By Cecil Hoge
In the early 1950s, when I was growing up in Bellport, Long Island, there was not much happening in the music world. I remember one popular song of that day.
“How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” was a cute, catchy little song which, even if it was stupid, was memorable. It was about someone seeing a puppy in the window of pet store. I remember hearing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” in front of a pet store with a litter of cute puppies in the window.
If you play the above video you can watch this song. The song was being used by an enterprising local tradesman to sell puppies. Yes, music was used for marketing as early as the 50s. It is my guess the music has been used for marketing purposes for hundreds of years, if not more.
But I am not here to discuss music in marketing, I am here to discuss music in my life.
In the year 1953 when the song, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” came out, Queen Elizabeth was crowned, Joseph McCarthy was getting discredited, Joseph Stalin died and, after three bloody years, the Korean War ended. In the United States, there was great concern about a nuclear attacks. Mr. Tippin, the nice old man who lived with his wife across the street, built a fall-out shelter for himself and his wife. I remember seeing their fall-out shelter. It was a pretty sorry affair, about ten feet deep, with a steel cellar door entrance. Inside it was a room about ten feet by twelve feet long. There was some shelving for jars and cans, a giant water cooler and a small double bed. It had no windows of course, but there was a ventilation shaft for air. I always wondered if you did go down there for two or three weeks, would you come out sane?
I remember going to a school in New York City, just before I moved Bellport, Long Island. In that school, once a week the teachers would ask us to prepare for a nuclear attack. So the students, who were nine or ten years old, were asked to get under our desks on our hands and knees and then told to put our heads down between our knees. John Noble, one of our smarter and more sarcastic young wits said the following:
“Now kiss your ass goodbye.” So much for nuclear defense.
1953 was not a big year for music. The year started out with the song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Actually, that song had come out at the end of 1952 in time to catch the holiday season of that year. You could say America was kind of asleep. In addition to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and the “Little Doggie in the Window”, Percy Faith had a nice sounding hit “Song from Moulon Rouge”. Crooners were also big that year. Perry Como was singing, “Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes”.
1954 was not very different, Frank Sinatra was singing “Young At Heart”, Dean Martin was crooning, “That’s Amore”, Tony Bennett was swooning, “Stranger in Paradise.” But things moved along and sometime in 1954 Bill Haley and His Comets came out with “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. That might have been the first hint that new times was coming. Forgive me for using the singular verb rather than the plural verb, but I trying to get a point across and I really do mean, new times was coming.
By 1955, big changes were underway and America’s war babies were waking up to new sounds and new times. Something called Rock and Roll was coming on the scene.
My first real introduction to Rock and Roll music was Bill Haley and His Comets. I had heard the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll” the year before, but the song that changed everything for me was called “Rock Around the Clock” . That song came out in 1955 like an announcement that something new had arrived. And that something new was Rock and Roll music itself. I first heard that song when I was going to Indian Mountain School in Lakeville, Connecticut. I remember hearing “Rock Around the Clock” in a small movie theater which happened to be playing a movie called, you guessed it, “Rock Around the Clock”. The movie featured a number of bands, but it was that particular song that made a kind of statement that a new kind of music had arrived in the world.
In 1955 times was moving forward and things was changing. General Motors had introduced their popular new Chevy model and it was hot, hot, hot…coming in at around two thousand dollars. Gas was running 25 cents a gallon so people were out riding. Boys and girls were discovering all sorts of way to get to know each other in cars parked along darkened streets. Nikita Khrushchev was running the show in Russia and Marilyn Monroe was getting photographed with subway air blowing up her skirt. Things was getting interesting.
Admittedly, Bill Haley and His Comets were not the greatest rock musicians, but that song caught the moment of that time. I am not sure what teacher at Indian Mountain School got the bright idea that it might be good to take the kids to a movie showing this new fangled music. It turned out to be a decidedly bad idea. And that became particularly evident when the song “Rock Around the Clock” came on.
“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock,
Five, six, seven o’clock rock, eight o’clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight.”
