Growing up, I always found myself drawn to music. My folks did their best to do what parents are supposed to do by purchasing kid-friendly 33 & 45 RPM albums for me, but I gravitated outward from that epicenter at a very early age.
On sunny, summer weekends, Mr. Zeigle (my beloved neighbor from earlier in this series) loved to sit in the shade of the substantial tree in his side yard and read the paper. The Zeigle’s side yard was like a simple slice of heaven. It was a green, shady, flower-encroached area, boasting trees, shrubs, and a small lawn across the double-wide driveway that bisected it. Near the entrance to the home, beneath the aforementioned tree, was a snug patio area, walled against traffic by simple shrubbery, and laden with a table and numerous types of chairs that beckoned, almost daring any and all comers NOT to sidle over and sit in them for a bit of meditative peace. A lot of good conversation was had in that outdoor space, and still is today.
Aside from reading the paper, and having a cocktail or mixed bowl of finger-friendly fruit, Mr. Zeigle loved to listen to Big Band music. He would set upon a stool, in the open garage mouth for resonance purposes, a radio that was an ovoid abomination of style in the 60’s when it was produced, and was even more anachronistic thereafter. On Sunday afternoons, one could often find him simply enjoying the little things life had to offer, relaxing and allowing the music to move him to some higher plane of bliss.
I don’t recall the first time that I heard this music, but I do recall the music itself quite well because it spoke to me. What I also remember is wandering over there, probably more often than he appreciated, and asking him about the bands and songs coming out of the weird-looking radio. I was hooked and today, among my 90,000+ MP3’s, is a fairly large slice of Big Band history.
Often, my Grandmother (my Mother’s Mother) would look after me on random days (I can’t recall, now, why it was only me, and not my little brother Nick – I was still fairly young.) Sometimes, we would go and visit one of her plethora of friends who needed company, was feeling poorly, or had just had some medical procedure performed. My Grandmother was a veritable saint when it came to thinking of others first, and had more friends and people who loved her than anyone else I have ever met. I recall, even at an early age, thinking, ‘This is going to be one hell of a packed funeral when she passes on.’ Unfortunately, on that point, I was wrong – she outlived most of these friends. Perhaps that was part of what she was put upon this Earth to do. I know she was certainly put here to make the lives of myriad folks around her a better experience – I witnessed this often, first-hand.
At any rate, we went to visit a woman whom I had heard her speak about but had never met. Her name was Vi Romeo. Meeting Vi was something magical. On occasion, I would come into contact with one of my Grandmother’s friends who really stood out and enamored me with the complex and interesting facets of their lives. Vi was certainly among those, and I relished the few additional times I came into contact with this woman as the years wore on, prior to her passing.
In this instance, Vi had just undergone a surgical procedure (on her hip, if memory serves) which required her to be in a nursing home for a short period of recovery time. I had met her once before so, when I heard we were going to see her, I was just fine with that. About ten minutes into the visit, a stout, rotund older gentleman with a smile beaming like a lighthouse walked in. He was introduced as Vi’s son, Norris, and we said our hellos. Then the magic words were spoken.
“Norris was a big-band leader,” Vi said to me, pride evident in every word. To their surprise I not only knew what that meant, I immediately turned on my ‘tell me everything’ light. Norris seemed pleased to have such a young and eager audience and, throughout the course of the afternoon, he and his proud mother regaled me with stories about his time traveling the country, the folks he met, and his personal take on the whole experience. Looking back, I wish to God that I had a digital audio recorder. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been invented just yet.
On my next trip to see Vi, this time at her home and probably a year or so later, I gained a firmer grasp of just how big Norris had made it during his career. For scattered throughout the home, framed, were poster upon poster advertising Norris Romeo and his band. I was awestruck. I spent most of the time there visiting, floating from poster to poster, wondering what it must have been like to have seen your own face on those posters; to have walked into a room filled with individuals strange to you, who relied solely on you and yours to make their evening memorable, and then being permitted the gifts and timing to do just that. It must have felt like having a superpower, if only for a fleeting few hours. I’d give anything to have been in those shoes, if only for a moment, to feel that wash of coalescing freedom and admiration around me.
For years thereafter – including this morning – I have searched for evidence of Norris’ Big Band existence on the web. To this day, I can still find no poster or photo, which is sad but not really all that surprising. For while Norris enjoyed immense localized popularity, he was but a minor player on the high-stakes table that is the United States itself. I realize that he was no Benny Goodman, no Duke Ellington, no Dorsey brother, then as I do now. And frankly, I don’t care. To me – and to that young boy so very long ago – he will always rank right up there because he had his roots in Rockford, and I had the opportunity to not only meet him personally, but to experience his life as seen through his eyes. And, cool as he was, when did Kay Kyser ever do THAT for me?