People have asked me how I came to be a fan of The Great American Songbook. I didn’t come from a rigorous musical background. And I didn’t display any sort of theatrical talent (although some would say I’m very dramatic-:)). So nothing special in the DNA. But I did listen to a lot of music. A LOT.
Growing up in a small town, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for cultural education. No museums, regular live theater, etc. So going to the library was sort of the highlight of my childhood. I can still smell the old books, and I remember a remarkable barbed wire collection. You laugh, but seriously. It might not seem all that important to big city folks, but in a ranching community, you’d be amazed at how many types of barbed wire you could actually choose…and I do wonder if they still have that collection.
In addition to a phenomenal barbed wire collection, the Clovis Public Library possessed a record collection. Albums to be exact. I would comb through the stacks and pause at the album covers that had artwork that appealed to me. I’d pick out one or two and take them home to listen to them. Most often than not, I wouldn’t know who the artists were, so it was quite the ear-opening experience for me. One day, I came across the soundtrack to “Funny Lady.” It was a movie musical starring Barbara Streisand and James Caan and the primary score was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb along with other great songs peppered in. I played that album over and over again, and sang along at the top of my lungs to those songs, all the while assuming I sounded like Barbara Streisand.
And then there were more songs. These were the songs brought to me by my sisters. I was the youngest and they had access to all sorts of experiences I soaked up while I sat next to them in the car, or with my nose in a book pretending not to listen. One such experience was when Molly went to see “Lady Sings the Blues,” at the movies. Afterward, she purchased the album and we listened to it for about two months straight. The movie starred Diana Ross as jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Once again, the artwork of the cover was provocative. I mean, look at it. A singer with handcuffs! But even better, the album came with a booklet containing stills from the actual movie. I was mesmerized by the photos and I used the booklet as a sort of visual while listening to the songs. Sort of like when you learned to read and they had a book where you’d follow along while the recording spoke the words and would say “turn the page”, when you needed to. Only this book had pictures of a heroin induced woman singing,”The Man I Love.” So maybe not the same. But the songs were amazing: “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” and “Strange Fruit,” (which reeallly freaked me out). I’d never heard a Billie Holiday recording, so this soundtrack served to introduce me to her in a round about way.
And finally, there was television. Every holiday season, we would mark the calendar to make sure we didn’t miss the Christmas specials. “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer”, and the annual Andy Williams Christmas special were all marked for viewing. But the one I loved the most was “White Christmas.” The songs were written by Irving Berlin and I know every.single.song. Plus, I really wanted to grow up and be Vera Ellen with that fabulous wardrobe.
So no, I didn’t have any special road to learning these songs that I would eventually want to share with folks on my radio program. But a vivid imagination and a love of music and lyrics helped me out.
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How about you? How did you come to know these songs? Or are you just now getting acquainted with them? I’d love to hear from you.
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