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Archive for the ‘music’ Category

It’s that time of year when high school kids wrap up a lot of the year’s business. Calendars are full of AP exams; proms; musicals; championships in various athletic and intellectual competitions; and like that.

This week we return to an end-of-year ritual that, while relatively new at the time, might have felt to its participants awfully like old news:

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May 8, 1964. The Mets win. So do the Yankees, beating a young, unknown, but strong-armed and healthy Cleveland Indians pitcher named Tommy John.

My dad apparently won the Masters this week, because he got a green jacket delivered to him … but that’s not the subject of this post.

The weather was remarkable, and not just in Stamford. Tornadoes damaged Midway Airport in Chicago and killed 12 people in Michigan. But that’s not what we’re focused on this week either.

No, my aunt’s writing at the top of this week’s calendar entry is what we’re interested in. I don’t know if she was participating in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” or just wanted to go to support friends, but it was prominent enough on her social agenda to mark on the family calendar.

(I would guess that she was just watching the show, because if she were participating, the whole family would have gone to support her, and then my grandpa would have marked it on the calendar. But I’m just spitballing with that.)

“Bye Bye Birdie,” for those unfamiliar with the plot, is based loosely on the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army in the 1950s.

In the musical, flamboyant young rock singer Conrad Birdie gives “one last kiss” as a publicity stunt to a randomly selected all-American girl on The Ed Sullivan Show just before being inducted. This event precipitates all manner of chaos into the lives of Birdie’s manager; the girl; her boyfriend and family; and others.

This pop-culture confection, introduced on Broadway in 1960 with Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera in lead roles, was a Tony Award-winning sensation. A movie adaptation starring Ann-Margret hit paydirt too, becoming the most popular movie in America for four weeks in April and May of 1963.

But something happened between May of ’63 and May of ’64. Specifically, a little something called the Beatles.

John, Paul, George and Ringo landed in the U.S. in January and February of 1964, and in no time at all, they owned American charts and minds.

During the week this musical was staged — presumably at Stamford’s old Rippowam High School — New York City’s WABC (“W-A-Beatle-C”) listed three Beatles tunes in its top 20. Just a month before, the Fab Four had attained the legendary feat of holding down the top five spots on Billboard’s national chart in the same week.

Elvis, in contrast, had simmered down considerably since his release from the Army in 1960. He’d starred in forgettable movies like Fun in Acapulco and It Happened At The World’s Fair, and he’d released a series of toothless (if sometimes successful) singles that lacked the rebellious punch of old.

That makes me wonder if “Bye Bye Birdie” had a bit of a faded feeling about it to its teenage participants in May 1964.

Wiggling hips? Sneering? A U.S. Army draft notice? Maybe your older sister got worked up about such quaintnesses. The real heartthrob action on every teen’s mind in May ’64 spoke with working-class English accents and bore no obligation to Lyndon Johnson’s Army. (Nor the Queen’s, either.)

As it turned out, time would be merciful to both “Bye Bye Birdie” and Elvis.

Less than two weeks after the Stamford performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the once and future King proved he wasn’t washed up by releasing Viva Las Vegas, the vibrant and energetic high point of his post-Army film career. (In a mild irony, the female lead who brought out his best performance was Ann-Margret.)

And, despite the eventual fading of Elvis, “Bye Bye Birdie” managed to survive through the years as a staple of the teenage musical repertoire. The young thespians of Rippowam — it’s a middle school now — put on an age-appropriate version of “Bye Bye Birdie” as their spring musical just a year ago. Elvis’ induction into the Army is ancient history now, but apparently, the tunes are timeless.

I’m not sure any of that could be predicted in the specific window of time we’re visiting this week, though.

I wonder if the folks who’d written “Bye Bye Birdie” were looking out upon a Beatle-obsessed nation and thinking, “Well, it was a fun ride while it lasted.”

And, I’m imagining an auditorium full of teens sitting through the fictionalized story of Elvis … then stepping out into the still-humid night, starting up their cars, rolling down the windows, and singing along to the radio with a single voice:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

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One year — 1961, to be specific — in the life of the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, as jointly interpreted by William H. Blumenau (calendar entries) and Charles A. Berry (text):

American history and practical math
You’re studying hard, hoping to pass

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January 23-24.

