Friday, June 20, 2008

What My Mother Taught Me, Part B

I didn’t get to spend many years with my mom. I was nine when she died, and she was not at her best during the last nine months of her life. She managed to cram a lot of life lessons into those first nine years, though, and it’s time I recognized her contributions to my outlook on life.

She was the tenth of ten children. Her father was a railroad engineer and the son of an immigrant from Ireland. She was born at the beginning of the Great Depression and started high school as World War II was ending. She could have been an excellent doctor, but circumstances forced her into nursing school. There, she scored so high on her chemistry boards that no one could ever top her results.

She was the plant nurse at U.S. Steel when a Navy veteran who had moved from Southern Indiana to work in the steel mills cut his finger and required her services. They got along very well, it seems, because they married in 1958.

Her doctor said pregnancy would be risky for her, but she gave it a try anyway. She was helping my dad build their house when, at five months, she began having contractions. She spent the spring of 1960 flat on her back, and I was born in May.

I came out coughing and spluttering. Perhaps because my umbilical cord got pinched a bit, my first beverage was amniotic fluid. They yanked me out and tossed me in an incubator for a couple of days. And then I went home. My parents didn’t try to have another child; they decided to adopt instead.

Apart from one haunting memory of looking up from my crib at some blurry faces, my earliest memories center around my mother playing records for me. I have confirmation that I was a low-maintenance child; I played quietly by myself, and when I decided to get into mischief, I would start saying “No, no, no.” Doing battle with my conscience out loud made me an even easier child to manage.

I should say that I was low-maintenance when it came to my behavior. When I was six weeks old, I was put on a special formula. The refrigerator malfunctioned just enough to spoil my milk, and the resulting food poisoning put seven-pound caithiseach in the hospital for two touch-and-go weeks.

I know that because, thanks to my sister Cindy, I have the baby book my mother filled out meticulously from my prenatal days until I was seven. Cindy rescued the book from our attic a couple of years ago, and the book chronicles my mother’s watchful nurturing of my health and my mind.

It sounds as if I’m talking about me, but I’m really talking about her. She sought all possible ways to educate me and keep me well, whether it meant letting me play alone and use my imagination or entertaining me with her records. Clearly, at some point around age two I became so hungry for music that she taught me to use the record player myself. That record player, and the musical instruments she and my dad bought for me to tinker with, developed my musical awareness far more than most children’s. I did not become a virtuoso anything as a result of the early exposure, but my life has been enhanced by the listening and the training I did receive.

I recall two times in particular that she shared special information with me. It happened more often than that, but these two matter. The first was a time when I was eight. She handed me a book, Day Without End by Van Van Praag. This book, published in 1949, was in the Gary Public Library annex at St. Mary Mercy Hospital, where she worked. She brought the decommissioned book home to me. The author wrote the novel about his experiences in Normandy during World War II. Mom was offering me two bits of information: insight into what her brothers, Tom and Cal, had experienced (Cal in France and Tom in the Pacific), and facts suited to letting me decide if war was a good idea or not, at a time that the Vietnam War was raging.

Never mind that the book was written with adults as its intended audience, with adult vocabulary, if not “adult” themes. A first-hand account of the Normandy invasion would certainly be a topic to keep from kids, but my mother trusted my intellect. She always had. And when she was sick, she trusted me to take care of her during the day, when my dad was working, and neither of them thought it necessary to bring in adult help. As hard as it sometimes was for me to accomplish what she needed from me, the gift of her trust still strikes me as proof to her that I would be well after she was gone.

I think she hoped the novel would give me an anti-war mindset, but there was a time during the Korean Conflict that she railed against the unfairness of a draft that excluded women. She didn’t want to become a member of the Army, but she was that type of feminist who realizes that achieving equality in the fun parts of life carries with it the responsibility to accept all burdens of society equally. She would have gone through boot camp and two years of service if it meant she would earn as much as a man for doing the same work he did.

The second special tidbit she shared with me had to do with one of her 45s, “Born to Be with You” by the Chordettes (Cadence 1291). The song entered the Top 40 on June 2, 1956, and it reached #5 during a 17-week run. What she told me was that it was Mom and Dad’s song.

I didn’t necessarily get what it meant that “Born to Be with You” was “their” song, but she made it clear enough that the song bonded them romantically. This was at a time in their marriage that they would stand in the living room and kiss for minutes on end. I would clamor to be picked up so we could all kiss each other. Sometimes they picked me up, and sometimes they ignored me.

Since the Chordettes’ 45 was “their” song, I took special care of it. Mom played it often enough that I didn’t have to put it in my rotation, and especially after her death, it went into a safe part of the box of 45s. As a result, it is a Survivor of the Great Meltdown. When I hear the tune, I can see the dreamy look on her face as she told me it was “their” song.

The Chordettes, of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, consisted of a quartet with slightly fluid membership. It seems that Janet Ertel, Carol Buschman, Margie Needham, Jinny Osborn and Lynn Evans sang on the 1950s hits. The group sang on Arthur Godfrey’s show from 1949 to 1953, when Archie Bleyer (1909-1989), Godfrey’s music director, set up Cadence Records. Bleyer signed the Chordettes to his new label, and the women’s recording career took off quickly.

