Growing up with music

The sounds of wonderful records filled our home. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, Debussy’s Fêtes, Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah “Bacchanal.” Or, my mother’s favorite, Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne. Plus there were live, in-person string quartets at other people’s homes where I was babysat as my father joined friends playing just for the hell of it. I’d drift off into sweet slumber to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Brahms, whose names I already knew.

Plus my father’s New York family was musical. When Dad had been a kid, his equally young sisters Erminie and Marion were the other two-thirds of Jacksonville, FL’s Kahn Trio. Grandmother had pushed them into starting careers, even though no one else in her family or my grandfather’s were musicians. Grandmom figured there was money to be made with a novelty act: little prodigies dressed all in white playing serious music.

Marion continued playing the piano for the rest of her life, accompanying singers and teaching. And she continued to love performing music. Aunt Min went into managing performing careers of other musicians, admiring their talents, loving them: composers Henry Cowell, Elie Siegmeister, and Vladimir Ussachevsky, lutenist Suzanne Bloch (composer Ernest’s daughter), guitarist Rey de la Torre, the Stuyvesant String Quartet, and others.

Marion had two grand pianos in her big Riverside Drive apartment. And even though I couldn’t play the piano, she’d invite little me to sit at one, tell me which keys to play, and together we’d bang out a stirring version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or something that sounded like Debussy. I loved that. She also introduced me to jazz. Not that she played it. But she admired Duke Ellington. Just before Christmas 1944 she bought us tickets for an Ellington Orchestra Carnegie Hall concert. Neither of us could get over how debonair drummer Sonny Greer looked. We liked the music, too.

At Marion’s apartment, my brother Gene and I would put on shows for the family where Gene and I would act out scripts that I had written, those resembling the kinds we heard on the radio with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, the Great Gildersleeve. I’d take the character voices, allowing Gene to be the announcer. Announcers weren’t interesting enough. Poor Gene, I was the pushy star; he was the shy younger brother.

On one such visit my mother’s sister Fanny bought theatre seats for Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town—the original cast—starring co-creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The music sounded great. But I didn’t understand the story. She also took me to Carousel, which got to me, making me cry through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after seeing John Raitt’s Billy Bigelow go off to heaven and leave his sweet young daughter.

John Raitt in Carousel w name

As a pre-teen, convalescing from complications following what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy, radio constantly supplied entertainment. And re-connected me with jazz, still not knowing the word when Duke Ellington hosted a program, sponsored by Pio Wine with the singing jingle: “Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine, Bob-adda-be-bop Pio Wine. Ask for Pio Wine each time. There’s port, sherry, and muscatel, Jack, the flavor sure is swell, a wine that no one can decline, keep some handy all the time.”

Doug Arthur w name

Then announcers started to sound almost significant. Listening to daytime disc jockeys nearly convinced me. From Glenside, PA, WIBG’s Doug Arthur (born Lexington Smith), for example, every day said the same thing: “Doug Arthur. Danceland. Records,” introducing his show. No further words. That was polish. That was modesty. Over the years many d.j.s would do the same kind of thing: little signature phrases or sentences to start or end their shows. I did something like that myself eventually.

And there were transfixing radio serials with Pierre Andre making the most of “Captaaain Midniiiight, brought to you by Ohhhvaltine.” Or Del Sharbutt’s creaminess making rich, hearty Campbell’s Soup sound resonantly nourishing. And there was The First Nighter. He hung out with actors! Going to plays at a little theatre off Times Square where he mingled with such stars as Barbara Luddy and Les Tremayne. Another performing future seemed glamorous: radio actor.

Aunt Fanny knew how I loved the radio and bought me a radio play set with scripts and a wooden microphone. Plus sound effect equipment: a wire brush to scrape on a table, simulating moving train wheels, a rack of wooden pegs to move up and down suggesting a marching army, little rubber plungers to bang on the chest and conjure horse hooves, pieces of plastic to crinkle and make a sound like fire. And I developed quite a repertoire of voices: French accents, old ladies, tough guys, faking a man’s deep voice before I hit puberty. My New York family got regularly startled by getting phone calls from strange people they didn’t know, until I revealed the boy behind the vocal curtain. Were they humoring me? Maybe.

The voice was on its way.