Billy Joel

Part 2: How The Beatles Ended My Musical (Accordion) Career

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.

Paul, George, Ringo and John, 1964

Paul, George, Ringo and John, 1964

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.

Me … a little girl with a big accordion! Circa 1958

Me … a little girl with a big accordion! Circa 1958

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 homeworkI 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.

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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.)

Brother Tom’s publicity shot in the early 70’s

Brother Tom’s publicity shot in the early 70’s

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.

Bruce Springsteen with band member Mark Metcalfe

Bruce Springsteen with band member Mark Metcalfe

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?

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow

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!

Cathy Green

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!

Keeping Music in My Life……

I attended two concerts this past week in my newly adopted home town of Asheville – one bluegrass and one rock. I also bought tickets for four live music events coming up in July and August. It made me think about music and its place in my life.

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When I was young, my dad sang with a barbershop quartet and with the church choir. He had a wonderful, deep bass voice. My mother played the piano and sang with a lovely Johnny Mathis “trill”. My brother played guitar and sang during high school and became a professional musician for many years. (At 56, he still does gigs with several groups around Cincinnati). When we were in our early teens, Dad and Mom would take us to hear the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra a few times a year and to occasional musical theater productions like my favorite, West Side Story. I loved these outings.
 
I sang with the church choir, I played the accordion, I was the band director in grade school, I sang in several high school plays, I learned to strum the guitar in college, and I even sang with a trio at an early 70’s company talent show.
 
Then, I lost music for awhile in my 20’s and 30’s. I was very busy with a career and I “didn’t have time”. I also didn’t have someone in my life who shared my musical interests.
 
When I met Ray, our romance began with a dance. Soon after, we were sharing music on “tapes” (remember those?) We painstakingly compiled favorite song tapes (not easy 25 years ago!) and sent them to one another. We went to jazz clubs and local beach bars. We saw as many live performances as possible … local musicians as well as nationally known artists. We watched concerts on tape and later on DVD. We hired local musicians for company parties and for our own parties. We always entertained with music in the background.

eltonjohn.com

eltonjohn.com

Over the years, I’ve been able to see James Taylor, Elton John, Lyle Lovett, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, The Steve Miller Band, Joe Sample, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson, Kenny G, Diane Schuur, Patti Austin, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Sanborn ….. and many, many more. Next month, I’ll see Sheryl Crow and Boz Scaggs in North Carolina. In December, it will be jazz (Fourplay) in the Big Apple.
 
I admit it – Ray and I are probably a little over the top when it comes to listening to music and attending concerts. Hearing loss issues – both our own and some of our other “mature” friends – keep us from turning up the volume too much during cocktail parties. But we still crank it up when we’re alone.
 
I believe that music helps keep us young. It definitely keeps our brains active. Who knows, it may even be helping to slow down Alzheimer’s!!!!
 
Here’s a wonderful quote that I like:
“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without” – Confucius

But here’s the one Ray likes:
“Play it fuckin’ loud!” -Bob Dylan

Cathy Green
P.S. Does music play a big part in your life these days? If so, let us know about it.

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