To give you an idea of where I come from, I’m doing a series of posts. Think of it as the mix tape of my life. These songs aren’t my favorite songs, but rather the songs that for whatever reason stopped me in my tracks and helped define who I am today.
Some of my very earliest memories are musical ones. In the little kitchen of the house where I spent the first six years of my life, we had a little brown radio behind the sink. My mom would play the radio for hours on end while my parents worked around the house and me and my brother played games or did puzzles in the kitchen. That little radio served a big purpose in the life of my family, and it became my point of entry to the world of music.
One of the oldest AM radio stations in Atlanta was WSB (Welcome South, Brother!). They had a sister FM station that played that ’70’s “easy listening” music. I would completely roll my eyes at something like that now, but back then it was all I knew. So at the time songs like “Afternoon Delight” and “You Light Up My Life” were the coolest things I’d ever heard in my life. Mind you, this was a couple of years before I discovered the glory of KISS and Queen, so to my preschool ears this stuff pretty much ruled.
If the rock music of my later childhood was my musical education, this stuff was the primer. Listening to my mom’s kitchen radio, I learned that the same songs were played in a rotation. As they repeated, I began to like some and dislike others. I also learned that the song had one section that they sang over and over. Of course I would later realize this is called the chorus. Also, after several listens, I determined that there wasn’t a bunch of musicians inside that little box. There wasn’t even a group of singers at the radio station. All of these songs sounded exactly the same every time they played, so they had to have been recorded some way.
As I began to recognize the different songs on the radio, there were a few that really caught my attention. They were the songs where the most memorable part was something other than the vocal. Songs like “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, with the “da da da da da da” in between the singing, or “Moonlight Feels Right” with it’s dreamy “da da da da da” during the chorus, quickly became favorites. While I was interested in the music overall, I was particularly drawn to the instrumentation. It would only be a matter of time before I would learn an instrument myself.
Among all of the other songs that emanated from that little radio there was one that practically jumped out of that mono speaker. It was an instrumental song that started with a piano and then had some horns and other instruments come in later. I didn’t know the name of it, but the fact that it didn’t have words and still said everything it needed to say really resonated with me. I didn’t understand a thing about musical genres, but the mood of this music reminded me of being at an ice cream parlor. When you’re a little kid, being at an ice cream parlor is about the coolest thing in the world.
It wouldn’t be until years later when I was in elementary school that I would realize that this song was called “The Entertainer“, and I would be a freshman in college before the name Scott Joplin meant anything to me. Growing up, any time there was a talent show at school, one or two kids would play that song on the piano. When I was learning guitar in college, I found an arrangement to the song in a magazine and sort of learned (then sort of forgot!) how to play it.
The fact that I was such a small child and felt this music to my core like that just shows the power of a great song, and further drives home what an amazing songwriter Scott Joplin was. Years later I would learn that the version I heard as a child was from the soundtrack to The Sting, a classic heist movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It’s definitely worth tracking down and seeing.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about a song is how it can instantly transport you back in time. For me, hearing The Entertainer takes me back to some of my fondest, earliest memories. It doesn’t just remind me of the music I love. It reminds me that I love music.
- “Sugar, Sugar” – The Archies
- “Moonlight Feels Right” – Starbuck (side note: this was produced by the late great Mike Clark, who would later own Southern Tracks Studio where Third Day recorded)
- Music Box Dancer – Frank Mills (I actually might have liked this song a little better, but it was a couple of years later)