It's the holiday season again and. like most of us, my thoughts drift back to holidays past. This year I'm reminded of a Christmas season from about a decade ago.
The Queen of the Frontier and I were living at the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The pros and cons of that move are fodder for another day, but there we were, owning and running a full service restaurant in Kitty Hawk.
A bit of history is in order. I took up playing the guitar at about the same time I started college. I could tell you that I had a burning desire to express myself through music. I could say that I was influenced by a great music teacher or a great player whose record I had listened to. I could, but I won't. I took up the guitar to attract girls. At the time (1967) that was considered almost a sure thing, at least by we who tried it. All I attracted was the woman who became my first wife, the dreaded "Wicked Witch." Oh well.
The WW and I played and sang folk music. She played the Autoharp and I played guitar. For a while we played some collage coffee house gigs and even once did a show for a VFW party. I can't remember how many times we played for our supper at picnics and family reunions over the years, but it was a few. Heck, we even rode a hay wagon in a parade, playing and singing the same song for 45 minutes. Some kind of fun!
After the WW and I divorced I decided that I'd had enough folk music in my life. The Queen of the Frontier bought me an electric guitar and from that point on I never looked back. I wanted to play lead guitar in a band. To make that beautiful instrument sing and cry. And after a few years of lessons and practice I actually was able to play a passable lick or two. Of course, life intervened. I never did play in a band, but, thanks to the generosity of several real musicians, I got the chance to sit in with some local groups at gigs and parties. I loved it.
Back at the beach, the Queen and I offered live music at the restaurant on Friday nights. Peter, a Jersey boy transplanted to the sand like we were, was our Friday feature. I'm pretty sure that he knows every song from the 60s, 70s and 80s that can be played and sung by one guy. He can remember all of the lyrics and can work out the chords in a flash. He would put on a great show and we advertised the hell out of those Fridays to bring in more business. Peter and I became golf buddies and, of course, started playing music together. He'd sing and play acoustic guitar and I'd play lead and sing back up vocals. Before too very long we took it to the Friday nights at the restaurant. I would work during his first set waiting tables and doing any of the hundreds of things you need to do to run a beach eatery and then sit in for the second set. We had a ball.
After the first Christmas season we realized that we, that is Peter, didn't know a lot of Christmas songs. Oh, he knew the words, but the music was a bit more of a problem for both of us. As the next holiday season approached we agreed that we needed to learn some new songs. It was time to do some homework.
This was the perfect opportunity for me to learn one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time; the aptly named "The Christmas Song," written by jazz singer and composer Mel Torme. If you don't know the title I'm sure you know the opening lyrics; "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." I love that song. And I could sing it fairly well. But neither of us could play it on the guitar. It's jazz, you know.
But I was not to be denied this golden opportunity. I had, in fact, played some jazz sitting in with a superb jazz trio back in West Virginia and while I hadn't messed around with that style for some time, I still owned a very nice jazz guitar. It was time to take that baby out of its case and plug it in.
It turned out that a fellow who worked for us had been a music major before his escape to the beach and he was able to write a chord chart for me that I had a small, but real, chance of learning. Now, this was in October, so you'd think that I had plenty of time in which to learn and refine one silly song. But you would be wrong. I'd played some jazz lead guitar and I could sing pretty much anything in my key. But doing both, that is sing and playing jazz at the same time. That was a different story.
So I practiced. And practiced some more. Weeks went by as I slowly put the chord progression together in a smooth, and hopefully, musical form. Then I started singing while playing. Okay, some set backs there, but it was starting to come together. This was starting to get exciting.
The big night was going to be the last Friday before Christmas. Peter and I had agreed that I'd sit in from the start and end the first set with "The Christmas Song." I practiced a few more times during the week and we were raring to go.
The crowd of mostly regulars knew that something was up, since there was an extra guitar in the corner of the room were we would set up. When they didn't see a third player most, I think, figured out that I was going to do something different that night. As I switched instruments Peter did a little snappy patter and then introduced me and the song. It was on!
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," came out smoothly. The guitar sounded fantastic and the crowd was actually taking notice. "Jack Frost nipping at your nose." I had to look either up at the folks or at the neck of the guitar because I knew that if I looked over at Peter he'd make a face and I'd burst out laughing. "Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos," "Everybody knows, some turkey and some mistletoe, helps to make the season bright." Okay, I was coming up to the bridge section. The chords are a little bit easier and I could relax heading into the big finish. "Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, will find it hard to sleep tonight."
"They know that Santa's....." And just then, the guitar strap came loose from the end of the guitar! The end that I didn't have a grip on. The end that fell to my knees in an instant of shocked silence. It was bad.
I swung the instrument back up and fumbled with the strap for a bit until I could get things right. Yes, I started the bridge again from "They know that Santa's on his way," but the magic was gone. I made it through to the neat little "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells," instrumental ending. The audience offered polite applause. So I did the only thing I could do at that point. I thanked the crowd and then offered the explanation, "I guess Mel Tormes' ghost didn't want me to sing his song." They laughed. I've never tried to play that song again.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!
Oh, and one more thing. Now that "The Christmas Song," is running on a loop through your head...you're welcome!