A Little Life Music: Serenade in G major
Sometime in the autumn of 1956, Gudrun Wagner and I began taking weekly accordion lessons together, opening the next stage of a relationship that had started in 1954, when my father and I ferried the two brand-new immigrants, Gudrun and her mother, from New York to Huntsville to join Mr. Wagner.
Two years later, there we were, 10 and 11 years old, embarking on a different kind of journey. Our parents took turns driving us from Darwin Downs to a house on Madison Street-- about midway between the Courthouse and Huntsville Hospital-- that Bill Sloan (band director at Huntsville High School) had rented as a music studio.
I’ve forgotten almost all of how the first few sessions proceeded, but Mr. Sloan, a fine teacher, did something near the beginning of the lessons that I much later realized distinguished him as a clever pedagogue. At the time one of the radio stations frequently played a hit called “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues,” a captivating, jazzy tune featuring a flute. I liked it even before I started the lessons, and one day Mr. Sloan played an improvised version of it. It was an impressive demonstration of imagination and skill that showed me what an excellent accordion player could do and the capabilities of the instrument. I was hooked.
Formally, we were taught using the Sedlon Accordion Method through a series of instruction books. (After a few months, Bill’s wife, Harriet, took over as our teacher because his duties with the HHS band became his primary concern). I found this statement about the general aims of the Sedlon course on an eBay offer for the first volume: “This book presents a new and scientifically correct program for mastering finger technique, enabling the accordionist to acquire the brilliant technique of the professional player far more rapidly than by indiscriminate and haphazard practice.” Apparently, if we practiced, practiced, practiced, we might be headed for stardom.
Of course, neither Gudrun nor I had aspirations of a professional musical career. The lessons served as a formal education in the art of music, a pleasure-creating discipline. You might ask yourself: as the children of middle-class German parents, was it culturally determined that Rainer and Gudrun would play the accordion? We did end up in an all-German accordion trio whose big--and only--number was “The Happy Wanderer”: “Val-de-ree! Val-de-rah!” However, I know of only two other kids from our large German cohort who took accordion lessons. It was a negligible phenomenon, an example of cultural heritage perhaps, but one I’m glad in which we were able to play our part.
But the reason Gudrun took up the accordion is simple. Her father was an enthusiastic, but untrained musician, and she inherited his small Hohner accordion and the mantle of his musical ambition. I know she would rather have continued with dance lessons, but she was a dutiful daughter and resigned herself to her lot.
As for me, my parents must have noticed my early love of music. When not playing outside or reading, I lived next to my radio, listening to Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Eddie Fisher, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Sammy Kaye, Patty Page, Kay Starr and the whole panoply of early 50s broadcasting, local and national. I can’t remember being asked if I wanted to take accordion lessons, but when the time came, I was ready to try my hand(s). It turned out to be one of the most meaningful things my parents did for me in my early life. (Getting me the radio may have been the first.)
There were few professional accordionists on the American scene for us to admire. It had always been a niche instrument. The Art Van Damme Quintet played in an engaging jazz style, highlighted by his creative, quicksilver accordion accompaniment. Dick Contino, who was famous for his virtuosic version of “Lady of Spain” and other flashy numbers, appeared numerous times on the Ed Sullivan Show. Wow, talk about “brilliant technique”! The main man in those days, though, because of his weekly exposure on the televised Lawrence Welk Show (beginning in 1955), was Myron Floren, a gifted, but not showy player—perfect for the bubbly, happy band that played the “squarest music since Euclid,” as one Canadian critic wrote.
Book 1-A of the Sedlon Accordion Method sported a striking cobalt blue and white cover. By the time Gudrun and I ended our lessons five years later, we had worked our way through twelve books of increasing difficulty and a rainbow of color schemes. The Sedlon Accordion Method publishers could not be accused of using staid book designs.
In the early years of our lessons, the instruments truly deserved the full title of piano accordions; the heavy, bulky cases were a drag and banged against our legs as we lugged them to and from the lessons. Actually, things didn’t get easier later; when our abilities merited bigger, better accordions, the instruments (and their cases) grew fancier, but also heavier.
Because of our weekly split instruction hour, the fact that we often worked on the same pieces and exercises, and that our playing skills kept pace with each other over the years, there was an obvious and audible togetherness in our music-making—that small part of our lives. But in spite of that bond, we never developed the full ease of a closer friendship with each other then. I’ve never quite understood that reticence (though I was a part of it), but realize it just wasn’t the right time for that personal harmony to happen.
