East End Memories

MUSICAL EVENINGS

Top Row, left to right: Pictures of Marie Lloyd
Bottom Row, left to right: Vesta Tilley in male attire, Gracie Fields, Sir Harry Lauder & Aimee Stewart

What amazes me is that of late I seem to resemble my parents more and more each day. No, I do not mean that I am looking more like them, but rather that I am beginning to make many of the same remarks that they use to make. However, what is more surprising to me is that I am finding myself coming to the same conclusions regarding certain old topics of controversy, which once divided us. What is also surprising is that I am actually beginning to like many of the things that they once liked and which I used to dismiss and even pooh-pooh with horror and distain. For example, consider their taste in music. It isn’t that I disliked the kinds of music that they enjoyed. To be honest, I never gave their choices much thought. I merely found their choices to be old fashioned and dull. With the passage of time, and now that I have more time to sit and actually listen to, perhaps for the first time, their music, I have discovered that I am not dismissing their tunes as sentimental rubbish and that now I am actually liking many of them.

I wondered if this newly found fondness for some of my parents’ favourite tunes to be no more than an extension of my own feelings of sentimentality. Sentimentality now coexists along with the feelings of sadness, sorrow and regret, which developed with their deaths. After all, what do we have left to remember one’s parents, or anyone else for that matter, once they are gone? Memories, both good and bad, a few pictures, perhaps a few objets that sit in a cupboard and the music that they liked.

Not long ago, I decided that I had had more than enough of working and contacted the American Social Security Service and requested that the wheels of their burocracy be put into motion on my behalf and asked to be allowed to join the aged of this country. Once accepted into this group, I was left with the necessary time to pursue activities that were self-indulgent and pleasing to me. I was now able to do things that I never had the time for when working. Since I enjoyed listening to music, I thought that it might be interesting to see if I could collect together some of the tunes that held a special significance to me at some time in my life.

As with most things, I find that once I start a collection, I find it hard to stop. To date, this self-absorbing quest has caused me to burn some thirty or so compact discs of almost eighty minutes each. I started with the intention of finding tunes that were from my childhood. This search was then extended to my school years, then to my college years and so on and so forth. Each compact disc is filled, or should I say jammed packed since not one byte of space is left unfilled, with tunes that have held some meaning to me (this is not counting classical music). For those of you that do not know me, this may seem to be somewhat excessive. For those of you that do know me, it will not.

Throughout my life, I have been surrounded and subjected to music. So it is quite natural to me to have a tune or even several tunes to have become associated with a particular event or a person and or even a place in my life. What was surprising to me was how easy it was to find the tunes from my childhood and youth, college years and so on. I give special thanks to the many specific websites on the Internet that have blossomed in recent years and which are dedicated to such matters. Needless to say, it is possible that the odd forgotten tune may still come to me every now and again and then I go to YouTube or some other such site where I can be certain that someone with far too much time on his hands will have uploaded it for me. I specifically say his hands since the person most likely to have spent time uploading a tune to such websites is, ninety-nine point nine, nine, nine percent of the time, male.

What I have found surprising about my collection of discs is that it consists of a good many tunes that were liked by my mother and father. As surprising as this is, what surprises me even more is that many of them were particular favourites of my father.

I cannot say that my father and I developed what by any stretch of the imagination could be described as a warm and loving relationship. It was not that we disliked each other. It was not that we did not love each other. It was just that we did not seem to get along. I had my reasons. And he? Well, who knew what his reasons were for doing anything - but more about this elsewhere.

My father enjoyed some songs of the day, but most of his favourites were from opera and operetta, as well as from certain modern musicals. He never developed a taste for rock ‘n’ roll or any of the trends that came from it. At the mere mention of this type of music, he would bring his right hand up to his face and place it across his forehead. He would then close his eyes and would remain motionless except for the movement of his lips as he stated that it was just noise and gave him a headache. Then he would turn up his nose slightly and shake his head a little. With this, he would dismiss it all and then turn away as if he had smelt a particularly offensive odour. To be fair, it wasn’t that he was against rock ‘n’ roll artists, since if Elvis or Cliff or even The Beatles sang what he considered to be a melodious tune that did not shatter his eardrums, he would welcome it and enjoy it, but on the whole, most of it was dismissed as noise.

HMV radiogramFor my part, when I was child I would dismiss his choices. Whenever one of his favourites would be played on the radio or whenever one was played on our radiogram, I would raise my eyes to the sky and dismiss it as being too boring to listen to.