The words were extremely simple and so was the message. Rock and Roll had come to town. Well, that little movie theatre, with about 90 of my male schoolmates – it was an all male boarding school except for about 6 girls who only attended day classes – went wild. All 90 of us jumped up from our seats and started screaming “Rock Around the Clock”, jumping up and down, throwing our arms up in the air. You could say that pandemonium was released, but that would be an understatement. Now we were not very old, I believe our average age was 12 or 13 at the time and I was one of the older guys. So try to imagine 90 11 to 13 year olds, all screaming, all jumping up and down, all waving our arms frantically in the air, no longer contained by the theater seats, wildly dancing in the aisles.
Now, up until that point, I think the teacher who guided us to that theatre thought of us as a pretty nice bunch of kids. All of that changed about 12 seconds into “Rock Around the Clock”. All sensible and responsible modes of activity went out the window with the opening lyrics of “Rock Around the Clock”. By time the first verse had gotten around to “We are gonna rock around the clock”, all dignity, all sanity, all decorum left the building and 90 kids popped up from their movie chairs and began flailing about in way that would make Dionysus proud.
Needless to say, after that event, we lost our movie going privileges. There was much debate among the teachers of the school as to whether we had collectively lost our minds or had been under the evil influence of one of Satan’s princes or had gotten hold of some powerful illegal drug. This question was debated and discussed among the school staff for several weeks afterwards, with different theories having precedence before being replaced by other new theories. I am not sure the staff was able to simply accept that it was the music stupid.
At Indian Mountain School, even if the teachers managed to keep us away from the local movie theater, they were not able to keep us away from the music that was just beginning to be played. In the afternoons, after classes we would go up to play pool and ping pong in the rec room. There we played endless hours of pool and ping pong and in doing so ended up listening to endless hours of music. That was because that spare and barren room, up on the third floor of our dormitory building, had one not so good Zenith radio which, if we were lucky, could get some local stations and pull in some pretty good music. And when it was working, that Zenith sounded pretty good.
I remember listening in that room to song like “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds. It was not the most intellectual song, but had a message and a beat and it moved.
I remember first hearing Johnny Cash with “I Walk the Line”, his voice was like a deep-throated train with a driving beat behind him. It was not rock music, but it not country music either. It was something new, something elemental, something unavoidable. And so we played ping pong and pool for hours on end, each afternoon, listening to whatever we could get on the local music stations. And yes, there were still that pleasant popular songs that burst upon the scene, such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” – these songs were kind of patriotic and had something to please everyone.
There were four of us at Indian Mountain School who used go up to that rec room as a group…Whitman, Tompkins, Ermentrout and myself…all around 14 years old. Off of the rec room was a small apartment for one of the younger teachers. I do not remember his name, but I remember that all was not well with him and his wife because he would emerge from his little apartment and ask us to turn the radio down or keep it quiet. Sometimes the teacher’s face was red and blushing, sometimes he almost had tears in his eyes. We would try to obey his plea for quiet but soon some song would come on and we would go back to turning up the volume, to shouting and arguing and telling each other what losers we were.
The song that changed forever my view of music was “Heartbreak Hotel”. I remember first hearing that song in Bellport, Long Island at the local soda fountain shop. The year was 1956. I would go to the soda fountain shop every one or two days, usually before picking up my mother a couple packs of cigarettes and a bottle of scotch. That was the major errand my mother would send me on and I hated it because I knew no good would come of it. So to make my task less painful I would always stop off at the soda shop. If I was going to get my mother cigarettes and alcohol, I would at least get myself a vanilla milkshake.
This was in the summertime, when I was not at Indian Mountain School, but staying in Bellport at our small Cape Cod style house on 25 Thornhedge Road. Going to the fountain shop was a special pleasure for me. I was really into vanilla milkshakes. Occasionally, I would vary this with a vanilla ice cream soda. It was a big debate in my mind which was better – the vanilla milkshake or the ice cream soda. Some days I settled on the milkshake, other days I would come back to the ice cream soda, deciding that was the best in the land.
On one of those days, when I was innocently having a milkshake or a soda, the song “Heartbreak Hotel” came on the Jukebox. Now this soda shop had a giant Wurlitzer Jukebox. Those things were a piece of art unto themselves and a wonder to behold. And I remember when I first heard the first words of that great song come on:
“Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell
Down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel”
It was not just the words, it was the sound of the song, and low, throaty voice of the King himself belting out what was for me one of his first hits. That song sounded so different to me, unlike anything else I had ever heard, that I went right up to the big Wurlitzer that was stationed between the soda fountain where folks sat on chrome stools that twirled in circles and the soda fountain booth area where young couples snuggled together slurping milkshakes and sundaes.