In 1961, we ended the accordion lessons; they had served their purpose (in my case, encouraging me to learn to play other instruments and join the LHS Band). We were in the midst of our junior high lives, with the social and educational challenges of high school ahead of us. Gudrun and I had limited contact with each other in those years.
Several years ago in Lee’s Traveller, I recounted the story of how we finally fell in love in 1965, split up in 1967, found each other again in 1979, and then married in 1982. We’ve lived happily ever after.
Ah, but there’s more. Without realizing that this autumn would mark a significant anniversary of our accordion lessons, I posted a long comment on Facebook this spring regarding a resurrection of sorts for our venerated instruments. It seems fitting to include an edited version of the post as the coda to this piece:
For years I’ve been sad that our handsome accordions have just been languishing in our foyer closet. I wasn’t sad that we weren’t playing them anymore. Those days are behind us (for one thing, the instruments are in need of expensive repairs). But I couldn’t think of a way to honor their place in our lives. Okay, mostly my life. Who else but me would even think of such a thing? One night, just before I fell asleep, an idea occurred to me. How about putting one of them on the mantel? At breakfast the next morning, I told Gudrun of my decorating brainstorm, not sure what she would think. Hey, she liked the idea! She even suggested mounting her white one there, too. We were proud and happy to add the repurposed objets d’art to our décor.
There was another accordion in that closet, my big one, the Hohner Atlantic III—the one with which I reached the pinnacle (not very high) of my squeeze-box skills. The day after we placed the two small ones, I asked Gudrun what she thought of mounting it between the other two. She replied: “That would be too much,” and after a moment of consideration I agreed. We dropped the subject. Or so I thought.
Two hours later I was reading, and she closed the door to the room. I got up, went into the living room, and asked her” What’s going on?” I could see that she had taken the Atlantic III case out of the closet. “Go away, “she said. “I’ll call you in a few minutes.”
“Okay, you can come out now.” She was looking at the étagère we have in the dining area. I walked closer and saw that the Atlantic III was now ensconced in the center section. Super! Now all three are an integral part of our lives again—honored and admired reminders of our first collaboration.
Memphis, TN - Big issue this week, thanks to Rainer Klauss, Mike Crowl, and especially Patsy Hughes Oldroyd who sent in a great report on last week's Lee Lunch Bunch get-together. Most of you will never appreciate how helpful it is for me to get people to send in stories to include in the weekly Lee's Traveller. Those of you who have had the responsibility of doing a newsletter for any organization will.
I have a couple of more stories from Mike, but am always looking for more memories of our days at Lee, or our days today.
I have had the pleasure of babysitting the 5-year-old twins last week and that is why I could not attend the Lunch Bunch.
I wonder how I can make a 5-day cruise last as long as a 5-day babysitting stint!
Before I start on my story, I want to say I think we all had a very enjoyable day sharing time and stories with each other at last week’s Lee Lunch Bunch luncheon. I would encourage all of you to try to come to the next one.
While there, we were all asked to stand up and say a little about ourselves. As I was introducing myself, Elbert Balch, LHS ’65, mentioned I was also known as (AKA) “Wildman.”
Well I didn't have time at the luncheon to explain how but I'm sure some who were there wonder how I got that nickname. Here's the scoop.
During my days at Lee, I was on the basketball team. I really enjoyed playing on the team, but I was not a starter in the beginning. During one of our games, the coach put me in and I was so excited to get a chance to play and to show the coach I could be an asset to the team. I got the basketball and was driving down one side of the court and made a right hook shot from the side court. Keep in mind I was on one side of bleachers when I did the hook shot.
That ball flew from one of the side bleachers to the other side bleacher. I guess my excitement and adrenaline helped the ball go that far. It was an unbelievably terrible shot!
Well the first chance coach had after that, he pulled me out. I was so embarrassed and felt so small I could have walked under a closed door. I was sitting on the bench and had my head down, feeling bad for letting the team and coach down. Shortly thereafter, the people in the stands started stomping their feet and yelling. They were yelling "We Want Wildman! We Want Wildman!" over and over.
Trust me, at the moment, those words were not what I needed or wanted to hear. I did get to play again later in the game, thanks to coach giving me a second chance and thanks to the fans for helping.
I tell this story to explain how I got the nickname. I also tell it because today I think it is very funny and I can laugh about it! That is, it’s funny now, but was not at the time it happened.
