Incomplete memoir (Part 13)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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My grandparents have played a big part in my life. My grandfather was a saxophonist and clarinetist when he was younger. He played in a swing band with some guys from the GE plant where he worked. When I was growing up, my grandparents had one of those console stereos that was a piece of furniture. It looked like the bottom part of a hutch when it was closed up. It was painted white, and the speaker section along the front had a curtain covering it. To get to the controls, you opened the top of the console. Inside was a turntable and a receiver. My grandpa had a big collection of swing records – including an entire series of records by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. These records were made in the 1950s, when Gray decided to create an archive of classic swing tunes by recreating the arrangements of the famous big bands.

I learned every note on every one of these records. Unlike most kids in the late 70’s, who were memorizing the lyrics to “Detroit Rock City,” I was learning the horn parts to “Nightmare” and “String of Pearls” and “Take The A Train.” I also developed a real passion for Nat “King” Cole that continues to this day. My grandfather knew most of the soloists from the records – particularly the sax and clarinet players. He and my grandma were also big Lawrence Welk fans, and they both knew the names of every musician and singer and dancer on the show.

My favorite album, and the one I learned the best, was Kenton In Hi-Fi. Kenton made this fantastic recording in 1956 for Capitol Records, and it features many of Stan’s biggest hits – “Artistry In Rhythm,” “Eager Beaver,” “Unison Riff,” and “Artistry Jumps,” to name a few. It also features the very gutsy tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, a ridiculous trumpet section led by Pete Candoli and Maynard Ferguson, and the drumming of the incomparable Mel Lewis. This record swings its ass off from start to finish, and it’s a huge piece of my musical upbringing.

I still love big band music, particularly when it gets cold. I’m not sure what the correlation is, but as the winter approaches, I pull out all my Ellington and Basie and drift back into the first half of the 20th century. I listen to swing music throughout the year, but the strong pull of nostalgia is only there in the winter.

I used my grandparents’ stereo for another important thing – listening to the adventures of folks like Superman and Spider-Man and the Six Million Dollar Man on book-and-record sets. Remember those? Back in the 70s, Marvel and DC put out oversized comic books with LP records. These were dramatized versions of the comics, complete with actors, sound effects and music. You could follow along in the comic book while you listened.

The Six Million Dollar Man set had two adventures. One was his origin story: Test pilot Steve Austin crashes while testing an advanced aircraft. He’s severly injured, having lost one eye, one arm and both legs. Rather than perform a regular operation to save his life, the government decides to use Colonel Austin as a test subject for their new bionic project. They give him a bionic eye, bionic arm and bionic legs, making him “better, stronger and faster.” Then he becomes an agent for the government. On the flip side of the record, Austin travels to some fictional Eastern European country to take down a dictator.

I also had a Spider-Man set that included a great story about J. Jonah Jameson’s son, who travels to the moon as an astronaut, returns to earth, and turns into a werewolf due to the effects of a moonrock pendant he wears around his neck. The climax is a confrontation in Jameson’s office at the Daily Bugle. Spider-Man tears the pendant off the werewolf’s neck, and Jameson learns that the creature is really his son. Heady stuff.

I don’t know why comic book companies don’t still make those sets. I think they’d sell like hotcakes.

2 Replies to “Incomplete memoir (Part 13)”

  1. I had some of those same records, and I had the original comic book that Spider-Man story was in as well.

    I also love Big Band swing music and one of my favorite albums is ‘Benny Goodman in Hi-Fi’ which is a stellar set.

    This honestly sounds like something I could have written because it rings familiar, shared experiences and all.

    Thanks for the warm memories.

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