The den of our house in Great Neck, Long Island, where my family lived in the early 1950s, contained more of our real lives than any other room. The living room, with its light green sofa and baby-grand piano, its cut-glass decanters and porcelain figurines, was mainly for company. And the dining room, with its glittering chandelier above the glistening, dark mahogany table, was simply stuffy. The den, on the other hand, was where my family would gather in front of the television set on Sunday nights to eat pastrami and corned-beef sandwiches from collapsible TV trays and watch Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. My father’s 78-rpm record albums were shelved in the den — two rows’ worth of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke, and Benny Goodman — along with an odd assortment of books whose authors I assumed were the best Western civilization had to offer: Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Carl Sandburg, and John Gunther.
One object in our den stands out the most in my memory, for it retains the luminous glow with which my young eyes used to surround the special things of this world: my red-and-gold Motorola record player. It sat on the card table like a plump little household god, its short, thick spindle jutting up from the center of the turntable, capable of stacking eight 45-rpm records. When I listened to the shrill music emanating from its tiny speakers, I was transformed from an ordinary, lackadaisical boy into a fierce idolater whose heart overflowed with devotion. Dangerous passions coursed through me, and I understood that life, which was getting ready to spring at me, its heart apparently bursting with song, was something altogether different from what I had imagined.
Before there was sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, there was Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. In the early fifties, at least in my memory, these two balladeers would compete each Saturday morning to have the number-one song on Martin Bloch’s Make-Believe Ballroom. Most likely, the reason I remember the rivalry between the two singers (and no doubt exaggerate its importance) is because my brother and I had a rivalry based on them. Brian, who was five years older than I, liked Eddie Fisher better than Perry Como, whereas I liked Perry more, though not by much — after all, Eddie had sung “Oh! My Papa” and “Lady of Spain,” songs that, respectively, brought tears to my eyes and sent shivers of Latin passion up and down my spine. Yet when Perry sang “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” I felt as if he were singing to my soul. The summer before I turned twelve, my family had moved from Westchester to Long Island, thirty miles away, forcing me to abandon my first girlfriend, Dorothy Ewing. By my calculations, I wouldn’t see her again until I got my driver’s license — in six years. She might as well have been in Bulgaria. When I heard Perry sing, “Don’t let the stars get in your eyes. / Don’t let the moon break your heart,” I realized for the first time that music, which floats across all boundaries and rolls in waves above our circumscribed lives, has a way of binding distant hearts.
Of course, I never saw Dorothy again, but that was all right. She became a symbol of lost love — the subject of many of Perry’s songs, especially “Wild Horses,” a rousing ballad that made me realize love was meaningless unless it obliged you to overcome all obstacles that stood in its way. Sitting in my room, pining for my little lost love, I’d listen to Perry sing, “It would take more than a pack of wild horses / pulling your wagon to keep you from me,” and I’d feel something forceful and transcendent stir inside me, like the birth of a religious idea.
On my twelfth birthday my parents gave me a red cardboard box designed to hold fifty 45-rpm records. That event marked the official beginning of what I would thereafter refer to as “my record collection.” Inside the box were fifty numbered stickers that corresponded to fifty filing slots. Gluing a number to a record label and placing the record in its proper slot was always an important moment, full of the pride of ownership and a sense of an expanding net worth (represented by the increased weight of the box). But beyond this, it was simply astonishing to imagine that all that rapturous music could be compressed into so small a space.
Of course, deciding which record would occupy the number-one slot was a solemn, even ceremonial, occasion. The initial choice came down to Mario Lanza’s “Because You’re Mine” or Perry Como’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” Mario was in the running in part because my brother had said he was the greatest singer who’d ever lived. I thought Mario might be the greatest singer who’d ever lived — he was certainly the loudest, which, to my mind, was almost the same thing. On the other hand, Perry singing “The Lord’s Prayer” would set a nice religious tone for my collection. Moreover, the 45 disc was a peaceful transparent blue — like the sky in stained-glass windows. With due reverence, I put sticker number one on “The Lord’s Prayer.” And as I recorded this first entry into the master index — singer’s name, followed by the titles of sides A and B — I used my fanciest script, with capital letters dramatically embellished and a swoop at the end of every word.