My brother Don (back), my mother, and me and our TV on East Clinton Street.
The Vintage Television
Bobby Vee Dead at 73
From Fox News
1960s pop star Bobby Vee, whose hits included "Take Good Care of My Baby," died on Monday at the age of 73 of advanced Alzheimer's disease.
Vee, born Robert Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, was known for having a young Bob Dylan in his band, but he may be most remembered for how his career got its start, when the then 15-year-old Vee and his two-week old band took a Minnesota stage to fill in after the 1959 plane crash that killed rock 'n' roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
That dark day in rock history was commemorated by singer-songwriter Don McLean in his 1972 pop song "American Pie" as "The Day The Music Died."
He went on to record 38 Top 100 hits from 1959 to 1970, hitting the top of the charts in 1961 with the Carole King-Gerry Goffin song, "Take Care Good of My Baby," and reaching No. 2 with the follow-up, "Run to Him." Other Vee hits include "Rubber Ball," ''The Night Has A Thousand Eyes," ''Devil or Angel," ''Come Back When You Grow Up," ''Please Don't Ask About Barbara" and "Punish Her."
Lee Lunch Bunch Report
October 27, 2016
Patsy Hughes Oldroyd
The Lee Lunch Bunch met on Thursday, October 27, at Logan’s Restaurant in Huntsville. We had about thirty-five of our classmates from ’64, ’65, and ’66 who came from far and near to have lunch and catch up with each other. Terry Barnes ’66 flew up from Florida, and Linda Weldon ’65 drove down from North Carolina. Carolyn Burgess Featheringill ’65 came up from Birmingham to visit with our group and then on to see local relatives for the day. Mike Crowl ’65 drove down from north Alabama, close to the Georgia state line, and he and his sister, Marcia Crowl Hemphill ’64 joined us, as well. Many more came in from areas close to Huntsville, and many who live in Huntsville attended.
The almost four hours we spent there visiting and eating lunch passed off far too quickly, and, as always, there were a few of us who were reluctant to say our goodbyes until the next time.
Please remember that if you have never gotten to come to one of these gatherings, you should really plan to do so in the future. We always have a really great time. Our next LLB will be on Thursday, April 27, 2017, at the same place and same time. Remember that we only meet two times each year on the last Thursday of April and October. Watch for reminders on the Traveller closer to those dates. Hope to see you next time! Patsy Hughes Oldroyd ‘65
This picture was made after many had already left, but it is a few of us from the class of ’65.
L-R front row – Pam Grooms Smith, Tom Bush, Linda Weldon, Patsy Hughes Oldroyd, Peggy Durham Williams, Pat King Fanning. Back row-Mike Crowl, Elbert Balch, Niles, Prestage,Escoe German Beatty, Carolyn Burgess Featheringill.
One good shot from this edition of the Lee Lunch Bunch. Great attendance this time, and as always, everyone had a great time. Here are some of our class of '65 classmates. I think they would pass for the class of '75!
From Our Mailbox
Subject: The Outhouse 6
I remember some of the faces but don't recall the names except for the clarinet player. I believe that is Jimmy Farr (class of '66). If memory serves, he ended up playing mostly saxophone later on.
Subject: Outhouse 6
This Trivia Question is a publicity photo for "The Outhouse 6", a Dixieland/Jazz sextet featuring members of the LHS Band, taken in or around 1964. Bobby Pierce played stand-up bass, Jimmy Farr next to him on clarinet (who also played the sax), and Carole Bradshaw, pictured sitting on the bass drum, was our pianist. On far left playing trombone is Curt (blocking on his last name, but I do recall he won a music scholarship to North Texas State) and next to him is me on trumpet. I also cannot remember the name of the guy in the middle, but he was our drummer. Curt, Jimmy and I all grew up on Monte Sano.
The Outhouse 6 performed at daytime events, usually a Saturday or Sunday afternoon gig for carnivals, church picnics, VFW outings, or other family-friendly venues. I proudly recall..... I proudly recall that we played at the Opening Day for some of the better Piggly Wigglys in North Alabama. To quote a line from Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again," there may be nothing in life quite as good as "making music with my friends."
Subject: The Outhouse 6
The Photo was sent in by Curtis Lewis. The members are: L-R: Curt Lewis, John Drummond, Jim Ferguson, Jim Farr, Bobby Pierce, Carol Bradshaw (seated)