It was therefore much to my surprise that after collecting many of my father’s favourites together that I found myself, and in spite of myself, actually listening to them and finding many to be pleasant and interesting. It did not take me long to bring together enough tunes to fill three compact discs of his stuff. Since then, and again this is truly surprising to me, I find myself listening to these discs with some regularity. However, if this were not enough, I find that of late I have actually taken to singing along with some these tunes and actually enjoying the experience. As my Jewish friends would say …….. go figure!

I was brought up at the time, which is not so long ago, before television infiltrated and took over the average home; before the computer began to rot the minds of the young; before the advent of video games and the need to talk about meaningless topics on-line in chat rooms. I was lucky enough to be brought up with the radio and when people made their own music. This was a time when radio did not just play mindless music and when the airwaves were not filled with screaming shock jocks and ‘phone-in programmes. My childhood was in the days when radio was filled with live plays, live music, comedy programmes and variety shows. Lucky as I was to be raised with such culture, where I was truly lucky was in being brought up in a family that still retained the vestiges of the Victorian musical evening.

As I have said, when I was very young, my parents had a pie ‘n’ mash shop in Whitechapel. Like many people in trade, we lived above the shop or premises, as it was called. This home was the first real home that my parents had. That is to say, it was larger than the two rooms with shared toilet that most people in the East End of London rented in those days. Above the shop were three rooms: the kitchen, the sitting room and a small dining room. There were stairs that led up to two large bedrooms and, just off the stairs, was a separate toilet and a bathroom. This was indeed a large apartment or living area and my parents were thought of as having made it in the society about them.

When they moved to the shop, as they called it, they brought their furniture, which was sufficient for the needs of most people. However, it lacked one essential piece of furniture that most sophisticated folk of the time would consider vital for the life that they now lived. This was a piano. A piano would be necessary for two reasons: firstly, it was considered vital for me, since any child could not be considered to be educated unless he or she learned to play a musical instrument; and secondly, my father was able to the piano by ear, which in the society that he moved in was considered to be a gift and was greatly admired and generally sought out. In addition, with a piano, we were then able to offer ourselves the grandest of events …… the musical evening.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the musical evening was a greatly cherished event in polite and cultured society and signified exactly that, which was that the family that held such soirees was indeed truly polite and truly cultured. Although, at that time, such a way to pass an evening had fallen out of vogue thanks largely to the coming of the gramophone and the radio, the playing of a musical instrument was still greatly admired, as was the ability to sing. Therefore, no self-respecting, upwardly mobile person or family was worth their salt unless members of the family possessed one or more of these gifts.

The East End of London has always been an area of London where poor immigrants first lived upon arrival in the country. Although these people were poor in terms of what they owned, they were not necessarily lacking in the knowledge of genteel living. Such people may not have been able to dress in the height of fashion or work in a stylish part of the city, but when one spoke to many of them or went to their homes, one would most certainly have been surprised by what was found there. For in many, both music and literature would be present and would be much admired, which is more than could be said for most of the homegrown populace.

Unfortunately for my mother, she did not have the good fortune to be born into such an environment, although her grandparents apparently were. My mother’s father was killed during the First World War. Her mother remarried hastily and without sufficient thought. Tragically for my mother, her stepfather turned out to be a drunkard and a bully and made her life, and that of her elder brother, a total misery. However, despite this brutal start to her life, she somehow managed to gain a sense of things that could enrich one’s life and saw to it that such things would be part her own family’s life and so saw to it that I was exposed to all the elements of genteel living and culture from a very early age. And for this, I am eternally grateful to her.

My father, on the other hand, had very good parents and was given many opportunities during his youth. He had been brought up in a home where music and good manners were of importance. There was a piano in his home when he was growing up. Apparently his mother had played. Sadly, his mother died while he was still young and so she was not able to teach him how to play. Although he never received any formal piano lessons, he managed to teach himself to play by ear, and this held him in good stead throughout his life.

And so it was natural that my father and mother, once they moved to larger accommodation, would go as soon as possible to the music shop, which was found on the border between Whitechapel and The City of London and arrange for a nice upright to be delivered to their new home. The delivery of a piano was something to bring out the neighbours in full force for it was not everyday that such an event took place. And besides, some mishap might occur and bring much merriment to them. The children of the area lined the route taken by the deliverymen from the road across the pavement. They must have been overjoyed when they realized that our piano was not going to be taken through the shop and up the narrow and dangerously winding staircase. Our piano was to be raised up to the first floor by robe and pulley previously secured to the roof and then maneuvered through one of the large windows that opened into the front room and placed where it would not only be admired but, in our case, played and played often. Each child, like many an adult present that day, most likely harboured a secret hope that the men would somehow drop the piano so that they could watch it fall to the ground where it would be smashed into a thousand pieces, just as they would have seen it happen in the films.

