June 18, 2022

FTV: Finding Inspiration

     Who doesn’t like stories about people being inspired to do great things?  We all have moments in our lives when something adjusts our path in one direction or another.  Not all are life changing moments like Jake and Elwood (The Blues Brothers) bathed in a ray of heavenly light watching Brother James Brown bring the congregation to a higher level (“The band,” Jake exclaims, “We’ll get the band back together!”).  Looking back, we can all see times where people were inspired to do . . .  something.  With Blues Music Magazine Editor in Chief Art Tipaldi’s permission (okay, I didn’t ask him but as a subscriber, I am pretty sure he won’t mind), I would like to share the entry from his Riffs & Grooves feature (Issue 323) of that publication.  I hope you will also find them as inspiring as I did:

     “Here’s one more Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram story (My note – he is carrying over a thread he started in the previous issue).   After lighting up the stages on the 2022 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, Kingfish began an East Coast tour.  On February 11, 2022, he played to a capacity crowd at the Infinity Music Hall in Hartford.  When I sat with him before the show, I told him of the only child in the audience, eight-year-old Greyson Charles.  Seems Greyson has been playing guitar for two years and guess who his #1 guitar idol is.  Kingfish took the time to sign a set list to Greyson with a personal message of encouragement.

     When the show ended with Kingfish blowing the roof off on his Hey Joe finale, he put his guitar down, held up a guitar pick, and asked, ‘Where’s Greyson?’  Those fans around Greyson stood and pointed to him as Kingfish held up the pick and said, ‘Come up here, I got this for you.’

     With the stage set high at about ten feet, his father had to pick Greyson up at the waist to hoist him to meet Kingfish.  Let’s just say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  I can see years from now some journalist will be interviewing Greyson, and he’ll say, ‘Getting a guitar pick from Kingfish encouraged me to follow this musical path.’  Not at all unlike a young teen Kingfish receiving Buddy Guy’s or B.B.King’s encouragement.

     Here are a few stories from the road.  Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward, bass player and original member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and Ronnie Earl’s Broadcasters, told me of growing up in Maine as a 14-year-old blues piano player.  His vision was that he was going to play the blues piano for life.  In the late 1960s, he went to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and set out to find four other blues obsessed students to form a blues band.

     When the young musicians got together, ‘Mudcat’ watched a young piano player out play everyone else.  The piano player told ‘Mudcat’ that if he wanted to be in the band, he should take his keyboard home on Thanksgiving break and trade it for a bass.  And that’s how and when ‘Mudcat’ became the go-to bassist for nearly every Boston area blues band.  And the piano player who took his seat?  Benjamin Montgomery Tench III, aka Benmont Tench, who a few years later quit Tulane (University) to join Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch, which later morphed into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

     Another Boston area musician who was with ‘Mudcat’ as an original member of the Bluetones and Broadcasters is Anthony Geraci.  I’ll never forget the silence when he told a table about telling his mother, outta the blue, as a four-year-old, ‘I need a piano.’

     [Geraci] ‘My parents are the most unmusical people you can imagine.  I grew up in a house with no record player, no instruments, the only music I ever heard was driving around in the car or church music.  When I was about four, my grandmother bought me a cheap, plastic Emenee organ.  I started picking out the notes of songs I heard in church.  So I did ask my mother for a piano instead of a baseball glove or Schwinn bike.  Luckily, they heard me.

     They got me an old $25 junk upright piano.  They threw it in the basement next to my mother’s ironing machine.  My mother would sit behind it, smoking a Pall Mall, and ironing everything, socks, underwear, whatever came outta the washing machine.  The piano was right next to it, so I would play every day after school.

     They finally got me lessons when I was about six.  After about a year, the teacher said, ‘Maybe you  should get this kid a real piano.’  So unbeknownst to me, my mother went out to a local piano store and bought me a really small Baby Grand.  She paid $4 a week on it.  To me it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.  I polished that thing every day, and I’d play it from the second I got home from school.’”

