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An Autobiography: Chapter 23, The Pianist

On October 11, 1940, I attended the “Food Show,” which took place at the huge tobacco warehouse in Covington. This was an annual event for some years. My school chums James Gray and Henry Zumstein went with me. I wonder now why Lee King, one of my best friends, wasn’t along. It is interesting that after a few years I lost contact with Henry, but 13 years later, he was a pressman for the Steinhauser Printing Company when we were publishing the “Country Music Scrapbooks.”

The year 1940 was the 100th anniversary of Kenton County, so that year’s event was a major one. In addition to several hundred booths, foods of all kinds, and local retailers of various products, they had a bandstand where each evening the Johnny Long Orchestra played. Johnny Long had just signed with Decca Records, and his recording of “In a Shanty In Old Shanty Town” was a hit, with more than 1 million records sold. The highlight of his career was when the band was requested to play at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday ball in 1941.

Johnny Long 

I was thinking about my idea of “Pocket Celebrity Scrapbooks,” and I talked with Johnny about this. He thought it was an excellent idea because, as he said, there were no publications out there giving the kids information about their favorite singers and band leaders. He encouraged me and asked that I keep in touch with him.

But the most fun we three boys had at the show was when we recorded two songs! Tastee Bread had a booth with a newfangled home recorder, where you could record your voice on little plastic discs. The gentleman at that that booth must have been a local disc jockey, the way he talked to everyone and drew you in to test out your vocal expertise.

He saw us boys having fun, and said to everyone standing around, “What say, we hear a song from this young trio!” We had never sung together before, and I didn’t know what kind of voice James or Henry had, but, of course, we were all for it. We recorded a song on each side of a little platter, which I still have, although it’s not playable. Drat it! First we sang “Mister Meadowlark” by Johnny Mercer, which was a big hit recorded by Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Glenn Miller, and others. On the other side we recorded “Pessimistic Character,” which was also a hit by Crosby.

Bing Crosby 

Bing Crosby 

In 1941, I entered Homes High School, where Edwin was also attending, and when the weather was good, to save money, we walked to school, which was about 25 blocks from our house on Banklick Street. The walks were always interesting because Edwin pointed out things of interest I would not have noticed. His artist’s eye gave him the imagination to see many things that others did not. Edwin was working part time at Mergard’s Bowling Alley and Pool Hall, and he taught me to bowl and play pool. He had a pool table in the basement of his New Jersey home.

I was reading books in those days that most young people were not into, like For Whom the Bells Toll, The Grapes of Wrath, and the biography of Gerald du Maurier. I remember one time in Visalia I was in the backyard of Grandpa Marcus’ house, lying on the ground, reading A Farewell to Arms, when Aunt Belle came out with a pitcher of water and emptied it on my head. Of course, it almost ruined the book, and I wasn’t at all happy about that. She meant no harm and thought it was a fun thing to do on a hot day.

When the time came for book reports in school, I argued with my teacher to let me report on a book I was reading that was not on the school list. I remember one report I did was on For Whom the Bells Toll, but I don’t remember the grade. From some scribbled notes I have kept from that time, I see where I wrote, “I would like to read Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf;” but I never did.

Bells Toll Book 

I think it was around 1942 that I started buying records seriously, and I visited local record stores as often as I could. In those days, the stores had little rooms with a record player where you could go in and listen to the record to find out if you wanted to buy it. Imagine that! I think I listened to many records I didn’t buy, but I was friends with the clerks and they understood.

About this time, I thought more and more about writing music and believed I had a talent for it. My cousins in Ohio, Martha and Ed Edmiston, encouraged me and even paid for my first piano lessons, which were once a week at the Wurlitzer Music Store in Cincinnati. I could never get into the lessons, so I stopped after a while. At home, I tinkered with the piano and could play fairly well, music I made up as I went along.

In later years, there were several occasions when I played the piano seriously and fooled people into thinking I was a pianist. I never knew what I was playing, but it was mostly in a classical vein; I could never play with a popular beat. One time we were at a state park for a weekend with Earl and Sue, and there was a piano in the lodge. “Play something,” Georgianna said, so I played for about 10 minutes. After I finished, a gentleman from Germany, who had been listening, came over and complimented me, saying how much he had enjoyed the little concert.

Another time with Earl and Sue, we were having dinner in the dining room of Windlands East Retirement Home where there was a baby grand. Georgianna told me to play some music for the folks, so I did. While I was playing, I got a couple of requests. I could not play any other music, but only what I made up on the spot!

When we were visiting Tracy in Arizona, she took me to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, Taliesin West. We were on a tour with a group, and when we came to the living room there was a beautiful grand piano. The guide told us how Mr. Wright loved that piano and what wonderful acoustics there were in that room. She asked if there was anyone in the group who could play so we could all enjoy this beautiful piano. No one ventured forth, so Tracy elbowed me, held up her hand and said, “My father will!”

Taliesin West 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, known as Taliesin West, in Arizona. 

You can imagine my embarrassment. I wasn’t a pianist, and to play on Frank Lloyd Wright’s piano before a group of people! But there was no way out, so I walked to the piano, trying to act like Arthur Rubinstein. I sat down, closed my eyes and began. I played for about five minutes and received good applause and several comments later. How little they knew! I have barely touched our piano since Georgianna passed away. 

After giving up piano lessons, I had an interview in 1942 at The Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, and there was a well known teacher and composer on the staff. While talking to him, I mentioned my ambition of becoming a composer, and he agreed to give me private lessons. He was teaching me composition and counterpoint, etc., but it was pretty much over my head. I could appreciate beautiful music and knew most of the great composers and some of their music. My favorite composers at the time were Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Stravinsky and Gershwin. In later years, Georgianna and I discovered Mahler, and he became our favorite composer. We bought CDs of his ten symphonies, and some days we would play each one for background music as we worked, or just listened. I remember times Georgianna would lie on the couch and ask me to play Mahler.

I took some melodies I had written down (I couldn’t play them) to my teacher, and he was impressed. I could see that I could write music, if someone else would write it down and orchestrate it. My dreams of becoming a serious composer never came to fruition, but I did write some very good pop songs. My life just went into many other directions.

In 1943, we moved to Sharonville, Ohio, about 22 miles from Covington, for a few months as my dad took a job with a war plant near there. I didn’t enroll in another school. Instead, I went back to Holmes High School several days a week, but never attended any class regularly. I wonder why I wasn’t thrown out, but I don’t think the teachers realized I wasn’t a bona fide student! My favorite class was Tom Ertel’s art class, and Mr. Ertel and I became good friends. That year he took me to his house and then to a night club in Cincinnati, where Lionel Hampton and his band was the headliner.

One day in early 1943, I walked into his class and was fascinated by a lovely sweater girl at the easel doing a chalk drawing. She had beautiful dark hair down her back. When she finished the drawing and sat down, I sat behind her and we started talking. She told me she was in a school play and loved the theatre, and I told her I was going to be a songwriter. That was the day Georgianna entered my life, where she stayed for 59 glorious years.

Golden Cockerel 

Georgianna’s crayone drawing of “The Golden Cockerel,” Tom Ertel’s art class in 1943. 

Don’t Miss Next Chapter: Broadway Shows

rusty locke
8/20/2012 9:32:46 PM

Thank you Thurston for sharing your life story. You have a sentimental heart and a fine memory. I too find the things of long-ago clearer then yesterdays meals. I look forward to your blogs.God bless. Rusty