the house as well-we had a record player and mom played albums by Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington among others. We all had to take piano lessons from Mrs. Bush at 52nd and Girard when we got older. I was not good at all, and I hated practice. But my brother was quite good, and he still plays both the piano and the organ. We also sang regularly and had music lessons via the Thomas Dunlap public elementary school at 50th and Race Street. I took trumpet lessons for a year through that school, bringing no end of pain and suffering to my neighbors, siblings, and parents. I tried mightily, but it was clear I was not going to be the next Louis Armstrong.
We had a radio in the kitchen, and I listened to WHAT and WDAS, the local black music stations. Through them I heard a mix of Motown music, doo-wop, Stax records, New Orleans rhythms from the South, and even the occasional Slim Harpo, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Roscoe Gordon blues song. These were AM stations; FM music radio stations had not yet happened. But after 9 PM at night some AM signals would drift in from other cities and states, and if you were in the kitchen after dinner you could catch those stations. I did a hell of a lot of after-dinner dishes to stay in the kitchen and hear those other stations. The popular music scene in the late 50’s and early to mid-sixties was changing in amazing ways, and it was carrying me right along with it.
Music was all around us, then, and it was changing in some major and dramatic ways. Rock 'n' Roll hit hard in the late 50’s, and it’s combination of blues, country music and more threw commercial radio into a mess. They were not sure what to do with it as it became more and more popular, more wild, and brought some people together the larger society wanted to keep separate. Folk music and protest music also hit the airwaves in the wake of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and some of this was going mainstream as well. The Beatles and the Stones heralded the English invasion in the mid-60’s, and we all know what that did to popular music and commercial radio. There seemed to be something new coming along every week, and eventually FM stations started appearing. I was a young kid through most of this, but I could follow all of these changes from our kitchen radio. There was not much in the way of programing, focus groups, or “data collection” then; disk jockeys would play pretty much what they wanted, and a number of them had widely eclectic tastes. I could hear, say, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Four Seasons, and The Supremes and Temptations all within one hour and on the same show. By my high school years I was still listening to WHAT AND WDAS, but also to WMMR FM, WKBW AM from Buffalo, NY late at night, WNYC FM in NYC, Temple University’s WRTI jazz station, and more. It was a wonderful, exciting, and free-flowing mess. And, I went to a high school that had a bunch of hippies, young political activists, and even a folk music club. All of these sounds were all jumbled together and they affected me mightily. By the time I was 15, I was eagerly devouring all types of music and all types of sounds. And then this happened:
Seeing the Wolf on that episode of Shindig in 1965 launched me into playing the harmonica seriously and pursuing the blues wherever I could and however I could. I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of records, but the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library was there and it was my first blues feeding ground. The Best of Muddy Waters; the multi-volume Alan Lomax Southern Folk Heritage Series with blues, country music, gospel, string bands, and more; Leadbelly records, Bukka White: all of these and a lot more were there for me to listen to for free in the library's music room. Also at the library I found the book Blues Harp, by Tony Glover of the folk blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. That book explained positions, taught me how to bend notes, and more. The Central High Folk Music Club had concerts at that time, including ones that featured blues guitarists/singers such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Son House. Through that club I got to actually meet many of the musicians and Dick Waterman, who managed them along with Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells. It was an incredibly magical time for me, and my path was just being set out before me. All I had to do was follow.
So from my church, my radio at home, the public library, and those wonderful high school experiences I was steadily learning and absorbing a ton of great music. And best of all, I was also in the right place for all of this and at just the right time. For the Philly folk and rock music scene of the mid and late 1960’s was booming, and I was spending a lot of time at its epicenter-downtown Philadelphia in the neighborhood of good old Rittenhouse Square. (to be continued…)