I’ve been in and around music all my life. To say that I love music doesn’t begin to express all it has meant to me over the years. This is a collection of personal memory snippets that sketch out some of the experiences and influences that have shaped my appreciation and attitudes. Forgive me if I ramble.
May I go out and play, now?
I was seven years old when Mom and Dad brought a piano into the house. Before that, my only experience with one was banging out Chopsticks on Grandma’s old player piano. One day Dad handed me a book, told me to read the first several pages having to do with time signatures, counting, notation, and such. There was also some incomprehensible stuff about tonic, dominant, and subdominant tones. “You’ll get your first piano lesson when I get home from work.” And so I did.
Dad played piano well, but his first love was the violin. I loved hearing him play the Brahms Hungarian Dances. He also played trumpet, clarinet, guitar, and mandolin. In his late teens and early twenties, Dad had played with dance bands and was active in music as an avocation; he even wrote a lesson series for clarinet.
His father (my Grandpa, Marvel Richie) also played violin; when he died in 1946, his instrument passed to my Brother, James, who played it into his twenties. His son, Bert, owns it now.
Our flat on Linton Avenue was awash in music in those days. Whether for their own enjoyment, or a conscious effort to expose James and me to good music, Mom and Dad bought a lot of record albums. These were fragile 12-inch 78 rpm discs packaged in sleeved and bound collections. Their purchases were mostly classical, including works by Chopin, Ravel, Kreisler, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and others. There was one disc of Burl Ives folk songs. We wore them out.
Mom liked Chopin a lot; Ravel not so much. As a violinist, Dad was a big fan of Fritz Kreisler and enjoyed playing several of his works. I really liked the Strauss and Burl Ives (I learned to sing every song on the album, Wayfaring Stranger.) James appreciated it all and kept a scrapbook of musical information including biographies of composers.
Every weekend, Mom corralled us into the living room to listen to live broadcasts of classical music on The Bell Telephone Hour. The radio was often tuned to KFUO for classical music. Brother also liked that station’s Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, live from New York (I found something else to do during those performances.) Mom often took us to symphony concerts and performances at the Municipal Opera in Forest Park. Sometimes, James and I would go by ourselves.
One summer the Muny needed a large group of young violinists for a production. Mom and I went with James to the audition. He played La Golondrina. There were hundreds of kids there; James didn’t make the cut.
In these years, Dad worked for a time as a traveling technician for Kilgen Organ Company, of St. Louis, maintaining and tuning pipe organs for churches in Missouri and Illinois. I always thought it was a good fit for him but life on the road is no fun for anyone and it didn’t pay well.
Like most kids, I wasn’t big on practicing. Never did a half-hour seem so long as when I was sitting on that bench, especially in summer when my friends were outside playing. But Mom made sure we did our duty.
Rungsters on parade
After Grandma Richie died in 1948, we moved into her and Grandpa’s house on Emerson Avenue. About that time, Dad decided to hand James and me over to another teacher. Mr. Rung taught out of his house on Labadie Avenue, about a half block west of Union Boulevard. We’d board the Union streetcar at Lillian and ride South to St. Louis Avenue, then walk two blocks or so from there.
I still wasn’t big on practice, but Mr. Rung was patient, and gave me seasonal songs (Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) to keep me engaged. He was a nice guy, for a grownup, and I enjoyed our sessions together, if not the get-ready.
One of the things I did on my own in these years was to play from an old hymnal Grandma left behind. Mostly I looked for songs I knew already, preferably in C (The Peoples’ Key).
Dad would play often at home, both piano and violin. When he was at the keyboard I always requested Poet and Peasant Overture, by Franz von Suppe. Now and then he would play for an Odd Fellows lodge meeting. He and Mom would sing duets. Sometimes, he’d get us all together in the living room: he on mandolin, James on violin, I chording on piano. The three of us would also play together at church occasionally; Dad on piano, James on violin, I quietly brushing a snare drum. The pastor of the Baptist church up the street once persuaded Dad to play violin during a service.
