I was six years old in 1956 when a salesman came to the door selling accordion lessons. He apparently convinced my mom and dad that I was a musical prodigy. They rented a small 8-bass accordion (the number of buttons on the left side) and bought a first set of lessons.
I don’t remember those early lessons, but I do remember that they were followed by more lessons and then the rental of a larger 12-bass accordion and then an even larger 48-bass accordion. In time, I was taking lessons twice a week at an accordion music studio not far from my home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Apparently I was doing well, even if the prodigy part was not yet confirmed.
Both of my parents were musical. My father loved to sing and was a member of a barbershop quartet and the church choir. My mother played piano when she was young and would occasionally play for us on an old piano in the basement. (We had a small house and nowhere else to put it). I assume they decided that they wanted me to be musical, too.
I recently bought a book called Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America to see where my own story fit into the bigger story of the 50’s and 60’s. I learned, for example, that the door to door salesmen were fairly aggressive and well commissioned. As they went from home to home in a neighborhood, they would offer tests of children to assess musical abilities. They would even come around at dinnertime to get both mom and dad involved in the decision. If they made the sale, they could usually count on at least a couple of rounds of lessons and accordion rentals.
This door to door selling was targeted toward middle-class working families and was limited primarily to the Midwest, the West Coast and the upper East Coast. (A friend in Asheville, however, said that his parents bought accordion lessons for him from a door to door salesman in Atlanta.)
In the 50’s, the accordion was a big deal. It was one of the most studied instruments in the country and purchases of accordions soared to over 250,000 by the middle of the decade.
If you grew up in the 50’s, you’ll remember that the Lawrence Welk television show was extremely popular. Mr. Welk (“Wunnerful, Wunnerful!”) played accordion with his orchestra. But Myron Floren, a regular accordionist on the show, was younger and better looking.
Here’s Myron “live” playing an accordion classic, Lady of Spain.
In the 50’s, there were also hundreds of accordion music studios across the country, an increasing number of accordion orchestras and lots of competitions.
Although two other kids in my neighborhood took a few lessons, neither of them kept up with it like I did. I had my own “music room”, practiced at least a couple of hours each day and more in the summer, and liked being the musical child in the family. I wanted to get better.
And I did.
By the time I was 10, I was playing solos at my grade school band concerts and getting enthusiastic applause from the audience of parents. I played songs like Flight of the Bumble Bee, Lady of Spain and Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
My grandfather, whose father came to the US from Germany, was a butcher by trade. He was a big man with a big laugh, a love of bratwurst, and an even bigger love of polkas. He insisted that I play polkas at family gatherings to much cheering, clapping and dancing. He couldn’t get enough of the Beer Barrel Polka. I could.
The movement in the 50’s was toward classical accordion and away from the instrument’s use in barrooms and vaudeville acts with ethnic and folk songs, including polkas. (Accordions were initially introduced to America in the early 1900’s from Europe and took off in popularity around World War I).
As I got older, my parents bought me a much bigger, 120-bass electric, amplified accordion and I began playing classical music – Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and more. I was being taught by a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra violinist, and played once a week in an accordion symphony orchestra which he directed. It consisted of about fifteen 10 to 18-year-olds and we would perform around the city.
The key to playing classical accordion was in the management of the bellows … smooth, consistent bellowing was the gold standard. No standing up and dancing around the room playing crass, low-brow ethnic music! Classical accordionists were seated for performances and braced the bellows on the left thigh for control. Accordions had gone high-brow!
At age 13, I began entering competitions around the state, traveling by bus with my mom. At one of them, I played Sabre Dance, a difficult Russian ballet movement in which dancers performed with Sabres. It was extremely fast, discordant and challenging – which was encouraged by competition organizers in order to score higher points.
Here is my photo and ribbon:
At age 14, I began teaching accordion at my music studio. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t legally allowed to work, but no one told me that at the time. I made a little money teaching young kids and even a couple of adults for a year or so.
I was, they tell me, an accomplished accordionist. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was even considering adding an accordion position and I could be a candidate, they said.
And then… just like that … it all ended.
NEXT WEEK PART 2: How the Beatles ended my musical (accordion) career.