I Felt My Guts Were Going to Come Out
‘I Felt My Guts Were Going to Come Out’:
Mauch Chunk Musicians Remember
Their First Unforgettable Songs
By Geoff Gehman
You never forget the first song you couldn’t forget. That first tune that hooks you, line and sinker, is much more than a first-class ticket to music’s magical mystery tour. The chords that stick to your ears, heart and soul are umbilical cords to indelible people, places, situations, conditions and feelings, some of which can’t be explained or understood decades later. We’re talking about life’s touchstones, cornerstones, foundations,
For 40 years I’ve been asking professional musicians for the first number that enthralled them, threw them, nailed them, floored them, flattened them, flayed them, slayed them. It’s by far my favorite question; trust me, there’s no better ice breaker or fire starter. In fact, the greater majority of my 160 Mauch Chunk Opera House interviewees were so fired up, they proceeded to give me two, three, even eight first pivotal songs. Guitarist Laurence Juber treated me to a 20-minute pilgrimage through his original influential blues, rock, gypsy, surf, folk baroque and James Bond movie songs, all of which schooled him to be Paul McCartney’s wingman in Wings and record “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon’s torch tune for “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Below is a sample of first unforgettable songs from 38 of my Opera House guests. Popa Chubby recalls hearing Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” on the jukebox in his parents’ Bronx candy store. Shawn Phillips remembers juking to “Malaguena” under the family piano. Adam Ezra says he loves inviting his mother onstage to sing “So Soon in the Morning,” part of the Lamaze mix tape that calmed her while she was delivering him to the world.
Results are similar even when the numbers are as dissimilar as “Marching On in the Light of God” (Alexis P. Suter) or Mario Lanza’s rendition of “Ave Maria” (John Nemeth), “Run Through the Jungle” (Todd Snider) or “The Obvious Child” (Ruby Velle), the theme for the TV show “Zorro” (Neil Shulman) or “The Flintstones” ditty (Ben Taylor). Simply put, all these songs helped shape paths, perspectives, personalities.
The list celebrates my five decades as a music journalist. It doubles as a gift to supporters of Mauch Chunk Nation through thin, thick and lockdown. We hope you add your own first unforgettable song(s) to the Opera House’s Facebook page. Don’t just give us the title(s); we want the when, where and why, what it means to have music knock you upside the head and other body parts.
What, you may ask, was the first song that turned me upside down and inside out? Well, I was an eight-year-old roaming a summer fair in 1966 in East Hampton, N.Y., when I was rattled by the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Two minutes and change later I couldn’t shake the ringing voices, the soaring verses, the roaring choruses and, most of all, George Harrison’s chiming, circling lead guitar. It was an electric singing bird that flew from a radio in a cherry-red, cherry ’65 Mustang convertible, my first favorite car.
One of my first favorite songs was “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch, which came out when I was in high school. I liked it more than all of my friends. They thought it was sappy. I loved his voice and that beautiful melody. I still do. I also really liked the Beatles when they came out. I was in the minority in this, too, in my little south Louisiana hometown [Vinton].
Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” was one of the first grownup songs where I felt my guts were going to come out. I knew exactly what he was talking about, that initial feeling of boy-girl love. It was so wrenching without really knowing why.
The first one was “[That] Old Black Magic.” I was five or six years old when I first heard it. My “Big Daddy” [grandfather R.L. Burnside] used to practice it all the time at house parties. I heard it so many times when he played alone on the porch. That actually was one of the first songs I learned from my Big Daddy on the guitar. I still play it to this day; it still throws me.
GLEN BURTNIK (THE WEEKLINGS)
Probably “True Love” by Bing Crosby. According to my family, it caused me to cry before I could speak. Slightly later I remember discovering [Percy Mayfield’s] “Hit the Road Jack” [a smash hit for Ray Charles] on my Dad’s ham radio as well as hearing [“Little” Stevie Wonder’s] “Fingertips Part 2” in my folks’ VW bug. Both riveting experiences.
