A Question of Musical Upbringing

Here is the first part of something I’m calling A Musical Journey. It’s about the music I grew up listening to a very long time ago. 

1. A Question of Musical Upbringing

I always thought the first record I ever bought was ‘A Teenager in Love’ – the cover version by Marty Wilde. Or else it was ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ by Marvin Rainwater. I still remember buying both of them.

‘Whole Lotta Woman’ was released in 1958 and reached Number One on the UK chart. I never imagined I’d be looking it up decades later – or that I would ever listen to the song again. Having done so I realise it’s not to my taste at all now, which is a relief as I hope this shows I’ve developed a bit in my musical appreciation since I was a child. ‘A Teenager in Love’ stands the test of time only a little better and there were three different versions of it in the charts in May 1959. The song is full of longing and the lovelorn angst of the teenager (and pre-adolescent) and it suited the mood of an eleven year old boy very well.

But wait. Lonnie Donegan released his single ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ before either of those so that clinches it. I definitely remember buying that one as well because the B side was called ‘Ham ‘N Eggs’ and it’s not something you can easily forget. At that tender age I imagined ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ was an original penned by Lonnie himself but years later discovered it was a Texas gambling song popularised by Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s.

The first time I bought an LP, as we called it, was a bit later when I acquired How Do You Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The title was a canny combination of the Liverpool singer’s first two hit singles: ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘I Like It’. Ever since I started thinking about it (and I haven’t really thought about it at all until now) I regarded it as an album of its time containing those two early hit songs plus a lot of uninteresting filler tracks. In fact, a quick search reveals neither of those songs was even on the album, though Gerry’s third hit ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was. This is memory not history.

One thing I’m sure I’ve got right is being given a fearsome dressing down by my mother for buying that Gerry and the Pacemakers record. This was not because she preferred Freddie and the Dreamers but because she had already bought a copy to give to me for Christmas and had been keeping it a secret. It’s a telling off that I still recall and was delivered for my selfishness and impetuousness in not being able to wait and see if I was going to be given the LP as a present on Christmas Day. One of us had to go back to the record shop to ask for a refund.

Years later I saw Gerry with his group (possibly all different members) when they played a nightclub in Leicester in front of a fairly disinterested and certainly inebriated audience. How Do You Like It isn’t very good anyway. Definitely nowhere near as exciting as any of the albums by The Beatles. I now have just three Beatles albums – Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, and Abbey Road – and never need to play any of them or listen to any other Beatles songs as they are all so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. The Beatles made a huge impression and their brilliance and inventiveness seemed to come out of nowhere.

Willson’s was the shop where I did most of my early record buying. It was in the centre of the city where I grew up and very close to Norwich Castle. The ground floor was a general music store selling instruments and sheet music. The records were kept upstairs in a fairly small room. Two young female assistants worked behind the counter. They would play any record if you asked them. The only albums I clearly remember buying, though there must have been a few, were With the Beatles and, before that, The “Twang’s” the “Thang” the second album by American guitarist Duane Eddy.

Eddy played electric guitar instrumentals with a characteristic deep ‘twangy’ sound frequently accompanied by a wailing saxophone and vocal whoops and yells from his group The Rebels. His big hit (not on the album, so I bought the single) was the theme from the American high school film Because They’re Young which had an orchestra playing behind the twangy guitar. It was the best thing he ever did. I don’t think I saw the movie but have always liked high school films and it’s a taste that continues to this day.

My purchase of With the Beatles at Willson’s was not without its problems. This time it was the LP’s second side, as the first track, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, got stuck after a few seconds and to my great dismay wouldn’t play properly. The next day I took the record back to the shop and before I could speak the assistant said: “Side two, track one?” A whole batch of them had the same defect and a replacement was immediately produced and popped into a paper bag.

Gene Vincent

There were other shops in the city where I used to listen to records and sometimes buy them. There was a department store just a few minutes walk from Willson’s where records were sold on the top floor. This was a much bigger space and contained a number of listening booths along the wall opposite the counter. In the early 1960s it would still have been much more common to buy singles than albums. I often went to this store with a friend on Saturday mornings and would ask the assistants to put on a single to listen to in one of the booths. This happened so often that I was once asked slightly menacingly if I was really intending to buy anything.

Most of the records we listened to were American pop songs. Often these were covered by British singers so there were at least two different versions of the same song to choose from. The record labels and their colours and sleeve designs stick in the mind. MGM had a yellow label, London was black with a stripy paper sleeve, Pye was purple. Then there was Top Rank with a picture of a man banging a gong and whose artists never seemed to make the charts. The guitarist Bert Weedon was one of those but I loyally bought all his records.

