My Musical Family Was a Gift


I grew up swimming in a sea of music. Music has deeply formed my character and continues to engage me in my late 70s. My mother often told the story of how she was in the kitchen and heard the tune “Three Little Kittens” floating tentatively out of the front room in her small “railroad train” double-house apartment. At first she thought it might be the radio, but no, she checked, and there I was, age 3, somehow picking out the tune on her piano. I have both figuratively and literally been playing the piano for as long as I can remember.

Both sides of my family passed down stories of legendary musical performance. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. My paternal grandfather, Arthur Louis Nicolas Andrisse, born in 1873 in Binche, Belgium, was known for singing in the town square. It was said that he could be heard six blocks away, and that he had a loud and clear voice. My mom’s father, Franklin Marion Sullivan, was half Irish and played the violin and sang often for his daughter. My mother’s grandmother, Eva Fickeisen Noe, of German Lutheran descent, played the concertina and told stories of quadrilles and square dances after a day’s work out in the hills of Washington County, Ohio.

My mother loved piano music. She claimed to have listened to Chopin when she was pregnant with me. When she got married to dad and rose from poverty in 1937, she bought herself a piano and taught herself to play from a home study course, so in my infancy I was exposed to music study as a significant activity. Both mom and dad liked to go to the Eagle’s Lodge in Marietta, Ohio for a Friday evening’s entertainment. I remember them enthusiastically gathering around the piano player and singing all the old standard pop tunes of the early Twentieth Century.

I really don’t remember the details of how it got started, but by the time I was in my early teens I had a younger brother, Tom, and a still younger sister, Vicki. At the time, open air theatres had become all the rage. We had the Starlite Drive-In on Pike Street, and other nearby drive-ins, notably the Jungle Drive-In in nearby West Virginia. After he had closed the family grocery store, dad loved to pack us all in the car and go off to the drive-in theatre for supper and a movie or two. My sibs and I are a testament to the fact that hamburgers and hot dogs, coke, milkshakes and popcorn are not necessarily harmful.

But here is the point of this apparent digression: almost as soon as we got into the car, we would start singing old pop songs. Over the years, we developed quite a list of them. Not only could all of us (sort of) carry a tune, but also we developed the ability to sing in two- and three-part harmony. Dad had a medley starting with “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” through “Paper Doll” and “Chinese Honeymoon (ala The Mills Brothers), and ending with “Dear old Girl” or “Mother.”

This family musicality extended to my father’s next older brother, Alphonse, and his three daughters, Marlene, Geraldine and Sharon. They also sang excellent three-part harmony, and my dad and his brother often joined together in song at social occasions. In 1972 I had the presence of mind to record a family gathering of my father’s and uncle’s family at our home. I was able to extract this clip of the proceedings, so you can get a flavor of this musical environment we all lived in. My dad starts out the song, Uncle Alphonse quickly joins in with harmony, and right at the end, you can hear mother entering in her two cents worth. You won’t be surprised to know that I am chording on the piano.

When I was just about 10 years old, Lorene, my mother, was very good friends with a neighbor, Ruth Spriggs Inbody, who played a very mean honky tonk piano. She and her drumming husband, Leo, from Paden City, could be found almost every weekend night playing in some club, honky tonk or dive in the area. I loved it when Ruth would come to visit, and always begged her to play the piano for us. I stood and watched every movement of those talented hands. And I began to play ragtime all on my own. After a year or two, I got so good that I was asked occasionally to fill in for Ruth at gigs that she couldn’t fill. My first “professional performance” was at the Silver Grill in Parkersburg, WV at the tender age of 13.

I also had a good buddy in my teens, Dee McFarland, who played drums. Dee was much more turned on to the progressive jazz sounds just then emerging from the likes of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the smooth guitar chords of George van Epps. I soon was busy playing and memorizing “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” and all without benefit of sheet music. I just listened over and over, and quickly “heard the music in my head,” and with lots of trial and error, brought it out through my fingers. The music of the Great American Songbook was also very much in the air in these times, and I learned to play almost all of this music.

By the time that Dee and I got into Marietta College (both of us following a scientific course of study, by the way, he in chemistry/biology and I in math/physics), we were very much in demand for the so-called “rhythm section” of a couple of popular local groups. Two Jewish brothers from New Jersey, Stan and Lynn Sinowitz, soon heard of our abilities, and we played a lot of local “gigs” with them. Also, we teamed up with a male vocal trio in our junior and senior college years, The Four Flames. My somewhat dimmed memory recalls that Jim Murtha, Tommy Carbonar and Ray Guinta and a fourth, Bob Corea, I think, were quite the campus hit with the pop songs for male quartets that were on the radio in the late 1950s.

