MUSIC

Rescued at the Christmas concert

Go_Tell_it_on_The_Mountain

As published in The Providence Journal, December 17, 2017.

The Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School Choir, of which I was a member, had just finished a rousing version of “Jingle Bells” when my heart started pounding. The moment I was dreading had finally arrived.

We were a bunch of Providence kids in our school’s gymnasium, where I had performed many times before, but as a point guard on Kennedy’s youth basketball team, not as a soloist at the annual Christmas concert.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was originally paired with another fifth-grader to sing a duet of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the popular spiritual celebrating the birth of Jesus. But on the day of the concert, my fellow caroler was home with the flu.

My mind raced upon hearing the news in the schoolyard, and not to good places. I had to sing alone? What if I forgot the words to the verse my friend, the better singer, was to have sung? Or worse, what if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I had been selected for the choir two years earlier after being summoned, along with my third-grade classmates, to the music room in the school basement. Each of us sang a line or two from “Oh Susanna” as the choir director accompanied us on the piano. With her cat-eye glasses, muted floral dresses, and white pearls, she reminded me of my Italian grandmother. Apparently, my voice was OK; I passed the audition.

I loved to sing, especially to Beatles tunes, which I played on the hi-fi in our living room at home. However, being part of the school choir was anything but fun. Unlike my beloved grandmother, the choir director was stern and impatient; a flubbed lyric or missed beat elicited her immediate rebuke. It was only at the bi-annual concerts for our parents – one before Christmas and one in the spring – that we saw her smile.

Then, when I reached fifth grade, everything changed. Our drill-sergeant choir leader retired and was replaced by an engaging new director who wore cuffed bell-bottoms and bright scarves in her hair. At our first practice, she handed out percussion instruments for all of us to play. On another day, she spun Smokey Robinson’s pop hit “The Tears of a Clown” on her phonograph. Even better, she invited us to dance, and as we did, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl I had a crush on.

Smokey’s voice was a distant echo as I made my way off the choral riser at the Christmas concert to perform my unplanned solo. I listened to my new choir director’s piano vamp, and then I began to sing:

“When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day. I asked the Lord to help me …”

Unfortunately, the Lord wasn’t much help that night; in the cavernous gym, my voice sounded as thin as a reed, and my neck muscles were taut, like cello strings. I thought I was going to faint – and then Christmas came early.

When I reached the chorus – “Go tell it on the mountain …” – I heard a low, rich voice behind me, welcome as a life raft. As I warbled on – “over the hills and everywhere …” I looked over to the piano. My choir director’s eyes were closed and her head was tilted back slightly, like she was singing to heaven. Her assured alto calmed me. In the second verse, I sang with more confidence. And when she syncopated a lyric as we repeated the chorus together, I felt the spark of her improvisation. At the song’s end, everyone clapped, and I took an awkward, happy bow.

Whenever I hear “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” it brings me back to a packed gymnasium at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School; to a hip and gifted choir director; and to my mountaintop moment as a singer – the first and only one.

I really should have thanked my friend for getting the flu.

Confessions of a lifelong Beatlemaniac

As appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2016.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million Americans who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up too.

Later that year, as my mother prepared our family’s traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve, my older brother, Rob, and I sat on the living room floor listening to Meet The Beatles! on a portable record player. My grandfather, who lived upstairs in our Providence double-decker, walked in from the kitchen.

“Where’s the Christmas music?” he said, pointing his smoldering Dutch Masters cigar at the spinning vinyl.

“Papa,” Rob said. “It’s the Beatles!”

My brother shot me a knowing look. Listening to anything else — even “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve — was out of the question.

The following June, my mother gave each of us a crisp one-dollar bill at the start of our vacation in Narragansett.

“That’s for the whole week,” she said. “Make it last.”

Less than an hour later, Rob handed his dollar to the cashier at Adam’s variety store in exchange for 20 five-cent packs of Beatles cards. I stood at the counter, eyebrows raised.

The cards featured stylish black-and-white photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and facsimiles of their autographs. I was aghast at the instant evaporation of my brother’s allowance. But as we flipped through the images again and again, the payoff began to dawn on me. The cards reaffirmed what we had felt the first time we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: the Beatles were cool and, by extension, so were we.

That afternoon, ignoring my frugality for a moment, I slid a dime into the jukebox on the boardwalk at Scarborough Beach and played the Fab Four’s latest chart-topper, “Ticket to Ride.”

Their hits kept coming: “Help!” in July; “Yesterday” in September; Rubber Soul in time for Christmas; and the remarkable Revolver eight months later.

And then, during the Summer of Love in 1967, my father brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Everyone’s talking about this,” he said, handing us the Beatles’ new LP.

The cover art, with its photomontage of famous people, was unlike anything we had ever seen. “A Day In The Life,” with its rising orchestral glissandos, was unlike anything we had ever heard. And I loved that the lyrics were printed on the back cover. As the music played, I sang along.

In late September, Time magazine arrived in the mail, and the Beatles were on the cover. The story inside hailed them as “messengers beyond rock ‘n’ roll.” I didn’t understand the references to Schubert and Cole Porter, but I soaked up every word.

By then, I wanted a Beatles “mop top,” but my parents insisted on a “regular boys’ haircut.” Waiting at Lanni’s barbershop one day, I was shocked by a front-page headline: “Paul McCartney fighting lip cancer!” I reported the grim news at home. My father, a resolute introvert, howled before enlightening me about the journalism standards at the National Enquirer. Rumors of Paul’s death two years later would find me less gullible.

The Beatles charted 27 number-one songs before breaking up in 1970. People are still listening today. After going live on Spotify last December 24, Beatles tunes were streamed more than 70 million times in just three days.

Years ago, I smiled the first time I heard my daughter singing along to John Lennon’s “In My Life” in her bedroom. Juliana was a fan too.

This past Christmas, I handed her a flat, square present topped with a big red bow.

“No way!” Julie said, after stripping away the wrapping paper.

She beamed at the framed album cover – the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father had given to Rob and me back in 1967.

“And there’s a bonus,” I said. “The record’s inside.”

“My friend has a turntable,” she said. “We can play it!”

Drop the needle, Julie. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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