He Was a Friend of Mine…

Our eighth grade basketball team was looking forward to its game that night.  The entire school had gathered in the building’s main hallway during the noon hour, cheerleaders in their blue and white plaid skirts leading shouts of “Go Team, Go!”  It must have been difficult for our principal to raise his voice above all the noise.  When he finally got our attention he announced, voice faltering, that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  Gasping and then silence among us.  Stunned, I walked back to our classroom.  We listened to the news broadcast over the school’s PA system.  President Kennedy was dead.

Two years later I bought an album by the Byrds, Turn, Turn Turn!, on which they included a traditional folk song, lyrics altered to lament the assassination of President Kennedy, He Was a Friend of Mine.  Every year on this day I am reminded of that song and the depth of my sadness surrounding the event 52 years ago.  Where were you that day?


The Sicilian Wedding Singer

My Grandfather was a wedding singer.  No, not a wedding singer like Adam Sandler in that movie of the same name.  Grandpa would sing purely for the love of it.  I doubt that he was ever paid to perform.  Giuseppe Accardi grandpaAmericanized his name to “Joe” after he landed a foundry job upon immigrating from Marsala, Sicily to Beloit, Wisconsin in 1921. Unfortunately, he died in 1956 when I was only five years old.  I don’t recall ever hearing Grandpa sing publicly.

If you’ve attended a traditional Sicilian wedding reception, you know it’s an extraordinarily joyous celebration involving ritual, food, wine, music and dancing. The food is homemade.  The “sweet table” is nothing short of phenomenal.  Sometimes the wine is homemade too.  The dancing is contagious.  Most importantly, the music is performed live by a band whose instruments might include an accordion, a clarinet, a guitar and a drummer.  I recall a clarinetist who appeared to have one glass eye that never moved with his other one. I recognized him at a number of wedding receptions when I was a kid.

The musicians typically were themselves Italians and played tunes ranging from traditional tarantellas, to swing, to songs that might have been featured on Your Hit Parade, a popular radio show back then.  One or more band members also would sing.  They sometimes invited guests to participate.  That was the proverbial “drop of a hat” resulting in Grandpa joining the band.  Apparently, Grandpa Accardi, with his resonating baritone voice, gained quite a reputation among friends and family at these gatherings.  Eventually his role in weddings was cast ahead of time, judging by this clipping from page 3 of the June 9, 1935 Rockford Morning Star:

Fast forward fifty years. The Janesville Public Library board president heard a radio broadcast in the fall of 1985.  Sima arrived unannounced at the library director’s office door to question me about it.  Surprised, I stood to greet her.  “Joe, did you ever make a record of Italian songs?” she asked without warning.  Thinking on my feet, I deftly answered, “Huh?”  She ignored my response and described listening to Joe Accardi of Beloit, Wisconsin singing “delightful” Italian songs on a Wisconsin Public Radio program called Simply Folk.  Understandably baffled, I phoned the Madison station after our brief exchange and spoke with producer Judy Woodward.  She read a description to me that accompanied the recording.  Well, that could only have been my grandfather!

The song, Luna Mezzo Mare, was selected from a collection of forty-year-old 78rpm shellac discs housed at the University of Wisconsin Mills Music Library in Madison.  Further conversation with Judy, and later with my Dad, revealed that on a warm summer’s day in 1946 Grandpa was invited to record seven Italian songs for the Wisconsin Folk Music Project, a federally-funded program initiated in 1939 to preserve America’s ethnic folk music.  Excited to learn I was the grandson of singer Joe Accardi, Judy mailed me a cassette copy of all seven songs.  Eventually acquiring technology to transfer the songs from cassette to CD, I duplicated and shared them with other family members.

The original 78rpm recordings remain housed both in Washington, DC and in Madison.  In 1998, Sylvia and I traveled to DC for the American Library Association Conference where we took advantage of some free time to visit the Library of Congress.  There we heard all seven songs while seated at a private listening station.  grandapa LC catalog cardContents of the shellac discs had been transferred to a seven-inch tape reel which was carefully mounted on a deck for playback through headphones.  The catalog card reproduction shown above is still filed with several others bearing Grandpa Accardi’s name and song information in the Library of Congress.

locbSometimes when I close my eyes and listen to his recording, I imagine grandpa at a microphone on the bandstand, musicians playing on their instruments behind him, and the dance floor animated with guests twirling in their colorful wedding attire.  As for me,  I’m sneaking over toward the sweet table to grab a cannoli, humming along with Grandpa while he sings Luna Mezzo Mare.  (If you click on the song title, you can hum along too!)