That song, when it first came on, demanded attention and I gave it all I could. I walked over to the Wurlitzer, sat down cross legged and put my ear against the giant speaker and listened to the whole song. I just could not believe the song, I could not believe the words. And when the song ended, I stood up and pulled out a nickel (the fee for playing a song on the Wurlitzer at the time), pumped it in the jukebox, selected “Heartbreak Hotel” and sat right down to listen to that song again. I listened to “Heartbreak Hotel” four or five times that day, only getting up to plug in another nickel in to the jukebox.
I am not sure if the proprietor of the soda fountain approved of my strange behavior, but he never stopped me as long as I was plugging in nickels. And he seemed more than happy to change the dollar bill I had for more nickels. The year, as I said, was 1956.
In that year, My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews came out on Broadway. I know because my rich aunt took me to see it. Grace Kelly married the Prince of Monaco and Arthur Miller, the playwright, married Marilyn Monroe. You might say it was a good year for marriages, but I would point out that it was also the year my father officially divorced my mother and Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller did not last too long either.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was the first song that seemed to have the power to take me away. It pulled me aside and said here is another way to look at things. And in doing so, it got me through periods of time that were personally and emotionally difficult for me and set me to thinking about other things, other possibilities. Rock n’ Roll was literally taking me out of my 14 old body and introducing me to something, a kind of inner joy. And in that period of time, I needed that because the times were confusing and what was happening in my personal life was also confusing. And if you think about it from that point of view, music was a kind of balm, a kind of cure for the soul.
And while “Heartbreak Hotel” was always for me the first rock and roll song that I realized was Rock and Roll, another song came out that came out that announced that the end was nigh for old style music. I speak of the immortal Chuck Berry and his classic song, “Roll over Beethoven”.
In 1957, I was still at Indian Mountain School, which was a pre-prep school for boys whose parents were either unable to take care of us or who were in the process of getting a divorce or who just wanted us kids away. Whatever the reason, in Indian Mountain School I found a new identity, a new ability to take care of myself. I was learning to read books on the side, I was taking interesting classes learning about things that I knew little about.
Of course, as a teenager I was afflicted with many of the hormonal changes of youth. I was having my first problems with acne, I was starting to think about girls. It was about that time that I had some problems with warts. This was not the end of the world, but it did bother me. The school nurse gave me some kind of poison to put on my warts which were all located on the palm of my hand. After about two weeks of being poisoned, the warts would drop off my hand – all, that is, except one persistent larger wart which was larger and more durable than the others.
It was about that time that song “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers was released. It was another song that made a big impression. It did not have great meaning, but it kind of caught a quirky spirit of the times, telling the tragedy of two teenagers falling asleep in a movie theater. I remember that song because I first heard it in the office of the local doctor I was sent to in downtown Lakeville, CT. The good doctor was just cutting out my most obstinate wart and that song came on. It helped with the pain as I watched him use an exact Exacto knife (or what looked like an Exacto knife) to cut out the last elements of my lingering abomination. Most of the time the Exacto knife was cutting dead wart, but occasionally the good doctor got into real flesh and blood and that hurt. Fortunately, “Wake Up Little Susie” came to the rescue and I remember feeling pretty good as the last bit of the song dropped away and I walked out of that doctor’s office.
1957 was the year that Humphrey Bogart died from cancer. Sputnik was launched by the Russians and the Edsel car was introduced. In other words, not too much was happening. Elvis Presley was still churning out hits like “All Shook Up”. “Little Darlin'” by the Diamonds was still a hit. At the time, I had made a $5 investment in a radio that did not need batteries and did not have the best sound. It was a pretty simple affair. It was a plastic tube with a cone and an antenna on one end and a double wire coming out the other. At the end of the double wire was one snap clip and one earphone speaker. The idea was pretty simple – you clipped the snap clip to a radiator or some other metal pipe (effectively grounding the radio) and plugged the earphone into your ear and moved the metal rod back and forth. That brought in different radio stations, if you were lucky.
