A recent TV commercial plugging some insurance company’s homeowner's policies suggested that it’s really hard not to become your parents.
Lately, my music tastes sometimes reflect theirs, something I could never fathom growing up. Both passed away within the past five years, and I recently turned 65.
I grew up a rock and roll kid in the 1960s, listening to AM Top 40 on my transistor radio, with Beatlemania, the British Invasion, Motown and all the one-hit wonders of the decade forever recorded in my brain cells.
At 5 years old, I remember the family watching the teenage bedlam that ensued by the Beatles’ arriving in New York City in 1964. My dad called it a “communist plot,” as if it was some sort of invasion because we lived not far from the airport. I didn’t know what a Beatle or communist was, but thought that anything that generated such a reaction must be interesting.
As a kid growing up, my parents only had a few records – soundtracks to the stage musical My Fair Lady and movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (featuring B.J. Thomas’s hit, “Raindrops Fall on My Head,”) and kids’ birthday records.
I later thought it was weird that they didn’t have any records that reflected the 1960s zeitgeist, because before I was born in 1958 my mom worked for a music publisher who provided the song that became Johnny Mathis’s first hit, before she married my dad in 1957, around the same time that he worked at a Columbia Records warehouse.
When I cleaned out their house, I found a few promo singles of Mathis’s hit “Wonderful, Wonderful,” and some Frank Sinatra EPs, which I treat now like family heirlooms. One of my earliest memories was singing along as a 5-year-old, while my mom gave me a bath, to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which was playing on the radio in the background.
Some keepers from my mom's collection.
As it turned out, my grandfather (on my mom’s side) collected the real treasures. But my grandmother once told me when I was in my twenties that he abused her mentally, and she eventually divorced him in the mid-1960s. That’s why I remember only once visiting his house.
My grandfather loved gadgets, such as cameras and early record players. And he collected Elvis Presley records, including the early 7-inch singles on Sun Records!
If anyone had deserved those records, it would have been me. I’m the record collector in the family. I even published a book about how vinyl has enjoyed the most improbable comeback of the 21st century, and started a B2B conference celebrating its global rebirth. [Larry’s being modest here. His book is Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century, and he’s the co-founder of industry trade organization Making Vinyl. – Ed.]
When my grandfather died in 1969, according to my mother, the relatives descended on his house like vultures. All that she kept was some of his snapshots, a few of which I kept.
About a decade ago, I asked my aunt: what happened to the Elvis records? She said she didn’t know what I was talking about, which was possible, but I still felt slighted.
As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Mott the Hoople in equal doses, and went through my Southern rock and glam rock phases.
As an undergrad in the late 1970s, I immediately gravitated to punk and new wave, catching early gigs by the likes of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello.
I worked at the college newspaper and one of the perks was getting free tickets to a mid-sized concert venue. I was able to land my parents great seats for mom’s favorite singer, Engelbert Humperdinck. She loved the show but hated the opening act, Phoebe Snow, whose jazz-folk was hip enough for me to appreciate.
Music taste-wise, I could meet my mom halfway with Tom Jones, who I always thought was cool with singles like “She’s A Lady” and “What’s New Pussycat?”
My family moved to the suburbs while I was in the sixth grade. One of the kids at the nerds’ lunch table showed me his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I was amazed by how it worked. The next year I tried to buy one like it I had seen at a department store with birthday and allowance money, but all they had was a cassette recorder. I bought it, along with a recorded tape of Chuck Berry’s London Sessions, featuring the double-entendre hit “My Ding-A-Ling,” which my 13-year-old self thought was hilarious. But the cassette recorder/player allowed me to record hits played on the radio, like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s.
The first time I heard Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1974 at a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert, my musical horizons expanded dramatically. By college, I realized that the only genre that I didn't find intriguing was opera. To me, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was full of power chords, the real classic rock. All my friends loved Steely Dan, and so did I by the time Aja was released. The Princeton Record Exchange used to set up shop twice a year in the Hofstra University, and I remember buying Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits because I always loved songs like “It Was A Very Good Year,” “Summer Wind,” and “Something Stupid” (with his daughter Nancy Sinatra).
