The bottle of Listerine spilled and the car smelled of antiseptic. A 57 Chevy should never suffer such an indignation.
But, I began carrying the bottle in the glove compartment since the singing group took off, and we’d practice mid-way between where three of us lived in Brewerytown, and Greater Northeast Philadelphia, where two other singers called home. It was a courtesy thing, the glass bottle of mouthwash. I’d use it and pass it on to someone who’d laugh, ask privately if their breath smelled, and laugh even more when I’d dead pan them with a Buster Keaton unflinching look and a sorrowful nod “yes.”
Loved to sing. No, make that “harmonize.” Blend my voice with another even if it was only one person. But, three-part harmony was made to appease the Greek gods, create visions of gentle waterfalls and meadow lands where an imagination could create a shepherd with their flock, be it a young David or a Little Boy Blue.
We’d create a beauty to listen to, standing in the second floor landing of an exit to the “El” train stop at Bridge and Pratt. Standing on this side of the metal turnstile, passengers exiting the car of an “Elevated” train would often slow down. Not out of fear of five tough-looking White teenagers huddling together foot-ball style singing the “oohs” and “aahs,” as well as the “doo wops” the genre of music would be called one day. But out of appreciation for free “street-corner” entertainment. Several “old head” would stop, snap their fingers, and even join in remembering the words to such standbys as “Stormy Weather,” “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom,” and “Gloria.” Most were Black — African-Americans. We had taken their so-called “race music” and tried to mix in a little blue-eyed soul.
“Practice” was always fun. Something I’d look forward to as much as I do for group meditation now-a-days. I was instrumental in bringing together part of the group, but our lead singer, Joe Cleary, actually “formed” it and built on the rudimentary “sounds” I had introduced. Sounds passed down from older fellows, those really “old heads” who were in their early 20s. They had me singing baritone with ’em when I was only 14. And lovin’ every minute of it, with or without a bottle of Listerine. These guys had sung with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, met groups like the O’Jays and others that would help create what would be known as the “Philly Sound,” produced by Gamble And Huff. Singing with them was taking part in a legacy of sorts, whether I knew it or not at the time.
And, I’d “pass on” what I learned to guys my age, seeking to harmonize after school let out and on weekends, until forming an a cappella group called the “Five Jaunts.” Sang together for only a year, but felt more like a life-time, as we appeared on television, stage and many a bathroom with good acoustics in the row house of someone throwing a party.
The 57 Chevy is gone. Was more than 10 years old when I bought it for $300 in the late ’60s. Listerine no longer makes a “glass” container, but a plastic one. And, the music of yesteryear is just a memory, one I still dream about . . .
Like last night, as I dreamed of coming out of a building, seeing kids gathering together on the pavement, and heard voices blending as one; I approached, listened with my eyes closed, and knew I would always carry that harmony within me . . .