On February 9, 1964 at 8:00pm, I joined over 70 million Americans watching The Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was 13 and would turn 14 that September. For weeks before their appearance, their songs were all over the airwaves. I Want to Hold Your Hand was the #1 song on the Billboard charts. My 8th-grade class was buzzing with excitement.
Ed Sullivan introduced The Beatles to his audience of teenagers as the “youngsters from Liverpool” and the girls screamed. In front of our TV, mom, dad, sister Chris and brother Tom were glued to the screen. As soon as George, Paul, John and Ringo started singing All My Loving, Chris and I joined in the screaming, 10-year-old Tom got caught up in the excitement and dad was making fun of the haircuts and outfits but seemed to be having a good time, too. Mom just looked mystified by it all.
The Beatles played three songs in the first half hour of the show (Including She Loves You… Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!) and two in the second half hour, including my favorite I Saw Her Standing There.
Here’s how the performance started:
The British invasion was underway and although I didn’t know it right then, my 8-year accordion-playing career was about to be over.
In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about how my parents bought accordion lessons for me at the age of 6 from a door to door salesman and how I became a very good classical accordionist by my teens, performing with an accordion symphony orchestra and competing in solo events around the city and state.
The Beatles, and the British rock and roll bands that followed them like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and Herman’s Hermits, were all about guitars and drums. Teenagers all over the US were listening to this new music and many of them were yearning to be in their own rock and roll bands, preferably playing guitar like Paul, John or George.
In the book Squeeze This: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, the author wrote:
“By 1963, the accordion had reached the height of its popularity, but America’s youth were beginning to embrace new music and new instruments. Playing the accordion became, for all intents and purposes, uncool”.
At 13, I really liked boys, I was experimenting with makeup, I wanted to wear short skirts and I played Beatles records constantly with my friends. I also started to rebel against authority (i.e. my parents). I was a true teenager. I definitely didn’t want to be uncool.
I started to complain.
There’s nothing I can do with the accordion… … I have too much homework… I want to go out with my friends …. I don’t want to play polkas for grandpa anymore.
And then, sometime in late 1964 or early 1965, I quit.
I don’t remember how hard my parents fought with me about this, but I don’t think they fought too much. They, too, were seeing the change in musical tastes and didn’t have an answer for me about what I’d be able to do with accordion skills.
My brother began taking guitar lessons. The money my parents had spent to develop my musical skills were now transferred to developing his. He grew his hair long, got an electric guitar and drove us crazy. I was jealous. Playing guitar was definitely cool. I would have liked to play, too, and even bought an acoustic guitar and taught myself some chords. But in my family, Tom was now the guitar player so I didn’t get any encouragement. (He became an excellent guitarist, played with several bands, has a great tenor voice, gained recognition as one of the best guitarists in Cincinnati and still plays gigs at age 62.)
I was busy being a teenager anyway.
Over the years, I have had a lot of guilt about quitting after my parents had spent so much money and I had spent so much time. I’ve also been asked why I didn’t transfer my accordion playing to the piano, an instrument that provided more practical career opportunities, even in rock bands.
Those of you who have played accordion understand that this is not as easy as it may seem. Although my right hand played on a musical keyboard similar to a piano, I played buttons with my left hand. The transition could have been made, of course, but not without a lot of work, more lessons and a good piano in our home. At that time, I didn’t have the will to learn a new instrument and my parents didn’t have the money to encourage it.
I have to admit that my recent reading about the accordion’s popularity in the 50’s and its subsequent demise in the 60’s and 70’s made me feel a little better. Sales of accordions dropped to an all-time low in 1964, around the time I stopped playing. I was not alone in being caught up in the new music wave.
I’ve never regretted my years of musical training, but I’ve often wished that my parents had gotten me started on a piano or guitar.
Here’s “the rest of the story” about accordions:
Accordions made a comeback in the 80’s and 90’s and since then have found their way into rock bands like Bare Naked Ladies, Counting Crows, and Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. Bruce Hornsby, Tom Waits, Billy Joel, Pete Townsend and Eddie Vedder play accordion, too.
Backstreet Girl by the Rolling Stones features an accordion and Sheryl Crow plays one for the song Are You Strong Enough to Be My Man?
A January 2014 article in The Atlantic entitled Accordions So Hot Right Now reported that the last remaining accordion manufacturer in the US is selling 60% of its accordions to people under the age of 30 and is having trouble keeping up with production.
My accordion playing days were obviously in the wrong century!
By the way, I learned recently that both Paul McCartney and John Lennon played the accordion before the guitar. Somehow, that tidbit of information about the Beatles didn’t make it into the press releases at the time.
I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have made a difference to 14-year-old Cathy anyway. Being cool was just too important!
PS… Friends have asked me if I have ever wanted to play accordion again. I remember picking up my old accordion when I was in my 40’s and realizing how little I remembered and how poorly my hands worked on the keys and buttons. I had lost the ability to read the sheet music, too. When musicians tell you that practicing constantly and consistently is critical, believe them!