The Soundtrack Of My Early Years.

8 Dec

  I have always been thought of as musical. I read music, play the piano ( though not very well), sing in a choir, have a large CD collection and regularly attend concerts and gigs. It’s unthinkable to contemplate a life devoid of music. I probably have inherited this love of music and music-making from my family. The musical gene has been passed down through the generations.

  My earliest musical memories all centre around my maternal grandfather — Thomas Robert Bottoms. Grandad was the choir leader at the local Methodist church, played the organ and the violin and even composed a few hymns. During the General Strike of 1926, when he was officially employed at the iron and steel works, he moonlighted at the local cinema, playing his violin to accompany the action on the silent screen. Grandad was also a powerful singer, belting out the bass lines of traditional non-conformist hymns such as Diadem ( ” Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him! Crown him Lord of all!). Before my dad was given permission to go out with my mum, he had to pass an audition for the choir and was quickly slotted into the bass section.

  Thomas conducted the local brass brass band as well as doing all of the above. It was called the New Whittington Silver Band. ( New Whittington is an area of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands.) My mum was taken along to many of the band rehearsals and was adopted as the band’s mascot. She tells me that her dad could play any instrument in the band if he turned his mind to it.

  When we reached the age of 7, grandad taught my sister and I how to read music and play the piano. Once I got the hang of it, I loved to go into Grandma and Grandad’s front parlour and play simple hymns on their old pedal organ. My mum seemed to conclude that I was the one who had inherited Grandad’s musical talent. A second-hand piano was purchased for my sister and I to learn on. It must have been quite a financial sacrifice on my parents’ part, for which I will always be grateful. Mum herself sang in the church choir and joined larger gatherings to perform oratorios such as Elijah or The Messiah. My Uncle Leslie ( mum’s elder brother) had singing lessons in Sheffield and became a well-regarded semi-professional singer — another bass-baritone. It seemed to be compulsary for all members of the family to be involved in music. The metaphorical baton was now passed on to me, so to speak. Recently, grandad’s real baton was given to me — an ebony affair with a silver tip. I think he was presented with it to mark 25 years of choir/band leadership.

  As I was now considered to be the heir-apparent, I was packed off to professional piano lessons around the age of 9/10. Grandad’s lessons had been enjoyable and he taught me about the basics of music, but his approach was rather unstructured. A lot of lesson time was spent talking about the old days, especially the war. So, we would forget about the scales and arpeggios and he would tell me about a dogfight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt in the skies above Chesterfield in 1940. The excuse of the music gave us precious one-to-one time together.

  Now however, my sister and I had to undergo “proper” piano lessons with a professional teacher:  Mrs Jukes. We had to do proper daily practise. Our standard was raised significantly but it was more boring than grandad and we soon came to see it all as a chore. Mrs Jukes was a good, rigorous teacher, was pleasant and patient with us and knew her stuff, but the joy of making music was gradually knocked out of us by the necessity of having to take exams. We were drilled to prepare for the dreaded day of the exam and my poor parents had to pay extra for music and entrance fees.

  We went to a gloomy Victorian house in an old part of town near the football ground. We knocked on the door with trepidation and it was opened by an old man with wild hair, wearing a dark, crumpled suit. He looked as though he had just walked off the set of The Adams Family! I nicknamed him “Beethovan”. We were led into a waiting room full of other “victims” and a motley collection of cats. The room smelled of fish because of the saucers of cat food liberally strewn around. Then came the long, nervous wait, accompanied by the loud ticking of a clock and the faint tinklings of the piano in the exam room. One day “Beethovan” took my hand and examined my veins, pronouncing that I had music running through them. When I told my mum this, she smiled with pleasure as this seemed to be the vindication of her investment in my musical education. Finally came the dreaded moment when my name was called. The front room was dominated by a vast, shiny grand piano. It was like a completely different instrument from the old upright plinky-plonky I practised on at home. The grand was very light to the touch and I always ended up playing too heavily because I was so used to having to force the keys down. The examiner sat behind me constantly writing notes. The whole experience was a bit of a nightmare. I somehow managed to get to Grade 5 however. Then: girls, football, pop-music and other adolescent pursuits took over and my formal musical training came to an end. ( Although I did manage to pass GCE O Level Music at Grammar school.) I never did fully follow in the footsteps of grandad afterall.

