Remembering ’63

NOTE: This was written originally in 1993

  Just the other day, I noticed it again. “It” being a framed, faded color photograph of me taken New Year’s Day, 1963. I am seated at the piano in the living room of the rowhouse at 3056 North Tenth Street in which I was raised. From time to time it catches my eye, maybe because the pose is apropos considering I am a professional musician or maybe because I am wearing what was, at the time, my favorite suit. Looking at it I remember it was the first holiday season we had an artificial Christmas tree – a silver aluminum one I didn’t particularly like standing in a different corner ot the room where trees of Christmases past had always stood – and the last one we spent in that house. The picture has always given me a strange, uneasy feeling and now, thirty years later I know why. There is the prerequisite smile, though really only a slight upturned slit across my face. But now, directly in the eyes of the head-turned-over-the -shoulder glance, I finally see what the camera captured. I am suddenly able to read the thoughts those introverted eyes reflect and I understand what it is about the picture that has always caused that uneasiness. It is a lasting reminder of change.

In addition to the piano inside, I played halfball and boxball on cobblestone, trolley tracked streets in that section of inner city Philadelphia. When the cobbles and track were blacktopped over, I excelled at a game played on the smooth, new surface, called “bottlecaps”.  A “board” was drawn in the middle of the street with chalk or a broken brick and the game involved flicking a bottlecap with your thumb and middle finger so it could skim into numbered spaces, progressing until you reached the “dead” zone. You could then eliminate your opponents by hitting their bottlecaps with yours to win.

On October 7th of ‘63, just two months past my thirteenth birthday, my family moved to Bustleton in the Far, but relatively sparsely populated, Northeast. No longer could I search for empty soda bottles to return to Lou’s corner candy store in order to trade the two-cent deposit they brought for some penny candy. “Shopping Centers” had taken the place of such securely neighborhoodish establishments. For the first time in my life I saw deer and wondered just where in the hell had we moved. A wilderness, I decided, and so began my period of adjustment.

I also began George Washington High School, where I was the “new admit” in all my classes. Since I was starting that school a month late, I was on my own – finding the cafeteria when I wanted the gym – and generally getting continually lost, arriving late for most classes the first few days. For a kid from Simon Muhr Public School, built in 1899, a brand-new, year old twentieth century facility seemed an impossible obstacle to overcome.

Slowly I made new friends in the newly-developed area in which we now lived. The kids were from such places as Levittown and Cheltenham but they may well have been from Mars. They had little in common with my background and I little with theirs. They called water-ices “snow cones” and I remembered being laughed at because I once referred to my living room as “the parlour”. And nobody had even heard of “bottlecaps”.

On Friday afternoons my eighth grade, seventh period English class took its weekly spelling test. I remember finishing the exam one particular Friday, then looking up from my desk to find our teacher nowhere in sight. I remember wondering why he had left the class unattended during a test. A moment later he appeared in the doorway, half in and half out of the classroom.

“President Kennedy’s been shot,” he said calmly but with a tone of masked disbelief in his voice. The bell rang to change classes almost simultaneously as shock and bewilderment overtook the class. By the time I reached my History class – only a couple of seconds, actually – an announcement came over the school’s intercom asking everyone to stand. President Kennedy, we were told, had died. I remember a girl to my right named Miriam crying, her tears flowing in endless streams down her face. Then we were dismissed.

It rained in Philadelphia the Monday John F. Kennedy was laid to rest. Later that afternoon I was hanging out with Stuart, one of my new friends. We took to our bikes and we rode through the steady, endless drizzle streaming from the sky, like Miriam’s tears in History class. I remember saying to Stuart that it seemed even heaven was crying.

The assassination of the President was the cruelest of all changes ‘63 brought. Barely six weeks into my new home, new school and budding relationships with new friends , a new President was in office and those senseless moments in Dallas had plunged us all into a collective period of adjustment, adding incomprehensible craziness to all that was still foreign to me.

Copyright 1993

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JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE EARLY 1960’s: A REMEMBRANCE

It will be fifty-two years this Nov. 22nd since President Kennedy’s assasination in Dallas. The following essay appeared in the Novemeber, 1998 issue of VINTAGE Magazine on the thirty fifth anniversary, hence the May 1999 response letter I received from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.  Initially in 1993 on the thirtieth anniversary this essay originally appeared in the Northeast Philadelphia News Gleaner as a special article and an edited version, that year, appeared in the editorial page of The Philadelphia Daily News.