Now it so happened at Indian Mountain School my bed was right next to a radiator. This made hooking up my new fangled radio simple. The earphone was also a good call because lights out was 9:30 and it was forbidden to listen to radios, read in bed, talk or do anything but sleep. Fortunately, I had my $5. radio. I cannot say the reception was that good. It was kind of hit and miss, but every once in a while you would come across a station that came in real clear. That is when I first heard “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” by Elvis, “A Whole of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, with the lights out, huddled in my bed on a cold winter’s evening. It was not the best sound, but at the time any sound was great.
“Young Love” by Sonny James was another big hit in 1957. It was soon to be knocked off by Tab Hunter. I, of course, only respected the Sonny James version, which had a twanging, haunted, driving sound to it. It was a song to remember. The only time I got to listen to that song was in the rec room playing ping pong or pool in the afternoon or after lights out in bed on my tiny, trusty radio.
In 1958 a number of things changed. I graduated from Indian Mountain School and enrolled in new school, Portsmouth Priory. This was a Catholic prep school run by Benedictine monks. These monks were pretty serious folks. Five of the people who were monks, including our headmaster at the time, Dom Leo van Winkle, had come from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. If you did not know it, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was the place that brought you the atomic bomb. It seemed these five guys were so depressed by making the atomic bomb that they decided to become monks.
Now, having come from an all boys boarding school, I was used to living a pretty controlled life where we did not get to see girls, but the monks at Portsmouth Priory took my already esthetic life to a whole new level. The monks themselves got up at 4am for a round of dried bread, cold coffee and Gregorian chants. Not long afterwards (around 5:30am), we were rousted out of a perfectly good sleeps to join them for a few more Gregorian chants. And then it was on to mass, breakfast and five or six classes. I will say that the courses were interesting or the curriculum was truly educational, but sometimes you can go overboard and I think this was one of those times.
For that reason alone, music was more important than ever. This was the time that 45 singles were becoming more and more popular. The Italian song, “Volare” was extremely popular. The Everly Brothers had a truly great hit, “All I Have To Do is Dream”. Groups like the Silhouettes, the Platters, the Drifters, The Coasters all had great hits and were coming onto the scene. And of course, Elvis had a usual round of hits. Chuck Berry was singing about “Sweet Little Sixteen”. And then there was the great Jerry Lee Lewis sang about, “Great Balls of Fire.”
Benedictine Monks or not, the blood was beginning to pump and you might say, in today’s lingo, animals spirits were awakening.
In the afternoon, after the five or six classes, lunch and after two solid hours of sports and calisthenics at Portsmouth Priory, we would get about an hour off before dinner. That was just on time to watch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and for young guys holed up in a Benedictine Monastery that was a revolution unto itself. Singers like Little Richard, Dion, Jerry Lee Lewis would come on and sing songs like we never heard before. And American Bandstand had girls dancing with guys and while there was nothing much to be seen in that, we could let our imagination run free.
In the summer, after completing my first year of prep school, I came back to New York to spend my summer vacation and that year, unlike the last few years before, I spent my summer in Southampton. I have written some things about my family at that time in Southampton in this blog in “Our Family Secret” and in “The Zirinsky House”. In my case the contrast between Southampton, Long Island and Bellport, Long Island could not have been more different. Bellport was a sleepy little summer resort with zero pretensions and a great place for crabbing and snapper fishing and a few friends of my age.
But Southampton was something else altogether. In the 1920s, Southampton had been called the queen of New York’s summer resorts and as time passed, it became only more so. When I first went out to Southampton, I came to discover that it was inhabited mainly by rich people. Now most of those rich folks were older people, like Henry Ford, like the Wanamakers, like the Chryslers, like the McCormicks, like the Havemeyers. These people came from families that had made money and had become rich and had become social and who decided they no longer should work, because work, after all, was a kind of dirty occupation, and so they concentrated on being rich and living rich and doing very damn little.
All that is except my family, who were not rich and who probably had very little reason to be in Southampton other than the fact that we came from a quote, unquote “good family” and my family knew a lot of rich people who also came from quote, unquote “good families”. So we had good connections and very little money, but we had something some of the richer folks didn’t have. We had four families and we joined forces, scraped together some money, and by virtue of combined resources were able, just barely, to rent a big rambling summer house and join the two all important clubs. I speak of course, about the Beach Club, aka The Southampton Bathing Corporation, and the Meadow Club, aka, the Meadow Club.