One of the really neat things Mr. Rung did was to organize an orchestra (The Rungsters) from his student base. He didn’t have to do this, and charged no extra fee as far as I know. It was all about giving his students the experience. He tapped my Brother to play violin—first chair, no less—which made me jealous. I wanted in. He didn’t need me for piano as he had someone older and much more experienced than I, but suggested I take up drums, since he needed a drummer. So I did. I got to play with a whole set: snare, bass, high-hat, crash cymbal, tom, cowbell, wood block, and more. Oh, boy!
This meant I made the streetcar trip to Mr. Rung’s house twice a week for piano and drum lessons, and once a week with Brother for orchestra practice in a church hall nearby. We were busy.
One concert program the orchestra did was called Rungsters on Parade, really just sort of a recital for the benefit of parents and doting relatives. We occasionally would perform elsewhere—at a retirement home or some such.
I remember trying vainly to keep up with an arrangement of It’s Gonna Be a Great day, which called for a steady rhythm of eighth notes on the bass drum. I couldn’t do it; my eleven-year-old ankle didn’t have the muscle to keep that pedal moving. The boss finally let me off the hook and settled for a bass thump only on the fourth-note beats. Then there was Ridin’ Down the Canyon, in which I evoked horse’s hoof beats with a wood block rhythm. That was kinda fun.
And you expect me to march, too?
At Walbridge elementary school, I joined the drum and bugle corps. They didn’t need a snare drummer so I agreed to pound the bass drum. (Big mistake: the big bass drum presses relentlessly on one’s bladder—and they expect you to march that way!) We wore puffy white satin shirts and white duck pants with bright green sashes and silly hats. There once was a picture of our group on parade published in the Post Dispatch. Would you believe I was the only one in our corps that was in step?
About this time I came into possession of a cheap plastic harmonica and discovered it was no big deal for me to pick out simple tunes on that. Lots of Stephen Foster. And those old reliable hymn tunes.
City, meet country
In 1950 we moved to Elsberry, Missouri, a small farming community in Lincoln County, where Dad had taken a job as town marshal and deputy sheriff for the county. I started the eighth grade there. The high school was in the same building. It so happened that the high school band needed a drummer, so it came to pass that I played in the high school band while I was still in eighth grade. Hot stuff, I was.
In St. Louis we rarely listened to country music. Dad would pick up his guitar now and then and sing The Wreck of the Old 97, or the tearjerker, Put My Little Shoes Away, or maybe an old Carter Family number. Mother would sing a couple of old time tunes such as Bury Me Beneath the Willow. But we rarely tuned in except on Saturday nights to catch the Grand Ole Opry—and that was mostly for Cousin Minnie Pearl. Howdee!
In Elsberry, country was king. Every kid in school knew every word of every song Hank Williams ever did. This is years before the slicked-up Nashville Sound. This was rawboned, mostly acoustic (well, maybe a pedal steel), hard core, three-chords-and-the-truth, cryin’-in-your-beer songs about lovin’ and leavin’, cheatin’, fightin’, gettin’ drunk, gettin’ saved, Mom and the old home place, drivin’ trucks and ridin’ trains. It was Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, and Kitty Wells. Mom detested the stuff and didn’t want us listening to it. So of course, I did. I still enjoy hearing older, classic country.
About this time I discovered Dad’s old trumpet. It was bent. Dad said from a fight. I learned to generate a tone and finger the notes, so therefore deemed myself a trumpet player. Mr. Baker, our bandmaster, was pretty laid back. It didn’t bother him if I wanted to play trumpet occasionally. I also played Sousaphone and baritone horn now and then just for the heck of it; they fingered the same as a trumpet and mostly just went oomph on the downbeat.
One summer Mr. Baker put together a community band to do a concert in the town park. Dad played trumpet. By then I had met and played drums with Jack, the town’s deputy marshal. Jack was in his twenties, younger than Dad and older than I. We hit it off. He was a good drummer and taught me a trick or two. He introduced me to a drum solo entitled, The Downfall of Paris. Together, we held down the percussion section of two in the community band’s one-night career.