JOHN F. KENNEDY AND THE EARLY 1960’s: A REMEMBRANCE

What was suppose to be the 1960’s – – the “real” 1960’s, not the protest demonstrating, nightly Vietnam War news, flower-children, anti-establishment 1960’s that have come to symbolize that tumultous decade – – came to an explosive, violent end at 12:30 PM, Fallas, Texas time in that city’s Dealy Plaza on November 22, 1963. When the final bullet did it’s fatal damage to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States of America, a period was put at the end of the sentence that contained the word that was to embody the 60’s: promise. For not only did a young President die that autumn day but also a very short era of re-newed hope for the future. Call it what you will — – “The New Frontier”, “The Kennedy Years” or, as it would be later and forever known, “Camelot”. Call it whatever you chose, but whatever you chose, call it over on a Friday afternoon in the back seat of an open-top Lincoln limousine. And it ended in the blink of an eye, just like that, in the time it takes to snap the life from the limb of a tree; a seed of hope unplanted to be replaced by the seed of uncertainty. However, let us leave the what-if-had-he-lived theories, the conspiracy/non-conspiracy debates to others for another time. Let us also not review revisionist views of policy or moral character or be absorbed by partisan politics here for this remembrance is concerned with what can only be described as a “feeling” – – a national mood-swing, if you will, – – that ended abruptly with a horrifying, deadly accurate, humanity- insulting assault not only upon a human being, but the office of the Presidency and the psyche of the nation.

The “real” 1960’s began in excitement, 1960 itself being a Presidential election year. By the time the year had ended, history had been made in a variety of ways. For the first time since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the last century, Presidential candidates came face-to-face with each other on the issues of the day. Television, coming of age as the most powerful form of media, broadcast the series of debates for anyone who owned a TV set in the country to see. Part and parcel of campaigns today, televised debates were innovative and historic then. The 1960 debated led to the closest election in contemporary time, with Kennedy just edging-out his Republican opponent Richard M. Nixon. For the first time, the country had as its chief executive a man born in the twentieth century. For the first time a member of a minority, both ancestral and religious, – – and Irish Catholic – – occupied the oval office.

On January 20th, 1961, in his inaugural address, President Kennedy would reaffirm the tenets of his “New Frontier” speech. In that acceptance speech as Presidential candidate for the Democratic party in July of 1060 he had informed the nation that the “New Frontier” of which he spoke “was not a set of promises – – it is a set of challenges .” As President, he re-emphasized that ideal by telling Americans to ” ask not what your country can do for you – – ask what you can do for your country” and it was if the nation was re-vitalized , an American on the move again, re-committed to the original ideals on which the country was founded. He proclaimed that everything would not be accomplished in the first one hundred days, the first one thousand days, the life of his administration nor even in our lifetime on earth. “But let us begin,” he said and we believed. We believed we could make a difference – – in ourselves, in or world. We believed, as he said, that we as a nation were great , but could be greater. We believed….

Certainly, the early sixties were not without their problems. Cuba, Berlin, Civil Rights and the approaching clouds of armed conflict on the horizon od Southeast Asia were daily reminders of the tenuous times in which we lived. Sadly, in just slightly more than one thousand days from that inauguration, the challengingly idealistic beginnings of the 1960’s came to a horrendous halt. Prophetically, in his commencement address to the graduating class of American University, Monday, June 10th, 1963, in which he concentrated his thoughts on American and Russian co-existence in the age of ever increasing nuclear arms build up, President Kennedy stated: “We all breathe the sameair. We all cherish our children’s lives. And we are all mortal.” In five months he would be gone.

In a documentary compiled from Kennedy Library film clips produced for Home Box Office cable television in 1988 by Kunhardt Productions entitled”JFK: IN HIS OWN WORDS”, the unmistakable voice of the man who spoke of “vigah”and the island of “Cuber” ironically states that almost everyone alive at the time could probably remember what he or she was doing when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is an eerie observation to be made by that famous voice, for today, thirty- five years  after those murderous moments in Dallas, the same statement can be applied to the fate of the man who embodied it.

It is said, almost to cliche, that anyone who can remember the sixties wasn’t really there – – a sardonic re-counting of the old “tune-in, turn-on, drop-out attitude that evolved into the legacy for which the decade will unfortunately forever be remembered. The drug culture, the decline in values, morals national trust and the “Age of Aquarius” came out of the pail that was cast over the country in the first few years following Kennedy’s death. A grayness settled over a traumatized, lost nation in 1964and ’65 and our daily lives have been effected ever since. But as we approach the thirty fifieth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, let us not forget, the risk of another cliche, that indeed for ” one brief, shining moment” there was the dawn of a different decade called the 1960’s; that for “one, brief shining moment”, an era of charm, wit, sophistication, compassion, vision and courage fell over the most powerful nation on earth led by mature, energetic youth – – making most of us believe even stronger in ourselves and our abilities – – making most of the rest of the world look to us in admiration for leadership.