Their first hit, “Mr. Sandman,” spent seven weeks at #1 in late 1954 (though I don’t see how, as it reached the top spot on December 4 and was out of it by the end of the year). Thanks to Archie Bleyer’s understanding of the singers’ harmonic value, he kept the arrangements of their songs sparse. The formula earned the Chordettes nine Top 40 hits, including four Top Ten numbers.

Bleyer himself had two big hits, “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane.” For a man with a small label, he pulled in an exceptional stable of artists, including Andy Williams and the Everly Brothers. Bleyer married Chordette Janet Ertel in 1954, and their daughter, Jackie, eventually married Phil Everly.

Not everything Bleyer touched worked; he released Link Wray’s “Rumble” because Jackie loved it, but he cut Wray loose later and refused to release an album Wray had turned in because it was “immoral.” Bleyer also passed on “Summertime, Summertime” after he took the time to record a demo for the Jamies. Bleyer eventually sold Cadence to Andy Williams.

Don Robertson wrote “Born to Be with You” solo. He composed about 100 pop songs, many with Hal Blair. They were responsible for both “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” and its answer song, “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too.” Robertson also wrote “Hummingbird,” the Les Paul/Mary Ford standard.

“Born to Be with You” was unlike almost all of the 45s my Uncle Tom eventually added to my music collection. The Chordettes were the only female close-harmony group in the box, and the arrangement was far more gentle than the rocking, sax-laden records I tended to play. But my reasons for leaving the Chordettes 45 alone most of the time was that I wanted to preserve the single, to have it be playable long after I was done being a child, when the echoes of the last time she played the song herself had faded into the distant past, when I could still hear her telling me that it was “their” song before they got married.

I do still have the 45, and I could still play it, but I don’t. Thank goodness for digital technology.

Next Thursday is the anniversary of my mother’s birth. It would have been her 78th birthday, which means that she has been dead as long as she was alive. That particular mathematical quirk doesn’t mean anything, but I’ll tell you this: If your parents and siblings are alive, do not take them for granted, because 39 years has not been enough time for me to stop missing her.

And now, I am going to shift gears. This past year, one of my students, Caitlin, wrote a fashion column for our school newspaper. Since she has quite the eye for good clothing, I thought I would get her take on the Chordettes’ attire, since it matched the time frame and general fashion sense of my mom. Here, then, is the opinion of guest columnist Caitlin Y.:

I had my first run-in with the Chordettes somewhere between the age of three and six. Yet, I did not discover this until last week. Twelve or more years ago, I was forced into a sequined leotard and a tutu to match as my dance class bopped around to “Lollipop,” sung by the Chordettes. In the recitals that followed, we also tapped our way through “Mr. Sandman,” wearing poodle skirts and having endured the pain of our hair being backcombed by our mothers. Looking back, our dances may have had nothing to do with the Chordettes, but our images were all the rage during the decade of this graceful female quartet of the 1950s.

The Chordettes’ attire was the classic style of the Fifties—elegant and truly unforgettable. Skirts, whether flowing or tight, were style staples for women during the era of the Chordettes. Both looks were worn by the quartet. They displayed themselves in lace, sequins, and taffeta, while most women were found in the kitchen wearing cashmere sweaters and aprons. My favorite look of theirs can be seen on their album The Best of the Chordettes. The upper part of their dress is sequined until below the knee, where it expands into a mermaid-like technique. Truly, the Chordettes looked like singing royalty.

Amy Winehouse was not the first to introduce the now-infamous beehive. The Chordettes displayed this look with elegance numerous times throughout their era. Let me say, much backcombing and hairspray is needed for such a dramatic hairstyle. Most Southern belles still use this technique daily.

The Chordettes were one of the most successful female groups during their era, and their style was just as glamorous. As the rock-and-roll scene emerged, the female vocalists were considered passé. However, the essence of their style is still remembered and put into practice by many today.

Let me tell you, if clothing meets with Caitlin’s approval, it’s guaranteed good stuff. So, I expect to see some poodle skirts trickling back into the fashion world soon. And we can say we knew Caitlin when.

Next week, I’ll be discussing the work of a guy whose single vanished in the Great Meltdown, and how I got the record back. Reacquiring that 45 was one of my better efforts. See you Wednesday!

Chordettes, Born to Be with You

1 comment:

Dave Yaros said...

I enjoyed reading about your mother, Gary, IN and the Chordettes. I remember "Born to be With You," "Lollipop" and "Mr. Sandman" quite well. I would mention that Ann Murray has a pretty good rendition of "Born to be With You" herself.

I do not know if you are familiar with, or like Jackie Wilson, but in my eye he is one of the best.

I have done what I can to preserve his legacy on my website. The site also harkens back to the days of Gary, Indiana in the 50's and 60's, so you might find it of interest.

The web site is Dave's Den. Do feel free to come on by and check it out!