So for me this was a whole different world. Not only was I now living in a house with multiple cousins, younger and older than myself, I quickly acquired a bunch of new young rich kid friends and instead working like other kids of our age, we would hang at each other’s houses, go to the beach club, go to the Meadow Club and swim and surf and play tennis and then go out to young kids’ beach parties, which, by the way, were truly on the beach. And of course, in doing that we listened to a lot of music, sometimes on nice stereos, but more often on transistor radios or jukeboxes. And by the way, this was around the time that the drinking age in New York was 18 and it was also along the time that we were figuring out how to sneak into bars and what soon were to be called discotheques, even if I was only sixteen at the time.
This was also the time that Buddy Holly and the Crickets were becoming popular. He had leapt onto the scene with “That’ll be The Day” in 1957. In 1958 he followed up this original hit with “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday”. By that summer, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were one of the leading groups in Rock and Roll. This success was not to last long. Several months later, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson, aka, The Big Bopper. This was the famous day that the music died.
Anyway, in the summer of 1958, I was hob-knobbing with a bunch of much richer kids than me in Southampton. Our days were truly carefree. Get up, have a late breakfast, head to the Beach Club, hang out on the beach. If there was surf, maybe we would stay in the ocean, coming out only to warm up for a few minutes on the beach, go to luncheonette counter and slurp down a hamburger and few cokes. If the surf was really good, maybe we would head down to the inlet, walk across the dunes and catch the surf break by the jetty where the waves broke slow and well-formed and where you could walk out a few hundred feet in the ocean and catch long lingering waves.
If the break wasn’t breaking, then we would head to the Meadow Club for two, three and sometimes four sets of tennis and then take a shower and then sit on the big porch and chit chat for hours, part gossip, part recalling what each of our friends did the evening before, part discussing important matters, like where we would go that evening, whose house we would visit, which bar or discotheque we would try to crash. Yes, these were simple pleasure filled days and we didn’t do a damn thing all day long. And we pretty much spent the evenings the same way.
For me, a person who had been used to going to a boarding school, to wandering in the woods by myself, used to fishing and crabbing in Bellport, it was a whole new life. Yes, kind of worthless, with a big priority on doing nothing worthwhile or useful. They were carefree days and nights. I cannot say that I improved my mind or moral purpose. I cannot say that I went to work for the first time in my life and learned new skills and lessons while I worked. I can say we lived days in the sun and water and we had truly fun times going with my friends in the evening doing things that were not very constructive, but having a good time anyway. And I cannot say I regret those days.
Every summer comes to an end and pretty soon I found myself in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in the land of Benedictine monks learning about more serious things…Gregorian chants, religious philosophy, world religions, mathematics, geometry, American, Greek, Roman and European history and reading English and American novels. I have to say that the folks at the good monastery were truly good teachers, dedicated to trying to make civilized creatures out of the wild human creatures they were presented with.
One of my first roommates was a guy named Michael Ward. It turned out he was the son of Jane Wyman, a beautiful and famous actress who had been married to Ronald Reagan. Michael was the progeny of another husband and so he ended up in Portsmouth Priory, like many of us, somewhat lost and disengaged from our parents. Michael was a very quiet guy who kept to himself, but he was a great pianist and he loved to play jazz on the piano, which, if I remember correctly, was located, somewhat incongruously, in the gym. Anyway, in the late afternoon, Michael would go off to the gym and play right up until dinner time.
Sometimes, if I was not watching something frivolous, I would go to listen to Michael playing jazz and while I did not know very much about that kind of music, I could tell he was highly skilled. I also remember Jane Wyman coming to the school and sitting with Michael, Jane Wyman and Dom Leo van Winkle, the headmaster and the head monk. I think there were one or two other students and one or two other monk teachers at the table. The food was traditionally bad to terrible, but I think they made a special effort that evening to make the food only poor.