     Interestingly enough, I find the use of the words ‘inspiration’ and ‘encouragement’ to be two of the strongest words in the English language.  Looking back, I can find so many instances where both of these words steered me toward where I find myself today.  Some were musical moments and some were of the ‘just plain everyday life’ moments.  That I ended up spending 43 years as a Geography/Earth Science teacher, for example, came from a series of events, two of which I blame on my brother, Ron, and one from my sixth grade elementary teacher, Mr. Aronson.

     Brother Ron was always interested in science.  He spent countless hours tinkering with scale models, his junior chemistry set, his own microscope, and pretty much anything that required a motor (electric or otherwise powered by some form of fuel).  Some of my interest came from watching him toil on these projects, but I did not have the patience to watch glue dry.  Most of my early interest in science came from that series of paperback Little Golden Books covering everything from astronomy to weather to geology.  I spent hours pouring over them and when I had gone through them all, I would go back to the first volume and do it again.  When the first U.S. satellites were launched, Ron would know when to go out and look for them passing by.  Our whole family assembled on the street in front of our house to observe the large metal balloon called Echo 1 cross the sky from west to east.  Ron got me interested in astronomy, space travel, model building, and model rocketry just as the American space program and NASA began the program that would send men to the Moon.  If there was a space launch scheduled, I was in front of the TV glued to every word uttered by Walter Cronkite and his experts covering the mission.

     Mr. Aronson’s part in this was subtle.  I can not even say it was a planned moment.  We got the results of the standardized tests used to measure our educational advancement.  I distinctly remember the look on his face when he dropped my answer booklet on my desk, pointed to the score and asked, “Are you planning to be a science teacher?”  I can’t remember whether my denial of any such plans was half-hearted or not, but I remembered this event seven years later.  I stepped into my college advisor’s office near the end of my freshman year and told him I wanted to get into the Geography / Earth Science teacher prep program.  He looked me over and pointed across the hall saying, “Then you better go talk to Professor Mahowski.  He advises all the teacher prep students.”  

     My new advisor looked me over and said, “You know, you should have made this decision last year, it would have been much easier.”  I replied, “Well, I didn’t, so what do I need to do?”  He simply said, “Okay, and we proceeded to write out a list of classes I would need over the next three years.”  Going into my senior year, he was totally amazed that I had been able to get every class on the list and was poised to graduate on time:  “This has never happened before.  How on earth did you get every class on that list with no substitutions?”   I offered, “Good advising?” which got a raised eyebrow and a hearty laugh.

     Years later, I saw a feature on WLUC-TV news discussing how my old sixth grade teacher was still volunteering at an elementary school in his home town of Escanaba.  Mr. Aronson was retired and well into his seventies but still in the game, so I wrote him a card.  I gave him the short version of what I was doing and blamed him good naturedly for planting the ‘science teacher seed’ in my brain back in 1965.  Only he knows for sure if his brief word of encouragement was a spontaneous comment or a planned moment, but either way, it obviously laid dormant in the back of my mind until I decided to follow that particular career path.

     My interest in music came from several places.  Unlike Anthony Geraci, our house always had a record player / radio playing.  My mother would always be singing along to something as she baked and did household chores.  My dad liked to play tunes on his harmonica.  I do not remember whose idea it was to overturn the metal waste basket from our kitchen closet for me to beat on, but my earliest interest in drumming began with me thumping along with dad’s polka tunes.  

The drumming part kind of sat in the background when my sister decided she was not going to learn to play the piano.  The lessons she was taking from our up the street neighbor (paid for by my father building them a rec-room fireplace) were handed down to me.  In spite of my mother’s encouragement, my enthusiasm for practicing the piano soon fell off.  I could plunk my way through a piano piece but found I could play it back from memory after one or two tries.  As a result, my music reading skills got left at a very rudimentary level.  My mom never suspected I was playing from memory when she would ask for a particular song.

     In fourth grade, we signed up for the musical aptitude test used to decide which band instrument we might want to learn.  I scored well on time signatures, note recognition, and when I hit the last question (“What instrument would you like to learn how to play?”), I wrote down ‘drums’.  The folks supported my new direction by getting me a plastic red sparkle snare drum for Christmas.  Once they were convinced I was more serious about practicing my drum lessons in fifth grade, the piano was sold.  I watched every drummer I could find on TV from The Lawrence Welk Show to the numerous bands featured on The Ed Sullivan Show.  I do not remember their immediate reaction when I announced, “I want to learn to play a drum set,” but mom and dad surely could not escape the fact that I spent sixth and seventh grade obsessing over every drum catalog I could lay my hands on. 

