By Ernie McCray
A few days before my 77th birthday – “Hip-Hip! Hooray!” – I stepped into the Big Kitchen Cafe and the Rascal’s were “Groovin'” on the stereo and I couldn’t help but go back into time to when that song played in the background of my life.
I was, in this moment in time, slowly getting out of an unhealthy situation and found myself truly “Groovin'” on many a “Sunday afternoon,” kicking it with a beautiful high spirited funny-as-hell woman who, it seemed to me, was looking for what I was looking for at that stage of my life: fun, with no strings attached. Turned out later, I was the only one looking for that. She was more in tune with “Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly…” We parted amiably.
And the music just keeps on playing, a constant in our lives, something to grab and hold on to. And I’ve basked in a whole lot of it in my 77 years.
When I came along the world was filled with crooning songs (“Old Blue Eyes” was driving “bobbysoxers” wild); the big bands were swinging and “hepcats” were slinging their “chicks” over their heads and through their legs to their boogie woogie beats.
The Mills Brothers wanted a “Paper Doll” they could call their own and one of the hottest licks was the Nat King Cole Trio’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.”
I was digging it all. I had such a crush on the Andrews Sisters that when they sang “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else With Me” I thought they were singing to me, personally, with that perfect harmony – and I was only three.
Lot of the music in my childhood, I can now see, was to just take grown-ups’ minds off the war and other such troubles that bubbled around the globe. The music gave people an opportunity to unwind and loosen their bones. It’s hard to be down when Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five are singing some “Mop! Mop!” kind of jive or Lionel Hampton’s got the joint jumping with “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop!” as he’s jamming on the vibes.
Then along came rhythm and blues and rock and roll, becoming like one with my soul, a catalyst for the maturation of that very soul as I learned to handle all that growing up puts you through, with testosterone running through me like the rapid waters of a river.
But dancing let you touch the girls and they you. I think that’s all we really wanted to do. Music is the great gatherer of bodies and spirits. I was the first one on the floor at the “Sock Hops” and the Junior and Senior Prom. In high school and college.
And when the El Casino Ballroom and other venues around brought somebody to town, I was there wearing out my shoes, talking:
Little Willie John doing “Fever”; Ruth Brown, going on about “Mama, he Treats your Daughter Mean”; Little Richard tearing it up with “Tutti Frutti”; Bill Doggett putting out funk in hunks in “Honky Tonk”; Big Joe Turner screaming “Flip Flop and Fly! I don’t care if I die!”; Etta James teasing us with “I Just Wanna Make Love to You”; Chuck Berry asking for some of that “Rock and Roll Music”; Bobby Freeman asking “Do You Wanna Dance”; Bo Diddley kicking “Bo Diddley”; Ray Charles wowing the world with “What’d I Say”…
I particularly remember Fats Domino, when I was about seventeen, singing hits like “Ain’t That a Shame,” wearing a suit that was the brightest color of red I have ever seen, looking like a forest fire playing a piano. He changed our retinas for life.
“Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end.”
Thinking of songs gone by I knew one would surface in my mind that would
remind me of not so good times, times of deep emotional pain like when I was drowning in a marriage that spun out of control like a tornado that didn’t know where it was going.
Never knew what was coming next, something being thrown or all of a sudden Percy Sledge jars you awake singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” on the record player in the living room in the very wee hours of the morning, at decibels that would have alarmed the deaf. I associate that, otherwise beautiful song, with sheer madness.
Oh, but the precious musical memories, making love to Nancy to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” like there was no tomorrow and the world was barren of strife and sorrow. Our lovely twin girls soon to be born.
Then our son comes along, a cute little boy with the energy of a thousand Energizer Bunnies, a dude who could make your day, and we found that “Funkytown,” especially on road trips, would calm him down.
Music. Music. Music. Sure has enriched my life. In so many ways. I don’t know how many times it has eased some pain I was enduring. Nothing I can think of has made me feel more laid back and meditative, or has lifted my mood at the end of a day that has taxed my body and spirit to the max, than ending that day with something like Supersax blowing “April in Paris” or Strauss’s “Horn Concerto in C Minor.”
But when all is said and done, there’s nothing I like about music more than it’s just plain old fun. It’s in the spirit of that fun that I’m still “Groovin'” after all these years. Except that now, that I’m 77, I’m beyond trying to be footloose and fancy free. I’m with a woman who has me going “Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly…” I love the music we make together. It’s always playing.