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  Railroads of Madison County
Life and Times Series #3
Roger Hensley
50s Live Music

The 50s Live Music

May 11, 2002

It's the 50s and 60s and the music is different. I had 8 years of classical piano and 4 years of commercial organ. No, despite what my parents wished, I made the choice not to pursue a music career. I enjoyed playing and listening, but not as a professional.

I told you that to tell you this. From 'Your Hit Parade' on radio and TV to the dozens of small (and sometimes large) bands and orchestras, live music was a part of every day life in the 50s and early 60s. Many of the local night spots had live music on the weekends as well as the Labor Temple and several lodges. It varied from County (and Western) and Polka to Rhythm and Blues and light Jazz to Rock and Roll and even Big Band Swing, all for your listening and dancing pleasure. Many of the movies from the 40s and early 50s featured music from the songs of Bing Crosby to Ethel Smith on the organ. Including the Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis movies. Music was big.

Records were big and the radio was moving to more and more recorded music and less talk, but no one expected the live band and piano bar to become a thing of the past. The Three Pigs at 29th and Noble featured Chris on the organ and couples would come in to dine and listen to Chris who would then move through the tables on his break talking to the customers and taking requests. Talk about the personal touch!

Many of the traveling bands were great. I wish I could recall the name of the band that played the 662 Union Hall once or twice a year. The drummer was fantastic and when the band played 'Caravan', everyone stopped and listened to his drum solo. In fact, the other band members slipped away on break while he played. Could you listen to him for 20 minutes? Absolutely! The band would come back to do the finish. Afterward, he took his break while someone filled in on drums. 'Night Train' was also a big hit about that time (click here for Night Train midi - 74k) and a number of bands had that in their selection. Loved that and Alley Cat. These were all live and not some piece of canned music. Skating Rinks (remember those) had live organists playing for the skaters. Still today, when I hear organ played in a certain way, I immediately think, "All Skate". It was a fun time.

In thinking about music as a career, when I was just out of high school, I was walking down Meridian Street to Joe's Record Shop and Anderson Music Center with a friend who was hoping for a career in music. The topic of music came up and I said that I just could not see what marijuana would do for a musician and why so many seemed to use it. He replied that he had used it and it made him more relaxed and better able to feel the music and perform. That floored me and I dropped the subject. I had the opportunity to hear him play with a band later and I can honestly say that the more he depended on the drinks and smokes, the worse he sounded to me, although I'm certain that he thought otherwise.

The last note here was about a man who came into town to play the Plaza Room on Nichol Avenue. It was Doc Jorne' (and I probably misspelled it). Doc had an organ act you wouldn't believe. He had been featured on the Gary Moore television show and traveled around setting up for a week or two gig. He claimed that he had the biggest organ in the business and he may have been right. It had started as a Hammond Organ and he kept adding things to it including other smaller keyboard, a Xylophone, Marimba, Maracas, Castanets and much, much more all controlled from his organ console. He could reproduce thunder and lightening and had a number of other lighting and special effects including gun shots. Folks, this was before today's laser light shows at rock concerts. He didn't need that. He was a showman, musician and entertainer all in one.

In the mid to late 60s, Doc stopped coming around and we didn't notice. Live music began to be replaced with canned music and we still didn't notice. It became rare to find a place to dance and a band to dance to. After all, we have records and tapes, what do we need a band for? And they might not be as good as the Beetles or whoever is the latest craze. Besides, live music is expensive. And slowly the organs, pianos, saxophones, clarinets, trumpets and coronets were replaced by two guys with guitars, a guy on drums and a singer (maybe) all with the amp cranked up too high. And the other places drop music completely.

I have heard some great music and even met some of the best like Dave Brubeck, but that was a different time. Yes, I have heard the 'Moody Blues' in concert, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it isn't the same. We didn't have to drive miles and fight monstrous traffic and pay big bucks to see a group one time. We lived with those musicians all around us and we were the better for it. - rph


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