It all started with the rhythm of the beat. For me, anyway. All my life, when listening to music, I was attracted to what musicians call the bottom. The beat. The bass. It was the rhythm, not the ryhme, that got to me. Ask me the lyrics of a particular song? Unless it was something like White Christmas, or the Star Spangled Banner, forget about it. And the melody? Well, the melodies were fine and I could hear them inside my head. Some I could hum. Barely. But the beat? Oh yes, I could tell you the beat. I could feel it.
It was only when I entered fourth grade that I began to understand what I could feel. I learned how the beat was formed, or with apologies to Sonny and Cher, how the beat goes on. I learned what 4/4 time meant. Also, 3/4 time, 6/8 time and the others. It was in fourth grade that I started taking drum lessons. I remember my father making for me a drum practice pad. It consisted of three small blocks of wood, each maybe eight inches square, an inch thick and attached to form a triangle. The hypotanuse was tilted like a snare drum is often tilted and covered with a rubber pad. I can clearly see it. It was red.
Although I could instinctly feel the beat, it was on that rubber pad that I learned how to keep the beat. At first, it was harder than I thought. It took more coordination than I realized. I was introduced to very strange sounding terms like paradiddle and flamadiddle. I learned how drum rolls could be very loose or very tight. Soon, not only could I feel the beat, it was becoming clear how and why.
We had a small band in elementary school. We sounded like what you would expect ten and eleven year old kids just starting out with musical instruments to sound. But, let’s put it this way; we were earnest.
I mean, look at the smiles on those faces! In case you are curious, that’s me, fifth from the left holding the drumsticks standing next to the cub scout.
In junior high school, our band was a little bigger and a little better. One would hope! By then I had worked my way though snare drums and bass drums and was learning how to play timpani drums. Now we’re talking. These were drums that not only could carry a beat, they could produce different notes on a scale! One distinct memory comes to mind about those days. Our band was rehearsing for our annual spring concert. Parents attended, parents of classmates attended, teachers attended. This was a big deal. At the time, I was also a Boy Scout. A week before the concert, our scout troop went on a weekend campout. As young boys are prone to do, I was fooling around, pretending to be a pole vaulter using a long stick to lift myself into the air and fall back to the ground. On about the third launch, I landed wrong. Very wrong. I broke my right wrist. My timpani playing right wrist!
The injury itself was not that bad. It was a small break. But, it necessitated wearing a cast on my right arm from my hand to my elbow. Disaster! I was supposed to play a timpani solo in that spring concert. Oh, woe! Our band director said that some other band member would have to do it. No sir, I was determined. I will play it, cast and all. I would just make it work. I did and made it through the solo. The pain was tolerable. Maybe even more than tolerable. I think I had only one tear in my eye. Maybe two.
It was in high school that playing drums got really serious. Our band director, George Bell, was a genius. He was also a very tough task master. He expected perfection from all of us and was never shy about letting us know when we failed to measure up. We loved Mr. Bell. Ask most any band member today and they will tell you about the fond memories they have of the late George Bell. He taught us more than music. He taught us about honor, integrity and commitment. Under his direction, our high school band won several statewide awards. We were also invited to be the main halftime entertainment for the Thanksgiving Day, nationally televised football games between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. Twice! This is us in 1962.
By the time I became a senior in high school, I had been playing drums for nine years. You’d think that I was on to something, that maybe a career in music might be in the cards. You’d be wrong. It was traditional for graduating senior band members at our school to be featured in our final concert appearance on commencement day. When that concert was over, I put my drumsticks down and never picked them up again.
Don’t ask me why. I don’t have a good answer for you. I really enjoyed the experience, so why I turned my back on drums has always been something of a mystery to me. It never really occured to me to continue drumming in college. At any rate, my focus turned to other matters, especially a career in broadcasting,
That career came to a successful conclusion nearly five decades later when I retired from ABC News in 2012. In all that time, even without the drums, I never lost the feel of the beat. So, in retirement, I decided it was time to keep the beat again. But this time, it is the other half of the bottom, the bass. I traded my methaphoric microphone for a real bass guitar and started taking lessons.
As a drummer, it was never really necessary to learn theories of music. We drummers never really had to worry about chords or keys or harmonies. It was just the beat, man. But learning to play bass is a whole different ball game. Now, I had to learn strange things like the Circle of Fifths or the Cycle of Fourths. The cool thing about bass is that now I’m playing different notes while still keeping the beat. We bass players like to call that “the groove.” OK, maybe that’s a little borderline pretentious. But the point is, the bass and the beat are what create the bottom, the sound that fills voids that melodies and lyrics can’t reach.
As a result, after more than 55 years I am in a band again. Here we are…
Because we are all “of a certain age,” except for the young lady, we call ourselves 40 Years Too Late, which kind of says it all. I met Rob Liszt and John Melton, the two fellows on the right, during a jam session at the music shop where I had been taking lessons. These guys sounded great, but I thought they needed…well, you know…bottom. Graciously, they asked me to join them. After playing together for a few months, we added the very talented Crystal Estey, who has a voice like an angel. Then we added Ken Cherry, the fellow in the blue shirt, as our drummer…and voila, we have a band! Rob as lead singer and rhythm guitar, John on lead guitar, Crystal as vocalist and guitar, Ken as drummer and yours truly on bass. My, son Blair recently tweeted, “No one, but no one, rocks retirement like my Dad.” Maybe, but it is great fun.
I guess this trip down memory lane is a way to announce that 40 Years Too Late has booked its first two gigs, one at a local VFW post later this month and one at a local restaurant next month. The beat, indeed, does go on.