Nature, Nurture, and Music.
Oh, and Girls!

by Steven Utley


I have enjoyed music as far back as I can remember, which is clear back to the early 1950s, when I couldn’t get enough of somebody’s rendition of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Nowadays, I sometimes cannot get enough of Beethoven or Artie Shaw or The Who, sometimes can’t get enough of all of them in the same day, and make the transitions, too, without my head exploding. This eclecticism dates to childhood, when it was exemplified at my house by a long-playing record bearing the Capitol label and featuring a fair cross-section of Eisenhower-era pop music by Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Sonny James, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Kay Starr, Pee Wee Hunt, and Nelson Riddle.

If eclectic musical tastes chiefly derive from Nature, not Nurture, I may be indebted to my mother, who has exhibited a wonderful flexibility of attitude through more than half a century’s pop-music paradigm shifts. As a teenager before World War II, she got to see, for the munificent sum of 35 cents, bands fronted by Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington; by the time I made her acquaintance, her favorites included Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, and Perry Como. Like many of her generation, she found Elvis Presley and Little Richard disconcerting in 1956, but, unlike many, warmed to them by default in 1964 when first confronted with The Beatles. In their turn, the Fab Four began to look pretty good to her compared to some of the acts that followed them; by the end of the 1970s, during which decade my kid brother (born in 1953) and my nephew (born in 1965) had rejoiced in being, respectively, an Alice Cooper and a Kiss fan, my mother had even picked her favorite Beatle (Paul). Not that I intend to ask her about it, but this far into the age of rap and hip hop she may also have reevaluated The Sex Pistols.

Anyhow, if Nurture rather than Nature is the decisive factor, well, I had the great good fortune to grow up with not only a mother who loved crooners and big bands, but also a father who favored country and western and an older brother who, beyond merely being a card-carrying member of the first rock ’n roll generation, found himself ideally situated in space and time — Memphis, the mid-1950s, just as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis took off — to excite the envy of other teenagers throughout the nation. I played my mother’s Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey records until probably even she was tired of them, tried growling out “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You” in imitation of Ernest Tubb, and listened over my brother’s shoulder, so to speak, as he taught himself guitar by strumming and picking along with Chet Atkins and The Ventures.

Moreover, when I wasn’t watching Mary Martin fly around on wires and warble about the experience in telecasts of Peter Pan, old Hollywood movies on TV were giving me an earful of singing cowboys, Groucho Marx extolling the charms of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” and everything in between. I spent summer vacations in Kentucky with my grandparents and great-grandparents, who were Pentecostals. Pentecostals cut loose in their worship services. These Pentecostals clapped, stomped, and rocked the house. The message of “When We All Get to Heaven” and “I’m Gonna Have a Little Talk With Jesus” may have been diametrically opposed to that of “Great Balls of Fire,” but the thumping piano accompaniment was in the same league.

Beginning in high school, a series of classes always called Music Appreciation introduced me formally to the heavy hitters, Bach, Ravel, Holst, Gershwin, that lot. I grooved on Dave Brubeck’s Take Five album and Top-40 singles as different as Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird” and Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step,” checked out TV and motion-picture soundtracks from the library (Victory at Sea, Ben-Hur, The Guns of Navarone, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and tuned in late at night when radio disc jockeys set aside their playlists (dominated in the early 1960s by insipid white kids) to unleash a different sort of heavy hitter: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke. Listening to Bo Diddley, I somehow knew that while I, too, may have looked like a farmer, I, too, was a lover. This conviction only grew stronger as Beatlemania erupted. At the time, I happened to be the only boy in a high-school art class stocked with slightly older, distinctly nubile girls. I derived little immediate benefit from the situation, apart from the exercise it afforded my puberal imagination, because whenever these girls weren’t mooning over John, Paul, George, or Ringo (factions developed immediately), they all seemed to manifest the hots for my older brother, who was out of school, drove a cool car, and actually played in a band; to the extent they acknowledged my existence, they acknowledged it on his account. Even today, I can not listen to “I Wanna Be Your Man” without feeling slightly jealous.

Still, they were smart, funny girls as well as cute ones, and that did do me much genuine good further down the line: I look at cute girls, but I love cute, smart, funny ones. Credit for that goes to Nurture.


Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley

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