Cruising and playing the radio
With no particular place to go

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January 27.

She just don’t have the appetite
For gas somehow,
And Dad, I got four carburetors
Hooked up on it now.
I tried to hook another
To see if I’d do a little good,
But ain’t no place to put it
‘Less I perforate the hood

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February 2.

If she’s in the mood no need to break it
I got the chance and I oughta take it
If she can dance we can make it
C’mon, Queenie, let’s shake it

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February 11.

Well I looked at my watch, it was 10:05
Man, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive

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February 23.

Don’t care to hear ’em play the tango
I’m in no mood to dig a mambo

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February 25.

I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
Lord, I know he won’t have no mercy on me
‘Cause he told me not to come back no more

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April 7.

Sweet little sixteen
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs
Her wallet filled with pictures
She gets ’em one by one

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April 9.

Nothin’ outrun my V-8 Ford

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May 1. (The new car in question really *was* a V-8 Ford, if memory serves.)

In the heat of the day down in Mobile, Alabama
Workin’ on the railroad with a steel-drivin’ hammer

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August 10.

Ring! ring! goes the bell

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September 6.

I must admit they had a rockin’ band
Man, they was blowin’ like a hurr-i-can

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September 21.

All day long you’ve been wantin’ to dance

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September 27.

Roll over, Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

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October 2.

The engine with blood was sweaty and damp
And brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp
And imps for fuel was shoveling bones
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans

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October 31.

I was campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat
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November 7.

Gee but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks
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December 5.

It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me.

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December 30.

Thanks for everything, Chuck.

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My dad was a semi-professional pianist all the years he held a corporate job.

One of the more random remnants of his side gig lived in a cabinet where my parents stored sheet music — most of it classical.

It was a songbook with music for maybe a dozen pop hits circa 1977. I can specifically date it because I remember both “Angel In Your Arms” and “Undercover Angel” were in there, and I think “Do You Wanna Make Love” was there as well.

Presumably my dad bought it (or had it given to him) ’cause he needed to learn a popular song on the quick — maybe to accompany a wedding singer, or to please a client who’d specifically requested it.

I never did find out which song in the Book of Mellow Gold he was called on to play. It’s possible that a book of that vintage had “You Light Up My Life” in it, a song that probably everyone who made money playing other people’s music had to slog through at least once in 1977-78.

What’s that got to do with Hope Street? Well, this week’s entry might have found my grandparents and great-grandma — like my dad — adding some sheet music to the family collection.

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September 22, 1972. Mets in third, Yanks in fourth. Fall enough for ya?

“Music store” is written in my great-grandma’s precise hand, so I’m guessing it was her errand.

Piano was her only instrument, and she wasn’t buying a new piano. So her trip to the music store must have been for some humbler need — like perhaps buying some new sheet music.

What she bought, I couldn’t guess. I’m sure it wasn’t a songbook of current hits. (A shame, as there was some pretty good music on the radio around that time.)

Still, my great-grandma was closing in on 86 years old as the fall of 1972 began. So the idea of her buying any piece of music she didn’t already have in the house is pretty cool, no matter what it might have been.

I recently heard from a former piano student of my great-grandma’s who said, among other kind things:

I admire the fact that she let me and other students play “modern stuff”—such as tunes from My Fair Lady and Music Man in addition to the usual piano student fare from the masters.

I don’t think my great-grandma was still teaching in September of ’72. But this quote suggests she was willing to acknowledge new and different (and popular) music well into her advanced years.

Who knows? Maybe one of her students opened her ears to something she decided she wanted to play — or wanted my dad to play when he came to visit.

And perhaps the arrival of another autumn found her perched on the piano bench in the family room at Hope Street, silent and attentive, slowly forming the music, one chord or run at a time.

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One of the most popular and enduring pop songs of the Seventies is now old enough to look in the mirror and sigh at its encroaching gray hairs.