That was a nice bridge to jazz, which I really didn’t start appreciating until I was in my thirties when perusing the bins of Tower Records, I lived a 15-minute walk to their massive NYC downtown store, and start buying the likes of Mingus, Miles, Monk, and Coltrane.
After I graduated from college, I bought my mom a small cassette boombox for her birthday, and apparently she put it to good use. I discovered her collection of several hundred tapes when I cleaned out the house after my dad died. She had eclectic tastes, and along with the expected Sinatra titles, she also had the likes of pre-Atlantic Aretha Franklin, doo-wop, and 1960s fare that even I could appreciate, like the Beach Boys, British Invasion hits, and Jay and the Americans. She was a sucker for those cheap rack-jobber cassette compilations that proliferated in the late 1980s to mid-1990s when CDs became the most popular format.
As dementia robbed my mom of her mind about a decade ago, she listened with me to a great CD called The Beautiful Old, which featured vintage songs spanning 1805 to 1918 but played by baby-boomer folk and rock artists including Richard Thompson, Graham Parker, Garth Hudson, Kim Richey, and Dave Davies. My mom, then 85, hummed to almost every song and a smile came to her face.
I’m only sorry that she and my dad couldn’t hear Loudon Wainwright III’s 2020 album, I'd Rather Lead A Band, one of my favorites of that year. The entire extremely listenable record is full of great swing orchestra arrangements in the Cole Porter and George Gershwin vein, the type of music you’d hear in a Marx Brothers or Woody Allen film.
Something of a music chameleon, Wainwright, now 76, was branded “a new Dylan” in 1970 with his brand of confessional, singer-songwriter folk/rock. I first interviewed him when I was in college. I remember his dad, a renowned journalist for Life magazine, being in the dressing room, and I wish I took a photo of them together. Wainwright, in his music and in his autobiography, dealt with how he’s morphed into his dad. In 2018, he created a one-man show, Surviving Twin, about his dad Loudon Wainwright, Jr., who passed away at age 63.
“When you’re 65, everything seems to be somewhat in the rear-view, or at least in the side-view. Well, not everything, and hopefully your windshield wipers are still working,” Loudon Wainwright III told a journalist in 2012.
In the late 1980s, I was surprised to learn that my dad had bought a record because he couldn’t get out of his head a favorite song, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” After parking his taxicab near the aforementioned Tower Records in Greenwich Village, a store clerk helped him pick out a two-LP set by The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
I already knew that my parents’ tastes gravitated towards the big band sound and crooners like Nat King Cole, and I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have gone for Miles Davis’ bebop and his generation of jazz players. My mom once told me about seeing Frank Sinatra sing with the Dorsey brothers’ orchestra when she was a teenager.
My latest old-music obsession is a record that Sinatra made with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1964, It Might As Well Be Swing. I doubt if either of my parents knew of it because at that time they were too busy raising me and my brother. I came across the title in connection with my teaching at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, where its Institute of Jazz Studies holds Basie’s archive, including music, as well as his stage wardrobe and other items.
It’s such a shame that we couldn’t enjoy this album together because it contains some of my favorite songs, including “Fly Me to the Moon,” “More (Theme from Mondo Cane),” “Hello Dolly,” and “The Good Life.”
When I was in my twenties, I once bought at a record fair a button that proclaimed, “It’s Sinatra’s world. We just live in it.” I always thought that was an ironic statement. Now I finally understand it.
A 2015 online study claimed that people stop listening to new music at 33, which partly might explain how baby boomers fueled the rebirth of vinyl as a preferred physical media format.
A new study needs to be done about whether people start listening to their parents’ “old” music.
Tony Bennett at a Sony record release party for Cheek to Cheek, the duets album he did with Lady Gaga in 2004. Courtesy of Larry Jaffee.
Header image: Johnny Mathis Greatest Hits album, back cover.