Brothers Johnson: Stomp
From Light Up The Night (A&M, 1980)
Frankie Smith: Double Dutch Bus
From Double Dutch Bus (Unidisc, 1994)
Gil Scott-Heron: Johannesburg
From From South Africa To South Carolina (TVT, 1976)
Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels: Shake A Tail Feather
From Rev Up: The Best Of Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels (Rhino/WEA, 1989)
Mothers don’t get their due when it comes to passing along the gift of music. So many times I’ve read articles where an interviewer asks an artist or producer about their influences only to get a response like, “Pops played in a local funk band,” or “My dad gave me a bunch of his LPs that we used to listen to at the house when I was growing up.” This isn’t THAT story. I’m no artist or producer, although I can play a little bit of piano and a carry a beat on drums. What I am is a guy who LOVES music of all kinds, and it all started with my mother.
I couldn’t tell you a lot about my dad’s musical tastes other than he liked Neil Diamond according to my mom. He died when I was only a few months old. My stepdad wasn’t much into music either. But my mom? She loves her some music, especially something that makes her want to dance or just flat out makes her feel good.
As a kid, I didn’t care for “her” music much. There were a few songs that were okay, but given the chance I would have much rather listened to 96 WSTO, the local pop station. My older brother and I went nuts when Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” or Prince’s “Kiss” came on. We liked our MJ, too. When I was in my teens and we’d visit the big city, I couldn’t wait to turn on the hip hop station, and did my mom ever hate it! She was a good sport, though, as she put up with as much as she could before saying she couldn’t take it anymore. It was just “cool” to hear the latest jams – and to like something my mom didn’t, in part to have my own identity. My mom’s old fuddy-duddy music? Not so cool, or at least I didn’t think so at the time.
My mom never has been much of an albums kind of lady. The songs she likes aren’t all that obscure. Most of the cassettes/CDs/LPs she has are greatest hits or compilations. It was only a couple months ago she wanted to upgrade to CD versions of the 70s Preservation Society’s “Disco Fever” 2-CD comp she had on cassette, which she can no longer play in her car since it only has a CD player. The only problem was that the comp was out of print. So after a few minutes of scouring eBay, I scored a good price and she was happy as could be. I mean seriously elated. You should have seen the smile on her face. Priceless.
In our house, it was always a party when we heard some Brothers Johnson “Stomp” (a song that was not uncommon to rewind and do it all again) or do some rock-soul growling with Mitch Ryder’s version of the Purify’s “Shake A Tail Feather.” We used to promenade through the living room to “Double Dutch Bus” and do “The Hustle” right along with Van McCoy. We played air guitar to Ray Parker, Jr.’s, “The Other Woman.” We even got a little righteous with it to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Johannesburg” – pretty hip stuff for a white family in Small Town, USA.
One of my favorite pictures of our family is a picture that was taken from the balcony above the living room of my mom, with her lovely early ’80s coif, and brother each with an air-mic (it may even have been a salt and pepper shaker set) singing – no, make that SANGin’ – while the stereo was bumping. And did it ever bump in that house. My friend used to tell me how she could hear the music at her house… 2 houses up the road!
Today, it’s hard to turn my mom on to new-to-her old school music. When I hear something today that I think she’d like, it’s a hard sell. “I just like the ones I used to play and know,” she tells me. It can be a hard concept to wrap my head around since, to me, the songs may have the same vibe. A good friend of mine, Apollo, who is a club and mobile DJ, told me several years ago it all has to do with nostalgia. For her, it may not have anything to do with the sound of the actual music; it may only be where that music takes her – back to the Victory, a local dance club she went to as a young adult that had a lighted dancefloor that I can only imagine was similar to Saturday Night Fever, or back to an unforgettable New Year’s Dance, or a song that got her in the mood. The music was just the soundtrack to her life. With each listen, she can time travel back.
That musical tradition carried forth when my brother, who has run his own mobile DJ business for nearly 20 years, and I threw a surprise 60th birthday party for her a few years ago. With a few drinks and a few friends in attendance at the local Elks Lodge, we had a blast. Those friends didn’t just include those couples with whom my mom always hung out. Also in attendance were friends such as Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, and Vicki Sue Robinson, who made their way via CDs and speakers. Had we ever met those folks? Absolutely not, but we certainly spent a lot of time with them at our house, and they meant a lot to us, even if it was in a more indirect, but no less important, relationship than with our actual family friends.
As I got older, I started to appreciate how much work goes into music and started to piece together of how the “science” of music (how it is constructed), how it makes me feel, and how those interrelate. Nostalgia is a funny creature. Much of the music I love now I wasn’t alive to hear when it was made, but it takes me back to a fun time growing up in a household where music, dancing, and expression were almost as important as eating dinner together. But this story isn’t about me. It’s about a mother – my mother – who wasn’t trying to teach us anything about music; she was just trying to have a good time, and in the process she passed along something that I’ll certainly always cherish. Just like my mom.
Happy Mother’s Day.