My brother soon lost interest in the Fisher-Como rivalry, which gave me license to listen to other singers. There were plenty around, and I liked them all. Just to name a few is to recall the last, fading moments of the American popular-song tradition: Teresa Brewer, Frankie Laine, Georgia Gibbs, Dean Martin (briefly named Dini Martini), Patti Page (“The Singing Rage”), Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Kay Starr, and Frank Sinatra. Of course, I didn’t care for them all equally. For example, I thought Dean Martin, whose “That’s Amore” was my favorite Italian song, was a much better singer than Frank Sinatra. Unlike Frank, who often sounded upbeat and friendly, as if he had “the world on a string,” Dean always sounded suave and rakish and slightly cynical — just the way I wanted to be.
Best of all, however, was Frankie Laine, a singer with a great bullwhip of a voice, whose songs were often intense dramas: “High Noon,” for example, described the plight of a marshal forced to face down a gang of outlaws after having been forsaken by those he loved. Frankie followed this up with “I Believe,” the most inspirational song I’d ever heard. Surely nothing had ever moved me more than the conclusion to “I Believe,” in which the singer revealed the simple sources of his belief:
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky, then I know why I believe.
“I Believe” was number one on the charts for about four months.
What attracted me most about popular music, however, was the support it lent to my belief that the purpose of life was to fall in love. Naturally, I didn’t broadcast this girlish notion to my chums. Yet in my private moments, when I was most myself, I was certain that nothing could be quite as magnificent as the glory of love. Listening to the Four Aces sing “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff, high above the world of baseballs and bicycles; and from that altitude I could see that love was indeed “the April rose that only grows / in the early spring” and “nature’s way of giving / a reason to be living.” And as the voices of the Four Aces throbbed and lifted, I experienced the joy of knowing what lay beyond the jumbled, perplexing banality of everyday life.
Once on a high and windy hill, in the morning mist two lovers kissed, and the world stood still.
Of course, the greatest thrill was falling in love, but I began to understand that there was something fine and even distinguished about suffering love’s loss — especially if one continued to love, in spite of rejection. Who but the greatest lovers, I asked myself, were capable of that kind of selflessness? And wasn’t selflessness, of a slightly different sort, the virtue held in common by such great heroes as Father Flanagan, who founded Boys Town, and Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller how to read?
In the early 1950s there was certainly no dearth of singing martyrs. Both Patti Page’s “I Went to Your Wedding” and Eddie Fisher’s “I’m Walking behind You” were big hits about attending the wedding of an ex-sweetheart. Though Patti’s martyrdom was unrelentingly lugubrious, Eddie held out a little more hope for himself. He begged his lost love to understand that, “if things go wrong . . . and fate is unkind,” all she had to do was look over her shoulder and she’d see him “walking behind.” I hadn’t yet suffered such heartbreak, but I assumed that “I’m Walking behind You” was an accurate description. The attitude I hoped to strike in the face of similar desolation was summed up by Eileen Rogers in “You’re Wrong, All Wrong” (number twenty-five in my record collection, filed between The Four Lads’ “No, Not Much” and Pat Boone’s “Long Tall Sally”). The song ridiculed the notion that love ends simply because one’s heart has been broken. On the contrary, the song said, love is a force of nature, like the wind and the ocean; it doesn’t just end because someone walks out the door. The selfless grandeur of this sentiment caused my eyes to well up with tears as Eileen Rogers sang — nay, argued — her way toward that transcendent moment when she declared, “If you think my love will die / because you said goodbye, / you’re wrong, all wrong, all wrong.”
Though he never said anything about it, I could tell my father was a little suspicious of my almost swooning infatuation with pop songs and singers. He was a contract attorney, a man who believed in sensible behavior, which obviously didn’t include listening to love songs every afternoon. He considered music a perfectly legitimate distraction, but not something to devote your life to — not unless you were the kind of person who wore iridescent suits to work.
My mother didn’t encourage mooniness either, but she would occasionally listen to my records with me after I came home from school. (Forty years later, I realize that my mother, like many women of her generation, was puzzled and even a little repelled by the male obsession with sports, with its shallow-witted devotion to “winning” and “team spirit.” She was undoubtedly pleased that her youngest son enjoyed popular music, with its emphasis on tenderness and gaiety and solitary dreaming.) Her listening was entirely companionable, as if she were hearing the music through my ears. She didn’t try to “improve” my musical taste, or spend time extolling the great music of the recent past. Instead, she became an accomplice who would join me in listening to Teresa Brewer’s “Ricochet” three times in a row, all the while bobbing her head to the music and smiling as if she’d never heard anything quite so good. I remember it well. You don’t forget those rare moments when someone takes pleasure in your being pleased. The den was still bright in the late afternoon, the broken sunlight slanting through the blinds. On the card table sat my record player, spinning a 45 with the bright orange Coral label. My mother, having put the groceries away, had twenty minutes to spare before starting dinner. She was a young, pretty woman with red hair, and a good pal sometimes. Rock-and-roll, which would change everything, was still in the future.
