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'It's Still Rock and Roll To Me'

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

On weekends when I was younger, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to decide that we should all hop in the car and go out of town for a mini adventure for the day.  As we headed out on the road, my dad would pop a tape into the tape deck (this was during the time not that long ago when cassettes were more commonplace than CDs), and the next hour or so was filled with oldies tunes, Motown hits, and crooners.  Like the character who rebuffs Sam I Am in Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, for all of the eye rolling, turning up of my nose, and insistence that I did not like that kind of music, once I became an adult, I realized that not only did I like it, it became a foundation of my love of music.

Below are just a few of the artists that have stayed with me over the years, though I could go on and on, like all of the miles we traveled those weekend days.

The Monkees: (L to R) Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith
Hey hey, they’re The Monkees…

Not only did the band The Monkees release over half a dozen albums in the 1960s, but they had a popular television show from 1966 to 1968 too. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why the TV series appealed to me when I watched reruns of it as a kid; it was silly, madcap, and often just plain, goofy fun. While I’m sure that I learned a lot of The Monkees songs that I know from the musical interludes that they’d have on the show, most of that knowledge probably came from the records that my dad would play.  I’d bet that even today I’d remember the lyrics and could sing along with “Daydream Believer”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, “I Wanna Be Free”, and more.  The world lost singer Davy Jones in 2012, but I'm sure that, to loosely quote the TV show theme song, future generations will still be watching The Monkees "sing and play".

Nat "King" Cole
The Chairman of the Board and the King (Cole, that is)

No offense meant to Elvis or any of his fans (I enjoy some of his music too), but if I had to choose one “King” to listen to on repeat, it would be Nat “King” Cole.  And not just his lovely version of “The Christmas Song”--his rich voice crooning away has been a welcome sound since I first heard it.  When my grandpa passed away a few years ago, I "inherited" some of his CDs; among them were Duke Ellington, more Ella Fitzgerald to add to my collection, and a Nat "King" Cole CD with great tracks like "It's Only A Paper Moon", "I'm In the Mood For Love", and "Straighten Up and Fly Right".

Joining Nat in the category of classic crooners, I'd be remiss not to mention Mr. Frances Albert Sinatra. My love of Sinatra’s music is more or less a case of which came first; the chicken or the egg? But here, it would be: was it my grandma’s musical influence, or my dad’s? My grandma was a big fan of Frank Sinatra, and I remember listening to my grandma softly singing along to Sinatra songs in her car as my cousin and I rode along on our way to a special event. But I’m sure that it’s from riding along with my dad that I learned all of the words to so many tunes by Ol’ Blue Eyes.  Whomever’s ultimately responsible, all I can really say is thank you.

Motown Magic

The time spent sitting in the car during those weekend afternoon road trips with my parents could get a little tedious, so when something by Little Richard, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, The Four Tops, or Little Anthony and the Imperials came on and livened things up, it was a welcome break.  Aretha Franklin belting out "Respect" and Tina Turner’s booming vocals on “Proud Mary” are make-you-want-to-dance-in-your-seat favorites too.

There were plenty of more mellow Motown tunes as well, and ballads by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and others were perfect for sitting back and daydreaming while the miles rolled by.  Sitting back and looking up at the clouds while "Just My Imagination" streamed through the speakers? Perfection.

“I look just like Buddy Holly, oh oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore”

When I was a teenager, the band Weezer had a hit with their song “Buddy Holly”, and I was glad to be one of my generation of fans who knew who Holly was, and who loved some of his music.  “Peggy Sue”, “Not Fade Away”, “True Love Ways” and more used to stream through the speakers during our family weekend day trips.  The story of Holly's death in 1959, along with The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, is a sad one and even has ties to my hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, but the joy of the music that they left as a legacy is a true gift to generations that have come after them.  Holly's voice and the beat of "Not Fade Away" still instantly strike a chord with me and make me smile whenever it starts playing.  

Ricky (later known just as Rick) Nelson
Ricky Nelson

Another artist in frequent rotation both at home and in the car was Ricky Nelson, the 50s-era teen idol who gained fame by acting with his real-life family in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  Nelson's main success on the charts was in the late 1950s, but his musical career extended into the decades after (Nelson died at age 45, in 1985).  It was most of those earlier hits that I came to know: "Lonesome Town", "Poor Little Fool", "Hello, Mary Lou", "Travelin' Man", "Never Be Anyone Else But You", and so on.  The most recent single that I might know from memory would be Nelson's 1972 "Garden Party"--a tune that he wrote in response to being booed off of the stage at a concert in Madison Square Garden in 1971. (It was reported that members of the crowd booed when Nelson stopped playing his old hits to cover the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women", so he left the stage and later the venue without taking a final bow with the rest of the performers.)

Nelson's twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, had success with their band, Nelson, in the early 1990s, appearing on MTV and touring.  Like other teenage girls during those years, I had their album.  I didn't immediately make the connection between them and Ricky until one of my parents wondered aloud if they were his sons.  And like my knowledge of Buddy Holly, I had a catalog of their father's music in my mind to draw on when I found out that they were.

These days, Matthew and Gunnar honor their dad's memory with a tribute show called "Ricky Nelson Remembered".  My parents went to see it just a few months ago, and when they performed some of Ricky's songs, they marveled how the boys "really sound a lot like their dad."

Roy Orbison
The Big O

Maybe it’s how humble he seemed to be even as that awesome voice of his burst forth, or what I perceive to be a kind smile in the pictures and video clips of singer Roy Orbison.  Whatever it is, a lot of Orbison’s appeal (besides, again, that legendary voice) is that he seems like he would’ve been “a regular Joe”, down to earth and easy to talk to, maybe happy to share stories with you about his time on the road touring and the other musicians he‘d worked with over the years.

Many people might know Orbison best for his song “Pretty Woman”, and while I like that one too, there are a list of others that I’d recommend for anybody not familiar with his work.  “Only the Lonely” is a melancholy, beautiful tune, “Mean Woman Blues” is a catchy and playful song, and "I Drove All Night" is touching and well worth a listen.  Honestly, any song in Orbison's catalog is, and I highly encourage it.

On a side note, a few months ago, I had gone to a neighboring city with my parents, and it was late night by the time we were headed home.  I was in the passenger seat of the car, sleepily looking out the window, when I heard Orbison’s “You Got It” come on the radio.  I’d been absent-mindedly singing along when I realized that it wasn’t just my voice and Roy’s breaking the stillness; my dad had quietly joined in too.

And the Beat Goes On

I couldn’t possibly talk about all of the Oldie hits and artists that have stayed with me over the years; there are so many that I haven’t even mentioned yet: “Chantilly Lace” (The Big Bopper). “La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens), “My Boyfriend’s Back” (The Angels), “It’s My Party” (Leslie Gore), The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, and so on.

For another example of how great music is truly timeless, a while back, I was driving and shuffling through songs on my iPod when I skipped past Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.  A small voice of protest erupted from the back seat: “Wait! I wanted to hear that!”, my son scolded me as I went back to the track. And so the musical influence begins for a new generation.