Upright PianoProbably much to the disappointment of the onlookers, the piano was hoisted up to the first floor and eased through the now-removed window and brought safely into the front room floor. It was placed against a wall, which had been agreed upon earlier by my parents. In fact, my father had insisted on it being placed just so since the early morning sun would shine on it and so give him sufficient light should the desire come upon him to play at that hour. To be honest, I can never remember my father ever playing the piano during the daytime, let alone in the early morning hours, but no matter.

The piano soon became indispensable to us and brought joy to our home. On Sunday evenings, as regular as clockwork, my father would be found seated on the stool that came with the piano and would be ready to play tunes from amongst his ever expanding repertoire. As I have said, my father was self taught and so played the piano by ear. As a result of his lack of formal training, the rhythm played by his left hand was always the same. It would be the same vamping, as my mother called it, irrespective of whether he played Gilbert & Sullivan, The Warsaw Concerto or My old man said follow the van and don’t dilly dally on the way. However, his lack of formal training made no difference to us since, as important as his playing was, the main point of the musical evening was to sing. And sing we did. Each of us would sing songs that appealed to us while my father accompanied. My father, who saw himself as the star attraction, both sang and played, and saw to it that his oeuvres took up the greater part of the evening’s presentations.

My father was always on the lookout for new material. Whenever a new song came out and appealed to him, he would sit at the piano and tinkle around, as my mother called it, and within minutes, and find the notes through trail and error. Eventually he would have the melody committed to memory. Following a final quick run through, one or all of us would be singing the words. Should we not know all or any of the words, we were never daunted in the least, since we would fill in the blanks with hearty la-la-la-ing. Our lack of knowledge of the correct words never interfered with the pleasure that we experienced.

My mother had what was called a powerful voice and had the ability to be heard by passers-by in the street whenever she chose to sing one of her special favourites. My mother was related to the great Music Hall entertainer Marie Lloyd. She was very proud of this, as I am, and had a special liking for her songs. Whenever my mother sang one of her songs, she would do so with much verve and animation. My mother would generally begin her song seated on the settee, but before she had reached the first chorus, she would have leapt up and would be acting out the lyrics. This would not only include facial expressions and hand gestures, but also a soft shoe shuffle that would occasionally grow into a full-blown dance routine. My mother had a great sense of rhythm and kept perfect time. She would become vexed when in the middle of one of her numbers, my father would miss a note or else stumble in error when it came to a particular phrase. Totally oblivious to my mother and her need for music, he would play various notes in an attempt to find the correct ones. This would generally be achieved, but only after a while during which he kept my mother waiting. At this time, my mother would be fully into the character of the song and would be both insulted and annoyed at his inability to continue, and so hold her up, and would voice her irritation at having to work with such an amateur as my father. Occasionally, when such an affront to her performance would occur and she was in close range of my father, her annoyance would overflow and she would give him a slight push into the keyboard. My father, never one to take criticism or a joke would become insulted too and tell my mother not to be so spiteful, whereupon she would laugh and make amusing faces at him while calling him a big baby. I really used to enjoy this sort of interaction between them, for even at my young age, I could tell that the push had nothing to do with his musical error, but rather was payback for something hateful that he had done in the recent past. In those days women had to get their revenge where they could!

Sophie TuckerMy mother’s very favourite singer was Sophie Tucker (left) who was an American singer with tremendous personality and charm. She would perform with either a single pianist or else with a large band and would literally belt out most of her songs. Her voice was powerful and needed no microphone to be heard. However, she also had a quieter side to her presentations. She would half sing-half speak the lyrics of such songs and show great tenderness. She would hold a silk handkerchief in one hand, which she would use to great effect in her act. My mother loved anything and everything that Ms Tucker sang, but her favourite by far, was the song My Yiddishe Moma. As my mother had been raised with Jews and always worked and associated with them, it was not surprising that she could speak, to some extent, Yiddish. Whenever she sang this song, which was often, for I liked it too and always requested it, she would treat us to a verse and a chorus in Yiddish. This was done with great emotion and would generally end with my mother sitting down in silent tears. Also overcome with emotion from her presentation, I would leap up from my seat and run to her side and there would then be much hugging as we regained control of ourselves. Now this was great stuff! While all this emotion was being shared, my father being totally oblivious to it and our feelings, would be launching into his next tune, which of course would be sung by him.

