Jim Bishop | Lookin’ fine in 2009 . . . compared to 1959?

When I was 14 years old, it was a very good year . . .
I had survived two years of confinement in the then brand-new Lenape Junior High School in Doylestown, Pa., and, with my parent’s encouragement, decided to join a new group of peers as a ninth grader at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. It would mean boarding a rickety school bus (we called it “The Yellow Dog”) for a one-and-a-half hour, 25-mile ride daily ride each way.

It would be my last fairly carefree summer of swimming at local muddy, snake-infested farm ponds, riding my Phillips three-speed English bike long distances with buddies, listening non-stop to WIBG radio 99, Philadelphia, on my Silvertone six-transistor radio and spending hour after hour with my neighbor, Jim Helmbold, manning the controls of our make-believe radio station, WJIM, 540 on the AM dial.

(Our station would go “off the air” by the end of that year, perhaps foreshadowing the future of AM radio stations with music formats).

But it wasn’t all play and no work back then. There was a Saturday morning ritual of doing much of the weekly cleaning of the Doylestown Mennonite Church. Our family lived next door.

The task was made less tedious by playing WIBG through the church’s PA system (a bit embarrassing the time our pastor showed up unexpectedly while Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” blasted through the sanctuary). Upon satisfactory completion, I rewarded myself by riding bike to the Doylestown Farmers Market for a shrimp sandwich and soft drink (and playing the pinball machines, five balls, six games for a quarter).

These and other memories were rekindled on Saturday evening, July 25, as I spinned platters and gave a talk to members of the Broadway High School class of 1959 at their 50th anniversary reunion.

The event took place in a large meeting room at Pano’s Restaurant in Harrisonburg. The turnout was amazing – about 140 people, 81 being from the 120-member class. The food was good, the fellowship even better, the music and memories the best – or so it seemed to this observer.

It didn’t take long to sense there is something special about this class – the record attendance and the good vibrations as persons met, figured out each other’s identity, then hugged and laughed and resumed conversation from where they may have left off at their last such gathering.

I put together a disc of 30 major hits from 1959 to play as background music while class members dined and engaged in animated conversation. The resulting collection of the most popular songs of that year represented an amazing cross-section of artists and genres.

Instrumentals frequently occupied the #1 chart position, i.e., “The Happy Organ” by Dave (Baby) Cortez, and “Sleep Walk” by Canadian brothers Santo & Johnny (Farina).

Novelty-comedy selections included “Alvin’s Harmonica,” David Seville and the Chipmunks; “Chantilly Lace,” The Big Bopper (aka J.P. Richardson), taken in that fatal plane crash in a snowy Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959; “Charlie Brown,” The Coasters and “MTA,” The Kingston Trio (did Charlie ever get off that Boston subway?).

I only put one song by the King of Rock and Roll on the disc – “A Big Hunk of Love” – mainly because Elvis only scored one top ten hit that year, recorded on furlough during his two-year hitch with the Army.

A most unlikely tune, rather far removed from straight-ahead rock and roll, spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The biggest hit of Walden Robert Cassoto’s career, a track lifted from his first album, became the biggest-selling song of 1959.

The artist: (the late) Bobby Darin. The song: “Mack the Knife,” a jazzy arrangement of the 1929 composition by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the German play, “Threepenny Opera.” Who’d-a thunk it?

Class president Bill Moyers did a masterful job as reunion emcee, introducing guests and giving recognitions (all five starters on the 1958-59 men’s basketball team were present) and leading a remembrance for the 17 class members no longer living. Lee Rutherford was the first class member to pass away, the summer of 1959; the most recent was class vice president and reunion planning committee member Carroll Dickenson, who died only one week ago.

My after-dinner presentation included highlights of the year 1959, ranging from international and national events to the cultural scene, including, of course, music. I told the group how my passion for the music of the 1950’s evolved, played snippets of tunes of that ebullient era and invited the audience to name the artist or group. They fared amazingly well.

To paraphrase Bro. Bob Seger: Fifty years . . . where’d they go? Fifty years . . . I don’t know. Like a ’59 Cadillac, the years (or tailfins) won’t come back. But, with a little effort, a class reunion can function like a carefully-tossed boomerang to bring back special times, people and memories, providing encouragement and strength for whatever lies ahead.

At least, that seemed the case for members of the Broadway High School class of 1959 who came together these 50 years later to experience and cherish some magical moments.

 

– Column by Jim Bishop

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