Write about the three most important songs in your life — what do they mean to you?
The first time I heard about rock ‘n roll was when my friend Janet, from grammar school, asked me if I had ever heard You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog, one of Elvis Presley’s songs. “Who? What’s that name again?”
“Elvis,” she said incredulously, but she could see from the expression on my face that I truly did not know who he was, or had even heard one of his songs. Well, she filled me in and told me to listen to the radio more often after school. Positioning herself by the flagpole, she sang a few lines of his song, and then she demonstrated his wiggling leg movements on stage. “Try singing the words with me, and try the leg movements, too,” she suggested. We caught the attention of other students just arriving into the schoolyard and they laughed uncontrollably with us. Janet and I had a rollicking good time that morning, and such an experience I will never forget.
Janet, my Portuguese friend who lived in North Beach, was my first connection to the outer world. Our conversations took my mind away from San Francisco’s Chinatown, its Chinese Opera music played repeatedly on the radio in stores, coffee shops, and sewing factories, and its constant strict disciplines. It has astounded me to discover how under exposed I had been to other people and the ways of their culture. My total sense of environment had only been what my father exposed me to after my mother passed away, and by keeping me close to him at my early age, in a small neighbor community, he thought he protected me. I later learned that the American way of life was much more interesting. I observed how my multi-cultural classmates, Italians, Romanians, and Polish, had families that loved them with great affection and praises for their young efforts. I wished for many years that I had that kind of love.
All I Have to Do is Dream, by The Everly Brothers, released in 1960, is my second significant song. I’ve listened to it several hundred times when practicing the calypso after school either at home by myself, or with the girls’ club at our church community center. The rhythm of the music made me feel like the flame of a candle swaying along with a gentle ocean breeze. First, I learned the steps, then the movements came along, and soon when my steps and movements were smooth, I dreamed of being one of the best calypso dancers in my class at school. I also dreamed of attracting the best dance partners at the bi-weekly dance. Unfortunately, there were more girls than boys, and the girls I practiced with were just as good, or better, than I was.
In junior high school, I joined the orchestra and played viola. I wanted the deeper tones from an instrument and the viola suit me beautifully. Our teacher, Mr. Haig Kafafian, taught us with enthusiasm. Many times, in his excitement to keep up a good pace, as he sidestepped his paced from one side of the room to the other, a bit of spit would escape his smiling face. My viola partner, Marilyn, and I sat in the front, and after the first time a drop hit our eyelids, we learned to duck.
Bit by bit, we increased our ability until we could play to perfection each note and each piece of music of renown from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff. Then, one day after a long practice of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, he announced, “Class, you are ready for the privilege of being part of a full orchestra. Tomorrow, we merge with the members of the band to play this piece in the Spring Festival. Your parents and the whole school will hear and appreciate your hard work for an excellent performance!”
The excitement of combining with the big group of boys in the band led us in an endless stream of exhilarating chatter all the way home for weeks.
Mr. Kafafian took great pride in introducing us at the Spring Festival and the applause we received was unforgettable.
Once again, the repetition of practice ingrained the notes into my mind. Whenever I hear Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, I remember what it felt like to be a unique part of something important. I also remember that back then, my girlfriends and I never had so much fun practicing for long hours, and winning the admiration of all those boys in the band.