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Music Part 1: Dancing

By Marc Jennings

My Mother said that as a small child I always danced when I heard music. That was before you could take videos with your cell phone so I only have her word to go on. I do vaguely remember a few times as a child when music made an impression on me. However, it was not that big a deal. Going to elementary school we had music class and I discovered I had a slight musical talent and could sing on key for the most part. I also found that I enjoyed music. However, none of this gave me even the slightest hint of the effect music would have on my life.

I have long had a theory, and I’ll bet when you hear it you will agree with it. It is this: when we enter adolescence, and all these heretofore dormant hormones begin to circulate in and change our bodies, we suddenly discover the opposite sex as something other than a worthless nuisance. While this is happening, we become fixed on the music we are listening to at the time. We bond to it, it says things to us; universal things. It becomes more than music, it is a way of understanding the world around us, which is suddenly pretty confusing. This music, whatever it is, will be the music you love the rest of your life. This is why our parents liked goofy music that we thought was….old fashioned. This is why we can’t understand the music our kids listen to. This is why 99.8% of the songs we or any generation listened to were about love, or broken hearts, or “going to the chapel”, or something having to do with relationships between a boy and a girl. This is why we still like the songs we listened to when we attended FHS.

I remember, like it was yesterday, when this music spell hit me like a ton of bricks. I lived at 4545 St. Johns Ave. The next street closer to school was St. James. At 4545 St. James lived a friend, Dave Skiles. Dave Skiles had an older sister. She had a collection of 45 rpm records. One bright sunny day in 1958 it was just me and Dave Skiles sitting on his living room floor next to his sister’s portable record player with a stack of her 45’s on it. We were kids, we didn’t listen to the radio; we were always outside playing, so I had never heard these songs before. But on this day they entered my head forever. “Short Fat Fannie”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’”, “Peggy Sue”, “Little Darlin’”, and “Little Star” were some that I recall hearing that day.

This was not the first time I had heard rock and roll songs. I had heard all of Elvis Presley’s records and others. But this day I heard music that for the first time strangely moved me. Have you ever seen these TV shows about Elvis, when he first started out, and his music upset some people? They usually show old news clips from the mid-50’s of community leaders and ministers, and they’re trying to stop this rock and roll music and they said “it’s the Devil’s music”. They were right. It was the Devil’s music and when it got in you, you had to move. I’m not saying the music was evil, or that it took possession of your soul, but it had a beat that made you want to move your hips and your shoulders and your feet. Some of it had vague sexual overtones, but if you were real young that level of the music just passed over your head

I remember the neighborhood I lived in at the time had a building that was called the “union hall”. I guess it was used for meetings sometimes but I never knew of one taking place there. One Friday night there was a dance at the union hall. Someone was playing records, and there was a group of kids my age and older. What I remember about this night was that the music made me want to dance. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea how one would go about dancing. I had never seen American Bandstand or any other TV show to give me a hint how it was done. And no one was dancing. Everyone was just standing around talking; boys with the boys and girls with the girls. It was frustrating.

I began listening to the radio. And, about this time a new innovation made that easier to do. Transistor radios were introduced in Dayton. You could carry them around with you and they had an earphone so you could listen to them almost anywhere. They were pretty expensive at first and they often came with a leather carrying case. We listened to WING, 1410 on the AM dial (there wasn’t any FM dial then). I think it was Bob Holliday and Gene “By Golly” Berry. And sometimes we listened to WONE, 980, but it wasn’t as good. You could take your transistor radio to bed with you and listen at night. One night I heard a WING disc jockey use the term “golden oldie” for the first time.

In 1959 our class put on a show at school for our parents. It was called “The Soaring Sixties”, and it was supposed to be about what we would all be doing way off in the future; in the sixties. Various classmates were assigned to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons, but my part was to say I decided to be a rock & roll singer, at which point I began singing the song “Jim Dandy to the Rescue”. After the show was over, Sandy, one of my classmates, told me in obvious disgust: “anybody can get up there and shake their butt!” I guess she didn’t care much for my performance, but I was surprised because I hadn’t realized I was “shaking my butt”.

In 1960, dancing teenagers got a break when Chubby Checker released a record called “The Twist”. I heard the song and I saw the kids on Bandstand do the dance. Now this, I could do, and so could everybody else. I now had an outlet for my dancing urge, but we had no more dances until the eighth grade.

In the eighth grade we had one dance at school, during school hours. I don’t remember that much about it except I had on a coat and tie and I did the Twist until my side ached, rested and then did it some more. I did more Twisting at that short dance than I have done in all the years since. I think I wore out three different partners.

Also, in the eighth grade, I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My Mother had made me take piano lessons earlier in elementary school. For some reason, I believed that taking piano lessons was just about the sissiest thing you could do, and I went to great lengths to conceal from my friends that I was doing this. Oh, I hated it, and, not surprisingly, I quit as soon as my Mother would let me, although I had learned the basics.

Playing the guitar was another matter entirely. That would be cool. My parents bought me an inexpensive acoustic guitar and I started taking lessons. I would take the bus downtown to Hauer Music for my lessons. While waiting at the store for my lesson I would look longingly at the shiny new electric guitars on display. Unfortunately, I found the music I was being taught to play was about as dumb as the stuff I had to play on the piano. I was looking for an experience like the song, “The All-American Boy”:

“Well I bought me a guitar a year ago;
Learned how to play in a day or so;
And all around town it was well understood;
That I was knockin’ ‘em out like Johnny B. Goode.”