The Boy Scout quartet
I liked to sing, too. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but one of the adult leaders of our Boy Scout troop, which was sponsored by a local church, decided to put together a Boy Scout gospel quartet. He tapped me for tenor. At thirteen, my voice hadn’t changed yet so I could hit the notes easily, I could also read the music, and found it pretty easy to hear how the tenor line was supposed to harmonize. We worked up a few numbers and did them in church. From then until we left Elsberry, I sang tenor with the choir.
I had two piano teachers in Elsberry. One was the older sister of a friend of mine. I went to their house for lessons. I remember doing one recital there. The other teacher was an older woman who set up studio on Saturdays in the basement of the elementary school. She drilled me relentlessly on scales to acquaint me with different keys.
I paid for this myself from my paper route earnings. I was becoming really interested in getting better at the piano. I’d assign myself songs from one of several songbooks we had lying around, and began to try to pick out tunes by ear and figure out the chord progressions. No longer was thirty minutes on the bench a burden; it was just a beginning.
One summer, (I think I was fourteen) I went on the road with Dad for a week to make his calls in Illinois to work on church organs for Wicks Organ Company, out of Highland, Illinois. I held down the keys while he tuned the pipes. I’d run errands and keep him company. I think he needed the company more than the help. Sometimes he’d let me drive.
While we were in Elsberry, my parents’ marriage degenerated to the point of no return, and in the untidy denouement of that enterprise I lost my piano, and didn’t have regular access to another one for the next nineteen years.
Put in my place—by a girl!
For a couple of months in 1954, I played third trumpet in the band at Ritenour High School in St. Louis County. They didn’t need me on drums, as they had an outstanding percussionist who later went on to play with the St. Louis symphony Orchestra. This guy was good! One day we were plugging away at Gaîté Parisienne, by Offenbach and I wasn’t getting my part. I thought I could hide in the crowd, but Mr. Rose stopped everything and asked the first-chair player, a senior named Phyllis, to “…show Richie how to play that.” Right there, in front of God and everybody!
At Central High School in St. Louis, I played snare drum in the marching and concert bands for two-and-a-half years. I can’t say I learned all that much from the experience. Sousa gets boring after a while and I never much cared for marching. There were some cute girls, though, and it beat sitting in class.
Popular music of the day (’54, ’55, ’56) consisted of anything a local deejay got paid under the table to play. On the same show you might hear anything from Sixteen Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford; A little Band of Gold, by Don Cherry; Shboom Shboom, by the Crew Cuts; Hey, Good Lookin’, by Hank Williams; Mockingbird Hill, by Les Paul and Mary Ford; to Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets.
Cute story from Les Paul: Miles Davis asked him how come he (Les) was more popular than he (Miles) was. Les told him he had to play what people liked. Miles said no way was he doing Mockingbird Hill.
The list of artists popular at this time goes on and on, and is a matter of history. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone, Jo Stafford, Sarah Vaughn, Ella, Satchmo, Peggy Lee and all were in their prime. The devil’s music was coming on strong, and, of course, Elvis.
Serving my country
I joined the Army right out of high school in June1956. In spite of the fact that I was earmarked for photography school, I auditioned during basic training for a pickup jazz combo and the Army band school. Neither went well. I discovered marching band is no preparation for a jazz combo; I didn’t have a clue. Then, the guy who auditioned me for band school told me that I read well but my technique was sloppy. (Are you sure? I wowed ‘em in Elsberry.)
After my schooling at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, I was assigned to a photography unit at Ft. Meade, Maryland. I went regularly to chapel up the road and started singing in the choir. By this time, my voice was considerably lower than it was five years earlier, so I sang the bass line.
In the back row with me was a Staff Sergeant who was NCOIC of the Second Army Chorus, a full-time musical unit. He suggested I audition. I did. And for the next two-and-a-half years I worked full time as a singer.
This was fine with me. Although I was trained as a photographer and wanted to work as one, I was assigned to a unit that was larger than it should have been. As the low man on the totem pole, I mostly mixed chemicals and mopped floors. Singing would be more fun. Photography could wait.