My mother tended to specialize in the more upbeat songs of Ms Tucker and others. One of the last recordings of Ms Tucker was a song called I want to say hello. Here my mother allowed herself to have free rein and would launch herself into this song at full pelt. This was a perfect song for my mother, as you liked to put a little swing into her renditions, often to the horror of my father. She would begin reasonably quietly and with only some facial and body animation, but once she had sung it through once, it was now time to let rip and to give the song the full treatment. Here she would ratchet up the volume and allow her personality to take over and she had a big personality! She would bring such joy to her singing and soft shoe shuffle that I was enraptured and totally captivated by her efforts to entertain. At the end of such a performance, both she and I were exhausted and required some sustenance before we could continue the command performance.

My father, although not anywhere near as flamboyant as my mother, was equally a showman, but in a more seemingly cultured style. My mother was a terrible tease and would love to torment my father. However, before the reader starts to give sympathy to my father, do please remember that he was far from being a saint and had done many, many things to my mother and had subjected her to much pain and heartache in her life that she was forced to gain some revenge wherever she could. Anyway, my father liked to think of himself as being more sedate in his performance and he would often accuse my mother, especially when she had just entertained us with a particular rousing version of one of her favourites, of being vulgar. This would cause her to either remind him that her vulgarity was performed in her own home and not, as he liked to do, in a pub for the whole world to see. My father would often go to the pub and would play and sing and get very animated there once he had had some beer down his neck, as my mother would say. Other times, especially when he had turned his nose up after a rendition by my mother that he found especially distasteful, she would jokingly accuse him of behaving like some Sunday School teacher and mock his prim and prissy ways, whereupon she would torment him further in a mock upper class voice. My father would pretend to ignore her remarks and begin to play a more cultured tune while maintaining his nose in the air. It would take him quite sometime to get over his sulk. My father was always more of a child than me.

My father’s grandfather was Welsh. The Welsh, like the Italians, have a reputation of being great singers and my father believed himself to be such a singer. I do not doubt that he was a reasonably good singer in his youth, but by no stretch of the imagination could one consider him a good singer. He was the kind of person who flew into a rage whenever he heard some poor mildly talented singer on television or on the radio. He would be appalled at their lack of range or at the lackluster sound of their voice and would be quick to inform you and anyone else that was within earshot that he most certainly could do better. This would cause my mother to raise her eyes, since she knew that he would be ranting on for sometime about how much better he was than the singer.

The real tragedy of his declaration was that my father actually meant what he was saying about being better than the singer. When I was older, and having inherited my mother’s tormenting nature where he was concerned, I would love to introduce him to a singer that I knew would cause him to become angry. Whenever such a singer came on television or the radio, I would be certain to ask my father if he did not feel that he could sing better than him. Predictably, my father would jump up and launch into the horrors of this singer and say that it would be a poor day if he could not do better. It would not take much more prodding on my part to get him to rant on for sometime. Meanwhile, I would have collapsed with laughter and most often would find it necessary to stuff a handkerchief into my mouth in an attempt to suppress it. My mother would try to calm my father down, but generally it would be too late and we would have to endure his rantings for a while longer. I really used to enjoy his response to my questions, I am sorry to say. However, like my mother, as I grew, I had many reasons for getting my revenge where I could when it came to the subject of my father.

Although my father would play and sing for us during our Musical Evening, I suspect that he really played and sang for himself since he never seemed to notice our appreciation unless we withheld it. If he did not receive what he felt were he due accolades, he would turn from the piano to look at us and make a comment such as I am just checking that you’re not asleep. We would then have to become more excessive and expressive in our praise. My father would get a look on his face, a kind of self-important smirk and then turn back to the piano once he thought that he had received the praise that he thought that he deserved and was his due. As I said, he was always more of a child than ever I was.

To be honest, my father could sing quite well, but certainly not as good as he thought. He would like to sing songs from operettas mostly and his favourites were by Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg and Ivor Novello. Of all his songs that I heard as a child, I was most taken by Vilja. I always liked the opening line: Vilja, oh Vilja, the witch of the wood. Even at my young age, I could feel the pathos and even the pain that came from this song.

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald - Naughty MariettaMy father had his very special favourite tunes. Over the years, these songs drove both my mother and myself nuts. It wasn’t that these songs were so terrible, because they weren’t; it wasn’t that my mother and myself had any terrible memories associated with them, because we didn’t; it was just that my father would somehow be lost whenever he sang them and would appear to be off somewhere in another world. He would take himself oh so very seriously whenever he sung them and believe himself to be Nelson Eddy or someone like him. My mother was convinced that whenever he went off into one of his trances, as she called these interludes, that he was off somewhere, in his mind, and was wooing and singing to Jeanette MacDonald in a glade or wood!