Roots and Branches

It’s been nearly fifty years since I heard the Byrds in concert.  Their 1966 national tour included a performance in my hometown at the beautifully appointed and acoustically stunning Eaton Chapel of Beloit College.  Not that I knew much about appointments or acoustics in 1966, but I do remember the Byrds sounded fantastic from where I sat just behind the balcony rail in that holy space.

March 4, 1966 Beloit College Round Table
A group of “folk singers” known as the Dillards opened the show.  You might recognize them from television as the fictional “Darling” family of hillbilly bluegrass musicians appearing on the Andy Griffith Show a couple of years earlier.  I sure didn’t.  My first thought was to write them off as just another tired version of the New Christy Minstrels.  Or, as my high school buddies joked, the “New Crusty Nostrils.”

A deftly-played, amplified banjo can be a wonderful sound.  The Dillards embellished that with a mandolin, various guitars, a stand-up bass and full drum kit.  To my surprise they created a pleasant noise that was unfamiliar to teen-age ears fed a regular diet of top-forty radio.  When they covered the Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face, I was won over and filed their performance away in the “remember this band” area of my brain.

Six years later while visiting friends in northern Wisconsin, our host placed a record album on the turntable.  “You’ve gotta hear this,” Jimmy said as the stylus dropped into the leading groove.  Amplified banjo picking, guitar strumming, mandolin, bass and drums.  “This sounds familiar,” I mused while others settled into conversation, lit up joints or went to the refrigerator to grab beers.  By the first chorus, “Redbone hound, come and get your belly up…,” I shouted to Jimmy, “Who is this?”  He tossed me the album cover and my suspicions were confirmed.  The Dillards were pictured on their new release, Roots and Branches.  By the end of the week I’d bought my own copy at a local record shop.

When you loan an album to a friend, you begin to understand the adage, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  By 1985 my Roots and Branches record had vanished into the lend-o-sphere.  For years I tried remembering to whom I’d lent it.  I would have borrowed Jimmy’s copy, but we’d lost contact.  So, I began looking for another one to buy.  No luck.  Only recently I learned there were no versions of Roots and Branches available in any format thanks to a dispute involving the short-lived company on whose label it had been released.

This past weekend, Sylvia and I visited our longtime friends Lynn and Bill in Rockford.  On the way there we stopped at the Rockford Public Library East Branch.  Inside that former Barnes & Noble bookstore building is housed not only a very busy library, but a unique enterprise, Kate’s Pie Shop Cafe & Records.  Kate’s motto is “Cool Vinyl. Warm Pie.”  The record store sells used, vinyl LPs and is managed by Stu.  The collection is extensive and covers virtually all genres. The cafe, managed by Kate, offers fresh, homemade pies and coffee.  It’s a fine combination, delicious to both the palate and the ear!

While perusing LPs, Sylvia asked if I was looking for anything specific.  “Yes,” I muttered, already flipping through a section of Classic Rock. “If you see Roots and Branches by the Dillards, let me know.”  Within seconds of those words passing my lips, I had shifted over to the Folk/Country bin.   Two albums in, and there it was staring back at me!  Thirty years of searching dusty old record stores had finally paid off.  Not fully recognizing the magnitude of my discovery, Sylvia IMG_1617wandered to the pie counter and selected some tasty slices for our hosts.  I hastily pulled five bucks out of my wallet and stepped to the cash register, fearing someone would wrest the album from my sweaty palms before I could pay for it.

That rare Dillards’ Roots and Branches album is now mine again, along with a medium slice of pecan-bourbon pie.  Don’t count on me to give up either of them!


Mediterranean Irish

I’m not Irish.  My friend Frank, on the other hand, is very much Irish.  So when he came to visit all the way from Maine and to attend Milwaukee’s 35th annual Irish Fest last weekend, I agreed to accompany him.  He offered to pick up the tab for both of us to hear four days of Celtic music and to drink beer.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse!  I had never gone out of my way much to hear Celtic music, but it turned out to be an immensely entertaining experience and an educational one as well.  I heard three songs in particular that connected with my past musically.