     There were two, and at times three, music stores in Marquette in the mid-1960s.  We visited them all several times and dad usually talked business while I gawked at the drum kits on display.  About the time I thought it would ever happen, dad showed up home a couple of hours early from work and said, “Come on, we are going to buy your drums.”  Borhner Music on Front Street had a silver sparkle Ludwig set just like the one Ringo played (okay, his had a black oyster shell finish) and dad had stopped in one day to arrange the deal.  With me in tow, the salesman showed us the whole package and said, “I tell you what, Eddie, if you pay for it in full, I will send my guy over to set it up and give your boy one free drum lesson!” 

     I may not have been a trained economist, but even in seventh grade, I realized my State Police detective father wasn’t pulling in a big salary.  We weren’t lacking for a roof over our head or food on the table, but we did a lot of things to stretch out the family budget.  Surviving the Great Depression made my folks very good at doing a lot of things to make ends meet.  We always had a garden and dad had learned the arts of tinkering with motors, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and basic electrical work.  We did a lot of D.I.Y. projects at home and camp.  We always had a fire place so when we were done putting in enough wood for our needs, dad would sell his surplus at ten dollars a pickup load.  If one has purchased a cord of wood more recently, one can do the math.

     The Ludwig drum set they fronted me the money for clocked in at around $500.  I say, ‘Fronted me the money for,” because I was compelled to help pay for it by pushing a lot of firewood.  Today, just the drums alone (minus the stands and cymbals) can cost over two grand.  In fact, the John Bonham series snare drum they sell now costs as much as my whole set did back then.  I know I had the desire to learn to play but their show of faith in me doing so turned up the heat.  Unlike my piano lessons, I turned my ‘one free lesson’ into a daily obsession.  I made enough noise to have them suggest that I should perhaps move my drums to the basement instead of practicing in my bedroom.  The drums arrived in April and near the end of May, I got surprise number two.

     Mom and dad had watched me trying to play along with records on my sister’s little hardshell case turntable.  The volume was so feeble, I would listen to the song and then play through it while humming along (my musical memory came in handy here).  We had an old radio/turntable dating back to the seven years dad was at the L’Anse State Police post, but it was showing its age.  To put it into perspective, it was purchased before I was born in 1953 and the ‘new’ US 41 route was just being cleared up the hill south of Bovine (the suburb of L’Anse near the golf course).  This plays into the story because dad and a friend had an emergency landing on the two rut trail between the stumps on the ‘new’ road when their engine failed after taking off the airstrip that was located south of L’Anse.  The pilot had offered to fly to Houghton to pick up this radio/turntable when it had arrived.  In the end, dad decided driving to pick it up wasn’t such a bad idea. 

     Near the end of May, I had a whole month of learning to play my new set under me when I got home from school to find the folks had bit the bullet and had purchased a new solid state (as in, no more vacuum tubes to warm up when switched on) Magnavox stereo that now occupied the corner of the living room where the old 1950 unit had stood.  Mom had a record playing and had one more surprise waiting.  She pointed me downstairs and showed me the extension speaker for the stereo playing away on the shelf behind my drums.  A dial on the unit upstairs could be set to play only the main speakers, the extension speakers, or both at the same time.  The turn table spindle could be set up with multiple disks so I could stack them up, hit play, and then trundle downstairs to play my heart out (at the proper volume) until the stack ran out.  This unit was pretty well worn out when the folks finally sold their home circa 2012, but I made sure I got the extension speaker when we cleaned out the house before it was sold.  

     Have you been encouraged and inspired by others in your life?  I am betting you have.  It took me nearly fifty years to finally write a thank you note to Mr. Aronson, but I am pretty sure remembering those who helped us along the way also makes a fitting tribute.  Encouraging and inspiring others ourselves is another way to honor the legacy of those who did the same for us. 


Top Piece Video:  Kingfish doing his B.B.King thing in 2019.