I will say that in the evening we had a little more free time. Lights out in our dormitory was 10pm, so we had a whole extra half hour while away. Mostly, we chatted in our rooms and listened to 45’s on crummy record players that we had at the time. The 45’s got scratched up pretty quickly and we would spend hours listening to different kinds of popular music, arguing who was better…Elvis or Dion, Buddy Holly or the Platters…there was quite a division of opinion. Some of us were getting more sophisticated, listening to jazz, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, some of us even liked Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
1958 was the year that Elvis went into the army and Boris Pasternak wrote “Dr. Zhivago” and I was spending my first year at Portsmouth. By 1959, things were changing – Fidel Castro took over Cuba, Alaska became the 49th state and Charlton Heston starred in Ben Hur. At Portsmouth Priory I was playing soccer, hockey, squash and tennis…fall, winter and spring. For a school dedicated to intensive intellectual and religious study, Portsmouth Priory had a surprisingly robust athletic department. Those monks believed in sound minds in sound bodies. After one or two hours of soccer, hockey, squash or tennis, the athletic director would send us off to run up hills, to do pole vaults, chin-ups, jumping jacks, climb 30 foot high ropes and other strange things.
The summer of 1959, I resumed my summer schedule in Southampton, playing tennis and surfing in the days and doing my best to be a young teenage wastrel in the evenings. We were chit chatting and laying around the beach on sunny days, going to parties and sneaking into bars in the evenings. In short, I was having the time of my life.
There was a French guy who I got to know during that summer. I do not remember his name, but he was a thin, tall, cool guy liked by all the girls we hung out with. This French guy was the summer guest of Mrs. McCormick, she was the great, great granddaughter of Cyrus McCormick. Cyrus was the inventor of the mechanical reaper. He founded the McCormick Harvesting Company, which later became part of International Harvesting Company. Needless to say, Mrs. McCormick was rich and because she was having a young French kid staying at her Southampton home for the summer, she decided to buy him a car, so he would have something to run around in.
If I remember that car was a Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie convertible. So, Pierre had this boss car and I was lucky enough to tool around in it with him. And while the girls were lined up to go out with Pierre (I will call him that for want of his real name), Pierre was much more interested in racing his Fairlane. I was lucky enough to accompany Pierre on a few of his racing expeditions. There was a kind of ritual to his racing.
We would head out around 8 or 9 at night from Southampton and take the back road to Shinnecock. Pierre usually had the top down and the radio blasting music. “Mac the Knife” by Bobby Darin, a cool jazzy ballad, “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, another haunting ballad and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters, a great, moody undulating ballad were some of the songs that came on. As soon as we turned off on the back road, that was the sign that the race was about to commence. Pierre would pull over on the side of the road and raise the convertible top.
He was afraid having the top down might down might cause wind resistance. While I am not sure I bought into this theory, being the passenger, I did not argue. Besides, Pierre said we could hear the music on the radio better and that was sure true.
As soon as the top was up, secure and clamped down, Pierre would turn me and say, “And now we go!”
And Pierre really meant go because he would put the pedal to the maximum metal and we would peel out on that black top road, with the back end of that Fairlane squirreling about until we got a full head of steam and we were on the straightaway of that little road doing 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 miles per hour. Now this road did not at time feature street lights so you could truly say we were driving in the dark at ever faster speeds. Fortunately for me and Pierre, he was a really good driver.
Pierre was very serious about his racing. Each time he would ask me to mark the time. The first time we made the trip to Riverhead in 40 minutes, which I thought was pretty good because I usually made the same drive in 50 minutes. Anyway, that was not good enough for Pierre. He was convinced he could do better. I accompanied Pierre two other times when Pierre methodically reduced the time, first to thirty-five minutes and then to thirty minutes. The only thing that kept me in my seat was listening to “Mr. Blue” by the Fleetwoods as we touched 95 mph. Pierre seemed more satisfied with his performance. I, on the other hand, was terrified.
I did not accompany Pierre on his later runs. I found some logical excuse to bow out each time. About two weeks later, Pierre came to me that I should be sorry I did not accompany him the night before. He made the trip from Southampton to Riverhead in 20 minutes.
“That’s great, Pierre,” I said.
Despite my fear of Pierre racing from Southampton, I used to do a little racing myself. Some evenings I was granted use of my parent’s Nash Ambassador, which was a big hunk of American steel, about as fuel inefficient as a car can get, but pretty damn fast. Some evenings I would race up and down that quiet street with Megan, Shirley, Ricky and sometimes Pierre, just to prove my racing chops. And if truth be said, I could get that caboose car up to 90 or 100 mph. It was usually accompanied by the screams of my passengers, all this is, except Pierre, who kept saying:
“Go faster. You can do it. This car can do 110.” Fortunately, I always slammed on the brakes before getting to the magic 110 mph.