I remember my dad had this eight-track of ‘The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl”; that really floored me. When I was 15 I was introduced to the blues by Eric Clapton’s double live album, “Just One Night,” which he recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo; that opened my ears and eyes. Clapton and [John] Mayall led me to B.B. [King], who was my introduction to the real blues guys.
The song that really changed my life was Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” I was 15, on the edge of 16, when I went to a record store, Sounds of Music, in my hometown of Coral Gables, Fla. I had been hearing about Muddy Waters and I wanted to buy one of his records. The only one on the rack was this cassette of “Hard Again”  and I thought, well, I better grab it. I went home and turned it on and the first thing I heard was “Mannish Boy” with Muddy’s booming voice singing “Oh, yeah” a cappella. And then the band kicked in and it was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. It was a breath of fresh air in the ’80s, the decade of heavy metal and sugary pop (Springsteen was an exception).
[“Hard Again”] opened up my world. When I heard it I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I had wanted to play first base for the Yankees but I wasn’t very good at baseball. My parents had plans for me; they wanted me to go into banking. I didn’t have a plan. That record was my guiding star. It made me decide: This is what I want to do; I want to be a bluesman. Yeah, Muddy Waters was the final nail for me.
I used to love hearing “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes on the radio. I remember when I was about eight, I would sing it softly for friends and hope people would think I had a good voice!
BLAKE CHRISTIANA (YARN)
It was actually an entire album, INXS’s “Kick” . I would have probably been 11 or 12 when I first heard it and it just hit me. It was a record of the ’80s and I was a child of the ’80s; that was definitely my era. I still love that record: “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Devil Inside”—they’re all great tracks. It was a shame we lost [INXS leader] Michael Hutchence so early; he had a whole lot more to give.
Before that, I was probably listening to whatever my dad was listening to: Ricky Nelson, Elvis, old country stuff; I could definitely name some of those things. When I was a kid my dad played old country songs around the campfire and the one song I really remember is “Abilene” by a guy named Les[ter] Brown [with Bob Gibson, John D. Loudermilk and Albert Stanton]. That’s probably the first song that stirs up my memory. I remember hearing it when I was six or eight years old, although I probably heard it earlier, before I can remember hearing it. We play it in concert; it’s one of our most requested numbers.
John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” knocked me down, man. It was very scary for a teenager. It made me think: Music can really be like this?
When I think about it deeply, the one song that has the most lasting quality, the most profound quality, is “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel. I thought it was so soul stirring. By the time I ended up singing it [with Gabriel on his 1993-94 tour], I had been living with it, and living it, for many years. I had a sense of owning it; I really thought that song was mine.
Growing up I wasn’t exposed to a lot of popular music because my family made so much self-made music. Still, there are so many songs that still come flooding in and give me “A-ha!” moments. I loved Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” That one was pure joy and still is. I put it on now and it takes me back to dancing around the room. I loved Simon & Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” album. I can remember “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac coming through the AM station on the car radio. I can remember hearing John Lennon’s “Woman” around the same time and being aware that he had died; that had a big impact on me. His solo work from the late ’70s and the early ’80s had a profound effect on me. He’s still one of my forever heroes.
The first song I really liked was probably [Hugo Alfven’s] “Swedish Rhapsody [No. 1].” The first jazz tune that killed me was Wes Montgomery’s “Green Dolphin Street.” I first heard it in a club when I was underage and I borrowed an ID from an older person. I remember they played “Black Orchid” by Cal Tjader and then they played “Green Dolphin Street.” The thumbnail on Wes’ right hand was glittering like silver. I had the impression that he put fingernail polish on it; he didn’t.
Two of my favorite guitar players when I was coming of age—and I know I’m going to leave out hugely influential guys like Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian—were Wes and Jimi Hendrix. Wes had the thumb thing and then Jimi had the left-hand thing. But both had a very different approach to music. They were both saying: Okay, this is the way I hear music, this is the way I think it should be. Both of those cats were so important; both of them were such marvelous innovators, all the way. And they both died way too young.