This month marks 40 years since the Four Seasons — Sixties hitmakers in the midst of a surprising Seventies resurgence — released the single most people know by its subtitle: “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).”

According to the song’s Wiki page, it was originally set in 1933 and was meant to recall the end of Prohibition.

But various parties involved with the song, including Frankie Valli, urged songwriters Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker to reconsider the lyric. And, instead of a meditation on the narrator’s first legal bender, the song turned into a warm recollection of a first romantic encounter.

(In 2015, the narrator is probably old enough to watch Viagra commercials more intently than he watches the football games that surround them.)

“December 1963” would hit Number One on the singles charts in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada early in 1976. And — buoyed by remixes, covers, party and wedding spins, and general nostalgia — it’s remained popular since.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the song, me. (No, this guy might hold that title.)

But, as a person who admires pop-music productions the way some people admire Renoirs, I have to concede that Frankie Valli and company built themselves quite a single.

This is also one of a group of pop hits (“Silly Love Songs” is another) that I can remember hearing on the radio in my parents’ big Plymouth Satellite during long holiday road trips to Stamford. So it has a pleasant childhood connection.

For Hope Street purposes, “December 1963” nicely spans the time period of my grandfather’s calendars: The ones still in storage start in January 1961 and end in December 1975, when the song came out.

I thought I’d look back at the calendar for December 1963 — or at least the portion of it I took pictures of — and see what the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, was up to during that fateful month.

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Of course there’s nothing intimate or personal on the calendar that month. Just the usual errands — plumber’s appointments, trips to the dentist, appointments to babysit, times to unload unwanted household trash.

(I’ve never heard “junkie” as slang for “junkman” before. But it’s consistent with other New England slang I learned during my years near Boston — “statie” for state cop, “packie” for package store, “Eastie” and “Southie” for East and South Boston respectively. Nowadays, I’d like to think someone would recycle that water tank, but who knows.)

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Of course there is a Christmas tree — an angular streamlined jobbie of the sort Charlie Brown might have seen on his famous errand two years later, yet not high-end enough to satisfy my aunt.

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And then there’s this potpourri of seasonal action. A son comes home from college and sees the dentist; a materfamilias goes to the doctor; the daughter of the family makes a few bucks overseeing someone else’s brats on a Saturday night; the sun goes down pisser early on the shortest day of the year; and the weather is by turns cold and winter-sloppy.

(I am reminded that I have written before about that Dec. 21, 1963, calendar entry. Three years later, the pain of that week’s news from the other end of Fairfield County is still fresh … and we, as a country, have not moved perceptibly forward. My grandfather would shake his head in frustration, and so do I.)

The rest of December 1963 I didn’t bother to take pictures of, which suggests there was nothing of interest on the calendar. Just everyday action even more mundane than that I captured.

Wiki’s page for December 1963 suggests the month was generally quiet in terms of news items, as well. A few births that became noteworthy later (Brad Pitt, Donna Tartt, Sergey Bubka, Lars Ulrich) and the first Beatles singles in the U.S., but nothing that would have really stirred people at the time — especially compared to the events of the prior month.

So, while the narrator of the Four Seasons’ single might have had a memorable month, December 1963 was not otherwise noteworthy for most actual non-fictional Americans.

The Sixties would go on to get a whole lot more eventful … but that’s another story.

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We return to my grandpa’s journal of job-related facts and random trivia for another nugget.

I always enjoy finding some topic or trivia fact of my grandfather’s that interests me too.

The factoid about stacked Life magazines from my last post wasn’t really one of those; I don’t have a personal relationship with Life magazine.

I do have a personal relationship with music. I play it sometimes. I listen to it a lot. I like learning about the technical details of making it, and about the lightning flashes of creativity that also make it happen.

My grandpa was in the same place. So I imagine the tidbit at the heart of this post grabbed his brain in much the same way it grabbed mine, and inspired some of the same thoughts and questions:

aabovemiddlec

Non-musical readers might wonder what the big deal is about the A note above middle C (as in, the middle of the piano keyboard). To them, it might seem like just one among the 88 notes on a standard piano.

That particular note has a special importance to musicians and those who build and tune instruments.