I loved that Nash Ambassador. Three years later I smashed it into Merrill McGowan’s car. Merrill was the grandson of Charles E. Merrill, and we were coming back from Charlotte Ford’s deb party. I was not going a 110, but I did get up the old Nash up to about 55 mph on Henry Ford’s driveway before realizing there was a car in front of me and slamming on the brakes. That proved to be too late and we slid into Merrill’s car.
He got out, looked at the back of his car, “Damn, Cecil, I am supposed to play golf at ten in the morning.”
That was all he said. Since it was then four in the morning, that did not leave Merrill much time for reporting the accident to the police, which we did, after I swallowed 2 tubes of toothpaste, which was happily provided by some other party goers who happened by. I told Merrill I was sorry about the car and that I hoped he still might get some sleep that morning.
In 1959 the streets of Southampton were virtually empty at night and if we saw another car on one of the back roads of Southampton at night it was often a friend. I remember cruising around one night with Charlie Munroe and myself. We saw a car coming down First Neck Lane and instantly recognized it. That was not hard to do because Ricky Harris’s yellow Chevorlet Impala was hard to miss, even at night. Both of our cars stopped in the middle of First Neck Lane (I guess we thought we owned the street) and we started up a conversation at twelve o’clock a night. Ricky’s Impala had the top down and Ricki was with his sister Megan and Fernanda Wetherill. We were just chatting and enjoying the warm summer evening with Ricki’s radio blasting and then “Hats Off to Larry” came on. It was a great song by Del Shannon. Listening to that song, parked in the middle of First Neck Lane, kind of captured for me that essence of that carefree summer.
I remember also going to a party with mostly guys older than me, drinking mucho beers and listening to Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. It was a kind of day the music died party. I remember there was Sidney Wood III and Merrill McGowan. Sidney Wood III was Sidney Wood Jr.’s son. The father was the Wimbledon tennis champion in 1931 and also a member of the Beach Club. Sidney Wood the III was his son, going to Yale at the time, the captain of the tennis team there and a truly great guy. Merrill McGowan was the a golfer that I had irritated a couple of years later the night of Charlotte Ford’s deb party. There was Ricky Harris, Charlie Munroe, myself and few other friends, all beered up in this small cottage on the beach, listening to the stereo.
Somewhere after about 5 or 7 beers, Buddy Holly’s swan song, “Rave On” came on. Now the great singer himself had died the winter before, but it was only then that I was realizing what a truly great singer he was. “Peggy Sue”, “Ready Teddy” and other Buddy Holly greats had already played on the album we were listening to. Then “Rave On” came on and we all went wild singing the lyrics, dancing in a horizontal line, in front of a couch, part staggering, all singing, 6 or 8 guys, arm in arm, still trying to hold our beers and dance at the same time:
“We-a-he-a-hell, the little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you-ah-ou
Rave on, it’s a crazy feel in’ and
I know it’s got me feeling’ and
I know it’s got me reelin’
I’m so glad that your revealin’
Your love for me
Rave on, rave on and tell me
Tell me not to be lonely
Tell me you love me only
Rave on for me.
Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin'”
Needless to say we were a little “buzzed” to use a popular phrase of this moment. More than that, we was happy, we was drunk, and we loved that song. I still remember that evening. I really looked up to Sidney Wood and Merrill McGowan, who were both older than me, far cooler than me, and I remember their smiles and laughter and their good cheer to this day. Two years later, Sidney Wood was killed in an automobile accident in North Carolina while on the way to a tennis tournament in Florida. He was truly an up and coming tennis player. Perhaps, if he had lived, he too would have won at Wimbledon.
Author’s Note: Music is a very personal thing. What I like, others may not like. What I choose as popular or good or noteworthy or earthshaking, may not be any of those things, but it was to me. And the small list of artists and the limited range of music mentioned are not meant to be inclusive of the music of the period discussed – 1953 to 1959. I have chosen to omit music after 1960 because that would make the list of songs and artists in this story far longer and this blog story far, far longer. I do intend to cover music from 1960 on, but this will take more blog stories, as the plot thickens and music evolved. That is, by the way, why I call this volume 1.