Personal beliefs for some, we often see as biases for others; likes and dislikes all become apparent when we reflect on the things that are important to us. Over time we may adjust those beliefs, temper those biases, or embrace something we earlier eschewed. Consider our memories. Growing up, my great aunt Violet was as important to me as my parents. Easily 40-50 years my senior, Aunt Vi was a truly good human being whose affection and wisdom were never missing. I found myself thinking of her this week for a somewhat unexpected reason.
Vi was an unassuming woman who worked as a coatcheck girl at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Her husband Ed was a bus driver for the city’s public transit system. She wasn’t a musician, and not necessarily fond of pop music, but a genuine expression of support is not unimportant to a 12-year old boy. When I began playing the guitar at 12, contrary to many adults her age, there was no strange reaction. Rather, it was encouragement.
She was visiting our home in the spring of 1961. I don’t recall the occasion, but it was probably for my sister’s May birthday. Our family was like that in those days, particularly in the first couple of years after my parents divorced. The radio was on and one of the songs played had become so familiar, so well-liked, so universally acclaimed a pop hit, that no one could say a bad word about it. My mother was in the habit of taking us to Sears as she went shopping on a Saturday, and a big treat—at least for me—was going to the record department where she proceeded to buy two or three singles for me. At age 12, records were more important to me than ice cream (although that would change with time.)
Beyond popular music there were many things I should remember about 1961. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. The Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie won a Tony. West Side Story won an Oscar. It was the year of the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviets began construction of the Berlin Wall. Mini-skirts were beginning to turn up at couture houses. Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna. Vietnam was becoming a real war. Television was described as a “vast wasteland”. Bobby Fischer won his 4th consecutive U.S. chess championship (at age 17), and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, but earned an asterisk for his efforts. The New York Giants were beaten (soundly) by the Green Bay Packers, 37-0 in the original ‘ice bowl’.
Popular music in this pre-Beatles age was feeling positive, fun, and evolving. And songwriting was a craft that could, with perspective, be compared to paintings, architecture, dance . . . it was becoming a respectable art and writing pop hits was profitable.
Reading the minds of pre-teens and teenagers was a gift, and two of the greatest songwriters of their age were Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Their amazing collaboration would write “Poison Ivy” (recorded by the Coasters;) “Jailhouse Rock” was recorded by Elvis; “Ruby Baby” by The Drifters (and later covered by Dion). Lieber and Stoller might have retired in 1961, with a string of hits songs, including 11 recorded by Elvis Presley. But they didn’t.
Through their association with The Drifters, Lieber and Stoller met a young man with a distinctive voice. He stood out to most ears as the defining voice of the group, singing the lead vocal on “There Goes My baby” (1959), “Dance With Me” (1959), “This Magic Moment” (1960), “Save The Last Dance For Me” (1960), and six other singles. Benjamin Earl Nelson left the Drifters and almost immediately had a hit single for Atlantic Records: “Spanish Harlem”. As a kid from Milwaukee, I knew nothing about Spanish Harlem (the place,) but that recording—a song written by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector—fit the New York-flavored imagery of other teenage urban love songs like “Uptown”, and “He’s A Rebel”. Top-40 radio loved these mini (2-2 1/2 minute) romance novels and they loved “Spanish Harlem”. It debuted on Billboard’s chart in December 1960, reached #10, and spent 16 weeks on the charts. By May 1961 his follow-up single was out, destined to reach the top five. Mr. Nelson co-wrote that song with Lieber and Stoller, but by that time the singer had long since adopted a new stage name, and the world fell in love with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.
A couple of weeks ago millions around the world watched as a young man from Britain married an attractive young American. While the pageantry, the town, the chapel, the honored guests, the flowers, the carriage ride, the fame, fortune, dresses, hats, suits and tuxedos all vouched for the exclusivity of Harry and Meghan's day, nothing could surpass the moment. I’m speaking of course of the 'opening act, the Most Reverend Michael Curry (Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States, if you must know), who spoke passionately about love. The magazine Bazaar headlined “Reverend Michael Curry Electrified the Royal Wedding With a Moving Sermon”. No question. His sermon was a hit.
But the home run of the day was the choice of “Stand By Me”, performed by Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir. It was nothing less than inspired. Watching pieces of the royal wedding on TV I couldn’t help but think that the happy couple with, perhaps, extra credit to Meghan Markle, could not have done better in their choice of music.
"When the night, has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see.
No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand by me."
As the music ended, I thought back to my youth, singing along with “Stand By Me” on the radio, clumsily playing it on my first guitar, and hearing the whispered encouragement of my Great Aunt Vi. A half-century later, music doesn't get much better than "Stand By Me".