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The Only Instrument I Can Play is the Radio

One afternoon, I watched my dad replace the blown fuse in the circuit box on the side of our house with a penny.  (You’d never guess he was an electrician.)   While I watched him, I experienced Elvis for the first time.  The teenage girl who lived next door was playing “Teddy Bear” on her record player and her bedroom window was open.

At first, I don’t think my mother was sure what to think of Elvis Presley.  I would guess that she might have been as interested in the new sensation as we are about the shocking antics of Lady Gaga.  I really don’t know because some topics of conversation were guarded around us kids.  I recall asking who Marilyn Monroe was once and being forbidden to say her name in our home again.  But Elvis was never banned.

When there was a dance at the church, my mother and her friend who worked with the teens had to screen the music beforehand.  My mother’s friend brought all of the latest music down to our house to go through what they could play.   I remember “Sugar Time” by the McGuire Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” being played that night.

I asked Mom why Marguerite had all the music and she had none.  And then, sometime a short while after that, my sister and I helped her build a kind of entertainment center out of some cinder blocks and boards in the living room.  We set up a turntable that Mom’s brother gave us when he fenced some electronics for one of his acquaintances and though we only had a few records to start with, we thought the music we played that summer was great.  We learned all the words (or what we thought were the words) and Mom taught us to dance the jitterbug by holding on to her hands and twirling under her arm.

My first crush was on a boy named Lonnie who was in my fifth grade class.   When I heard “Johnnie Angel” by Shelley Fabres, I changed the words and sang “Lonnie Angel.”  Leslie Gore was my favorite female artist.  She and Joanie Summers sang the other “Johnny” songs that taught me all I needed to know about falling in love and surviving a broken heart.

The first time I heard Frankie Valli, (it was The Four Seasons then) I was in the front seat of our ’57 Ford Fairlane in the Bayless grocery store parking lot.  Mom thought it was a disgrace that a man would sing as high as a woman.  I thought it was cool.  She flipped the radio off that day, but, like everyone else, she was eventually won over.  She loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean as much as we did.  And later when The Beatles were popular, I thought she was the greatest because she bought me a portable record player that was so small you couldn’t even see the turntable under the “Rubber Soul” album.

It feels like the radio has always been on.  Like a real life version of “American Graffiti,” music has scored my life.  There is hardly a memory that doesn’t have a song tied to it. At times, I have tried to share outdated music with my children and grandchildren.  They liked some of the things I did for awhile, but no one ever seemed to want to play them over and over again as I did the first time I heard “Listen to the Rhythm of the Rain.”

Stevie Nicks has said, “Rock and menopause do not mix.”   I guess that is true.  But I think music and the time in which we hear it are connected in some mystical way.  I can find no other way to explain the emotions I feel when I hear the Four Tops singing  “I Can’t Help Myself” when I am shopping for toothpaste in Walgreens.

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.  –Bob Marley



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