But I have to back track a bit here, and talk about another budding musical “career” that was developing all this time. With all my musical talent, I sort of day-dreamed about being discovered and having some fame. On the other hand, I lacked the courage and confidence to really attempt to launch a career in pop music. My other attempts to move into a profession continued to flag. After an ill-conceived attempt to receive a masters in mathematics at The Ohio State University, I left the program with only 5 hours to complete. After dallying in Florida for a month with my friend Mariam Edgar, I returned to Marietta and more or less purposelessly existed at my parents’ home out on Rte. 26. While I was at Ohio State, I had taught myself to play the guitar. I now began to encourage my brother and sister to learn some covers for the pop songs of the day. I remember actually saying to them, “If you let me, I can make us famous.” That, of course, was naive, ill-conceived baloney, but I had sunk pretty low in reality testing by that time.

Vicki was still in her teens and Tom not much out of them, and they had the family musical talent, too. I had a lot of time on my hands, and so we set about to learn a number of arrangements of pop songs. By that time also I had begun to write my own first songs, and my sibs willingly let me teach them arrangements of those, too. Well, there was a little tension with my somewhat distractable brother. Some of these arrangements were pretty creative. We finally worked up about ten songs, including our two favorites—pop songs of the day—the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.”

As it turned out, this brief interlude into fantasized fame was to bear little profit. Vicki was soon to get married to Jerry Smith and raise her own family of three boys, Tom would return to Ohio State, rooming with me, and eventually getting his degree in German, marrying Diana Dunn, and they raising their twins, Adam and Heidi. And I was to receive a call from my undergraduate philosophy professor at Marietta College, Elizabeth Steiner Maccia, offering me a job as a Research Associate and a chance to complete a masters degree in philosophy of education. Thus began my career as a college professor. Since that time, I have carried music performance along with me as a much loved avocation.

But that year or two forming the Andris Trio—although we never even settled on a name for our group—paid us well in memories and bonding. Over the next twenty years, I would come back to Marietta for holidays and special occasions. There was still always time for harmonizing with dad and mom, and sometimes my Uncle Al, around the piano. And for sure, sooner or later the guitar would come out, and Vicki, Tom and Jim would join in a chorus or two of our pop repertoire. This became quite the family joke. Spouses Jerry and Diana would good-heartedly tolerate our sometimes strained, but always tuneful performances.

One wonderful family tradition emerged from this. At some early time in the working out of our performance of “In My Room” we developed an ending where my sister would come in on a very high note right at the very end. Once, just as we were about to end a performance of that piece, we heard from another room, Jerry, singing that high note in his terrible but accurate falsetto. We all collapsed in laughter. And for the next 20 years—just like watching old reruns of All in the Family where Edith screeches her “and we knew what we were then”—we waited for that wonderful falsetto, and Jerry never failed us.

The three of us all got to attend our parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1987, and an unforgettable celebration it was! The Andris family and all its minions were assembled in the Philips Street back yard of “Squee and Red.” A neighbor, Bill Greathouse, provided country music as the background. Uncle Alphonse’s three daughters, Marlene, Geraldine and Sharon danced into mom and dad’s living room singing their perfect three-part harmony version of “Winter Wonderland.” There was much food, prepared and hosted by Vicki and Diana. My own spouse, Stephen, was there and now accepted into the family, more or less. Several of my high school friends came from all over the country, including Myra Hausman Kendall and her husband, who remained very close to mom and dad. Those were the days when videotaping had just become popular, and being the early adaptor that I am, I was there with my own camera. I interviewed my mom and dad, who surprisingly opened up about their struggles and their devotion to each other. I interviewed some of my high school friends. I also am providing a video clip of the three of us singing In My Room at this celebration.

This story is already long, but there is still a lot more I want to tell in another post. I do have a final story to end this post and a conclusion. I made a point of attending as many of my nephews’ and niece’s graduations as I could manage. In the early 1990s Stephen and I attended Vicki’s middle son, Joe’s graduation from high school. Vicki and Jerry hosted a big graduation party at their house. At the party Vicki, Tom and I decided to reprise our act, complete with the high falsetto note from Jerry. A gesture of polite light applause ensued. Impatient for her five minutes of fame, Vicki asked her son, “So Joe, what do you think of our singing?” “Mom, it’s kind of old-fashioned,” replied Joe.

Later that decade I was in counseling with the insightful Jean Walters Lucy. I told her once that I was troubled that God might have given me a gift of music that I was supposed to use in a better way than I had. We talked about it. Then Jean suggested, “Maybe God gave you that gift for the enjoyment of yourself and others, whoever they may be.” I can’t imagine a life without music. And now I see that I did use my gift in just the right way, as an expression of love.

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Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.

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