One of the singles I bought after sampling it was a song called ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and this was the cover by Welsh singer Ricky Valance. It was a controversial song at the time because of its subject matter which was thought to be in bad taste. The title quoted the last words of the song’s young hero who took part in a stock car race to impress his girlfriend but died from his injuries after being pulled from the twisted wreck of his crashed car. Doom-laden melodrama was dangerous but also a big seller.

My sister, ten years older, had her own record player which was an antique thing with a handle on the side to wind it up when the music slowed down. There was also a container for the needles that had to be constantly replaced as they wore out. In general I didn’t care a lot for her music collection which contained an unfeasibly large number of songs by ageing crooner Donald Peers who sounded far too straight and conventional for my burgeoning radical tastes. Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols were still some years in the future though.

Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’ was another song that got frequent plays on my sister’s record player but she eventually made the local newspaper and had a moment of fame when Bill Haley came to England on tour and played a date in Norwich that she went to see. He was all the rage before Elvis Presley upstaged him with more daring rock ‘n’ roll but my sister’s photo got in the local paper as she had somehow been the first person to obtain his autograph.

My father had his own record collection and all of them were breakable 78s which sometimes fractured into several sharp pieces when he absent-mindedly sat on them. He liked sentimental songs and stirring marches. ‘Blaze Away’ was a particular favourite with its opening line that he often sang along to: “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away”.

I was influenced by at least one of my sister’s records.  This was an album named The “Chirping” Crickets and it was a revelation as all the songs were good, right from the opening ‘Oh, Boy!’ to the end: even though (or perhaps because) all the tracks were short and it was all over in less than half an hour. It seemed long at the time. It was the first inkling I had of just how brilliantly exciting pop songs could be. And it was my discovery of Buddy Holly who may already have been dead by the time I listened to the Crickets album on the large radio gramophone in our family living room.

The other shining stars among a lot of tacky pop were the Everly Brothers and I first listened to them on regular Saturday night visits to the Firs Stadium where speedway meetings were held most weeks. Speedway was big then and reputed to be the most popular spectator sport in the UK after football. My parents and sister were all speedway fans though my father eventually stopped going as he claimed the races were no longer competitive and had become more like processions.

The Everly Brothers: the epitome of cool in 1960

Music was played loudly over the public address system. It also blared out between each of the heats that made up a speedway meeting and there seemed to be an unusually large number of American country-flavoured pop songs among those on the playlist. The Everly Brothers rivalled Buddy Holly in popularity and surpassed him in coolness and sophistication. As a result, I bought the first ever single released on the new Warner Brothers label. This was the duo’s song ‘Cathy’s Clown’ and it became a big hit in England in 1960. Despite this great musical revelation I don’t recall ever buying another record by them.

The package tour was another great British institution. These were concerts that toured the country showcasing a number of different artists on the same bill. In Norwich they usually took place at the Theatre Royal. Frequently, the headline act would be an American star who was touring the UK and the rest of the show would be made up with British pop acts, sometimes with a local group kicking things off. There was also an MC who came on stage to introduce each of the musicians.

The MC sometimes had a hard time of it. I was at one of these shows when an American MC came on between each act to tell jokes and fill in some time before he introduced the next artist – in this case Gene Pitney. The audience were eager to see Pitney and didn’t take kindly to any delay so some of them started hurling abuse at the MC. He was ready for it and barked back at one young woman: “Lady, you’ve got a kind face. The kind I’d like to run a truck over!”

Sometimes there was a double bill of two American stars. One of these was the visit to the city of Freddy Cannon and Gene Vincent. I was just twelve and Cannon was the one I was more interested in as he had had a couple of big successes with ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ which began with lines enough to make a modern listener shudder:

Well, she comes from Tallahassee / She got a hi-fi chassis  / Maybe looks a little sassy / But to me, she’s real classy

He was due to top the bill that night with Vincent ending the first half of the show. However, when we got to the theatre a notice outside announced that Freddy Cannon was ‘indisposed’ and so Gene Vincent would take over top billing. The rumour went round that Freddy was the worse for wear and was being plied with strong cups of black coffee and walked around the car park at the back of the theatre to try and sober him up. If so it didn’t work.