One of the songs, which would cause him to drift off into la-la land, was Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life from Naughty Marietta. Years later, I remember passing a video store close to my home and noticed that it was going-out-of-business. I went in and happen to notice that they were selling the films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy for less than half price. Not having seen any of them, I began to read the blurb on the back of one and noticed that Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life was one of the songs featured in the film. I could not resist buying the copy of the film. A little later, I remember laughing heartily, as after having watched the film, I found myself running back to the store to scoop up the other films of this duo. Now it is my father’s turn to laugh, as these films are often watched in my home and I find myself equally as captivated by Ms MacDonald as my father obviously was.

Another favourite of his was Ciribiribin, which was sung by Grace Moore. My father would play the melody of this song with great gusto and his right hand would run up and down the keyboard playing it over and over again. Eventually, he would settle on an area of the keyboard that suited his voice and would then launch into singing. This song gave both my mother and myself more fun than any of the other favourites since the words were somewhat silly. My father would sing them with great feeling and would linger over certain words for added effect, which would only cause us to laugh more. However, since he was off in another world and walking through a wood with Grace Moore on his arm, he never seemed to notice.

Richard TauberAs loved as these two songs were by my father, his all-time favourite was neither of them. This accolade was saved for a song by the great Richard Tauber (right) and entitled My Heart and I. I remember that we had three copies of this song on record and each was of Richard Tauber singing it. My father had bought three copies since he feared one wearing out and another breaking. He reasoned that if he purchased three copies then he would always have a copy left. He would generally sing and play this song at least twice during a musical evening and he would always enjoy each rendition.

Years later, once we moved from London to a house in a new town, my father became a minor celebrity in the street where we lived. This honour did not come from any good deeds or from general neighbourly behaviour, but rather from his singing. We lived at the corner of a cul-de-sac and our bathroom window opened onto one of the streets. Whenever my father put his foot across the threshold of the bathroom, he would burst into song. This would happen each time he went to wash his hands or take a bath and it would happen no matter what the hour of the day was. My mother and myself found this habit of his to be quite embarrassing. I remember coming home from school with other kids on more than one occasion and would hear him singing one of his favourites at the top of his lungs as I made my way along the street. I was always mortified and wanted the street to open up and swallow me. When asked to try not to sing so loudly or even curb his singing completely, he would say that he was unable to stop himself from doing so. He would say that once his foot entered the bathroom, he would find himself singing. It was beyond his control. The funny thing about his bathroom singing was that he would remain in the bathroom until his song was finished and would not leave before then.

My father’s singing amused the neighbours at first, but as time passed, it seemed that they actually began to tolerate it and then to actually enjoy it. Their acceptance of his singing and their appreciation of it stunned me, I must confess. As the years passed, and my father aged, the neighbours were most saddened to find that he had difficulties reaching the high notes of his favourite songs. Sadly, we heard his voice cracking each time as he tried in vain to reach these notes. At first, he would compensate his failures by coming down an octave or by changing key in order to finish his phrase. Although I was amused to hear his sad and increasingly feeble attempts to reach the notes, I was also filled with a certain sadness at his inability to reach them. Eventually, my father began to suffer more and more the effects of drinking and smoking and the mere act of singing became difficult. And then, at long last, my father was forced to do as we had once wished all those many years earlier, and he stopped singing altogether upon entry to the bathroom. Naturally, my mother and myself gained no joy from finally getting our way.

Although I was young when our musical evenings took place, my mother encouraged me to take my turn and perform. Since I must have believed that it was natural to stand up and sing, I did so and showed no shyness. One of my special favourites was The Galloping MajorThis great old song was perfect for me and allowed me to not only sing but to gallop about the room thereby allowing me to give my all to my performance.  Another song that I can recall singing for my parents was My Foolish Heart. I remember that we had a gramophone record of this song and sung by a singer called Steve Conway who was popular at that time. He was a local fellow who had apparently made good, but I believe that his career was cut short by his untimely death. Judging by the lyrics, the song was meant to be sung by an adult and certainly not by a child. I shudder with embarrassment at the thought of my singing such lyrics as The night is like a melody - beware my foolish heart and there’s a line between love and fascination that it difficult to see on a night such as this. In my mind’s eye, I can see myself now standing next to the piano and pouring my heart into those lines. I cannot believe the audacity ……., the nerve ……., the sheer chutzpah ……. that I showed in doing so. Thank goodness that such a performance was for my parents only.