The song I remember is Stevie Ray [Vaughan]’s “Rude Mood.” I was 14 when my brother-in-law gave me these Stevie Ray tapes and when I heard that boogie woogie I thought: There’s no way anyone can play guitar like that. At the time I was just a young kid interested in five-string banjo and bluegrass. They inspired me in some way but they never punched me in the stomach and said: Stop and listen to this. Stevie played guitar like he owned it, like no one had ever played guitar before. [“Rude Mood”] was one of those sparks, those spikes, that made me trade the banjo for the guitar.
Guitar wise, the one that blew me away was “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” on the “Knock Me Out!” album by the Ventures. I just loved Nokie Edwards’ lead guitar. This was right after he and [fellow Venture] Bob Bogle had swapped instruments. Bogle played lead on “Walk, Don’t Run” [the Ventures’ first hit] with Nokie as the bass player. Then they decided that Nokie was the better guitarist and they switched. I just couldn’t believe the tone they were getting [on “Slaughter”]. That was the one that nailed it for me.
As far as singing is concerned, the Beatles are one of my favorite vocal groups. It’s hard to put a label on my favorite Beatles song because I love so many of them but I have to say I really like “You Can’t Do That.” [Sings “Everybody’s green ‘cos I’m the one who won your love”]. I agree with Ringo [Starr] when he says he loved the Beatles best when they were a band, when they had to do it all themselves.
My sister is four and a half years older than me and she was always listening to the latest great stuff from the Beatles and Elvis. I heard it all through the wall because our bedrooms were adjacent. I love “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Looking for Trouble.” This was back in the day, in the late ’50s and all, when you actually bought singles.
I loved the Beach Boys, too. People tend to forget there was a time when the Beach Boys and the Beatles were battling it out. “I Get Around”—that was a great tune; that was my favorite.
The first thing that comes to mind, quite quickly, should mean absolutely nothing to you or most people on the planet. It was a tune I heard when I was six or seven years old and we were living in [Ireland’s County] Mayo. I had just started taking music lessons; I would go to the town hall once a week with my sisters. I played the whistle and I had just moved onto playing the concert flute but I wasn’t very keen on practicing; I just didn’t have an appetite for rehearsing. My parents didn’t really play but they loved music—it was always around the house. They wanted to watch this program on RTE with [traditional flutist] Matt Molloy and [classical flutist] James Galway, a kind of in-the-round studio concert. We didn’t have a television so we went down to the house of a neighbor who had one. I remember bringing a tape recorder and putting it up to the television. At that point I was not really interested in Galway’s playing but I was definitely interested in Molloy’s playing. He played this popular Irish tune, “The Bucks of Oranmore,” and I remember from that moment I wanted to play the flute and Irish music. I came home and took the flute out and that was pretty much it.
The tune that Matt played, “The Bucks of Oranmore,” is one everyone learns and after a while no one plays because it’s played to death. It was what Matt did to the tune that sparked my imagination. And if anyone out there knows “The Bucks of Oranmore,” well, they get a prize [laughs].
Joan Baez partnered with a guy named Bill Wood, singing a traditional song called “So Soon in the Morning.” It’s all about Jesus, which was strange for a small Jewish guy to be singing. It was part of a mix tape that my mom made to listen to while she was giving birth to me. She took this thing called Lamaze [class] and she was instructed to create a warm environment, so they suggested she make this mix tape. I should remember all the songs on that tape; I do remember we played it on family trips and there were songs featuring Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger and a lot of old folk musicians.
I still love listening to, and performing, “So Soon in the Morning.” In fact, whenever my mother comes to one of my shows I make her come onstage and sing it with me. I try to embarrass her, at least a little bit. It’s something that our band community really loves because a lot of what it feels like around our music these days is fans getting to know each other and becoming friends and extended family members. It’s nice to have my mom in the fold.