So after I thought I had learned the essentials I quit taking lessons but started teaching myself to play some of the rock & roll songs on the radio. It was slow going, but I worked hard at it. After a few months I convinced my parents that I was serious and they bought me a used electric guitar with an amplifier. I worked even harder. My friend, Mike Overly, had one too and he helped me learn new songs. Mike was not only very talented musically, but he had also started earlier than me and I learned a lot from him. So, when I walked into Fairview High School in September, 1962, I had everything I needed to: (a) follow the latest music, (b) dance, and (c) play in a band. And that is exactly what I did; in that order.

The next stop on my musical journey was the Mascot. I used to arrive early at school and go to the Mascot because that was the only place to go. It was always full of people and a lot of them were eating French fries. The jukebox was always playing and the only song I ever remember was “409” by the Beach Boys. It seemed to play constantly. I remember the same two girls were always dancing to “409”. I had a lot of pent-up dancing energy in me, but still, 7:30 in the morning just didn’t seem like the proper time to let it out. But I watched the girls dance—they had this compact little bouncing step that really fit the early 60’s music—and by the time of my next musical event, I could do this step myself.

The event I am referring to happened at an old corrugated steel building on Kings Highway, near where the Dayton View Little League Park was, and pretty close to Fairport Elementary. The building was what was called a Quonset hut in WWII, a semicircular, pre-fabricated structure. I don’t know how it made it to Dayton, but there it was. This place was called Menker’s Party Hut, and was available for events. Two brothers at FHS, Jim and Gary Burt, somehow came up with the idea of renting the place, hiring a band, passing the word at school and charging admission to get in. They called it an “Open House”. These two entrepreneurs must have been “sweating bullets” that enough people would show up to cover paying the band and the rent. If so, they worried for nothing cause on the appointed Friday night, the place was wall to wall people. For high school kids there weren’t any places to go and socialize and dance and listen to a band play music, so this was an opportunity waiting to happen. And guess who was there dancing until flames started coming from the bottom of his shoes. That’s right.

I’ll bet a lot of you went to an Open House at Menker’s. The place was really a dump, not that that mattered. It was loud, smoky, dark, crowded and usually hot. There were always a couple of hoodlums wandering around the place, acting tough and looking for someone to pick on, and sometimes they would position themselves outside the entrance and bum quarters: “hey, man, loan me a quarter; got a cigarette?” But most kids were there to have a good time.

Sometimes the Open House at Menker’s would just have a disc jockey playing records, and sometimes there was a band. Later, when I played in a band, we played a couple of times at Menker’s. That is where I won my first dance contest (the prize was a 45-Walkin’ the Dog by Rufus Thomas). That is where I taught Barbie Barth and some other class of 64 girls to do a line dance I had learned from a guy at Chaminade. And, that is where I first heard my all time favorite dancing song: Louie, Louie.

There continued to be Open Houses at Menker’s, but they were so successful that they were naturally moved to larger venues. Wampler’s Ballarina and Wampler’s Barn were two frequent locations at which dances were held. Sometimes they were at Sinclair Park, off Needmore Road. At Wampler’s there were sometimes entertainers you heard or would hear on the radio. And of course, it wasn’t just kids from Fairview who went to these dances. Kids came from all over our side of Dayton, although we mostly knew kids from Colonel White and Meadowdale. But, wherever there was a dance I made it a point to attend.

I guess I was lucky cause most guys either didn’t dance well or didn’t care to dance; but, there were lots of girls who liked to dance, and I tried to grant the wishes of as many as possible. I remember several girls in particular who were very good dancers, but I will refrain from mentioning their names for fear of missing someone and hurting her feelings. Let’s just say, if you ever danced with me, you are on my list of very good dancers.

I suppose I was pretty cocky about dancing, but that can be very dangerous because, as they say, pride comes before a fall. One night I was at a dance over in Colonel White territory, on the dance floor, getting ready to show them how we do it at Fairview, when I noticed another guy dancing and he wasn’t bad. I went on over and broke out some moves. I was mildly surprised when he kept up. I found out later his name was Sammy Kingston, a really great guy that I came to know and like, later on. I almost felt bad when I finally had to shut him down and leave him in my dust. (Just kidding; Sammy and I were pretty evenly matched. Who looked the best kind of depended on how good our respective partners were—and this was his home territory.)

I didn’t exactly live only to dance in high school, yet when on the dance floor, with a cool song playing loud, I found great joy. I could almost become that music, moving every part of my body to the beat. It was literally impossible not to dance to songs like “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp, “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez, “Da Doo Ron Ron” by The Crystals, “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Canon, or “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers. And then there were a few special songs with beats so mystical and compelling that they caused me physical pain until I could get to the dance floor and relieve it. Songs like: “Last Night” by the Mar-Keys, “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, and “C’mon and Swim” by Bobby Freeman. But don’t take my word for it, listen to any of these songs and tell me if you can stand still.

In my office is a small piece of marble upon which is a ceramic black and white saddle shoe. It is a dance contest prize that my best dance partner ever, my wife Darlene, helped me win. Inscribed on a brass plate on the marble is:
“Bop Till You Drop”
Class of 66

In my mind, I think I could do it again—if they played Louie, Louie; the Devil’s Music.