My repertoire grew thanks to the radio programmes that I listened to and from the Hollywood Musicals that I saw. However, I got my greatest inspiration from my parents’ gramophone record collection. As a child, I had my favourite singers. I was especially fond of Doris Day and Judy Garland and would easily learn the songs that they performed. I was always happy to sing about the joys of boating On Moonlight Bay and to belt out the Lullaby of old Broadway. However, my particular favourite was the music from the film Easter Parade. Regardless of the time of year, I was always ready to sing about your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it and show of my eagerness to board that midnight choo-choo leaving for Alabam-Alabam-Alabam and to tell my audience that I love a piano and that I love to hear somebody play! But best of all, I would enjoy singing we’re a couple of swells who lived at the best hotels. For this oeuvre, I not only sang both singing parts, but also dared to introduce some steps that I had seen Fred Astaire and Judy Garland perform in the film. Although I stole my routine, I believe that I should receive some credit for doing so only from the best!

One thing that I am grateful to my parents for is their realism when it came to their response to my performance. I am forever thankful that they did not find me an especially talented kid and did not parade me before their friends and family and force them to endure me making a fool of myself. Thanks to their realistic assessment of my talent, they neither rushed me off to the office of an agent in the hope that he would discover me nor did they shower me with sweets and presents whenever I sang. No, my singing, and that of my mother, was for family consumption only. Regardless of whether it was good or bad, it was something for us and not for outsiders, unlike that of my father.

During the week, my father did not play the piano. However, I did. For a short time each afternoon, I would practice my scales and little tunes that I had been charged with learning. I started taking lessons at a very young age and remember actually enjoying them. My teacher was a lady that used to look after me when I was very young. Since both my parents spent long hours working in their shop each day, my mother would take me each weekday and Saturday morning to the house of an old woman who had been a missionary and I would spend the day with her. The lady, Miss Kingston, was a classic spinster both in appearance and in her manner. However, I remember enjoying myself with her. We would pass the days doing interesting things and I learned a great many things from her. She was a frail old lady who always wore a dark blue bonnet on her head that she tied under her chin with long velvet ribbons. Once I started school, I would go to her house twice a week for piano lessons. Here she would instruct me on how to play and on the theory of music. Following each visit, I would pay her with the two-shilling coin that my mother had given me. She would accept the coin with grateful thanks and every one was happy.

Once we fell on hard times and forced to move from the shop, we had to free ourselves of certain pieces of furniture since our new home would be smaller and decidedly less up market. Tragically, this meant that the piano had to go, and as a result, so did our musical evenings as we had known them. We were fortunate enough to move to the house of Miss Kingston and so my lessons could continue.

A few years later, we moved out of London altogether and went to a new town to live. One good thing about moving was that our new home could accommodate a piano. Once they had saved up the money, my parents went again to a music shop to buy a piano. This time the shop was a more modern shop in Windsor close to the castle where they bought another small upright. The plan was for me to continue with my piano lessons, for my father to return to playing and for us and to revive our Sunday evening pastime. Sadly, as is the case with the best-laid plans of mice and men, things do not always work out as hoped. My mother found a teacher that lived close by who although being a pleasant woman was not Miss Kingston. As I got older, the demands of my schoolwork increased and began to interfere with practice and eventually a choice had to be made. Sadly the lessons were stopped. I regretted having to make this decision, but swore that one day, when I had a house of my own, I would buy a piano and continue my lessons. I did keep my promise, but only in part, as you will learn.

Following our move out of London, my father did continue to play the piano and we did enjoy musical evenings once more, but only for a while. However, the evenings were never quite the same, for as I grew, and my voice cracked and changed, it became apparent that I did not have a good singing voice and, as a result, I spared my family the horrors of my efforts. In addition, and sadly, I was no longer interested by the same style of music that I once was. I suspect that I tolerated these evenings during this time and probably allowed my boredom to show.

For their part, my mother and father would continue to sing for some years, but other forms of home entertainment together with the development of arthritis in the finger joints of my father’s hands began to take their toll on their musical evenings, and slowly but surely, his playing of the piano became less and less and eventually none existent, but by then I had long since gone to college and was never to officially live at home again.

