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Friday, March 25, 2005

"Sentimental Journey"

It was on Saturday nights, from 6 to 8 PM, then later the schedule was from 7 to 10. The theme song, a flowing instrumental arrangement of the Les Brown/Doris Day hit that evoked such memories for the wartime generation, would swell into the room with ballroom elegance. A Memphis DJ with a scratchy mellow voice would present songs of the 40s and 50s with a little story for each. However, each story seemed to have an aimless quality, like the ramblings of a garrulous old man.

There were occasional bits of gold: How Doris Day went from dancer to singer because of a broken leg; how Johnny Mathis transformed himself from failed jazz singer to superstar; how Frank Sinatra went from superstar to seedy club singer and back to superstar again; why Johnny Ray cried so often; where Frankie Laine sang an entire concert to exactly 3 people; how Columbia records had two “Italian” singers under contract at the same time and chose to push one named Sinatra over one named Perry Como; the song a wandering hobo gave Nat “King” Cole that went on to sell over two million records; how the recording ban actually propelled The Mills Brothers to national fame; that Glenn Miller knew he was going to die and got on the plane anyway and how little-known Jerry Vale made it big in Vegas.

That last story made several appearances, as did Jerry Vale, for he was a close personal friend of the DJ. (If I remembered his name I would use it, natch.) Jerry would act all gangster-cool, dropping names like his life depended on it and refusing to talk about any aspect of his life except singing.

Vale hit it big with “Eternally” (which he co-wrote with Engelbert Humperdinck!) and at about that time, the DJ and he became good friends. They bantered well and showed a good friendship, but the shows with Vale felt awkward nevertheless. When he wasn’t around, the music took center stage and on those nights, time melted.

There is a poignancy and innocence to the music of that era that appeals to me. The lyrics feel like poetry even when the words are simple and unadorned. The recordings hissed and popped slightly, but the voices came through with such clarity, style and charm, reminding you of a time before studio engineering transformed the true talent and beauty of a live recording done superbly into an artificial construct.

One could marvel at the power and emotion of a very young Tony Bennett, the easy-going baritone of Vic Damone, the cool flair of Ella Fitzgerald, the unbelievable charm of Buddy Clark (who died in a plane crash on Beverly Boulevard, in Beverly Hills), the deep emotion of Eddie Fisher and the homespun charm of Patti Page.

I discovered singers, songs and the joys of music that resonates with your heart. The show framed my nights with rare comfort. If I was alone, solitude gained the depth of emotions far outside my own. If Carol was there, it was a chance for discovery and conversation, as songs opened hidden doors inside of me that I often didn’t know were closed.

I never heard the show with anyone else, nor did I actively try to catch it every week. In that sense, it was like a close friend: there for me when needed, able to proceed alone knowing I would return. My journey into music has expanded far beyond what “Sentimental Journey” offered, but despite so many joys along the way, it has never been as satisfying as those Saturday nights, when the music fulfilled me and the world felt right.


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