There’s been a fair bit of music in my life, starting from an early age. Legend has it that as a 3 or 4 year old I could unabashedly belt out the old song There’s an old spinning wheel in the parlour in front of Mother’s Women’s Missionary Society group (“spinning” came out as “pinnin” and “parlour” as “parlo”, apparently!)
Mother had a piano teacher cousin, Tessa Wallace, who gave me piano lessons when I was a pre-teen. An hour’s lesson cost 25 cts. I quit when Mother couldn’t persuade me to keep on going to the lessons. Too bad, really, as I think I could have been a reasonably good pianist. Son Murray has done much better.
At University in Winnipeg, I became part of the Aggie Quartet. Scott Flewitt, a classmate who, in later years, did a stint in a U.S. prison for fraud, was the leader of the group and had a great voice. There were various tenors, including Bob Hicks, and Ken Shipley was a solid bass. We sang at various faculty of Agriculture events and other University functions and sang – live – on CJOB radio’s Bubb’s Electric Sunday morning half hour.
Perhaps my most memorable musical experience was singing in the University of Wisconsin’s Men’s Glee Club in the fall semester of graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin in 1958. Mr. Jones, our talented Texas-born director, put us through our paces and we were actually selected to sing on the Ed Sullivan television show. A number of American university glee clubs sang on that nationally televised show in the ‘50s and ‘60s but the University of Wisconsin had a policy forbidding performances on sponsored programs – so we never made it. We DID sing at the inauguration of Wisconsin’s new Governor in the fall of 1958. I had class conflicts in the second semester so, reluctantly, had to drop out.
I remember walking down a dark street in a dangerous part of Chicago in 1957 with friends (both Agricultural Representatives, like I was at the time) – Glen Arnott and Morris Deveson. We were in the U.S. to watch major league baseball games in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati and St.Louis. I saw Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra play. We saw a sign that read “Jack Teagarden – in person”. Although we didn’t actually go into that smoky venue, we did look in and saw the legendary trombone player “in person” playing away with a group of musicians.
Cookie and Joe
No reference to music in these memoirs would be complete without mention of Cookie and Joe Alexander. In 1971 a group of us from the Manitoba Department of Agriculture were selected to attend Extension Winter School at the University of Arizona at Tucson. We drove, 5 to a car as I recall, from Winnipeg to Tucson. After 3 weeks of classes we headed home. Joy, who, like several other wives who flew down to join us at the end of classes, drove back with Ag. Engineer Terry Oatway and I. I recall on that return trip visiting a huge dairy operation – I forget which state – where hundreds of cows were milked 3 times a day. So, nearly 4 decades ago, this kind of mega-farming was already underway.
In South Sioux City, Nebraska, across the river from Sioux City, Iowa, Terry, Joy and I went to a dining room/bar that had a dance floor. The featured artists were Cookie and Joe Alexander. Cookie, a pert blonde and a very good saxophone player, was accompanied by her black husband, a superb piano player and vocalist who had once sung with the legendary Ink Spots. It occurred to me that, if they were interested, they could add a lot to the entertainment scene back in Winnipeg and after probably one drink too many, I sauntered over and made that suggestion. They seemed interested. Later, back home, I checked with Cliff Gardiner, a radio personality and actor, who I had worked with on Manitoba’s Centennial in 1969/70. He gave me the name of a local booking agent. I contacted that booking agent, who contacted Cookie and Joe. Some weeks or months later, Cookie and Joe arrived in Winnipeg, started a fairly long stint in a downtown Winnipeg hotel and later had a long run in the Norwood Hotel. They rented a house in Fort Garry, and were pleased with the kind of care their handicapped child received – but what happened next? Where did they go? No idea.
Lenny and Len
The Manitoba Department of Agriculture’s new Radio and Information Branch started into 16 mm film making in the early 1960s. Our first feature movie Our Farm Business was a 30 minute effort based on the story of a farm boy’s interest and eventual enrollment in the University of Manitoba’s Diploma Agriculture course. Shot in Agfa color, the film stock was so grainy the images practically walked off the screen! Vern McNair and I shot and edited the film. Certainly no Oscar winner, it was totally voice-over with no synced sound. But the voice was that of Len Cariou of St.Boniface. Len was early in his acting career; he went on to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and I have since seen him on episodes of Law and Order on television. Joy and I also saw him play opposite Lauren Bacall in Applause in London. Background music for Our Farm Business was provided by the legendary, now deceased, guitarist Lenny Breau. Lenny, also, had not reached the pinnacle of international musical acclaim, and just strummed away while looking at a work print of the film – up tempo when there was some action; quietly when the film action slowed down. I think Len and Lenny each received about $50 for their efforts.
Even in earlier times, music was important in our lives. Ryerson, the one-room local school, acted as a sort-of community centre for our rural area. Several times a year, usually in the winter, there would be whist drives or croquinol tournaments – and dances. School desks would be pushed back against the walls and winter coats thrown over them. Music was pretty basic – often my Mother chording on the old upright piano (many ivory portions of the keys missing), while Jimmy Smith (no relation) played the violin. That was it, and Jimmy’s repertoire of tunes was pretty limited. These were times when everyone attended; baby sitters hadn’t been invented then! So, as midnight approached, we kids were placed on the coats to sleep while the adults danced, probably until 2:00 a.m. when the men would go over to the school barn and hitch up the teams of horses to sleighs to transport everyone – including half-asleep kids – to their homes.
Later, the Friday night dances in the Kenton Memorial Hall were popular. Men (and boys) on one side of the hall, girls on the other and the stage held the band. When the Virden Nite Hawks were playing, the hall was packed. Their leader, Ike Rogers, was a terrific trumpet player and we danced every dance. I guess a few people were outside drinking in their cars, but I don’t recall anyone being drunk. I do recall watching Ross Johnston and his wife Audrey jitterbugging. Ross, not long home from World War II, where he piloted Lancaster bombers on raids over Germany, was only about 5 ft 6, Audrey was 5 ft 7 so, though she probably would have preferred high heels, wore flat shoes. They could really dance. In fact, people would stop their own dancing to gather ‘round to watch them perform.
What – or who – are MY music favourites? Male vocalist – Frank Sinatra (no contest!). A rotten guy, but what a voice! Female vocalist – that’s a tough call. A toss up between Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, and Diana Krall’s not bad either. Piano – Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould and Art Tatum. I love the “big bands” of the ’40s and ’50s. A local Vancouver Island guitar player, Pat Coleman, is wonderful on the guitar as is Oliver Gannon, also of B.C.
Actually, there’s not much music I don’t like, though modern heavy rock is not pleasing to me. But music has been, and continues to be, an important part of my life.