My great grandmother died in 1978, when she was 106. She was a Civil War widow who received a check for $70 a month. She frequently marveled that she had lived to see us go from horses and buggies to rockets putting a man on the moon.
I can’t top that. But, I have lived to see innocence first lost in 1963. That was the year I realized we weren’t living in a Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet world any longer.
Prior to 1963, I was only interested in sports, music and girls. I wanted to be a major league baseball player, or a rock star depending on the day of the week. In those days being one or the other meant you would be idolized by girls and that was just possibly my major motivation.
I grew up in Lombard, Illinois, a Chicago suburb in Du Page County, a heavily republican county. In Lombard, our only diversity consisted of families who were either Catholic or Protestant. Not one black family lived in Lombard.
I started playing baseball, basketball and football in earnest when I was 9 years old. Our neighborhood included enough boys to field two baseball teams in the summer and the baseball park where we played was only one block away. In the summer our mothers made a bag lunch for us and we rode our bikes to the park where we played baseball from sun up to dinner.
Some summer days, I went with my father to his place of business on 17th Avenue in Maywood, where the vast majority of residents were black. I was the only white player on the baseball field or the basketball court at the park behind his business. I became a better player from that experience.
My interest in music started about the same time. I may have inherited my love from my father, who was a self-taught pianist. At an early age, he shared with me that Eddy Duchin was the greatest pianist of all time.
When he bought the piano and signed me up for weekly lessons, he expected me to become the next Eddy Duchin. There was only one slight problem, my piano idol was Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, and my piano teacher didn’t have any sheet music for Whole Lot of Shakin Going On.
When I was in junior high I got the chance to go see my first live concert at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago.
My friend John’s brother who was 16 and had recently gotten his driver’s license had tickets. When his friends couldn’t go he reluctantly invited his younger brother and me to join him. He told us the WLS DJ Dick Biondi would be the MC for what was being called the greatest rock and roll show of all time in the newly opened Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place.
What he didn’t tell us was that Dick Biondi would be the only white person on stage that day. We spent literally hours listening to what was then called rhythm and blues, and later called soul music. I still have many of the songs I heard that day on my iTunes.
I still don’t remember all of the entertainers who performed that day. Essentially it was every black star that wasn’t a part of Motown records. As Dick Biondi said the show seemed to go on forever. The black entertainers I remember included, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry who passed away Saturday at age 90, Chubby Checker, The Platters, The Shirelles, and many others who you would have to be my age to recognize their names.
It was about the same time that I noticed girls. To be more accurate, I first noticed an actress, not a girl. Her name was Kim Novak and she played a teenage girl Madge in a movie called Picnic.
At the picnic, which takes place over Labor Day weekend, there is scene when Kim Novak and William Holden dance to the theme music “Moonglow, and Theme from Picnic.” It was clearly dirty dancing 50s style. Watch them on YouTube, you’ll get the idea.
We went off to high school with great optimism about our futures and the future of America, not knowing that in 1963 America would be forever changed and our innocence would be lost.
Each of us knows exactly where we were on November 22, when we first learned President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I was sitting in Chemistry class, when our principal made the announcement over the intercom. We were all stunned by the news.
I spent the entire weekend numb, but glued to the television set. On Sunday morning, we skipped church which enabled me to watch Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.
But, President Kennedy’s assassination was the culmination of the year our country was changed forever. A great deal of change had taken place before that November day. On the music front, Beatlemania started. At the time, like many others, I was a fan of the Beach Boys.
I recently found this interesting article: Beach Boys were not the ‘American Beatles’ Read what happened after Brian Wilson wrote songs for Pet Sounds album to compete with the Beatles sound.
In 1963 our country expanded its role in Viet Nam and the events in Birmingham, Alabama would no longer allow us to ignore inequality in our country. I think those events are what changed my outlook on life in America.
Growing up in my all-white Chicago suburb, I had never given much thought to the civil rights movement. That all changed in 1963 because we could actually see what was happening on television.
I watched in horror scenes from Birmingham where peaceful men, women and children demonstrators were met with violent attacks using high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs.
Later that year, after the white only restroom and drinking fountain signs were removed in Birmingham, the 16th street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls.
During the summer, I watched scenes from the historical march on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. The Civil Rights movement had become a national cause, and before his death President Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Bill.
By the end of 1963, my taste in music had changed. I still enjoyed the Beach Boys, but I started listening to singers and songwriters, like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Many an argument took place in our house when I started playing Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome or I Ain’t a Scared of Your Jail, Bob Dylan singing Blowin in the Wind, and Peter, Paul and Mary singing If I Had a Hammer, written by Pete Seeger.
Looking back now, I’m sure my father thought I had become what today would in polite circles be called a liberal, and less polite some other names. If he thought that in 1963, I can only imagine what he thought in 1968, likely the most turbulent year in American history.