I don’t want a ricochet romance, I don’t want a ricochet love. If you’re careless with your kisses, find yourself another turtledove.
From the distance of forty years, it seems as if it happened overnight: Rock-and-roll arrived, and Tin Pan Alley, the fountainhead of American popular song, dried up like a river in a drought. One day there was Perry Como; the next day, Elvis. But that’s not the way it was. Rock-and-roll history may remember 1954 only as the year Bill Haley and His Comets released “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” an explosive, jubilant cover of Big Joe Turner’s R & B hit, but the biggest recording of that year was Kitty Kallen’s sweetly pathetic ballad “Little Things Mean a Lot.” The index to my own record collection (which has outlived many of the 45s themselves) reveals that, in the same week in 1955, I bought Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
That year I also fell in love with Amy Lu McDaniel, and this infatuation effectively put an end to my interest in the older style of music. The reason was simple: you couldn’t dance to Frankie Laine and Rosemary Clooney. And dancing with Amy Lu, a pale blonde four inches taller than I, was now the main thing I wanted out of life.
By “dancing,” I don’t mean the fox trot or the cha-cha. I’d learned those dances in gym class. There was no passion in them, while our dancing was saturated with unnamed sexual joy. In the McDaniels’ living room, with the rug rolled up and “Rock around the Clock” egging us on, Amy Lu and I would whip around, dipping and spinning and swiveling on the balls of our feet, doing a kind of inspired jitterbug. One memorable afternoon, we mastered “down-the-chute,” an intricate step in which I propelled Amy Lu between my legs and then pulled her back by the wrists into a standing position. At the time, such dancing seemed like a beginning, but in reality it was the last of the sweet, unconscious pleasures of my childhood.
In 1956 Elvis Presley had five number-one hits.
Two years later, Perry Como sang “Catch a Falling Star,” and for one nostalgic week it was number one. Other number-one hits that year were “Purple People Eater,” “Tequila,” and “The Chipmunk Song.”
Goodbye, Patti and Rosemary and Dean.
Rock-and-roll disrupted our family. My brother couldn’t be bothered with such “kid music.” He drew a line in the sand and never crossed it; for the rest of his life he would listen almost exclusively to the music of the Four Freshmen, a nostalgic singing group popular when he was in college. My father’s reaction was less drastic, but more pugnacious. For him, being addicted to music was one thing, but being addicted to idiotic music was another. How, he wondered, could anyone who lived in the same world with Bing Crosby listen to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers? My father believed that good music was lyrical, intelligent, melodious, and well sung; rock-and-roll, consequently, was noise.
One day, hearing me play “At the Hop,” by Danny and the Juniors, he asked me to recite some of the lyrics.
I said, “ ‘You can swing it, you can groove it, / you can really start to move it, / at the hop, hop, hop, hop-hop.’ ”
“ ‘At the hop, hop, hop, hop-hop’?” my father said. “That’s not music. Music is Gershwin and Cole Porter: ‘Night and Day’; ‘Someone to Watch over Me.’ ”
I shrugged my shoulders.
My mother didn’t like rock-and-roll either, but her initial opposition was mild: she thought I was going through a stage. Her tolerance diminished, however, when Elvis appeared. How could anybody referred to as “the Pelvis” be a good influence? But it was more than that. My mother — like an epidemiologist calculating the effects a dangerous new virus will have on a population — saw Elvis’s hypnotic, sexy, lower-class licentiousness as a sign of things to come: the mass marketing of teen culture, the public acceptance of profanity, and the general dumbing-down of everything. She began telling me to “wipe that Elvis Presley sneer” off my face, but it was too late — I didn’t know how.
