In The Beginning…
It all started in a bar in Montana, with a juke box and an old upright piano. Who woulda thunk it? A little kid grows up in a bar, hears the juke box every day, starts trying to play the songs he hears on the old piano, and shazam!! The music seed in this tyke begins to grow, the townsfolk water it, and it becomes the tree of life that gives our little guy his life’s work and love!
This isn’t a one of a kind story, though it is a touch off some people’s beaten path. Patrick Duffy, of “Dallas” fame, grew up in a bar in Townsend, Montana. So don’t ever say you’d never let your kids grow up in a bar, the way my mom’s sisters always did. Patrick and I are living proof, more or less, that it can work!
Lions and tigers, etc.
For Patrick, it was acting. For me, music, of course. I remember, at seven or eight years old, reading about the African lions and tigers, and how dangerous they could be. And I remember thinking, if I can just stay away from those deadly animals, I should be able to stay safe, and live a long and happy life!
Curiously, all that came to pass. But not without some harsh and stark realizations along the way. Never have been interested in going to Africa, so I’m safe, right? Ha. Wrongo bongo. There have been lions and tigers around me my entire life, some that I recognized in time, while some nearly got me, occasionally scratching me up a bit!
See, my parents were the type of folks who made “living life” look easy to me. My dad often said things like, “We’ll take ‘er as she comes…” “When it gets too tough for the rest of the guys, it makes it just right for us!”
And my mom, “It’s a poor dog that won’t wag it’s own tail…” They seemed to always be happy as clams… working hard, but loving their lives and their friends. Somehow, I translated that over time as life being fairly safe and easy to live and get through, as long as one dodged those lions and tigers!
Found out soon enough that there were lots of lions and tigers around me, in different forms that I didn’t recognize, forms that no one told me about – forms both tangible and intangible that were every bit as dangerous as large, wild animals. Some of them were sneaky, hiding in the bushes, waiting to pounce. So you put a young man from a small town in Montana out into the world, thinking he could stroll and whistle his way through the jungle of potential danger, danger he wasn’t even aware of, or alert for, it’s for pretty certain that things are about to get interesting. And they did.
Okay so, lions and tigers. And of course there were bears… oh yes! Lots of bears. For me, the bears came in forms of fights and physical harm. There were fights after school, both grade school and high school… it was Montana, after all. Then, football in high school had its bears in the form of the Sheridan football team. They were bigger, stronger, faster and better coached than we were, and those games hurt, both physically and mentally. In my sophomore year, they beat us 78-0. A broken collar bone and a broken nose were my trophies from that miserable season. Sheridan went on to win their division at state, but small consolation. Yes, the bears were out there.
My tigers were both outside me, and inside me. Many times difficulties threw me for a loop, as I was over-emotional and always carried high expectations, which sometimes bowled me over when I failed. And I did fail at some things, like my sophomore year at the U. of Montana. Stopped showing up for my morning classes, slept ’til noon, drank beer with a couple of buddies until very late in the evening, pretty typical for some young men, actually. Turns out the reason I was messing up is that the U. of M. wasn’t giving me what I wanted… learning about jazz music. Finally, as I was leaving the school, one professor, Harold Herbig, caught me in the hall. “You’re in the wrong school here,” he told me. “We’re trying to make a music teacher out of you, that’s what we do. You don’t want that, obviously. You need to find a school that gives you what you need.”
He didn’t give me any advice as to where that might be, but a trumpet player there, Dale Frank, did. He also caught me in the hall of the music building one morning and stopped me for a moment. “You dropped out, didn’t you?” I admitted that I had.
“There’s a great school back in Boston, a jazz school. It’s called the Berklee School of Music. It’s private and expensive, but it might be just what you need. I’m going back there myself. Write to them, get their catalog and see if it might be right for you.”
Everlasting thanks for that minute of advice, Dale! changed my life right there. And happily, I was able to thank him for it later.
Huge New Chapter
What to do with my life, how to get into it, to learn what I so desperately wanted to do, to be a jazz musician, to play music with others, to entertain… Berklee was the answer. One tiger down!
But there were others, many others. Besides my internal tigers, there were many outside lions… drugs, evil people, bad situations that seemed safe at the time… I stumbled into way too much of all that in the beginning. I was always trusting in strangers, especially charming, charismatic people, a huge mistake right there, and for way too long I occasionally suffered the consequences. I had to learn, over time, that if one were in any way different, unique, and stuck out from the crowd in any way, that life upped the ante on that person, for both good and bad results. To be noticed as unique by others was somewhat akin to putting a microscope on one’s life, magnifying it in directions that weren’t always beneficial!