As I grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, the music in our house was predominantly light classical and brass bands. It arrived via the radio. We didn’t purchase our first record player until around 1962. It played vinyl 45’s which my sister and I purchased with our spending money. Big band dance music, very popular in the 40’s and early 50’s seems to have passed by my parents without them noticing. Mum told me that grandad never allowed her to go to dances. Presumably he thought they would be full of unsavoury influences that might corrupt his daughter. Thus she largely remained innocent of popular music and never acquired a taste for Glen Miller, Count Basie or Duke Ellington when she was young. Similarly: jazz, blues, ragtime, be-bop, swing or Country and Western music never got through our front door. Every now and then the radio delivered a corny crooner such as Perry Como or Bing Crosby  into our midst, singing songs like “Catch a Fallin’ Star” or “White Christmas”. This for a long time was as much as our family encountered of the world of popular music. We sat around listening to brass bands playing : marches, overtures, hymns and medlies or we sometimes listened to “posh” sounding singers with trained voices singing arias or formal versions of traditional folk songs. Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly ” was a particular favourite of my parents.

  At New Year things livened up a bit when Kenneth McKellor, an earnest tenor from north of the border, appeared on our TV screen. He stood there in his swinging kilt performing Scottish folk songs such as “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road” To a child approaching adolescence, it didn’t exactly set the pulse racing! It was all very boring, staid stuff in my opinion. Across the Atlantic, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis et al were launching Rock ‘n Roll and Elvis was pouting and gyrating himself to superstardom, but back at home, we were cloistered in a narrow musical world, listening to brass band renditions of The William Tell overture or Oh Come All You Faithful. It was like living in a lost world, otherwise known as the 19th Century.

  A chink of light eventually appeared when the Skiffle craze hit Britain. Suddenly, everyone with a wash-board, a tea-chest and a cheap guitar could form a pop group. My parents let their hair down a bit and admitted to a liking for Lonnie Donegan. So we occasionally enjoyed his high-energy ditties such as “The Battle of New Orleons” and ” Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Everynight?” Things were livening up!

  Finally, rock ‘n roll, albeit in its watered down British version, burst into our house in dramatic fashion. My mum had agreed to look after a neighbour’s teenage daughter for a couple of hours after school one day in the later 1950’s. Rosie was about 15 or 16 years old. She requested to listen to a different radio channel, so we got to escape the anodyne fare of the aptly named “Light programme “. ( now BBC Radio 2)  Suddenly, Cliff Richard, Britain’s very own copy of Elvis Presley, came on to the airwaves, singing his first rock ‘n roll hit: “Move It”. Rosie came over all red and virtually collapsed in a swoon. We had to help her to lie down on the settee and give her a glass of water to aid her recovery. It was as if she had received an electric shock. It was a graphic example of the potency of pop music and blasted open our doors to reveal the exciting musical world beyond.

  This incident was to usher in the 1960’s, when despite still having to slog through my piano scales, I discovered the infectious Beat music of the Beatles and the wilder R and B of The Rolling Stones. I was about to leave the tame musical ” backwater” of my grandparents and parents for ever. Still, to be fair to them, they did lay a solid musical foundation.

  Fifty years on, I now know how they felt. I cannot tolerate or even understand rap music, especially gangsta’ rap. I find it impossible to endure the interminable thump-thump of night club “House”music or whatever it’s called. I loathe manufactured “boy bands” or “girl bands” and avoid X Factor contestants like the plague! I’m sure I’m increasingly regarded as a musical dinosaur for sticking to my Rock Music. I’m stuck in “My Generation” and can now interpret Pete Townshend’s angry lyrics from a completely different perspective!

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One Response to “The Soundtrack Of My Early Years.”

  1. greenreadsleeds February 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this, dad! I didn’t know nana’s dad was so musical and that it was he who taught you piano! Thanks for writing this. I should probably add my musical story to the narrative!

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