(After Elvis’s death, a hugely successful marketing strategy softened his image. Instead of immortalizing the corseted, drug-gobbling narcissist that he’d become by the end of his life, the image makers focused attention on his lavish generosity, his tender family loyalty, his surprisingly good voice — even in the worst of times. Elvis, thus blurred, became an American icon, a legitimate part of American history — which, of course, says a great deal about the legitimacy of history. My mother, now eighty-eight, having lived through the future she once feared, remembers Elvis not as the degenerate he was, but as a nice young man with a good voice.)
None of the crooners I loved in the early 1950s made a successful transition into the age of rock-and-roll. The music of Buddy Holly and Frankie Lymon and Fats Domino and the Cadillacs and the Everly Brothers redefined the meaning of singing. Like the adolescents who adored it, rock-and-roll singing thrived on a kind of dramatic, primitive earnestness that had almost nothing to do with vocal skills. Singing “down” wasn’t even a possibility for the older singers; even a modestly trained voice can’t undo itself any more than one can unlearn a language. Stuck with their obsolete skills, these singers watched their careers fizzle as they slowly became nostalgia acts. By the 1960s Eddie Fisher, Kay Starr, Georgia Gibbs, and Jo Stafford were merely half-remembered names from an increasingly irrelevant past. Perry Como and Dean Martin went on to have their own television shows, and Teresa Brewer and others performed for tourists in Las Vegas. Rosemary Clooney has survived the longest as a vocalist, making a surprising comeback in the eighties as a jazz singer.
To this day I wonder what happened to Joni James and Gogi Grant.
One afternoon in the late 1980s, while rummaging around in my basement, I came across the little red cardboard box that contained my first record collection. It was intact but a little ragged around the edges after all these years of being stored in damp basements and sweltering attics. As I lifted the box off the shelf by its little red plastic handle, a hinge gave way and a number of records spilled onto the basement floor. Kneeling down, I began to pick them up carefully, as if they were the bones of some forgotten saint. Here was Perry Como’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” its grooved surface a blur of scratches. For a second I pictured little Dorothy Ewing, age eleven, in a brown dress with yellow polka dots: I’d been certain I would love her forever. Even though the record was ruined, I held it gently by its edges, making sure my fingertips didn’t touch the playing surface. And here was Eddie Fisher’s “Count Your Blessings.” Warped. Unplayable. My brother sang that song incessantly when he was fifteen.
Reading the titles of the songs I’d loved more than thirty years ago, I experienced a small shock. Was this the music that introduced me to American popular culture, that giddy, extroverted, compellingly childish dreamland that for years offered me a place to hide from the more demanding claims of self?
Patti Page’s “Doggie in the Window”:
I bought that?
Of course you did, a small voice said, and you still know all the words.
“The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” by Bill Hayes:
He also sang “The Ballad of James Dean,” which you listened to for weeks.
“Sixteen Tons,” by Tennessee Ernie Ford:
That was a good one.
“One fist of iron, the other of steel.”
“Love and Marriage,” by Frank Sinatra:
You still sing it in the shower.
As I picked up “You’re Wrong, All Wrong,” by the long-forgotten Eileen Rogers, I remembered how I’d once imagined myself bravely, even magnificently, enduring the loss of love. The truth was, however, that as soon as I’d entered into the actual business of falling in love, I’d quickly lost all interest in sacrificing myself to an ideal. Ordinary love was hard enough — too hard, actually, most of the time. And listening to my 45s, I could never have imagined the horrors of jealousy, which, on more than one occasion, would reduce me to a subhuman state. It wasn’t love that had ended up dominating my life, but its pursuit.
Is it possible, I asked myself in the dim basement with its faint smell of mold and damp earth, that anybody else could have collected such silly music with such single-minded devotion? Of course it was. There were thousands of us who had thrilled to those cascading violins and believed, with all our little palpitating hearts, in those grandiose, octave-jumping sentiments.
As I stood there thinking about the implausibility of things, “You’re Wrong, All Wrong” slipped from my fingers and fell to the concrete floor, landing directly on its edge with a loud crack! I picked it up quickly, thinking: Maybe if I glue it together, it’ll still play. But the record was broken, the music gone, and for a second or two I felt stunned, as if l’d just received bad news. But why should I have cared about a stupid record I hadn’t played in more than thirty years? I didn’t even have a turntable to play it on. I tossed the cracked 45 into a trash basket and put the cardboard box back on the shelf, closing its lid as tightly as possible.
A different version of this essay previously appeared in Five Points.