Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Notes from the Southwest Corner:
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Jim Jewell

SAN DIEGO – One evening last week, I fired up our patio chimirea as the “May Gray” marine layer rolled onto shore.
The offshore wind swirled and blew the smoke into my face. I sputtered and recalled a song, which brought memories of back home.
From the fourth grade through junior high, Mrs. Tassie Gwaltney gave me piano lessons.
Mrs. Gwaltney would spend about a half hour with me and my sister each week. I was not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination. My sister, Martha Duff, was good and taught piano later in her life.
Not realizing it then, my faults were evident from Mrs. Gwaltney always telling me I had a great touch. I believe she was really thinking I did not have an ear for music and my mechanics were lousy. But I had great touch.
My mother didn’t exactly show patience, but she was thorough in making me practice every day. Daily, I sat on the piano bench for thirty minutes. This worked okay when I hit upon something I liked such as “The Bumblebee Boogie,” but a great deal of the sitting time was spent dreaming about what adventure I could pursue after practice.
Piano Competition
I eventually became pretty good at a couple of classical pieces. Mrs. Gwaltney thought I had advanced enough to go to Nashville for a competition at George Peabody College. I was awed by the formality and the majesty of the auditorium. In my recollection, I was not intimidated nor remember being nervous.
I do not recall the piece I played, but I think I only messed up once or twice and covered it up pretty well.
Mrs. Gwaltney was a kind lady throughout her ordeal with me. But she most impressed me during our ride back from the Peabody exhibition. She turned on a rock and roll radio station, which was playing Elvis Presley. Elvis songs dominated the ride back to Lebanon. Unexpectedly, she praised Elvis, noting he had an exceptional voice. I was taken aback. I could not imagine anyone of her generation liking Elvis.
One of my favorite songs I learned to play for Mrs. Gwaltney was Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I loved the melody and the words. It occupied a great amount of my piano practice even when I was supposed to be working on other pieces.
Perhaps I didn’t recognize how limited I was in musical talent, but I was never missed Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour,” early television’s precursor to today’s frenzied media goliath “American Idol.”
I wondered how I could make it to the “Amateur Hour” without interfering with sports and play. The show impressed me. I watched when Pat Boone debuted. I was more enthralled with his relation to Daniel Boone and being from Nashville than his singing. Obviously, I never followed in his path.
When I wasn’t practicing piano or over at Henry and Jim Harding’s house on South Tarver, I was playing with neighborhood friend Bill Cowan, who lived on Castle Heights Avenue before moving to West End Heights.
Bill and I began playing with R Townley Johnson. Even then, Townley showed musical talent. As we entered junior high, the three of us decided to start a band. We would practice several hours each week on songs. Bill was pretty decent on the guitar and Townley played a great saxophone even then. My piano playing was not quite there yet. The band did not last past the initial practicing stage.
But before we disbanded, I recommended to Townley and Bill we should include “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in our repertoire. They scoffed and discarded the idea because the song was too old fashioned.
Shortly afterwards in 1958, The Platters released the song and it climbed to number one on the Billboard charts. Although I was proven right, I don’t think we would have ever made the charts with our version.
Bill died in a car wreck many years ago. I lost track of Townley after he became the Drum Major for Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band. He eventually returned to Lebanon and died several years ago.
Sitting in the Southwest corner evening watching the fire die down, I remembered them and thought of the last lines in the song: “…Tears I cannot hide; so I smile and say when a lovely flame smoke gets in your eyes.”

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