Everything, as every thinking person is aware, changes. Evolution is inevitable and necessary, as is at times revolution, though not just for that method’s sake alone. But since that day thirty five years ago in Dallas, a very significant piece of the puzzle of our lives was stolen from us and our times forever, altered. And so we live with and adjust to the changes that that act has wrought upon us. But the puzzle’s purloined piece shall forever be among the missing and a part of those unfulfilled portions of our lives and we shall, none of us, ever really be the same.

What’s Made Frank Sinatra Different: The Art of Vocal “Audacity”

Ever since Frank Sinatra wrote the article, Me and My Music, for an April, 1965 issue of LIFE Magazine, when describing his singing fans and critics alike consistently refer to his “phrasing”. It has become as much a cliché as summing up his career by saying “and he did it his way.”

In the article, Sinatra spoke of how trombonist/band leader, Tommy Dorsey, because of his exceptional breath control, could seamlessly carry a melodic line longer than most wind instrumentalists. Why couldn’t a vocalist have that smoothness, Sinatra wondered, and then went to work on himself physically (swimming laps underwater, running track) to accomplish it. The result was Sinatra’s enhanced breath control. It allowed him to do vocally what Dorsey had been doing instrumentally and that, in Sinatra’s own words, was what made him different from his contemporaries when the bobby-soxers swooned.

Phrasing “, for the record, is not the lyrical or melodic liberties one takes in a song. Rather, it is the grouping of notes to make musical sense —- a musical sentence, if you  will —- without a break in sound. However, lyrics do not always comply with the melody and sometimes words may be sustained in mid-sentence, ending the “phrasing” but not the thought. Sinatra’s developed breath control allowed him to also carry the LYRICAL message to its logical conclusion where other singers with less power  might interrupt the thought with a breath.

That being said, I believe what really made Sinatra different was “audacity”. Certainly it had its roots in his personality — the swagger, the self-assured “IL PADRONE” personality and that plays into his vocal delivery. But it really transcends his non-musical identity. The art of  “audacity” of which I  speak is the Sinatra of  “I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING”, “I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU” and the classic, “I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN”. It is the Sinatra that played with music,“ bending” the notes and ad-libbed lyrics to, dare I say to say it?, enhance their meaning. No so-called “phrasing” here, just total command; proof positive that a performer becomes an artist when he is secure enough to take chances.

Frank Sinatra was not a relaxed singer in the sense of his idol, Bing Crosby, or his contemporaries, Dean Martin and Perry Como. Crosby, Martin and Como, to be sure, all could have fun with a novelty song or touch your heart with a ballad. Martin, like Crosby, had a richness to his voice which was perfect for the laid-back, romantic approach. While Como had a lighter quality, he, too, eased his way into a tune. Sinatra, however, planted two feet on the ground and “confronted” a song. Just listen to “LUCK BE A LADY” or the swinging version of  “NIGHT AND DAY”.

Frank Sinatra also had the “audacity” to musically wear his heart on his sleeve. He “torched” for an unrequited or lost love openly, unashamedly and like no male vocalist had ever done so before, yet resisted sounding dependingly weak. Where other singers might elicit listeners to exclaim, “Get over it, bud!”, Sinatra had the effect to make the hardiest of men nod with experienced empathy. The self- pity in which he wallowed had a resignation to it that made others feel they had found a confidant. Much, it is true, had to do with how people envisioned his private life and how it influenced his selection of those songs of heartbreak. But that doesn’t change the fact he chose to record and perform them, to get “inside” them or, figuratively, “make love” to them.

Frank Sinatra did not sing like a singer, concerned chiefly with tonal quality while interpretation as well as technique take a back seat to a song’s delivery. Sinatra sang like a musician, learning from the abilities of the instrumentalists around him. His technique, as he said — including articulation, dynamics and perfect diction — made him stand out and he remains today the gold standard for popular singing and lyrical interpretation. But what truly made Frank Sinatra different, to my mind, was his “audacity” with a song. It is the quality of making even “OLD MAC DONALD” or “MRS. ROBINSON”  his own, personal statement.

Many performers have unique styles, but an “artist” is like the United States Postal Service: he can issue a one-of-a-kind stamp. The “art of audacity” was Frank Sinatra’s imprint in the world of popular music.

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