It would be a challenge to count how many times the song Whiskey in the Jar was performed at Irish Fest.  Hearing it covered in various ways by different bands wasn’t unusual as it’s one of the most widely performed traditional Irish tunes.  In general, the song is about a highwayman who is betrayed by his lover.  (As Frank explained to me, eighty percent of traditional Irish songs end badly for one or more individuals involved.)  While the precise origin of Whiskey in the Jar is unknown, sources suggest the song can be traced back to the 17th century.  It’s been recorded by numerous artists since the 1950s.  In addition to traditional versions by Irish folk groups like the Dubliners, for whom it became a signature song, and a beautiful acoustic rendition by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, more amplified covers of Whiskey in the Jar have been successful hits for rock bands Thin Lizzy and Metallica.  My favorite version at Irish Fest was performed by an innovative Celtic pop band, the Screaming Orphans, pictured here with Frank and me after their show.


More than forty years ago I picked up a Quicksilver Messenger Service album entitled Shady Grove.  Shady Grove labelQuicksilver was a psychedelic rock band from San Francisco.  Shady Grove was their second studio album and opened with a rocking version of the title song.  At that time, I didn’t realize Shady Grove was an 18th-century American folk song with more than 300 variations in its lyrics.  At Irish Fest I learned it’s a standard in the repertoires of folk, Celtic and bluegrass musicians all over the world.  When a three-piece acoustic band, Socks in the Frying Pan, played that unmistakable melody in Milwaukee, I thought of the Quicksilver album from years ago.

In 1969 I would listen to a song called Dirty Old Town from Rod Stewart’s first solo record, released just after his stint as vocalist “extraordinaire” for blues-rock guitar icon, Jeff Beck.  While I’ve always enjoyed the song even to this day, I didn’t know much about it.  When I heard the Kilkennys perform it last week at Irish Fest, I wanted to know more.  Dirty Old Town is a British song written by Ewan MacColl in 1949.  It was popularized in the 60s by the Dubliners and has been recorded by artists of many other genres since, including Stewart in 1969 and Betty LaVette in 2012, another recording I have.  Even a Celtic punk band, the Pogues, covered it in 1985.  At Irish Fest, the Kilkennys, pictured here, nailed it in its native genre better than any other version I’ve heard.

IMG_1786I’ve been to Milwaukee’s Festa Italiana.  That’s my heritage.  While the Italian festivals are happy, colorful celebrations, filled with music, dancing and food, I confess to having had more fun at my first Irish Fest.  Sláinte, mama mia!  Grazie, Frank!


Little Golden Records

My appreciation for music evolved something like this.  When I was quite young, my parents gave me a compact, red and white record player.  It spun those small, yellow, 78 rpm discs called Little Golden Records.  I had a variety of them with titles like The Ballad of Davy Crockett and The Theme From ZorroLtlGoldRecDavyCrock There was a Burl Ives song and a couple of spoken-word stories too.  I can’t remember any specific story or title, but I can remember the last line of one that came at the end of side two.  It went something like, “That’s the end of our story, boys and girls, but you can turn this record over and the circus will come to town again…”  So I’d dutifully turn over the record and listen to the circus or whatever it was come to town again.

It wasn’t long before my parents bought themselves a console record player.  A big wooden box with a cloth grill on four skinny legs, pointed slightly outward at either end, you’d open the lid from the top and reach down inside to stack one or more records on a spindle.  It was the first record changer I’d seen.  Flip a lever, and the bottom platter in the stack magically dropped to the rotating turntable as the arm swung over and dropped precisely on to the starting band of the record.  LPs and 45s were the height of recorded technology.  The console was manufactured by RCA and it was monaural, which would become somewhat of a disappointment down the road.

My folks enjoyed Broadway musicals.  Consequently, so did I.  The Music Man, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and West Side Story were my favorites.  Those and one 45 rpm disc belonging to one or the other of my parents, Rags to Riches by Frankie Laine.

For my twelfth birthday, I received a transistor radio from my godfather.  It was only a two-transistor, not really powerful enough to pull in anything but a couple of local, small-town stations.  Besides news, weather and sports, I heard some terrific ads with jingles I can still remember…

Two can live as cheap as one (clap,clap, clap clap),
When you shop at Fox’s.
Prices so low, why don’t you go (clap,clap, clap clap),
Buy all your food at Fox’s.
(Sung to the tune of Deep In the Heart of Texas)

Unfortunately, the music on those stations was stuck in the 1940s.  It wasn’t until I received a six-transistor radio from my parents a few days later that I could pull in Chicago’s WLS and discover magical songs like Del Shannon’s Runaway and Roy Orbison’s Crying.