The runner-up was definitely the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I was seven or eight when my brother brought home the single, and when I heard it I thought: “Oh my, I don’t know what that is, but I want a piece of that.” The one that just floored me was the Mamas & the Papas’  album “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” the one with “California Dreamin’.” From the moment that first cut, “Monday, Monday,” came on, I was just knocked on my ass. I just loved all that beautiful harmony. You know, I wanted to make October Project a modern Mamas & the Papas.
I was kind of the impresario of my junior high school, getting everybody together to put on shows, a real ball of energy. I remember we put on a variety show and I sang “California Dreamin’”—in French. I think we were celebrating an international language day.
My dad loved blues. My mom loved gospel. My early education included old soul singers like Bobby Womack and Sam Cooke—especially Sam Cooke. I also loved gospel singers like Dorothy Norwood, and gospel choirs—the Edwin Hawkins Singers; Andrae Crouch’s group. When I began buying music of my own, I fell hard for Phoebe Snow’s first album, the one with “Poetry Man.” And then I moved into Stevie Wonder with “Hotter Than July.” I still own those albums.
WARD HAYDEN (GIRLS GUNS AND GLORY)
Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” I was 20 and driving back to college in my car, a beat-up 1990 Delta 88 Brougham. The radio was broken, but the tape player worked. I borrowed a few of my mother’s tapes that I enjoyed, including some Dolly Parton stuff. I picked a Cash tape because the cover looked cool, and I wanted something other than silence on the drive. Not only did “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” tell a good story, the sound was so striking. The sound Cash created was what I was looking for, and all of a sudden I found it. It was like a “Eureka!” moment; it was truly life changing.
I had that car for a year before I gave it up. It was totally tricked out but pretty much gone when it got to me. It was a lemon other than it helped me discover country music.
GEORGE HRAB (PHILADELPHIA FUNK AUTHORITY)
The first song that really got me, when I was 11 or 12, was Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” I remember being so intrigued by the sound, the mechanics, the story, the timbre, the [MTV] video. I wondered about that old man in the background of the video: Is he the real Thomas Dolby? Is he the man who invented Dolby Stereo? So many rumors were going around our school. [“She Blinded Me with Science”] was a progenitor to my musical interests, the nerd part of me, at a time when I don’t think “nerdy” was even a term. I thought it was great that here was one of us, doing this music thing.
For me, it’s not one special song, it’s more the era when I really became aware of music, around ’60, ’61. The first record that made a big impression on me was the Shadows’ “Apache” , an instrumental with these great twangy guitars. I started playing guitar in November 1963, when I was 11, dreaming of twangy guitars and red Stratocasters.
Another important record was [Davey Graham’s 1962 instrumental] “Anji,” which I heard on the second Simon & Garfunkel album [“Sounds of Silence,” 1966]. Paul Simon’s fingerstyle accompaniment was very influential; I loved the way he played bass and melody at the same time. It was a rite of passage for all the guitar players I knew: Can you play “Anji”? That style, which was mastered by Bert Jansch and Pentangle, which they called folk baroque, had a very strong impression on me.
The first time I heard Django Reinhardt was a revelation. The first time I heard Eric Clapton was a revelation. They both opened doors for me.
The idea of being a self-sufficient performer–I can track that back to playing clubs in London as a teen. I remember watching Martin Carthy with his guitar and voice and no amplification and this roomful of people hanging on every word. It was mesmerizing.
Hearing the James Bond theme from “Dr. No” , which had more twangy guitar, led me to learn how I could make a living playing twangy guitar in James Bond movies. I made that dream come true when I played on “Nobody Does It Better,” the theme song for “The Spy Who Loved Me” . It was while doing the book [his memoir “Guitar with Wings”] that I learned that they played me about 24 to 36 bars of music and said “We need some guitar licks here” without bothering to tell me the name of the track.
You know, I never embraced professional guitar playing with the aim of becoming a studio musician, just like I never embraced the concept of being a singing guitarist. It was once I joined Wings [in 1978] that I realized with all the musical knowledge and experience I had, I had never considered music from the perspective of an artist. I learned so much from Paul as an artist, a singer, a writer, a player, a producer, a business man. I like to say that I received my master’s degree from McCartney University.
Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” I loved those minor chords and Del’s falsetto; I just love falsetto. I was 11 or 12 and I had my bongos and they were a chick magnet. School dances back then were held in the gymnasium and music was played on this rough, antiquated PA system. The girls would be on one side of the room and the boys on the other side; you know those awkward times. I sat in the middle on one of those mats and played bongos when they played “Runaway.” And the boys and girls came over to me because they loved the bongos. It was kind of a glue.
TOM “BONES”’ MALONE
My parents got a record player when I was four and they played it using the amplification of this big, jukebox-size radio; that was the style back then, around 1950. One of the first records my mother bought was Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”; she thought it would be a nice album for us kids to listen to. Of course, I found the “1812 Overture” on the other side and I played it over and over. I just loved the sound of brass and strings; I can still hear all those parts.
There was a lot of stuff that really made a big impression on me as I got older. Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced”–the first time I heard that album, it made an amazing impact on me. I will never forget the first time I heard Blood, Sweat & Tears or Chicago or the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles. I guess we’re going in the horn band direction; that kind of music just grabbed my imagination. Oh, and there was “Up on Cripple Creek” by the Band; that made a huge impression on me, not knowing that I would play with them later in life. Same thing with Blood, Sweat & Tears.
The first song I really paid attention to, in a different way, was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” I was about 10 and listening to it on the radio when a friend of mine turned to me and said, “You know it’s about a guy who’s going to kill himself,” and I said, “Are you kidding me?” It just blew me away that buried in this song was this really serious, real story. It was the first time I felt that you could say things really important and meaningful in a song almost subversively. It was pretty spooky.
I loved “The Boy Next Door” from [the musical] “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I learned it from one of those Reader’s Digest family song books, the ones with the easy piano arrangements. When I started listening to recorded music, I fell in love with Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Love Has No Pride”; that song just kills me. Another song I loved early on is Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” Ahhhh … [big sigh of nostalgic appreciation].
It’s a strange one: “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. I grew up in a musical family where my mom and dad were professional musicians. I was eight or nine and we were traveling in my parents’ big old van filled with musical equipment. I was probably sitting on a speaker, holding onto a subwoofer, when I heard “A Boy Named Sue” on the radio; this was the early ‘80s, a time when you didn’t hear it much on the radio. It’s a funny story song and I just laughed and laughed and laughed. That’s the song that got me interested in songwriting, in checking out songs for the lyrics. It led me to discover great songwriters like Randy Newman and Roger Miller and Paul Simon.
“Jambalaya.” My aunt had a little 15-seat restaurant in Reading, Calif. at the fork in the road and there was an old jukebox that had a recording of Hank Williams singing “Jambalaya.” I was nine when I first heard it and I must have played that thing five times a day and I don’t know why.
The other song I couldn’t get enough of was Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes Again.” I was 17 and I was learning to play the banjo when I first heard it. I went straight to the record store and bought the single; it was my first single.
There is a song by an Irish guy, Emmett Tinley, from the group The Prayer Boat, “It Hurts to Lose You,” such a cutting song, with a beautiful enchanting melody and strong lyrics. It opens with the line “January was blinding, as we climbed from the basement”; this hit me in particular as a strong opening lyric. As a musician I understand of the woes of January blues, so this lyric hit hard. This is a song of love lost, and is recorded and played beautifully. I’m actually going to play it as part of my set on some of these U.S. gigs, because I feel it’s my duty for everyone to hear it!
I was about 10 when I heard Mario Lanza singing “Ave Maria.” Yeah man, that was pretty sweet. Then there was a song by Johnny Paycheck, “The Man from Bowling Green,” which I heard on one of my brother’s eight-tracks; he had quite an eight-track collection. Oh man, [Paycheck’s] vocal delivery was so in the groove, so amazing. There’s a line where he jumps an octave: [sings] “Now her life is twisty like some West Virginia backroads”–oh man, his voice just cuts through me. And then I heard “When a Man Loves a Woman” from Percy Sledge. That song really drove it right home.
