Musical Memories of the Way We Were
Thu, 03/02/2023 - 2:23pm admin
Now, I admit to being old, but as I drove home from a meeting this week, listening to the radio, two thirty-something program hosts complained they didn’t know any of the current music. They rattled off a few terms: K-Pop (Korean popular music) performed by boy bands and girl groups, with synchronized choreography. EDM (electronic dance music), which is pretty much self-explanatory.
As they continued their discussion, I started feeling really old—you-whippersnappers-get-off-my-grass kind of old. But it prompted me to do some research on current popular music. I actually found a few names I recognized—Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Harry Styles—but some other names baffled me. SZA (pronounced sizә/SIZ-ә), aka Solána Imani Rowe, and an Australian rapper/singer who performs as The Kid Laroi. SZA is a talented singer, but her song and video, “Kill Bill,” a fantasy about killing an ex-boyfriend didn’t thrill me.
It can be dangerous to make comparisons. I once heard a preacher say that Cain slew Able because he compared how his offering was received to that of his brother. And just as I was about to head down a comparison pathway—that our music was better than theirs—I had a humbling revelation about some of the novelty songs from the fifties and sixties.
Why were we so enamored by the “Purple People Eater”? Seriously, “a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater.” Or the “Witch Doctor,” with the lyrics “Oo Ee Oo Ah Ah Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang.” Both songs hit number one on the Billboard pop charts in 1958, and Alvin and the Chipmunks (another gimmicky example) covered them. And in 1960, singer Bryan Hyland topped the charts with “Itsy, Bitsy, Teeny, Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” So, perhaps, I’m not in a position to criticize current music.
Nevertheless, I submit we had great music in the fifties, sixties, seventies. Nothing can transport me back in time more quickly than a song from those days. With the warp speed of a time machine, a few notes or familiar lyrics can bring back memories of a particular time, place, or person from fifty or sixty years ago. When I hear “Help Me, Rhonda” or “California Girls” by the Beach Boys, it’s 1965 and I’m in Yellowstone Park. With “Good Vibrations,” I’m in my 1962 Ford Galaxy in front of Uncle Clem’s Corner in Columbia, turning up the volume on the radio because I’d never heard a song quite like that.
Closer to home, “Sugartime,” a number one Billboard hit by the McGuire Sisters in 1958, became the signature cover song for the Girls Sextet, made up of members of the WSHS Class of 1965. When I hear that song, in my mind’s eye I see Carol Hale, Peggy Henry, Pat Montgomery, Sandy Flake, Sherry Pruett, and Jenny Bolerjack. The girls formed the Sextet in the eighth grade, and with their spot-on harmony, performed at various school events, including our eighth-grade graduation ceremony.
Music played an important part in our lives. We listened to the radio for hours, as we cruised Main Street from the “Little Y” (where Highway 60 and the Springfield Road split, just past the present City Hall and the stately Charles Ferguson house), around the A&W, to the Daisy Queen (the DQ) and back again. Joe and Ruth Baker owned the DQ and the adjacent U-Save filling station on north side of East Main, diagonally across from Booster Field. Any Friday or Saturday night, Main Street in Willow could have been a scene from the George Lucas-directed movie, American Graffiti.
Until sundown, when it went off the air pursuant to FCC regulations, we listened to local AM station KUKU, but after dark, the station of choice was Chicago’s 50,000-watt, clear-channel WLS, where infamous deejay Dick Biondi broadcasted top-40 hits. He was our Wolfman Jack. Actually, the Wolfman did broadcast from WLS for a while. Carol Hale Aldridge (WSHS, 1965) recalls, “I had this cute little red transistor radio in a brown leather case that I would put under my pillow at nighttime and listen to WLS. Who can forget Wolfman Jack.” Listening to WLS wasn’t just a fad of the 1960s. Frankie Grogan Baird (WSHS, 1957) says, “At night we listened to programs from Chicago.” She also mentioned favorite singers, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.
I asked Carol about some of her musical memories, and she had plenty. “Oh, so many songs. Of course, Elvis and his early songs—I liked G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii—and ones like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ and ‘The Twist,’ which makes me think of Sandy Flake and the skating rink. Many of the songs remind me of the juke box at the DQ. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ‘Sheila’, ‘Sherry,’ ‘The Wanderer’ . . .. Oh gosh, I could go on and on.”
The beat went on in Mountain View, too. Liberty alum Jeanne Sharp Gaddy remembers that Cecil Miller's Burger Bar across from the school had a juke box. “In 1970, I recall stopping in for French fries after school and listening to ‘Hey, Jude,’ by the Beatles. We listened to KUKU on the radio, and at night, we could get 89 WLS out of Chicago and enjoyed DJ Wolfman Jack. The music in the 1970's got kind of sad and dreary, probably reflecting the changing times such as drugs, recession, oil crisis, and the ongoing Vietnam War.” But some powerful songs came from that era.
Jeanne recalls, “Bolerjack Drug sold records and it seems like my sister bought every 45-rpm record in the Top Ten list. When I was invited to parties at friends' houses, they would say, ‘Oh, and bring your records!’ My friends and I liked rock and roll music and watched American Bandstand on Saturdays.” She noted some of her favorite artists: “The Beatles, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Herman's Hermits, The Mamas & the Papas, and the 5th Dimension.” A good list, indeed.
On summer Friday nights in Willow Springs in the early 1960s, we had “Teen Town” at the Legion Hall, where teenagers gathered to dance to 45 rpm records. Barbara Sherrill Pig (WSHS, 1964), of course, recalls the 1961 hit, “Barbara Ann,” by the Regents. But she has a mildly embarrassing Teen Town recollection associated with everyone’s slow-dance favorite, “Theme from A Summer Place,” an instrumental by Percy Faith that was a Number 1 hit for nine weeks in 1960. Barbara says, "Once I finally convinced my dad it was well-chaperoned, he even went with me one time. He tapped a boy on the shoulder while ‘Summer Place’ was playing and told him not to dance so close to me.”
A number one hit for the Dixie Cups in 1964, brings back a much fonder memory for Barbara of her husband, Dick Pigg (WSHS, 1964). When their class was on its senior trip to Biloxi, Mississippi, she says, “The song I remember the most was ‘Chapel of Love,’ as Dick proposed to me with that song playing in the background.”
I’ll stipulate that the remainder of the twentieth century produced numerous great songs, many of which I would put on my all-time playlist, but for me, the songs I heard during my school years evoke the greatest memories. The ones we sang along with back then, and when we hear them today, still sing along, because we remember the lyrics.