Anyone Here Play the Banjo?

Bobby Hart with Glenn Ballantyne

88+ Ways Music Can Change Your Life, published by Keep Music Alive, is a compilation of  over 150 inspirational stories & quotes from musicians, music educators and music lovers from all over the world. Included are a number of stories from Grammy winning and Platinum selling artists & composers.  The authors have given Music In A Word permission to post contributions to the book and we are thrilled to present one below.

I had known for years that I wanted something unique and way more exciting than a traditional job in my hometown and I couldn’t wait to get started. In my senior year of high school I had signed up with an Army Reserve Unit and begun attending weekly training sessions at my local armory. The military draft was still in force and I had always felt a sense of patriotism and loyalty to my country. I realized I could get started pursuing my dreams and at the same time begin serving my country by attending weekly training sessions and two-week summer camps that would go on for seven years.

So, the day after high school graduation, I promised my love forever to Becky Brill, my childhood sweetheart, said a very final “goodbye” to my mom, dad and two sisters on the tarmac of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and boarded a twin engine Douglas C-53 for Fort Ord, near Monterey, California, to begin my six months of active duty.

During my first eight weeks of basic training, I remember the drill sergeant pushing me and the rest of the recruits all day long to the limits of our endurance. There were endless runs through desert trails, thick with choking dust, crawling across barbed-wired infiltration courses while live bullets whizzed above our heads. Then there were forays into tear gas-filled buildings without a gas mask. But more terrifying than the bullets and the gas was my loneliness and being an introvert surrounded by a platoon of strangers.

More than anything, I think I survived those grueling weeks by listening to Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Elvis Presley on the local radio station in the evenings and by reading Becky’s letters that arrived almost daily. I remember folding one of her letters and slipping it into the chest pocket of my T-shirt to keep it near my heart.

Bobby Hart youth
Bobby Hart in his younger days.

I was discharged just in time to spend the holidays with Becky and my folks. Then I caught a ride to California with my high school buddy Benny who was on his way back to college in Pasadena. Benny dropped me off at the corner of Hollywood and Vine on New Year’s Day, 1958. I was eighteen and I had come to seek my fortune. I set my duffle bag on the curb and checked my pocket to make sure they were still there: two twenties and a ten.

I soon landed a job printing record labels, and my walk to work every morning took me past a theater-style marquee that hung over the door of a small recording studio on Vine Street where someone had arranged the letters to read, “Come In & See What Your Voice Sounds Like – $10.” Every day, as I passed by, the sign would silently call to me. I’d sometimes turn and look back at it as I walked on. After a few days, I became intrigued by the sign and its implications. Soon intrigue turned to obsession!

One Saturday morning I got up my nerve and booked ten dollars’ worth of studio time. My heart pounding, I started with something I knew I could do: I laid down a Jerry Lee Lewis style piano track.  Then, by sheer willpower, I forced myself to over dub some background vocals and sang lead on my version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Although I was totally unaware of the musical influences that were flowing out of my mouth and into the  microphone, as I look back, I’m sure they must have been  a combination of the great country, black gospel, and R &B artists that had brought such joyful feelings into my young life—everyone from Fats Domino to Ricky Nelson.

When the sound engineer signaled me into the control booth I could feel my face turn beet red, but when he played the record back for me, I couldn’t believe my ears. He had equalized the tracks and blended my voices together with tape echo. A wave of excitement broke over my fantasy that the tape sounded like a record I might hear on the radio. From that moment I was hooked. It was only weeks before I was spending every Saturday, and nearly all the money I was earning at the print shop, making music at Fidelity Recorders.

One day, a fellow stuck his head in the door of the studio and asked, “Anyone in here play the banjo?” I raised my hand involuntarily and managed a shy, “I do.” I quickly stifled the flutter of apprehension that I might not be able to fulfill the man’s expectations and followed him down the street to Music City, the famous music store on the corner of Sunset and Vine where the man rented a tenor banjo. Then he took me to another little studio across the street from Fidelity, where he set up a microphone and instructed me to strum along on the banjo as I sang “Red River Valley” and “Oh, Susanna.” More than likely, it was a lucrative movie or TV background score for the producer, but he handed me a ten spot after the session and I left with my head in the air. “Yippee!” I thought to myself, “I just turned professional!”