I would have to say “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and Johnnie Ray’s “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” My grandfather listened to Hank Williams and my grandmother listened to Tchaikovsky, so I became a musical schizophrenic. At an early age I also fell under the spell of “Malaguena,” which I first heard my mother play on a piano while I was under the piano. Man, that made me a real spacecase.
“Johnny B. Goode.” I first heard it when I was seven years old when my dad took me to see Chuck Berry at Madison Square Garden. I was obsessed with it.
As far as a first record I couldn’t forget, I remember being seven and hearing “Purple Haze” on the radio and it really rocked my life. I heard that and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” on the same station. Back in the ’60s there was only AM radio and they played all the hits: “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Somebody to Love,” the Supremes.
My parents owned a candy store [in the Bronx] with a jukebox. I would play the hits from Stax and Motown–all rhythm & blues. Man, I heard Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” over and over and over again.
My parents sold egg creams, hamburgers, penny candies, newspapers, cigarettes—the whole nine yards. All the neighborhood kids would hang out at the store.
It was at 181st Street and Arthur Avenue, a real old school Italian neighborhood. If you ever saw the movie “A Bronx Tale,” that’s the place.
It was either Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’” or “Your Feet’s Too Big.” [Sings merrily: “From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet/From there down there’s too much feet”]. When you’re a little kid, that’s something that really sticks with you.
I also liked Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing,” [Meade] “Lux” Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and Anita O’Day’s version of “Boogie Blues.” She had this catch, this little click, in her voice that I found alluring, even though I didn’t know about jazz back then.
NEIL SHULMAN (AZTEC TWO-STEP)
If I narrowed it down, it would be the theme song for the “Zorro” television show. Although the first record I fell in love with was probably made of red opaque plastic. I did graduate to black vinyl when I started listening to Del Shannon and other pre-Beatles acts.
The funny thing about that question is that we all grow up listening to our parents’ records. My parents listened to a lot of folk acts: the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand. Everybody can tell where people are from and when they were born if they have the soundtrack albums for “My Fair Lady,” “Brigadoon” and “Peter Pan.” I bought this book with the 100 most popular album covers and there was the cover for the Tchaikovsky [Piano Concerto No. 1] with Van Cliburn, the first American to win the [International] Tchaikovsky [Piano] Competition. And I’m thinking to myself everybody had this record—everybody.
“House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals: I couldn’t have even been in first grade when I first heard that. The next one was [the Hollies’] ‘Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.’ Although, actually, no, I think my absolutely first [influential] song was ‘Run Through the Jungle’ by CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival]. That was the first one my dad played for me, my first memory of what rock ‘n’ roll was and turning it up way loud.
I’m not sure I want to count the first songs I remember hearing on old 78s owned by my mother, like the Weavers singing “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” I’d say that the first song that really knocked me out was “Singing the Blues” by Tommy Steele. It was a No. 1 hit in England, where Tommy Steele was the first rock ’n’ roller. It was the beginning of rock ’n’ roll for me. Of course the Shadows were greatly influential; without them an entire generation of English guitarists, including Laurence Juber, might not have picked up guitars. Hank Marvin was hugely influential, too. Because of Hank Marvin you get Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Another musician who had a big impact on me and musicians my age was Lonnie Donegan . A whole generation grew up on Donegan’s music; it was the headwaters of the Nile. Without Lonnie Donegan that first meeting between Paul McCartney and John Lennon might not have happened.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I remember my dad bringing home the single a couple weeks before the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” [on Feb. 9, 1964]. I remember sitting on my kitchen floor with a little portable Victrola and thinking: These guys are aliens; they’re not from this planet. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where they came from, let alone from across the Atlantic Ocean. I just loved their sound, their vibe, their emotion. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling–although I just did.
