Thank you, Mr. Vandross…..and many others (Part 1)

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Music has always been a major part of my life. It has always been the one thing I could rely on and the one thing that seemed to take me away from periods of tribulation – for the length of a song anyway.

Many know me as a songwriter of the Gospel music genre. However, many have no idea that I did NOT get my passion for music from the church nor did I get my vocal or lyrical styling from any gospel source. That’s right, I was one of those few who began outside the walls of the church…..somewhat. Many have asked me where I got my start and I have been in a reflective mood lately, so here’s my earliest recollection.

SesamecastThis thing all began with Cooney & Morrisette’s wonderful creation that caught me around the mid-seventies and has had me enthralled ever since. That’s right, Sesame Street initiated my musical journey. I saw that you could use music in every situation. Either to punctuate it, explain it or overcome it. Big Bird and the gang were the ones who caught my mind, but my ear was arrested by another – Fred Rogers.

Mr. Roger’s neighborhood had such a calming and inviting effect on me with its music, that I couldn’t help but learn each lyric. Between the songs (which were expertly written by Fred, himself) there was music lying underneath Pastor Roger’s soothing and affirming words.

John Costa & Fred Rogers

There was a piano being played in the background by John Costa, one of the masters of the instrument. I heard sounds that I didn’t know a piano could make and would turn to my mother and ask: “…did you hear that?” The enlightened babbling of a seven year-old wasn’t given much regard. However, Johnny Costa helped to shape my musical ear at an impressionable age.

After my mother’s death, I became a latch-key kid for a few hours each day until my father got home. During this time, I did not want to be alone in a house that would creak, pop and resound with wind and tree limbs beating against it. To combat my fear, I would turn on the radio. The cardinal rule in my house was that no one – and I mean no one –was to touch my father’s radio. He faithfully listened to WBBM-AM every morning for “…news, traffic and weather on the ones…” Anyone that touched his radio (my older brother) would face swift and painful retribution (a direct punch that left him unconscious). I would not fall to that fate. While I could not change the station, I could change the band – AM to FM. FM was a whole world of new music I hadn’t heard before. When I flipped the switch, I found WLAK (only true Chicagoans of a certain age remember that station). WLAK introduced me to songwriting and sharpened my gift. I fell in love with Christopher Cross (“Arthur’s Theme”), Barry Manilow (“Mandy” & I Write The Songs”) and The Bee Gees (“Emotions”). I was the only kid in my grade who could sing Air Supply, Hall & Oats and The Doobie Brothers songs word for word.

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Neil Diamond and Michael McDonald served as my first vocal masters. They taught me to have an identity with my voice. Theme songs from Maude, One Day At A Time, Family Ties, All In The Family The Jeffersons and The Hogan Family. Along with movie and Broadway scores like Annie and For Your Eyes Only showed me how beautiful the marriage of lyric and melody could be.

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After my Dad’s passing, I would begin connecting with my cousins – the Slater family. My cousin Mike was, and still is, like a brother to me. It was Mike that invited me over for a barbeque at his house and put on one of his favorite records (that’s right – record!). The last words he said were: “You’re gonna like this, Marlowe…” After that I lost touch with the party that was going on in the house and was enamored by the party going on inside the record player. Prince, Kool & the Gang, Alexander O’Niel, Aretha, Colonel Abrams and Earth, Wind & Fire led me to a land of grooves, bass lines and chord progressions that changed my life forever.

Now let’s not leave church out entirely. The music of the church didn’t break my musical virginity, but it did play a part in shaping my musical tastes. The best part of Sunday mornings was the wait for the church bus and watching Gigglesnort Hotel. At Oakdale Covenant, the kids sat upstairs for the first part of service and sung songs like “What A Fellowship” and “Because He Lives”. I was smitten by the congregation singing and the big sound of a full band. I liked the words to the “grown-up songs” and would even make an arrangement with my father months later to learn the songs and sing them back to him if he would let me stay upstairs. Soon after, all the children would be ushered downstairs to Children’s Church where we sang songs that sounded like they were written by kindergarteners and played by a decrepit old woman

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banging out notes on a slightly out of tune piano. We were forced to sing by a bombastic woman named Ms. Orange who peered down every row looking to make sure we were singing and not talking. I felt as if this were a concentration camp for the Lord. I hated it. I wanted to be upstairs where the real music was going on.

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By the 1980’s, my musical appetite had been whet with everything from Kenny Rogers to Patrice Rushen. I developed an eclectic musical taste. However, the journey wasn’t over. I had another gift to develop and two men who would walk me through the process.

Stay tuned.

 

 
 
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