How therapeutic it is to listen to some of our classic American standards on a bad day. On any day, for that matter. “I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin, sung by Ethel Waters in Girl Crazy back in 1930 has to be one the most joyful version of that song ever recorded. “I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man — who could ask for anything more?” You Tube it and see what I mean. And find this one, too:
“Put another nickel in . . . in the nickelodeon . . . all I want is having you . . . and music, music, music.” Teresa Brewer, at age 18, belts out her new No. 1 hit back of 1950 and we must smile; we must dance. Ah, the magic of song!
I often use music – titles and sometimes lyrics — to set the tone, add to scenes and background, and to add color to characters and plots in my writing. I don’t hunt for the music; it finds me, hums or dances itself into my head, and rests there until I commit it to paper or computer.
My new memoir, Only You, set in my teenage years, opens with “Hawaiian Wedding Song” and ends, 200-plus pages later, with “Handel’s Messiah (Hallelujah Chorus).” In between, I mention 68 other song titles, mostly rock and roll hits of the 1950s but including some old favorites like “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” To avoid permission problems, I just use lyrics of those songs in the public domain. “Only You,” made famous by the Platters, is the favorite song of the main characters, my young husband, Billy and me. The prohibitive cost of using the actual lyrics forced me to paraphrase a couple of lines (as sung at my wedding reception by my new, half-inebriated spouse): “Only you can make me a happy man, only youuuuu . . . no matter what you dooooo . . .”
I come from a musical family. My brother and son are professional musicians; my three uncles were also life-long musicians; they played with the big bands of the 1940s. My mother and aunt were trained as singers. Peggy Lee rehearsed with my uncles’ band in my grandmother’s living room (the house I was raised in). I grew up with the big band oldies on radio, then TV, graduated to rock and roll, Latin rhythms, blues and country, some classical, and lots of stage and screen musicals. My own forte was dancing.
For Only You, I include an index at the end of the book for my fellow music fans. Here’s a sentence I was pleased to write. The scene is my surprise sweet 16th birthday party in the late 1950s:
“Soon the dance floor was packed as everybody started getting all shook up and with a whole lotta shakin’ going on and that’ll be the day when you say goodbye, young love, first love, filled with so much emotion, and come along be my party doll, I want to make love to you to you . . .”
No, the whole book doesn’t read like that. But I had such fun putting the sentence together. All the memories and emotions, the joys and the heartaches. I was a teenager, dancing my way through all of life’s surprises and uncertainties.
The following is set at a merengue contest with my best-ever dance partner (who is still a friend and whose real name is used in the memoir):
“The music began. Augie and I whirled and fleet-footed our way across the floor in 4/4 time, moving fluidly on each beat of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” We knew the drill — left, right, left, right, shifting our weight from foot to foot, sliding to the left, then to the right, bending then straightening our legs, all in time with the music. Our postures upright but not too stiff, we danced and twirled around the entire edge of the highly polished wooden floor of the gymnasium. Friends in the bleachers cheered us on. We were excited and, more importantly, in control.
Perez Prado’s band blared through the speakers, and it was as if Augie and I were born to dance to this music. Left, right, left, right, move, move, move…
We were both Latino now. We were at the Copa with Desi Arnaz on the bandstand, and suddenly I was Lucy, her dream of success as a showbiz star finally realized . . . “
Only You will be released in mid-April by Oak Tree Press. I hope you’ll take a look and, if inspired, sing along as you read, recalling some of your own musical memories, songs that affected your own youth, teenage years, and adulthood. Do you also use musical references in your writing and find pleasure in doing so?