ALEXIS P. SUTER
You know, there was a song my mother taught me when I was a very little girl—four or five or six. [Recites first lines]: “A robe of white, a crown of gold…”
[Asks mother] “What was the rest of the song, Ma?”
[Carrie gives her the next line] “A harp, a home, a mansion fair.”
“And what’s after that?”
“A victor’s palm, a joy untold, are mine when I get there.”
“What’s the name of that song again?” Oh yeah, “Marching On in the Light of God.”
My mother would teach me songs and I would sing them at church for special programs. I do remember one time, when I was about six, I wanted to get to church but I wasn’t allowed to, so I stood in the closet and made up my own song [recites]: “Jesus moves to a cloud to live with his great-grandmother.” My mother said: “That was good–but you’re still not going.” [Laughs]
A.J. SWERINGEN AND JAYNE KELLI
Kelli: The first song I really remember was “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” When I was five I had my first crush on Elton John.
Swearingen: I hate to cop out but I can’t narrow it down to one song. I guess it’s because I started out more with playing guitar than singing. I really didn’t start admiring specific songs until I discovered singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Paul Simon. Simon obviously was a huge influence on me.
Kelli: The first song that really influenced me was Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” I had a babysitter who was into them and I remember really identifying with it, really being haunted by it. In high school I was introduced to Radiohead and I discovered the similarities in chording between the two bands.
On the flip side I loved Alison Krauss and Johnny Cash, a lot of folk and old country. I have a lot of those influences in my writing: the chord choices and the moodiness; the Johnny Cash end of the spectrum and the Radiohead/Duran Duran end of the spectrum.
Swearingen: My parents used to spin vinyl when I was a kid and I remember listening to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and especially Gordon Lightfoot. I spent a lot of time with tunes like “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.”
There are a lot of Beatles songs that I love, that I would choose if I were alone on a desert island. But if I had to pick a song that I couldn’t get out of my head, even if I tried, it would be “The Flintstones” theme. It’s got a killer melody. I dare you to go to bed tonight and not dream about it.
I’d love to say there’s one but there’s really two. Having Paul Simon played literally in my crib prepared me for the first song I couldn’t get out of my head and feet: “The Obvious Child” [the opening track of Simon’s 1991 album “The Rhythm of the Saints”]. That song is so enthralling; I wanted to hear it over and over, and move to it over and over. From a young age my sister and I would put on “Rhythm of the Saints” and “Graceland” [Simon’s 1986 record] and make up little dances and lots of great memories. I love the drums and I really love the bass line on “Obvious Child.” I’m a rhythm fan but I’m a bigger fan of the bass; I can be sitting in a restaurant with people talking at full volume and I can pick out the bass track just like that
When I was older I learned how Simon drew inspiration from African music and especially pan-African music. What he was doing at that time was bringing a whole generation of music that needed to be heard all over the world. He was going in that direction without fear of being judged as a white musician performing with black musicians. He really set the bar for proving that anything can be possible.
My second unforgettable song, the one that I fell absolutely head over heels for, that stopped me in my tracks, is Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” It’s obviously very different from “The Obvious Child” but both songs have a lot of soul in their own way. It was enigmatic when I first heard it, knowing Hendrix was of yesterday and the “27 Club” [i.e., he, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at 27]. I learned more about Jimi and “Machine Gun” from my aunt and uncle, who are Liverpudlians who grew up with the Beatles. My uncle was a casual bass player around town when the Yardbirds were coming up, so that was really cool. My uncle and aunt inspired me to play vinyl record after vinyl record after vinyl record, to sit down with liner notes, to make me understand what these creative musicians—Jimi, the Beatles, the Yardbirds—were doing that was so different. I have great reverence that my British family influenced my Indian family and got them into Queen with Freddie Mercury and Otis Redding. I’m proud of their very, very impeccable taste in music.
I could probably give you 20 more first unforgettable songs, with Led Zeppelin being the third one. But, then, we’d be talking all day.
Geoff Gehman was an arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown from 1984 to 2009, during which nearly 300 musicians told him the first song that changed their life forever and for good. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.