It wasn’t long before I had my own new, self-contained record player, about the size of a small suitcase with a turntable that pulled down to operate.  It, too, was monaural.  It, too, became somewhat of a disappointment after a while, an early lesson in planned obsolescence.

I had a few 45s that I’d saved up to buy, first with allowance money and then with paper route profits.  The Bonnie Bee grocery store downtown housed a small record section right next to the magazines, across the aisle from their “Kiddie Korral.”  While I don’t remember exactly which of those early 45s were among my collection, Robin Ward’s Wonderful Summer might have been one of them.  Whenever I heard it, I’d daydream about a certain neighbor girl singing it to me.

While accompanying mom to the Bonnie Bee one day without any funds of my own, and after some well-executed begging, she bought me I Want To Hold Your Hand by the Beatles.  It was in a picture sleeve with the four lads looking dapper in their collarless jackets and Paul holding that cigarette between his fingers, Sinatra style.  Upon listening to it, I figured out why the neighbor girl was singing to me about what a wonderful summer I gave her.  It’s because I wanted to hold her hand.

Nine Out of Ten Ain’t Bad

While awaiting my turn at the barbershop, the AARP Magazine cover stared back at me from its rack.  Okay, it wasn’t really a barbershop.  It was a salon,  But not just any salon.  It was one of those franchise salons for cheapskates like me who carry around coupons for discount haircuts.  “Ten Essential Boomer Albums,” the headline read.  I grabbed the magazine, rescuing it from  between Glamour and People.  I flipped through some pages to the list of records.  “Alright,” I muttered to myself.  I owned nine out of those ten albums!

The first one was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.  I had that one… until someone “borrowed” it from me, along with a Simon & Garfunkel album not on the list.  Never saw either one again.  I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on my cousin’s transistor radio while we were fishing along the banks of Turtle Creek.  Now, I have nearly every Dylan album ever released, even the “borrowed” one.  Dylan’s music probably has influenced me more than any other songwriter.

Long ago, I wrote about the second album on the list, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for a review column in my high school newspaper, Arista.  In that same column I also reviewed We’re Only in It for the Money by the Mothers of Invention.  That one isn’t on the list for reasons unknown to me.  I have some clippings of those record review columns.  Each of them ended with a plug for Don’s Record Shop.  A classmate on the business end of the newspaper staff was supposed to collect money from old Don in return for the advertising.  Whether that actually happened remains a mystery.  On the other hand, I don’t recall ever buying record albums at retail prices from Don.  Ever the cheapskate, I sought out the record bins at Arlan’s Discount Store.  Karma triumphed on Don’s behalf though, when both albums warped beyond playability in the trunk of my parents car one sunny afternoon, the result of my own negligence.

I had to look up Led Zeppelin IV.  Zeppelin never bothered to title their first four albums and even though three of them were in my collection, my head hurts trying to recall anything after Led Zeppelin II.  To make matters more confusing, this fourth album goes by an alternate title comprised of four Runes symbols, each representing a band member.  So I remember it only by its cover art featuring an old guy hunched over and carrying a bag of sticks.  It’s also the album with their most overplayed song, “Stairway to Heaven,” and is one I wore out on my turntable.

What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), Tapestry (Carole King), Exile on Main Street  (Rolling Stones), Innervisions (Stevie Wonder), Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975  (Eagles), Exodus (Bob Marley & the Wailers) and Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Soundtrack (Bee Gees) made up the rest of this “essential” list.

Saturday Night Fever?  Really?  I confess to seeing the movie, but never thought seriously about owning the soundtrack album.  I was miffed by the “disco” wave the Bee Gees chose to ride.  The Bee Gees had made some decent music and their first album, appropriately titled Bee Gees 1st, was in my collection.  But their Odessa album with the red-flocked, gatefold cover was the real gem.  Either my first wife or her sister owned that album, depending on whose home it was in at the time.  An oft-pilfered item between them, it finally met an unfortunate fate, melting into a charred hunk of red-flecked vinyl, the result of a house fire while in my sister-in-law.’s possession.

So the AARP music critic and I might agree on nine out of his ten essential boomer albums… all ten if you take into account a different Bee Gees album that burned to a crisp.  I could easily come up with a different “Ten Essential Boomer Albums” list.  There’s a very good chance none would have been purchased at Don’s Record Store.  Sorry, Don.

Arista Full copy

What are your “Ten Essential Boomer Albums?”  Leave a comment and let me know.