Some years later, during one of my visits to see my parents, I organized the sale of the piano. It had long since fallen into oblivion and had sat in its usual place for some time, but was never played now. I was happy that some friends of mine bought it and my parents let them have it for next-to-nothing. I helped them with its move, transportation and installation into their home, which would have proved amusing to onlookers had there been any, as they wanted it in a spare bedroom and this meant manipulating it up two flights of narrow stairs and around a winding landing. There were no kids watching this event and no one to hope that the adventure would end up with the piano slipping down the stairs and out into the street and finally being smashed to pieces. Not long after this, my friends decided that after fifteen years of marriage that they needed to divorce. I learned that the husband was granted custody of the piano, and together, they set off for pastures new. And as is the way with time, I lost touch with him and so never learned the fate of the piano.

Once the piano was no longer a part of my parents’ home, a couch soon occupied the space where it had stood and it was not long before it seemed as if it had never been there. To my knowledge, my father never mentioned the piano or our musical evenings again. I was told that he did continue to play occasionally when he went to a pub, but since neither my mother nor me was ever invited to join him on his jaunts, I am unable to vouch to the truth of this. The only time that I can remember my father voicing any opinion about a piano after this was on an occasion when I was home and he was watching It’s a knockout on television. I feel certain that in spite of yourself you will remember this programme. Here people from various towns around the British Isles would compete for something or other and the eventual overall winner would next go on to compete against winners from various other European countries. The only thing that I could tolerate about this programme was the great Eddie Waring, but that is another matter. My father was watching some townsfolk smashing up an old upright piano and then pushing the pieces through a mock letterbox. I will not quote his exact words although I do remember them, but needless to say, he was less than thrilled that such a fate befell the piano. He thought that the smashing up of a piano to be a disgrace and I think that he never watched that programme again after seeing this. At least something good came out of the indignity shown to that piano.

Throughout the rest of her life, my mother would often talk of the old days and of our musical evenings. And, as she remembered the fun that we used to have on those Sunday evenings of so long ago, a dreamy look would come into her eyes and I would know that it would not be long before she would be recounting some amusing tale of yesteryear and that we would be laughing merrily together as we relived it once more.

AFTER THOUGHT

As an adult, I have lived in apartments where pianos would not be welcome. A few years ago, I began to think about finally getting a house of my own. Naturally I procrastinated about this for an age. I could always find excuses as to why I should not buy a house: the bother of tending the garden; the million and one little jobs that always need to be done and take what free time that I had; and the price of paying a mortgage etc etc. The list was endless. Eventually the decision was taken out of my hands, thank goodness, and a realtor friend of mine took me one fine day to look at a small and unassuming house in a quiet and unassuming street. By this time, I had left academia and was working in a small clinic as a family physician and was just at the point of becoming disillusioned with my second profession. Since I could think of no valid reason why I should not buy the house, it soon became mine (and the bank’s, of course). Once I moved in, I was amazed at the joy I discovered at having a home where there was space. However, what really came as a surprise to me was that I was now able to play music at a reasonable volume and at any hour of the day or night that I chose without fear of upsetting my neighbours. I cannot tell you how liberating this was to me. Although I was never someone that enjoyed music blaring out, as my father used to say, but I would have liked to have listened to my favourite pieces at a reasonable volume. And now I could.

While working at that particular clinic, I noticed that the physician who owned it had, for some unknown reason to me then, a piano in the storeroom. Apparently, the piano belonged to his ex-son-in-law and he was storing it for him. The ex-son-in-law had long been separated from his wife and had been taken the piano as part of the settlement.

Once I got my house, I remember sitting quietly in my living room one evening and thinking back to my childhood and to our musical evenings. Soon I was remembering them with amusement, pleasure and embarrassment. During this trip back into my memories, quite suddenly I remembered my dream of owning a piano sometime in the future. Naturally, it did not take me long to convince myself of the sense of reviving this dream and to find out if that piano in the clinic was for sale.

Luckily for me, the son-in-law was, at that time, in need of money.  According to his ex-father-in-law, this was a common occurrence. After further inspection of the piano and finding it to be in a reasonably good condition and with a good sound, but in need of tuning, I decided to offer to buy it. Since he was presently in great need of the readies, he enthusiastically entered into discussion and, in no time at all, we arrived at a mutually agreeable price. I am sure that I overpaid him for the piano, but since I had set my heart on having it, I did not mind.

The piano was a small brown upright and came without a stool. I was told that pianos were no longer sold with stools, which I have to confess, came as some surprise to me. I arranged to have the piano brought to my house where it was placed against a wall in one of the spare bedrooms. I was very excited to finally have my own piano and I remember having such grand intentions regarding lessons and practice. Each day, I would sit before the piano and practice a few scales that I remembered from my lessons and I would also play some little pieces that I had learned at that time. I would also allow my fingers to do the walking over the notes. I had hoped that I had inherited my father’s ability to play by ear. However, as hard as I tried, I could never get a tune and always had to content myself with three or four notes that sounded pleasant to my ear, but which by no stretch of the imagination could be considered to be a tune. I was very downhearted.

