I have always been blessed with many fine friends in life who share the gift of music. During my high school and junior college days I found the pursuit of musical endeavors to be an excellent way to keep busy and stay out of trouble during the turbulent sixties.
Singing has always been an important element in my life. I remember being in the 3rd grade choir, and thinking to myself while singing “This Is My Country”…”Now this music thing just works for me.” Years later I had the privilege of singing and dancing in the chorus for our high school production of “Oklahoma!” and then “Carousel”. In my senior year, I was fortunate to be selected to play a leading role (Benjamin Kidd) in “The Desert Song”. Being a member of a select group of Madrigal Singers allowed me to gain exposure to the finer aspects of classical music. It was also during that time when I began to study the acoustic guitar. Folk and Bluegrass music were extremely popular at the time. As a callow youth, I soaked it in like a sponge!
After graduation, I continued on with music coursework in college. There, I met a few more like minded individuals who thought it would be a nice idea to form an acoustic folk and bluegrass band. The idea proved to be a good one. That was right about the time when the five-string banjo was popularized by the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies”, as well as the movie “Bonnie & Clyde”. Our banjo player enjoyed antique cars, and owned a beautifully restored 1928 Franklin. We drove all over town in that car, and played bluegrass music. Since the bass player owned a recording studio, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity of recording our first (and only) album titled “Prohibition 69′ – Update”.
During the Vietnam era we were booked on a U.S.O. tour. During the summer of 69′ we had the honor of playing for the troops stationed in the Far East. We performed at M.A.S.H. units in Korea, hospital wards in Tokyo, mess halls in Manila, and nearly every Quanset Hut from Anchorage to Okinawa! It was a memorable and rewarding experience I will never forget.
Upon my return to the United States, I was grateful to return safely to our great land! There is indeed no place like home! Not long after that, I received a “special greeting” from Uncle Sam. Fortunately for me, The U.S. Army, in its infinite wisdom, placed me in Special Services where I would serve out my entire tour of duty as an Entertainment Specialist. While stationed in Fairbanks Alaska, I was totally awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the landscape! There were times when it was bitterly cold. There were also times when a pretty girl, a cozy fireplace and a good guitar warmed my very soul. Oh yes.
I remember a special occasion when The Late Great Bob Hope arrived at Fairbanks with his entourage (200 girls!) for a big USO show and dance. Usually, the Hollywood Overseas Committee routed his tours via a quick stop-off at Anchorage, then took a hard left turn to the Far East. But after making numerous calls to my “Hollywood connections”, this particular trip, Mr. Hope honored my humble soldier’s request to extend his tour a little farther north and drop by our little corner of the frozen tundra.
I was the military liaison in charge, and made sure every aspect of the show went off without a hitch. We built a special semi-circle stage extension to accommodate the huge entourage. No expense was spared. After the show, I arranged a mega cast party at the rustic Malemute Saloon in the little town of Ester, were Robert Service penned the now famous poem “The Shooting Of Dan McGrue”. We had a terrific time that night at fifty below, listening to the old time Rinky Tink Piano played expertly by the fat lady in a red flapper, behind sourdough recitations of Robert Service poetry. We downed frosty mugs of beer, and tossed peanut shells at one another until the bar room floor could no longer be seen!
There were several other memorable musical experiences prior to my discharge in 1970. I was asked to sing for the Miss Alaska Universe Pageant. Never one to turn down the opportunity to hang around backstage with dozens of beautiful women, I naturally accepted the engagement. I remember singing “Close To You” by The Carpenters. We had a great cast party that night too. It was held in a remote hunting lodge by the lake. Was my mind on wild game hunting? Well… not exactly, Unless you consider dipping bear meat into a fondue pot with multiple Miss Universe contestants a sport in and of itself!
In later years, while working on the Santa Fe Railroad, I wrote a simple song about safety titled “Any Time Is Train Time”. I was a member of the Operation Lifesaver committee, along with Michael Gross (Family Ties). Michael’s dad was a railroader, so I guess it kinda’ ran in his veins too. In the summer of 1988 we embarked from San Francisco together for a marathon whistle-stop tour of California. For the next three days, when the train pulled into the station of each small town, I would hop up on a flat car and sing my song. Michael would give his railroad safety speech to the local dignitaries, and we would head down the tracks to the next stop. We did this all the way to San Diego where the U.S. Marine Corps Marching Band waited on the platform and played “Oh Shenandoah!” upon our arrival. That has since become one of my very favorite songs. Here is a nice guitar arrangement.
After relocating to Northern California, I began playing bluegrass with a few local musicians. I joined the California Bluegrass Association and became an active member of that great organization. Each year we enjoy the company of one another at Grass Valley during the annual Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. It has been a great pleasure to get to know many notable names in bluegrass and acoustic music. That exposure has prompted me to write several songs of that genre’. One of the best friends of my life is Van Atwell, a great mandolin player and prolific writer. Together we played most of the halls and hay barns in Northern California as the duo “Lost & Lonesome”. I will always remember the honor of introducing legendary artists like Ralph Stanley, The Osborne Brothers, and Mac Wiseman on stage at Grass Valley. I also had the great opportunity of singing a song at the International Bluegrass Music trade show in Louisville, Ky. I had a great back up band, including banjo player Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station fame.
I have enjoyed American Popular Music since my pre-teen years. I remember my dad teaching me a few guitar chords to songs like “Up A Lazy River” right after he gave me my first instrument as a Christmas gift. The greater gift he gave was that of love for all types of music. The instrument was a beginner’s guitar redeemed with Blue Chip trading stamps my folks had saved for years. Dad enjoyed entertaining friends and family with his chord style piano prowess, while singing “the old songs”. There were tunes like Stardust, Canadian Sunset, Satin Doll, along with many others. Later, I followed his advice to soak up other styles of music, but being an Army brat baby boomer, I have always felt the strong influence of the music of my father’s generation.
I had the opportunity of playing bass with a few members of the 9th Army band while stationed in Alaska. Together we formed a tight-knit combo to play night club gigs. Low and behold, it was some of the same music that Dad taught me! Needless to say, this kind of activity made my tour of duty fly by. By the time I knew it, I was discharged from the Army, and back home again with Mom and Dad. I am convinced that the musical ability passed on to me was “instrumental” (pun intended) in keeping a rifle out of my hands during a time of war.
The music my father loved so well still plays an important part in my life. I am having a great time sitting in with a top-notch Jazz/Swing band. I have also had the opportunity to play with a few other local Jazz combos. Sometimes, as we play, I can still envision my dear old dad sitting around and playing just like old times! Several years ago, the local Jazz society decided to sell their excellent upright bass. When the music store owner called me, I ran down and picked up that very cool instrument. I have not put it down since. These days, I am fortunate to play bass, from time to time, with The Straight Ahead Big Band. The band performs the music of Count Basie, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Stan Kenton.
In December of 2010 it was my honor (and challenging reward) to play the role of Santa Claus in the Redding, CA Dance Project’s production of “A Cascade Christmas”. I naively thought it would be just a few simple steps and a lot of waving to the audience. Boy was I wrong about that! The show standards were so high and the dancing was world class! I felt lucky to get through it all, especially controlling that wacky joy stick on the electric sleigh! I think the stage crew had a betting pool established just to guess when/if I would mow down the other dancers and drive the sleigh right into the orchestra pit. Fortunately with the help of a giant wad of duct tape, I was able to avoid tragedy! Ah, the magic of Christmas.
As I am now in my sixties, I am looking forward, with high hopes, to many more years of life enrichment through music. Perhaps someday I will have the chance to teach my grandchildren how music can really be a blessing in their life.
Thank you for taking the time to read through all these reminiscences. Please feel free to leave a reply below or use the contact link on this site to communicate with me. I will enjoy hearing from you!