Pop Song Poems

I got my first transistor radio, silver and black in 1959. I was in 7th grade and can vividly remember standing outside Our Lady Gate of Heaven listening to the theme from Bonanza, a popular TV show. Our family would watch the show together but the music was only a short fragment in the credits. On the radio, the theme music took on a life of its own, a clarion call of guitars, strings and horns, promising adventure and an “any place but here” feeling.

From that point I was hooked on AM radio, which I could play on my own without using the family stereo. The next revelation was hearing and experiencing the first ache of sexuality. Brenda Lee, a country singer, had a big hit in 1961 called “Dum Dum”, a country rock shuffle. Her voice just reached out and grabbed not only your attention but also all the stirrings of boyhood sexuality. Her voice was the sexiest and most intimate I had heard, the sound of an experienced “woman” even though she was only 17 years old at the time. But oh what promises her voice conjured.

I listened to and enjoyed the various pop hits of the time, which surprisingly were fairly integrated. In 1960-61 black singers such as Dee Clark, Ben E King, Chris Kenner, Ray Charles, Gary U.S. Bonds and groups like The Shirelles, Contours, Corsairs and Crystals were in the Billboard Top 100 along side Elvis Presley, Del Shannon, Marty Robbins, Dick & Dee Dee, Neil Sedaka and groups like The Four Seasons, Beach Boys and Everly Brothers.

In 1961, it was Tommy Roe and his hit “Sheila” which introduced me to the ambiguity of male sexuality. A driving rock drumbeat and a voice, which wavered between self-assurance and vulnerability, he confessed his true love, acknowledging the power of female beauty and seductiveness. All this was instructive to a freshman in Mt. Carmel H.S. trying to navigate the trepidations of dating.

Music had become an integral aspect of my teenager life. From dancing to the latest hits at school socials to loudly blaring the car radio while cruising, music was a bearer of information on how to act, a teller of “true love” secrets or of lover’s heartache. I do not think we really understood the influence of the lyrics and how they colored our behavior. I was the passive recipient of a cultural norm, sold to us by singers and written by the hired songwriters.

In 1964, a high school classmate, Tom Butkovich, invited me to his house to listen to some records. His older brother, Ron, was a blues guitarist making his way in a thriving white blues scene in Chicago. We listened to some country blues records. These were experienced, older voices, the voices of men, artists who had lived in difficult times on the fringes of society. Early on record companies had seen an audience in the rural South. The migration North of thousands of blacks to work in factories had created a market for “race” records. These artists who had been recorded in the 30’s and 40’s were being rediscovered to perform at “folk” festivals and their original recordings were being reissued in the 60’s.

After school and on weekends, I worked at Lou Holtzman’s hardware store on 63rd St., a main artery of the southside black ghetto. The street was filled with music, from record stores who played the current hits over loudspeakers on the street, to the music constantly being played in the BBQ joints, clothing stores and hair dressing salons. Chicago was home to an amazing number of black artists who became national figures, Curtis Mayfield, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Butler, Billy Stewart, Etta James, Fontella Bass. I knew their hits and we danced to them at high school dances. But the blues was something else, a foreign experience one that I knew nothing of. It captured my attention and started me on a musical quest for the unknown.

My parents were frugal and saved their money, no extravagances, no new clothes, no dining out. Naturally I followed in their footsteps. I saved my money especially since I was lusting after a motorcycle. It never occurred to me to buy records; after all music was “free” on the radio. The breakthrough came in 1964. I purchased an LP for $1.98, The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hitmakers). Although I liked the Beatles, the Rolling Stones sang “black” songs. It was a revelation that white people could appropriate a genre and make it their own. I knew many of the original songs and artists but was fascinated how Mick and company made the songs their own.

This purchase soon opened a floodgate of music acquisition, music that was not being played on the radio. By the time I attended the University of Chicago, I was actively seeking out blues reissues and contemporary blues on Duke, Fire, Modern, Vee-Jay, King, Excello and Chess Records. I also started buying the “soul” music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Howard Tate and many others. By 1968 underground FM radio had become commonplace and the variety of music became overwhelming. I listened to it all buying on a limited budget all I could spend.

In 1966 in my search for records, I stumbled across Mr. T’s Records on 87th St. and Stony Island, at that time the fringe of the ghetto. Mr. T specialized in jazz and he sold what were called label “cutouts.” The corners of the cardboard LP’s were cut off or drilled with a hole. As a result the records were sold at ½ price. He sold jazz records from Savoy, Argo, Verve, Atlantic, Columbia, Blue Note, Prestige and best of all, Impulse. Impulse had luxurious bi-fold records, lushly printed with great photography and liner notes. Best of all Impulse was home to John Coltrane as well as Archie Shepp, Chico Hamilton, Gabor Szabo, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri and Oliver Nelson. I bought it all, reveling in the new sounds.

By 1969 I was living in a tiny storefront in Little Italy. New York opened up another world of musical inspiration. Philip Glass had his loft four doors down on Elizabeth St. By chance, I attended one of his concerts. The musicians faced each other in a circle leaving the audience to walk around the periphery. The music was unlike anything else I heard, focused, driving and decidedly trance inducing. A new category of music presented itself, minimalism, evidenced by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Gavin Bryars, Michale Nyman, Brian Eno, Klaus Schulze, Harold Budd and Hector Zazou.

In 1973, CBGB opened on the ground floor of the Palace Hotel on the Bowery. The owners, Paul Schiffino and Mike Gatto also owned the building where I was the “super” and rented a storefront studio. The early punk movement began in this bar/club. I saw Patti Smith and Television in their first performance at the club. Talking Heads, Suicide, Blondie, The Ramones. Mink Deville as well as bands from all over the US played there. I listened to it all.

In 1987, the Knitting Factory opened one block from my storefront. I saw many live concerts and watched the growth of the “Downtown” jazz scene. John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Sonny Sharrock, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Laswell, George Adams, Elliot Sharp, Tim Berne, Ronald Shannon Jackson and many others headlined the club and revitalized the NY jazz scene. I collected it all

I listen to all types of music, country to hip hop, metal to rockabilly, classical to world, folk to electronic, dance to ambient. I have collected music voraciously always seeking the thrill of the new, of the unknown. With the advent of the CD, the computer and MP-3’s, my collection became easier to access. iTunes not only became a repository of my collection as I ripped and sold off all my LP’s and CD’s, but it also serves as a database.

This web site is built directly from the iTunes library of my music collection. Since music represents the cultural norms of society, the words in song titles became a conveyor of emotions, an unwitting influence on every listener.

Raymon Elozua,
October, 2014
Mountaindale, NY