Our unit was billeted with the Second Army Band and the Second Army Pipe and Drum Corps. Across the street were the U.S. Army Field Band and Chorus. Our mission was partly entertainment for the troops, but mostly public relations. We would work up a program and polish it in rehearsal, then take it on the road for a few weeks. We traveled a seven-state area doing live performances as well as local radio and rare TV appearances. As I recall, we did this cycle about four times per year.
Our performances were mostly stand-on-the-risers-and-sing affairs. We did everything from traditional American music, patriotic numbers, and show tunes to classical choral works. A few times we helped with shows that involved scripts, sets, costumes, skits and dancing, but we were just backup for another unit that specialized in that sort of production.
A really big shew
Every year we would participate in the All-Army Entertainment Contest. In prep for the competition, we would work up entries in different categories, to increase our opportunities for wins. I sang with a barbershop-style quartet for one entry. (Second place, I think.) In 1958 we did well enough to be invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan show in New York. Among other things, we sang backup for a number with pop star Theresa Brewer. Pretty cool. I have tape.
At eighteen, I was one of the youngest and greenest men in the unit. Most of our guys were older college graduates. Some had degrees in music. Working six hours a day to make music with experienced, educated musicians was a wonderful experience. I learned so much about how music works. Most of us were amateurs, just passing our time in uniform as pleasantly as possible but several of our group went on to careers in music as performers, teachers, or both.
I also learned to appreciate many different kinds of music, and to listen with discernment. Our heroes in those days were people such as Frank Sinatra (of course), Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, and John Raitt. We really liked the jazzy arrangements of groups such as The Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los. We appreciated instrumentalists such as Dave Brubek, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonius Monk, Erroll Garner, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Charlie Parker. We’d search out small clubs with live music. We’d go hear choral music at big churches in D.C. and take in concerts and recitals of all kinds, wherever we could find them.
Three of us would sometimes play dinner music at the officer’s club with a piano, string bass, and brushes on a snare drum (guess who). I think we were the only enlisted men of our rank with dress-blue uniforms, so we looked good, too.
(Nonmusical note; the dress blues got us other gigs, too. One year I got to escort Miss Maryland in a parade.)
No experience is wasted
Upon return to civilian life, I wasn’t immediately active in music. Too busy getting a job, getting a wife, getting settled. At first I couldn’t abide singing in a church choir because they just didn’t work hard enough to suit me. I got over my snobbery later and enjoyed singing with the choir and doing the rare duet or solo.
In the course of my work, I kicked up an opportunity to use my musical experience when I received an assignment from Concordia Publishing House to put together a record of music to accompany some Sunday school materials I was producing. The only directions the editors gave me were the lead sheets; it was up to me to make it happen. I partnered with a fellow who had an eight-track studio in his basement. He also happened to be a musician. Together, we pulled together the singers and players we needed, worked out the arrangements, and put it in the can. We were all proud of the effort and the editors thought it was great.
On another occasion, I paired up with our friend, Judy, to sing some songs at a church social function. Judy had a nice soprano voice and played guitar, as well. We undertook to entertain for a half-hour or so singing love songs for an adult Valentine’s Day banquet. Strolling minstrels. I sang harmony to Judy’s lead and kept time with a tambourine. We scandalized our Baptist brethren with the steamy lyrics, “Lay your head upon my shoulder, hold your warm and tender body close to mine.” We redeemed ourselves, sort of, with “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone!”
I was not a great soloist. My voice had a decent quality that worked well in a group, or even with just one other voice, but I never had the strict control over the instrument that a soloist requires. Also, most of my experience was with what might be called straightforward, or even technical, singing. Be on pitch, be on time, be precise with attacks and releases, produce a good tone, blend well with the other voices, and watch your diction. Stylists need not apply.
At last, a piano
When our firstborn was about the age I was when Dad got me started, Deanna and I bought a good console-style Sohmer piano, which, to this day is my single most treasured material possession. I wanted the boys to have the opportunity to learn. I also very much wanted it for my own enjoyment. Since then I have played a lot for my own pleasure, have progressed far beyond where I was as a teenager, and know a whole lot more than I did when I started.
Alas, knowing is not doing. I am definitely not a performance-grade musician. I confess I am no more tolerant of practice at seventy than I was at age seven; repetition bores me. That’s a problem, because nobody gets good at anything without a lot of repetition, so there you have it.
(I never have had quick hands. Most of the stuff I play is of moderate tempo. Our youngest grandson said to me once, “Grandpa, can’t you play anything that’s not beautiful?”)
I’ve also explored other instruments. Several years ago I rented a clarinet and purposed to learn how to play it. I love clarinet music, especially the stuff by that kid, Mozart. Gershwin’s no slouch, either. I learned quickly to produce a decent tone throughout the range of the instrument, and fingering was no big deal, but my aging embouchure just wasn’t up to it; I literally didn’t have the chops. Good thing it was just a rental.
More recently, I decided it was finally time to learn to play the guitar I bought a while back. I took six months of lessons to get started. (And discovered I should have taken it up before my left hand turned seventy.) I play some every day, and truly enjoy it. Slowly but surely, the instrument is feeling less like a foreign object in my hands, and the fret board less a mystery. I have a dreadnaught-sized steel-stringed acoustic and a Les Paul-style electric.
It’s tempting to blame my piano limitations on the nineteen years or so that I didn’t have access to the instrument. I’m convinced that the teen years are when people get really good at whatever they love—especially music. Ask any accomplished musician when they started, they’ll tell you age thirteen or fourteen. But in my case, that may be just an excuse.
My cup runneth over
Today, my taste is broad and deep across the spectrum. My IPod has about 4,300 songs on it. (Mom and Dad’s collection probably had no more than 100.) The list of styles, composers, and performers I appreciate could never be completed. My sons help me stay current.
In the car, I’m usually tuned to the classical station or classic rock. (We no longer have a jazz station locally.) At home it could be anything from Emmy Lou to Enya, Kathleen Battle to B.B. King. I’m embarrassed I never knew Stevie Ray’s music until he was long gone. I’d vote for Allison Krauss for president, and Eric Clapton surely walks on water.
When I’m in the mood, I’ll dust off some Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanly, Ricky Skaggs or Doc Watson. Maybe even some really old stuff from the Bristol sessions.
I don’t like rap or hard metal. Or the insipid proud-to-be-a-redneck drivel that passes for country these days. I also have a beef with (mostly young) guitarists who think everything they play has to be fast, loud, and long, and must employ every pedal they own, in every combination, in every song. Showing off is not entertainment, guys, and if you’re singing, is it too much to ask that the words be understandable? Harrumph.
I have profound gratitude for Mom and Dad, who gave James and me an early appreciation of music, especially classical. And I appreciate the innumerable musicians I’ve enjoyed and learned from over six decades and counting.
Finally, I hold a special place of affection for musicians in general: the millions of amateurs everywhere who enrich the human experience with the sheer joy of making music; the too-often anonymous players who earn their keep in the shadows of the stage or studio, helping the guy or gal in the spotlight be a star. They don’t get anywhere near the respect and appreciation they deserve.
THANK YOU. Really enjoyed reading this, and picked up a couple of tidbits I didn’t know.
What, no references to Peter, Paul and Mary? Seriously, life doesn’t get any richer than this.
You’ll notice I also omitted John Denver and Anne Murray. Ya gotta draw the line somewhere.
Thank you. I learned alot about the family music history and where James got some of his ideas.
I don’t remember it, but I must have seen you on TV. We never missed an Ed Sullivan show. It was the Sunday night thing, right after the Westerns.
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Dear Uncle Stephen,
I loved this blog! I was very moved. I never realized music was such a big part of Daddy’s and your homelife growing up, and I know next to nothing about James,Sr. I want to share this with Bert. I think he’ll be as touched as I am. You were so cute in your uniform. No wonder Aunt Deanna snagged you. Congratulations on almost 50 years of marriage.
We loved seeing you both in May, and the beautiful bowl you made hold pride of place in the livingroom. I think of you often and hope you continue to thrive.
You’re sweet. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it.
Fastinating! Thanks for sharing, Steve.
Hey, Cuz, this was a nice read. A nice bio of that aspect of your life.
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed.