Like all other baby boomers, I grew up watching musicals at the movie theaters as well as on television. The high point was going twice to see The Music Man on a big screen and be mesmerized by Robert Preston’s performance. Like anyone else sold on the world of make-believe, I thought I could sing, too. When I was relatively young I was able to intone on-key and with a decent range.
In the very early 1960’s just before The Music Man was filmed my parents went to Ashville, North Carolina for one of Dad’s business conventions. They brought back several stapled together sheets of song lyrics of old-time standbys from the likes of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor vintage. There was “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Carolina”, “California, Here I Come”, “If You Knew Susie”, etc. These were songs that had catchy melodies and easy to learn words. I had learned the melodies from watching biographical movies of Jolson and Cantor on local television. Now that I had the words to go with it, I would go into our enclosed indoor porch behind the dining room and practice over and over again. There was no false notion of going into show business- I just liked to sing those tunes.
Twenty years later, in my early thirties, one day a piece of lettuce got stuck down my esophagus while eating dinner and I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I called my brother-in-law doctor who told me to go the emergency room at the hospital and have them cut out the lettuce as it could do damage to my food pipe.
At the hospital, the surgeon had me sit up, gave me a general anesthesia which felt like I was hypnotized into a daydream for about fifteen minutes. When I snapped out of it, he told me he inserted a special type of tube down my throat that had pincer like actions at its end. He was able to pull out the offending piece of vegetable green. There was a price to pay, however, as it did something to my ability to sing in my throaty style from then on.
Not too long after, a hole was burning in my pocket so I decided to throw out hard-earned money on voice lessons. I went to a high rise condo building on the Near North Side area of Chicago to take instruction from a man with a piano. After he tried to teach me to read a music sheet and practice scales, I settled in to learning three songs in Italian- “Cara Mio Bien” (My Dear Precious One), “Tre Giorno Che Son Nina” (Three Days Since I’ve Seen Nina), and beats me on the third.
Around the same time, my sister bought a baby grand piano that she put in her living room and induced her youngest daughter to take piano lessons. My sister also took advantage of the teacher and had instruction as well. I subsequently would come by and together we would put on an impromptu to amuse just ourselves. She would take out a song-sheet of “Memories” (Midnight All Alone…), and tickle the ivories while I would attempt to sing the song. The cats in the neighborhood soon started complaining so we put a begrudging end to it. Her daughter kept the lessons going for a few months and years later the piano makes for nice furniture and a curious conversation piece.
I can still sing all of Cara Mio and part of Tre Giorno but no one will ever confuse me with Pavorotti. The instructor kept on reinforcing to me to sing from the diaphragm. So, I went out and bought one but it didn’t help (rim shot, please) After about fifteen lessons, I realized that I would never get any better and quit.
On the internet, it is relatively easy to pick up the lyrics of many old songs. Even with my off-key articulation, I’ll keep singing regardless if a gang of cats start throwing old shoes. And you can bring over the piano.