Having no siblings meant a certain freedom, one closely associated with solitary confinement but a freedom nonetheless. The freedom of being alone allowed me to dream, design and create without the distractions of a larger family. It didn’t help me socially at all because I was never challenged in the way that siblings challenge one another so I lagged behind in that development but…
In the vacuum that was my home and my head I could just go wild without restriction and so there were many tasks that I gave myself to do and one that I decided upon at age 13 was to become a singer. Not a hack but a good singer. Being born into a home full of performing arts I knew the difference.
Father #1 gave me the DNA, he being a guitarist, vocalist and drummer of some renown and my dad (father #2) gave me the atmosphere, something like an on-site workshop.
Besides being a skilled musician and prestidigitator, he had his hands in several different aspects of performing and would, on occasion, give music lessons or help individual performers fine tune their craft; comedians, singers, magicians and instrumentalists practiced their shtick at my house. It got so I recognized a couple of them but most I just watched come and go.
My dad would help them work on their act and I would listen on the sly from around the corner because, frankly, the whole thing fascinated me and I wanted to take a swim in that pool, so why not eavesdrop on some helpful advice? In addition, my dad used to work his own magic show in our basement so I had the privilege of watching my mother go up in smoke or skewered with swords like a shish kabob, only to reappear as good as new.
I also got familiar with local celebrity. One night my dad invited Clare Cummings, a.k.a. Milky the Clown, to our home for a little socializing. Now, Milky the Clown was a legendary figure in kid’s television in Detroit throughout the ’50’s and early ’60’s and to have him, even sans costume, standing in our rec room was a big deal. He played with me a bit, pulling a cigarette out of my ear and entertaining me with various slights of hand.
And so it was pre-ordained that the entertainment biz would guide my world. I was groomed unintentionally and the pull was too great for me to make a more sensible choice. It was part of my development and, primarily, it was what I knew the best.
In that light, it was hardly out of the ordinary for me to decide that I would learn the skills of a good singer. I had, in the same year, taken up the guitar so I had the necessary accompaniment and all that was left was to work at it until I thought I was good enough to perform.
My mother did not want me to become a musician and gave thought to forbidding me from even picking up the guitar until a musician friend of ours suggested that she let me go and do what I was obviously talented enough to do. Nearly every time I got the chance to be alone I worked at it and that usually meant waiting until the weekends when my mother would go out on a date and I could practice unobserved.
I sang and played in almost every room in the house because there were different acoustics in each space and the timber of my voice took on different colors depending on my location. If I was looking for ‘small room’ reverb, it was the upstairs bathroom. If I wanted ‘medium room’ reverb it was usually the basement, and so on. I did this, literally, for years.
When I hit high school I’d try to incorporate a friend or two into my musical sphere because it gave me a chance for live harmony but it only left me frustrated because their constant pitch problems drove me up the wall and, again, I had no choice but to go solo.
I did, however, take one big fat chance and brought my guitar over to my dad’s house. Who was going to give me better feedback than this musical guidance counselor I’d watched in action for all those years? Besides, he was family and wouldn’t family give me more attention than a stranger? I admired him musically and more than anything I wanted to show him what I could do.
But he was oddly detached from the beginning to the finish and while I wanted his opinion of my technique and skill all I got was commentary on the song itself or the songwriters. It was disconcerting but in typical OCD style I kept coming back with my guitar and my songbooks on the off chance that there would be a more substantive reaction to ME, but that never happened and I eventually gave up.
By the time I was in college I was performing in clubs but it wasn’t until one night in my freshman or sophomore year that my mother decided to visit and hear me sing at a local bar. That night I noticed how surprised she was at my talent level, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that she’d never really heard me before and had no idea what I was or wasn’t.
I only practiced when she wasn’t around because I was embarrassed to reveal myself until I was sure of my abilities. As an adolescent I only really sang for my dad and all his responses were, in hindsight, colored by his own considerable talents being marginalized by his mother which in translation meant what it always meant for me: ‘Sorry kid, I’ve got too many of my own psychological demons to make room for you’.
Ah, the Wonder Bread years; full of alone time and working in a complete vacuum.