It’s strange now to think I was disappointed not to see Freddy Cannon because Gene Vincent has, over time, become the far more remembered, almost legendary performer for many British people. That night he came on stage looking moody and rebellious and with a severe limp – he nearly lost his balance and fell at one point. He may have been wearing a metal support on his leg which had been broken just a few weeks earlier in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran. With a hint of defiance he sang what he said was his soon to be released single ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’. His record company had refused permission for him to perform it live before its release but Gene was having none of that.

Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite

The other big American star I saw at the Theatre Royal was Brenda Lee or ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ as she was known, because she was only 145 centimetres short. After the show I waited outside the stage door to get her autograph, along with a handful of other fans. She kept us waiting for quite a while but eventually came outside and obliged. I thought she was great and both her singing and her behaviour seemed very mature at the time. She was still seventeen years old.

It was also the time of the instrumental guitar group and while America had The Ventures (amazingly still popular in Japan today) it was The Shadows who ruled England with hits such as ‘Apache’ that seemed to stay in the charts forever. Again, I saw them at the same theatre and was on the front row for this one. They seemed pretty wild to my young eyes and I squirmed in my seat when rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch looked directly down at me with a challenging mixture of contempt and disdain.

At school everyone had to play football whether they liked it or not. Most did and so it became a big part of our growing up. Going to see the local professional team was also a rite of passage but none of my family were interested in football and so it was a friend of my sister’s who initiated me by taking me to their stadium when I was around eight or nine years old.  It turned out she was also interested in music but with a more sophisticated taste than us and was a bit of a fan of Frank Sinatra.

Every summer our family went on holiday to North Wales where we would always stay for a week in the same bed and breakfast place in the town of Llangollen. Dad drove and it took him all day to get us there. We would start early in the morning and finally arrive at our destination in the late afternoon – sometimes early evening –depending on how often we got lost or made stops along the way. My father’s sight was poor in one eye and my mother sat next to him and acted as navigator with a special route map on her lap. My parents had never been abroad so Wales was the closest they came. Its appeal was the mountains that were so different from the flat land of Norfolk and all of us enjoyed visiting the ruins of numerous castles.

As a football fan I took the opportunity to take off on my own during these holidays and went to Wrexham to have a look at their ground and to Chester where I managed to watch a pre-season friendly. On one occasion we all took a trip to Liverpool where I went off to pay a visit to Anfield. As a fan of The Beatles it was obligatory to seek out the Cavern Club, though it was daytime and I only saw the outside of the building. By this time The Beatles were already famous and so I must have been a teenager. It may well have been in Liverpool that I bought The Beatles’ Twist and Shout EP.

Llangollen itself was famous for the annual International Eisteddfod. This was held for a week in a large field but also in various other venues around the town and was notable for its choir contests and performances, especially by the Bulgarians and the Welsh. I wasn’t particularly interested in the choirs and not at all in the classical music but the whole spectacle was quite thrilling not least because much of it was held outdoors in large marquees erected in the field. The sheer power of all the united singing voices was impressive, but at the end of the day I was still more excited by pop music.

If it was ‘A Teenager in Love’ that initiated me into the world of lovelorn youth and unrequited love it was another song around the same time that was really the soundtrack of summer. The American Jerry Keller recorded his own composition ‘Here Comes Summer’ in 1958 and the following year it made number one in the UK chart. It was the only hit he ever had and prefigures my own penchant for watching high school movies. The song’s narrator – presumably Jerry himself – can’t wait for the school holidays so he can spend more time with his girlfriend. Jerry sings of grabbing his girl and holding her tight, but he’s a gentleman too and doesn’t want to coerce her so he sings: “If she’s willing, we’ll go steady right away.” He anticipates swimming every day and moonlit walks in the park, and hopes the sun will “shine bright on my happy summer home”.

In Norwich the summer sun rarely shone as brightly as it did in Jerry Keller’s song. I was eleven when ‘Here Comes Summer’ became a hit so girls were still just something to dream about in some future life that seemed a long way off. Neither could I have imagined that several decades later I would be listening to the Japanese song ‘Natsu Tourai’ by Osaka band Soul Flower Union. This is a different song in almost every way and about as far from Keller’s adolescent simplicity as it’s possible to get – though both refer to moonlit evenings. I helped translate the lyrics into English for the band’s CD booklet. Its title means ‘Here Comes Summer’.

Explore posts in the same categories: A Musical Journey

4 Comments on “A Question of Musical Upbringing”

  1. John- you have an amazing memory. I loved reading about all your records.

  2. Izumi Nishi Says:

    So this is your musical history. I enjoy reading this listening to Lonnie Donegan’s “Ham ‘n’ eggs”.

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