For some unknown reason, I had some sheet music and decided that I would learn to play one of the tunes. Although I was able to eventually play the right hand, the notes for the left hand escaped me. I remembered F-A-C-E for the spaces of the right hand stave and E-G-B-D-F the lines, but try as I might, I could not seem to commit to memory the equivalents of the left hand. Learning to play a tune was not going to be an easy business. After a while, I decided to concentrate on learning the right hand part of the piece. Knowing the notes and playing the notes are two quite different things and each time I sat down to play, I soon realized that I was making little headway. I was getting quite upset.

Adding to my displeasure by now was my full appreciation that the piano was badly out of tune. Naturally, I felt that the poor state of the piano strings was reasonable for my inability to knock out a tune on the piano. Revived with my false excuse and no longer daunted, I set about with renewed enthusiasm to try to find a piano tuner.

If I thought that knocking out a tune was a frustrating occupation, finding a piano tuner took me a new level irritation. Tragically, this proved to be more difficult than I had expected and the search took on the elements of a quest.

While on my quest to track down the elusive piano tuner, I tried to use the piano and really did try, as best as I could, to find the time to practice scales and make feeble attempts to play the simple pieces taught to me by Miss Kingston. However, as the frustration mounted, I realized that the demands of work allowed me little time to follow these pursuits and so began to believe that it was the lack of time that was impeding my progress. Unfortunately, days would now pass and I would not touch the piano. I began to feel guilty and became upset that although I was willing and wanting to practice, I simply did not have the necessary time to do so. Naturally, I still read books and watched television.

George ShearingAgain thanks to quiet thought, I believe that I came upon a solution to my problem. I soon convinced myself that if I could find a teacher then I would be forced to make time for practice and so make progress and perhaps one day give a recital. I have never been one to dream small, as you have no doubt gathered by now. To be honest, my secret wish has been to play two tunes in the style of George Shearing. I am always totally blown away, no matter how many times that I hear the opening bars of You came a long way from St. Louis and I lost my sugar in Salt Lake City. His touch is quite remarkable, and an inspiration, especially on this album, Beauty and the Beat.

If I had thought that my quest to find a piano tuner was frustrating, this proved to be nothing compared to that when trying to find a piano teacher. I asked my middle class friends if they knew of anyone wishing to give me lessons. Although their children are regularly exhausted by their pursuits such as ballet, soccer, karate etc etc etc, it seemed that none of them was learning the piano. I next put advertisements in local newspapers. I went to the local high school to speak to the music teacher. Sadly, the music programme had been cut due to the lack of funds and there was no longer a music department in the school. I was at a loss to know what to do.

Slowly and without my really noticing, the piano became reduced to a mere piece of furniture in one of my rooms. It had become reduced to a place on which to put books and papers for safekeeping. Again, during some quiet thoughtful time, I happened to set my mind thinking about the old days and I once more remembered the joy that I had had as a child when my father played and sang and when my mother treated us to one of her renditions of Sophie Tucker. It was then, quite suddenly, that it finally dawned on me that, in spite of all my wishes and wants, I was probably not going to learn how to play the piano after all. I sat there quite surprised by my epiphany.

After a minute or so, I soon realized that this understanding had been a long time coming. However, it is one thing to know something and quite another to accept it. This was a bitter pill to swallow, but one that could not be refused. As I sat there, I knew that it was a waste to allow the piano to sit un-played in my house no matter how much I wanted to keep it. The piano belonged in a home where its needs could be met. The more I sat and the more I thought, it became clear to me that the piano needed three things: to be placed in a home with a child who actually wanted to learn how to play; where a teacher could be found; and where a tuner could called upon periodically to see that the notes rang true. And so, with much regret, I set about finding a home for my piano where it would be appreciated and allowed to bring the family a similar pleasure to that which I had had as a child. Here’s hoping....


For those readers that would like to hear the songs mentioned in this story, I offer links that will lead you to www.youtube.com where you can hear them. In as many cases as possible, I have tried to find the version that I was most familiar with as a child, however since I am relying on the uploading tastes of others, my preferred versions may not always be present. Although certain versions may not be the ones originally discovered by me as a child, as the French say ……. Faute des grives, on mange des merles! I hope that you enjoy them.....

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Songs for a 'Musical Evening'




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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins