Throughout my life,I’ve read many an article (offline and on) about the favorite records and songs of music fans and how it influenced their lives in different ways. When it was presented to me to write a blog about this subject I instantly responded to the suggestion as a cliche’. To a degree it probably is. Yet the more I lived with the idea,the more I realized that I was one of these people. The question in my case is the somewhat unexpected directions my musical journey took me.
Since I’m more than aware I’ve used the words “I,me and mine” more than a dozen times in this introduction,the intention is not in the least bit egoist. This is the first in a series of articles I am writing here showcasing music that has shaped (and sometimes misshape) the person I am today. And the hope is that these will inspire you to tell your own stories in your own way. I am going to start with my earliest musical memories,which took place during the mid 1980s.
Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” was the first song I can recall both singing and dancing to,usually on my father’s shoulders. Though often considered the beginning to the end of the bands musical peak these days,this song was in hindsight the very first funk record (and likely the first record ever) that I heard. It informed on and laid the groundwork for the kind of music I still continue to be interested in even after all these decades have passed.
Shortly after I was exposed to “Celebration”,this very unusual record was played for me. It had this exotic flute like instrument at the beginning of it. And I’d never drums played like this,and laid so bare before. Didn’t even know what a bass line or a keyboard was. What I was hearing was “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. As for the full impact of how this particular music had on my tastes over the years,that’s a story for a future time.
During my younger days,most of the lullaby’s used to help me sleep were sung to me by my mother-usually hits by Elton John,Stevie Wonder or Harry Chapin. As far as my memory recalls there was only one such lullaby sung to me by my father,and quite well I may add. It was a Beatles song. Surprisingly it wasn’t “Golden Slumbers”. It was “If I Fell”. Interestingly enough,if any Beatles song didn’t fit the lyrical quality of a lullaby this would probably take the cake. But I now understand my fathers reasons for singing it to me as such. It’s melody and tempo are in fact very soothing. And even if the lyrics did not match it’s intention with me,it did relax me to hear it and inspired a lifelong interest in the music of John,Paul,George and Ringo.
My views on hip-hop have continued to bare down with a good deal of scrutiny on it’s musical qualities. And I have this record to thank for that. The first hip-hop I,and most of America had the pleasure of hearing, I had so much fun rapping along with these men and their amusing stories in this song it didn’t occur to me that through them,and the funk band Positive Force backing them up,I was also being exposed for the first time to the music of Chic. If in truth I am extremely persnickety about the hip-hop I listen to and enjoy,it’s only because my entire viewpoint on the genre is defined by this record.
Saturday Morning Cartoons were a major event of my childhood. Though as opposed to music influencing an interest in television,the exact opposite occurred with me. The theme music for Saturday Supercade,a series of different cartoons featuring then popular video game characters also featured a catchy new wave influenced theme using actual video game sound effects for harmony. Literally my introduction to “the video game sound”.
When I was first able to talk fairly well,my dad and I developed this idea for a radio satire done on cassette tapes made by the two of us as a father/son “educational” project that would also be an entertaining project for family bonding . We called it WNEPORK. Of course it needed something of a theme song. So my father came out with this early Moog synthesizer record by The Zeet Band. It had a song called “Piggy Woogie”. At the time I thought it was great fun. It was also my introduction to fully synthesized music. And considering what a funky little boogie woogie number this is,intended novelty or not it very much shaped my views on how electronic music is best constructed rhythmically. It was even more exciting to learn the song involved the talents of Donny Hathaway and Phil Upchurch who I know greatly admire.
Almost decade after Sanford And Son, Redd Foxx gave TV comedy another try with this show in 1986. Wasn’t too bad a show really. What I remember was the theme song by Kool & The Gang called “In The Heart Of The City”. Except for it’s puzzling synthesized horns for a band noted for it’s brass section,it was definitely a very strong mid 80’s urban funk pop song. So if funk was important enough to be a theme song for a TV show,I guessed after this that it was important enough for aural enjoyment as well.
Again through my dad and I’s WNEPORK concept,he would often play records he would be given at his job at a local TV station. This was one of them,a series of PSA’s hosted by the late James Earl Jones for the Social Security Administration called Genius On The Black Side. What it was really doing was exposing many popular African American talents,from different eras of music, who’d had to “struggle in the back waters” as Jones himself put it. Through this I was first exposed to the music of Eubie Blake,Donny Hathaway,Chaka Khan,Evelyn Champagne King and Earth Wind & Fire. Therefore this is very special to me,and was tremendously educational for me in learning to understand the “link in a chain” concept that Quincy Jones often speaks regarding African American music.
On yet another occasion making one of our tapes,my father put on this record and I had no idea at the time who it was by. What I heard then was the sound of shakers,percussion and men whooping and hollering to the music,along with some electronic effects for good measure. I actually found myself whooping and hollering along and having a great time,thinking it was a gag record. Years later I learned it was not. It was an experimental recording by Don Cherry and Jon Appleton. Avant Garde jazz had entered my life.
Still considered a classic and popular record even today,the debut album of Whitney Houston created an enormous stir in my household. My mother in particular couldn’t seem to get enough of “The Greatest Love Of All”,”Saving All My Love For You” and “How Will I Know”. Hardly a day went by when I didn’t either hear these songs sung or Whitney’s name mentioned. Than it all stopped very suddenly when her song and music video “So Emotional” came out a of years later. Never understood why. My mom herself claims it was because of dissatisfaction with Whitney’s creative direction. I’d never heard her speak of music in those terms before. First time I was exposed to a private citizen’s well rounded musical critique actually. But until the day Whitney Houston passed away,I never stopped being interested in hearing what would be singing next.
Alright so this is a story I already told here. But this song represented the first time the radio influenced me on something that would become hugely significant to me years later. Every time I passed a local hill called Chick Hill in the family car,this song would play so I named it the “Chick Hill Song” until I discovered it’s real name almost two decades later. And the name of the band who did it as well. Likely the beginning to the time when the radio would begin to have a certain appeal to me in terms of guiding my musical tastes in the future.
Once again it started with a song that my mom couldn’t get out of her head called “Rock Me Amadeus”. I assumed as with many it had more to do with the popular Milos Foreman biopic out around the same time than it did. At some point,my parents got me a cassette tape of the album Falco 3 on which the song was featured. While enjoying songs like “Vienna Calling” and “America” ,this helped me to view hit music within more of a full album context and deeply affected the way I’ve listened to music. Especially when I learned how much artists like Falco had to offer. Not to mention it was my introduction (and thus far only exposure) to what is essentially Austrian rap/rock.
Of course having heard his 1960’s hits on the radio and in my mom’s lullaby’s,I didn’t really become all that familiar with the full flower of Stevie Wonder’s musical creativity until I heard this song. It was presented on a Halloween themed WNEPORK (my request of “Superstition” was not in the family record collection at the time) so we went for this since Wonder’s Characters tape was in heavy rotation in the household at that time. At that time I was convinced this was song was actually about skeletons.
So I learned two important lessons about music from this experience. One was coming to understand over a decade later the meaning of these lyrics (how I tuned out the line about “You know your mama told you don’t lie” is still a mystery) and the value of Stevie Wonder’s gifts for lyrical implication and metaphor. At the time however the lesson was more about the nature of ones level of appreciation for music during childhood. I’ve since heard it said the majority of preteen children are permanent Alpha personalities and are programmed more to accept things at face value. I don’t think my musical comprehension was quite the same after hearing this.
Getting excited about the Fine Young Cannibals wasn’t exactly difficult,considering my first exposure to them was seeing the charismatic lead singer Roland Gift’s leaping acrobatics over pianos while performing “Good Thing” with the band on television. Not only that but their The Raw And The Cooked album was again getting heavy rotation in the family tape deck as well. In the end I remember this particular song for a more personal event. During the time this came out I had a friend named Liza who lived in the same apartment complex. She was very giggly and delighted in jokes of all sorts-practical and otherwise. This included a little bit of pantomime she frequently tried on me. And that for the longest time I didn’t fully understand. Apparently this pig Latin variation on sign language stood for…you guessed it: “You Drive Me Crazy”. Excepting the word “You” and not “She” was used,I had the impression that this particular song (being so popular on the radio at the time) had an influence over that little joke of Liza’s. So as much as I adore this song,much of it might be related to it’s connection to this interesting little childhood event.
Sometimes there are songs that leave such an impression on you,they reveal new things each time you hear them. On the WNEPORK tape made for my 9’th birthday,this song was made regarding my interest in WWII Mitsubishi airplanes. It was by a jazz artist/writer Ben Sidran. For a jazz pop song,it’s electronic Asiatic melody and the haunting story the song told drew me in to listen to the song over and over again to see just where it would take me the next time I listen to it. Well three more Ben Sidran albums later in my collection I’m still working on that.
………To Be Continued