A at the frequency of 440 hertz has been endorsed (though not universally adopted — more on that later) as an international pitch standard for the tuning of instruments. It’s such a significant note, in fact, that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Hundreds of years ago, there was no single tuning pitch, and the intonation of instruments could significantly vary even within the same city. The use of tuning forks did not help, as they were not all standardized at first.

There was also pressure over time to shift pitch upward. This favors stringed instruments (they sound “brighter” and more appealing at higher pitch) but challenges vocalists, who have to push to hit the notes.

Finally, movements arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to set a single consistent tuning pitch, known as “concert pitch.”

(The three preceding paragraphs are condensed from another Wiki entry on concert pitch, which fascinated me, and I think would have fascinated my grandfather if he’d had the chance to read it.)

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This all might seem arcane; and indeed, it is possible to enjoy music without thinking much about concert pitch.

Rock bands, especially those without keyboard players, have long been known to tune to non-standard pitches, principally for the comfort of their singers.

My dad, the saxophonist-slash-engineer, points out that variations in concert pitch are more serious business to people who play wind instruments. A clarinetist in an orchestra that changes from 440 Hz to 442 might have to have his or her instrument altered, and a larger change might require the purchase of a new clarinet.

My dad adds: “Somehow a “sharper” sound is preferred by some folks.  If you get used to a sharper tuning, old tunings (like the baroque tunings which I suspect almost anyone can detect as significantly “flatter”) sound somehow more lugubrious and ponderous.”

So variation in concert pitch might be most noticeable to classical musicians who need to adjust to differing standards … and to classical fans who buy two recordings of their favorite piece by different orchestras, play them back-to-back, and notice a curious difference in pace and intonation.

To some classical listeners, concert pitch is more than a trivial interest: It can be a yardstick of whether a reissued recording is faithful to the original performance.

Check out this Stereophile magazine review from earlier this year, in which the reviewer retracts his earlier endorsement of a Cleveland Orchestra recording because the reissue is mastered to 445 Hz instead of 440 — rendering the recording faster and sharper than the real-life performance.

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If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering whether you can hear any difference in standard pitches. Let’s find out, shall we?

Here’s an A above middle C at 440 Hz …

… at 432 Hz …

… at 442 Hz …

… and at 415 Hz.

If you have trouble hearing the difference — or just want to have some fun — try running two of the pitches at the same time. You should hear audible “beats” between the two pitches.

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I’m not sure my grandpa knew the full, convoluted history of concert pitch.

If he had, he might not have been so struck by the Metropolitan Opera’s adoption of 442 Hz as a “new standard,” because he would have known that 440 Hz was by no means universal.

Although 440 Hz was endorsed as a U.S. standard in the late ’30s and an international standard in 1955, some major orchestras here and abroad continued to use concert pitches as high as 443 Hz — and still do.

Other sources argue for the use of 432 Hz, claiming it is more soothing and attuned to the spheres. (This post is long enough already so I’m not going any deeper into that, but you can Google it if you want.)

And those who play period instruments have adopted different concert pitches for different uses, which go as low as 415 Hz and as high as 470. (The low end of this range is the “baroque” tuning mentioned by my dad a couple hundred words ago.)

In August 1971, Time magazine — my grandpa’s former employer, and one of his favorite news sources — reported on the disagreement in an article titled “The Pitch Game.” I can’t read the whole thing without subscribing, but I’m sure it fascinated him, and I’m sure it reminded him of the nugget he’d written down in his notebook eight years earlier.

My dad suggests my grandpa took notice of the whole subject not because it affected his listening habits, but for other reasons:

I think he was generally interested in what he considered significant changes to standards in the world.  I think a pitch change might have been in the same ballpark as leaving the gold standard, replacing the voting machine, changing the size or makeup of a baseball, making a penny out of steel instead of copper (1943), these sorts of things.

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 I found this subject interesting as well, 980 words ago.

But now I feel like cleaning out my brain with a little 4′ 33″. That doesn’t require adherence to any particular concert pitch.

Wonder if my grandpa ever heard of John Cage?

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