A dangerous lion that roughed me up pretty badly was, of all things, my own ego! It quietly stole out of the brush and landed on me right when I was at the top of my career. I was getting great jobs at Doppler, making money hand over tea kettle, and my own little studio was humming along. I slowly got too big for my britches, thinking I was the answer to all things musical, and that I was a very important person in the Atlanta Arts community. Worse, I began acting that way, and my friends noticed it. I’d never have believed it if you had tried to tell me that I couldn’t handle money and success gracefully, but turned out, sadly, that I couldn’t.
I never had enough self confidence as a kid. There were so many things that I tried my best to be good at, and only achieved mediocrity… sports, school classes. Even through my twenties, with the experiences of working my way through Berklee, writing and playing the music for two plays in Toronto, still I gravitated to Atlanta at 29, being willing to try anything, yet not really believing I could be good enough. And so it was, even up to the time when Doppler took me on as a jingle writer and pianist, that I was still striving to be better, to be “good enough.” That stupid lack of confidence dogged me until I was 34, and well-established at Doppler, and in Atlanta. At some point in my time there, I finally got comfortable with what everyone expected of me, and my confidence soared. I was finally comfortable with who I was and what I was doing. And that was nearly my undoing.
I thought I knew, and was aware of, what a fantastic group of people I was working with at Doppler. Oh, I knew, and it felt great… there was a lot of love and mutual respect in that group in the ’70’s and ’80’s! We mostly had a blast, working together during those years, but I know I took them a lot for granted, and didn’t let them know how important they were to my little successes! I really regret that now. The audio engineers were outstanding, the office crew was efficient, friendly and fun. My fellow composers, Jimmy Ellis and Jack Turner, were supportive, even though I know I was an occasional jerk. The boss, Pete, was thoughtful, intuitive and knew how to run a smooth ship. The musicians that he mostly picked for our sessions were top-notch, intuitive players who always made our music sound better than what we put down on paper.
A Nasty Lion
I made and lost many friends along the way, me not being who they thought I was, them not being who I thought they were… dumb stuff. And as I was a self-employed musician, and successful, I ran into the lions of petty jealousies, back-stabbing and mean-spirited people who didn’t want anyone to be successful if they weren’t. That one I had to deal with right up to my retirement. That lion of untrustworthy people bit me time after time, and sent me home a bit bloody and remorseful more than once. I finally learned that you can’t trust anyone, until you can. For me, it simply didn’t pay to be too protective of myself. Being a big believer in spontaneity, I started every day and every relationship positive, hopeful. Sooner or later, I’d get bitten again. That lion has never completely stopped jumping out of the bushes and biting me, but I’ve pretty much stopped feeling it. And I don’t walk by those bushes so much anymore.
Several times I could’ve been swallowed up by the jungle, by its inherent, unseen dangers, and always music saved me, saved me in so many ways. Funny, how a near-intangible can save one from many of the dangers of the tangible world! Many see religion that way, as an intangible that provides strength, wisdom and direction to those in the tangible world. Sometimes I think that the strength comes from the believing itself, that the belief is the power, and what one decides to believe in is secondary. For me, any sort of belief system that promotes self confidence and well-being within a person is a worthwhile belief system. Sure, confident people, especially those who become successful and begin to feel the power, can get easily skewed, but we’re talking only about basic concepts here. Other life lessons take time and usually need to be helped along by experience. The light bulb comes on for each of us at different times, and for different reasons. That it lights up at all is the important point in all of this… along with somehow surviving the darkness until it does.
My life could be summarized by a well-known phrase, except backward… “The storm before the calm.” When a person gets up every day with the idea of being spontaneous all day and make all kinds of decisions on the fly, you can be sure that the excitement quotient in that person’s life is going to double, every time! Spur of the moment decisions made because of how one feels at that particular moment are destined to accidentally dodge some lions while throwing one headlong into another hidden group of tigers! Believe me, I know! The less I thought out a decision, the more random the result would be… and it took me about 50 years to figure that one out! But that’s what happens when you try to light a long and dark hallway with a 20-watt bulb. You stumble along, feeling your way, tripping on things and knocking things over. The storm before the calm, the darkness before the light… finally being able to see and define one’s lions and tigers… fairly important for a long and fulfilling life. I had the right idea as a little kid, I just had no idea of how many, or of what kind of lions and tigers and bears were out there. Turned out to be quite an adventure, but here I still am… oh my!