It’s The Music In Me

By Barney Blakeney

I got flashbacks of some really fond memories recently while watching a segment on the CBS news Magazine “60 Minutes” the other night. For me Sundays are workdays and news programs are resource materials. From the Sunday morning news shows to the late night repeats I’m watching and taking notes. So Reb, when I cut hookey from church, I really am working. In between I do catch Charles Stanley and Joel Osteen.

The January 19 ‘60 Minutes’ broadcast featured a segment on a Louisiana sixth grade music teacher which brought up some cherished memories. One scene was about the teacher, a Black guy, leading the kids in some rudimentary practices – one note at a time. It reminded me of my days in the CCSD Constituent District 20 elementary school band classes. I had a glorious time performing in theatrical and choral art events at the North Area’s Mary Ford Elementary School back in the early 1960s, but it was at peninsula Charleston’s Columbus Street Elementary School that my flight on a lifetime of music took off in seventh grade.

After my family moved from North Charleston back to the Eastside in the mid-1960s I learned kids from different elementary schools could take music lessons in an after school program. Two of my classmates were in that band class – Kenneth Funderburk and the late great all-time tickey, tickey, tickeyist drummer in the world, Vander Lee Polite. Vander and the late Frankie ‘The Big Bopper’ Green were partners and ended up playing together at record hops. Both were great drum set players and taught me to play. I never achieved their level of greatness.

I initially wanted to play a horn, but after getting in music instructor Raymond Rhett’s class, there were no more positions for another horn player. Mr. Rhett decisively told us remaining brass enthusiasts, “The rest of you will play drums.” Best thing ever happened to me! I’ve beaten my way through life ever since. Mr. Rhett taught me how to do it with rhythm.

The 60 Minutes segment reminded me how painstaking the process was. Hearing the kids blow out the notes one at a time in rhythmic sequence took me back to that band room in the basement at Julian Mitchell Elementary School. Me, Vander and Sammy Mahoney were among the small group of guys at the back of the class more interested in keeping time than reading notes. It was in high school at C.A. Brown that sax master George Kenny taught me the difference between beating the drums and playing them.

Two of my role models in C.A. Brown’s drum section were snare drummer Jimmy Fokes and bass drummer George Guest. Both played with great finesse as they beat the hell out of their drums!

Watching the 60 Minutes segment I thought about the patience, care and love our band instructor George Kenny bestowed on us as we progressed from playing one note at a time to multilayered musical phrases with a fluidity that make me think these young musicians ain’t got a clue.

Reuben Wright and Raymond Rhett in elementary school; George Kenny at C.A. Brown High, Lonnie Hamilton at Bonds Wilson High; and Franklin Perry and Melvin Hodges at Burke High took kids who couldn’t blow up a balloon to playing in the unparalleled Charleston productions of ‘The Sound Of Music’, ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Hello dolly’. Lonnie Hamilton produced one of the baddest percussionist I’ve ever heard, the late globally great Alphonse Mouzon.

A lot of stuff came back to me watching 60 Minutes the other night, but what touched me most was what those music instructors did. Anybody who’s ever heard a kid practicing on an instrument in the early stages of musicianship may have some idea of what the process is like. Imagine what it’s like for the person who’s teaching that kid. That’s what I was thinking as I watched the 60 Minutes segment –  what could have been going through George Kenny’s mind as he coaxed us to experience one of the most wonderful aspects of our lives.

My friend Leroy ‘Smiley’ Smalls, a retired school band instructor, said teaching music to kids is like planting seeds – you never know what will grow until they sprout and flourish. He said seeing them flourish is the most rewarding.

I suppose all teachers are like that. I ran into my old English teacher, Yvonne Tolley Orr at a Christmas gala. She’s still just as beautiful outside as she is inside. Black don’t crack. It’s a wonder. I put that lady through some stuff getting me out of Brown! And ain’’t no words to describe coach Joseph A. ‘Pop” Moore, another beautiful soul whose class I never sat in one minute, but who taught me more than I’ll ever realize. Those folks had the patience of Job teaching me and the thousands of knuckleheads like me.

Yeah, that 60 Minutes segment pulled a lot out of me. So Reb and my ‘chutch’ family, sorry bout cuttin’ hookey – again – but it was worth it. I got a lot of work done.

And Clab, so sorry about your boy, Grump!

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