These were just a couple of the old folk songs I had learned around a campfire at Pine Flats Camp Grounds in Northern Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon. Before I turned eighteen, every year in June, our family friends, the Kidds— Bob Kidd, his wife, Leota Kidd, and their two Kidd kids, Clyde and Christina—would set up their summer quarters. It was a compound of tents, picnic tables, and campfire pits in the beautiful red-rock country near Sedona, and I would be invited along.

It was an idyllic time for me. Leota would make mounds of pancakes, eggs, and bacon and then send us off on our own for endless hours of roaming, playing, fishing, and mountain climbing. In the evenings, around the campfire, Leota would strum her guitar and lead us in camp songs.  Then we would roast marshmallows and trade ghost stories on into the night. Had the river of circumstance flowed another way, Leota could well have been another Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn. She had that kind of sincere, pure, soulful Oklahoma voice that cut through the evening air and made you feel the truth in every emotion she sang. She was probably my first real musical influence.

The world of Hollywood seemed to revolve a universe away from the Pentecostal Church in Phoenix where I grew up.  I attended church with my family several times a week, and I couldn’t wait to go. It was tambourine-shaking Southern gospel—spirited, soulful and one of the main breeding grounds for what was soon to be known as “rock ’n’ roll.” My dad played the tenor banjo in the church orchestra, and he taught me some chords. It was the first instrument I played just for fun. Later, I got a tenor guitar for my birthday. It had four strings and tuned the same way as the banjo so I could play it right away.

Ours was a lower middle class family. We were well off enough to have a small, detached garage behind our home and poor enough that the garage door opener was me. Dad always seemed to earn enough money for our necessities, but in the early days we rarely ate in restaurants. In my childhood, twin bicycles were dad and mom’s mode of transportation and my seat would be one of the baskets on their handlebars. I was in my teens before the family could afford a used Chevy Impala.

One evening when I was about seven or eight, a door-to-door salesman from a national music school called at our Lexington Avenue home. He asked, “Wouldn’t you like to learn how to play a musical instrument, Sonny?” When I was told I could pick any instrument I wanted, I chose the six string electric guitar. But the salesman said, “The guitar is a very difficult instrument for a beginner. Why don’t you start with something easier like the violin?” My parents were not sophisticated enough to notice the absurdity of this argument, so they signed me up. Of course, we later found out that the school only taught violin classes.

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart at the height of their commercial success.

My piano teacher did me one better. After years of trying to teach me to sight-read classical pieces one note at a time, she finally took pity on me and gave me a book that showed how to play simple triad chords. A whole new world opened up for me that day. I learned three chords, and right away I could play my favorite songs from the radio. Later, during my high school years, I studied stride piano from veteran jazzman Sharon Pease, paying for my own lessons. I learned more in six months from him than I had in six years of classical instruction.

One summer when I was around fourteen, I drove with my family in our friend’s pickup truck to attend a week of revival meetings at a sister church in Lubbock, Texas.

During the services, I immediately zeroed in on a very attractive “older” lady—she was probably in her thirties— and the exciting soulful music she was making on the church organ. Thus began my lifelong romance with the Hammond B-3. My folks arranged for her to give me three or four lessons during the week we were there.

By my teens, our minister would often call on me to play the church piano or the Hammond B-3 for the congregational singing, and almost as often he would admonish me afterwards to tone down the rock ‘n’ roll treatment I’d be giving to the old hymns. I had found the passkey to more fully expressing myself.

From the twist clubs of 1962, through my career as a hit songwriter, and record producer for the Monkees and other pop stars, up to the present when I play on Sundays at my local church, the Hammond B-3 organ has been my instrument of choice ever since.

BobbyHart_zpsxmfyby2sBobby Hart was one half of the acclaimed songwriting duo, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, considered to be one of the most influential teams of popular music in the 60s and 70s. Boyce and Hart played a pivotal role in creating the Monkees’ sound as  composers and producers of their most recognizable hits, and enjoyed a successful run as a singing duo.  He recently published an autogbiography, “Psychedelic Bubble Gum.”

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50% of the proceeds from all book and ebook sales of “88+ Ways…” will be donated to foundations providing music instruments and lessons to schools and communities in need.

88+ Ways Music Can Change Your Life

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