Defining himself

I enjoy all of Irving Berlin’s songs but one has a lyric that hits me where I live, “I Love a Piano” and, of course, I do love a piano – but also a radio that plays the songs I enjoy. Well, one day I turned on WNYC and I heard one song that brings back memories. It was “These Foolish Things.”  What surprised me was the person who was singing and singing it beautifully. It was a British rock singer and songwriter Sir Rod Stewart. Born in 1945 (you do the math, please) and raised in London, he is of Scottish and English ancestry. His father was Scottish and had been a master builder in Edinburgh, while his mother, Elsie Rebecca Gilbert (1905 – 1996) was English and had grown up in North London. Married in 1928, the couple had two sons.  The family was neither affluent nor poor. Stewart was spoiled as he was the youngest and has called his childhood “fantastically happy.” When his father retired from the building trade, he bought a shop and his family lived over it. They were focused on football. Stewart was the most talented footballer in the family, combining natural athleticism with near reckless aggression. He soon became captain of the school football team. Rod Stewart’s family had a favorite singer of the time, Al Jolson, and Stewart would play his hits. He also collected Jolson’s records, saw his films and read books about him. Stewart was influenced by Jolson’s performing style and attitude. Stewart’s dad bought him a guitar in 1956 and the first song he learned was a folk tune, “Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song.” Stewart left school at age 15, and regarding his career options he felt “a musician’s life is easier.” Ha?! As far as writing his own songs, he soon concluded that he was in the grip of a terminal case of writer’s block.  “My assumption was that I was finished as a songwriter.”  Stewart has the uncanny grip to inhabit anything he puts his voice to. After all, he is a man who could sing Happy Birthday and make it like the number was written especially for him. He has even been able to sing the songs that Frank Sinatra made famous giving voice to the classic ballads with that rasp in his voice. Diagnosed with a major health scare and handling it successfully, he has been active in raising funds for a charity to find the cure for all forms of cancer, especially those that affect children. Stewart is a model railway enthusiast and an auto collector. He was knighted for “service to music and charity.” Stewart is estimated to have a fortune and is listed as one of the wealthiest people in the British music industry.  To quote my favorite poet, Robert Frost, “accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”

Living up to the name

Okay – you’ll probably find it easy to guess why this is my favorite month and it all started in kindergarten. Miss Dialogue, my stern teacher, was writing my name – yes, my name – on the entire blackboard for everyone to see, and she wrote it every day for almost five weeks. Happily, my mother, who always gave me the right answers, explained it to me. Of course, that was why June was written on the blackboard – that was the date! It took some time for me to realize that she was writing the month – not June Gruber. What a letdown but I survived. Then, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song that soon became a hit – June is Bustin’ Out All Over! However, time has erased my irritation.

About 36 years ago when I started this column I was still being irritated even though one wise man said to stop complaining. After all June rhymes nicely with “In Tune” and I’m sticking with that. What do you think or don’t you really care! Now a lady who is currently appearing and singing her heart out in New York City offered the words that follow, “I wish I were 90 again.”  She was born Marilyn Maye McLaughton in Wichita, Kansas, in April, 1928. The lady began her career as a child competing in amateur contests in Kansas where her father, a pharmacist, owned a drugstore. She was accompanied on the piano by her mother who named her after the singer Marilyn Miller. She began her musical training at the age of three thanks to that mother, and at the age of nine, she began taking voice lessons. Growing up a lot more followed including a nomination for the Grammy award for the best new artist. The indefatigable gal sang in nightclubs and musicals such as Mame and Hello Dolly. I saw Marilyn when she performed at Lincoln Center at the age of 78. She received a great ovation. Ella Fitzgerald referred to her as “the greatest white female singer in the world.” Personally, I hope she continues to enjoy her current career as a cabaret singer for many years to come. Happy Birthday, girl! Keep performing!