Here is a chapter, not yet edited and maybe not yet complete from a boy called Gino (who didn’t know his name was Luigi) around the age of 4. The Chapter is called Please Turn the Record Over I Can’t Sleep. The book is based around 500 songs that influenced my life. If you are interested in checking out what those songs are, you will find them here, on Spotify.
I must have been about 4 years old. I couldn’t go to sleep without music. We were living in Union Street, New Brighton, in Christchurch.
Entertainment came from the radio or the record player back then and there was always music in our home. I remember calling out to my parents to put on another record, or turn it over because I couldn’t go to sleep in silence. This practice, (not calling out to my parents), has continued to this day. I always listen to music or a podcast as part of my routine to close my mind from replaying my day or focusing on what I have to do tomorrow.
One of those records I listened to back then was a Big Bill Broonzy 78.
What is a 78? It’s a thick black record made of brittle shellac that plays at 78 rpm or rotations per minute. The original record players had a big fat needle and records were often scratched as people lifted the needle off the record, or the record player was bumped, forcing the needle to slide over the grooves.
Many years later at my Glen Eden Intermediate school, and other fund-raising galas around the country, people would pay to throw cricket balls at 78 records mounted on pedestals, and win prizes based on the number they smashed. I never liked that. Sometimes, I would rummage through the boxes to see if there was anything I thought should be saved and ask if I could buy it. I rescued a few, most of which sadly got broken over the years, becoming even more brittle over time.
Now they are becoming harder to come by. One that I saved included Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and the label says ‘featuring an electric guitar’. Another which I saved, but was disgusted by, and wondered how it found its way to New Zealand had a song called “I caught a n**** in the cornfield”, and I felt it should be kept just as an example of the world my blues idols grew up in.
In Episode 36 of the great podcast ‘A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs’ by Andrew Hickey, he tells a great story of how the great Carl Perkins, a close friend of Elvis Presley, who wrote Blue Suede Shoes, cried when he went to a record store to buy a copy of his latest record and the owner of the music store presented him with a record made of vinyl. He wanted a real record. He was eventually pacified when the owner explained that this was the way young people wanted to buy their records. The fact that Hickey’s podcast is based on the concept of 500 songs may have influenced my decision to base this book around the same number.
One of the Big Bill tracks I fell asleep listening to as a young boy was Minding my Own Business. I don’t know when the album was recorded, but he passed away in 1958.
Later I would perform some of his songs in my blues repertoire, such as When I’ve Been Drinking. It’s fascinating that he copyrighted over 300 songs in his career, yet his fame was overshadowed by people like Robert Johnson who only ever recorded 29 songs.
Broonzy left Mississippi to escape racism and his records were in fact sold as ‘race records’ mostly for a black audience. Another song my parents had on 78, that I loved was the story of John Henry, the ‘steel drivin’ man’ who took his hammer to the captain and said he was ‘gwine’.
John Henry was actually a real person who was convicted of theft in 1866, sent to the penitentiary and worked alongside steam-powered drills, building the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia for the C&O Railroad. They were pretty much treated as slave labour, and his rebellion made him a folk hero. His story can be found in this video from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
Eventually my parents got tired of being disk jockeys for me and bought me a clockwork radio. You had to wind it up to give it the power to play and the power wasn’t enough to drive a speaker, but it came with a couple of earplugs, the father of those we wear today.
Some 50 years later, my daughter Tracy bought me one which she knew I would like because I love technology. But I don’t think I had told her how important my first one was.
The radio sat on the white wooden window sill above my bed. Each night I would wind it up, painstakingly get the fiddly dial to tune onto a station that played music, and I would go to sleep.
As any kid does, I would toss and turn in my sleep, pulling on the cord attached to the radio and wake up when there was no give anymore and the radio would be pulled down to fall on my head. Sometimes the cable would have to be soldered back onto the circuit board.