Although I wasn’t any good at sports, I found I had a natural talent for music, particularly for singing. As a child I had been in many performances singing soprano. At home one of our favorite pastimes was to gather around the piano and sing while Mother, who had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory, played all the old tunes from the 1930s and 1940s. When Mac was home, he would join in as well. Daddy, however, was content to sit and read his newspaper or book, ignoring us as best he could. Daddy was definitely not musical. He liked stirring marches with a strong martial beat, but little else. Mother had a beautiful soprano voice. Some people said she could have gone as far as Grace Moore had she chosen to try. While at Cincinnati, she was invited to join the Redpath Chautauqua, a group that traveled from town to town around the country giving lectures and musical performances in a huge tent. In its early days in the 19th century, the movement featured such lecturers as Susan B. Anthony, P. T. Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher, James G. Blaine, Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Jennings Bryan was perhaps the most famous lecturer, continuing on the Redpath circuit from the late 1800s to the 1920s. When Mother told her father she was considering joining the group for its summer tour in 1924, he immediately yanked her out of the conservatory and brought her home to Jellico. She wouldn’t return, and that ended any dreams she might have had of a career as a professional musician.
I learned to read music long before I had a formal music lesson. When I was little, I would often sit in the back of the church during choir practice on Wednesday nights. And a little later, I used to go to the Colored Baptist Church up on the hill behind the old Grace Moore home and listen to the choir there. The black singers were much more relaxed than the folks over at the Methodist Church and always would ask me to “come on up and sing with us.” I did that several times. After my voice changed, I was invited to sing in the Methodist choir. I made my solo debut as a baritone in a little program in the church basement one night. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I sang a twangy country song called “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
Most nights after supper, Mother would sit down at the piano and start playing her favorite old songs. We would sing together, and anybody else who was there could join in.
I also took piano lessons on and off over the years from Mrs. Theo Lower, who also sang and played the piano at church. Mrs. Lower was a tall, attractive woman whose clothes and demeanor were a little flamboyant for staid Jellico. I started piano lessons early on, but they always were interrupted for one reason or another. I became a good sight reader, but mastering fingering and technique eluded me, perhaps because of a failure to practice adequately. My dream was to play the violin, but, alas, there was no violin teacher in Jellico.
When I was about 10 years old—shortly after World War II ended—a man came to town and, reminiscent of Harold Hill in The Music Man, was putting together a band for the high school. He offered to teach youngsters such as myself how to play any band instrument. Since bands do not have violins, I decided on the trumpet. On a trip to Knoxville Mother took me to Clark Music Company where we purchased a used but still glittering cornet, picked because it was cheaper than a real trumpet.
I had one lesson on the cornet. The day I was coming for my second lesson, I encountered police cars and an ambulance outside the teacher’s house. The man had killed himself! I’m sure he had more serious reasons to take his own life than just facing the challenge of giving me another cornet lesson, but it ended my incipient efforts to learn the instrument and Jellico never had a band—at least in those years.
My brother Mac, on the other hand, was an accomplished clarinetist and played in the University of Tennessee “Pride of the Southland” marching band.
My introduction to classical music was almost a fluke. We listened to radio programs of classical music, but I had never really paid that much attention. I liked country and jazz. One day I was looking at a newfangled record player in a downtown store run by one of my Baird cousins. It was a 45 rpm with an automatic changer. Jellico was not a good test market for new products in those days, and the player with its stubby center pole gathered dust on the shelf. I had a job sweeping up in the store after school, and I came across the player on a back shelf. I asked my boss about it.
“Do you want to buy it?” he asked. “I’ll make you a special price.”
I don’t remember what he asked, but it wasn’t much and within my limited means. When he offered to throw in the 20 or 30 45-rpm records he had in stock, we closed the deal.
The colorful vinyl records were an eclectic selection, ranging from green country and western to red RCA classics. Among the latter was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. I fell in love with it and played it over and over, hearing each time things I had not heard before. As I listened, I imagined the fjords and ice-covered mountains of Norway. From there, my appreciation of serious music flourished and spread to many other composers and works, but I still have a special affinity to the Grieg piano concerto.
Singing and appearing on the stage remained my first love, however. I took voice lessons with Mrs. Lower after my voice changed from soprano to a high baritone. I had participated in several little plays throughout elementary and high school. Mrs. Lower also arranged for her students to sing at various functions at the high school. It was here that I came into my own. I was terrible at sports and a mediocre student, but on the stage I excelled. I found my niche. Mrs. Lower also entered me in a county-wide music contest at one point. I sang “On the Road to Mandalay,” a bombastic tour de force that was much too heavy and demanding for my young voice, and placed third—an accomplishment tempered only by the fact that only three of us competed.
Mrs. Lower had a reputation of being a heavy drinker. Often lessons would be canceled without explanation. Or she simply would not come to the door. Sometimes she would give the lesson in a highly inebriated state in which she would be barely coherent. Once she greeted me in a frilly blue nightgown and negligee. During the lesson she kept asking me to feel her chest to see how she breathed, each time placing my hand a little lower on her breasts. I was very embarrassed, and couldn’t wait to get out of there. That was my last voice lesson.
Mrs. Lower wasn’t the only Jellico matron to greet me clad in suggestive clothing. Once when I was delivering groceries for a local market a very proper socialite wearing only a very sheer pale pink slip admitted me to her kitchen. On another occasion, the attractive mother of a friend invited me into her bedroom to continue talking while she changed clothes. It could be these women just didn’t realize that the sap was already rising through the loins of a teenager. Or perhaps they were being deliberately provocative to see where it would lead. Although stimulated, I was too frightened to try anything. So I was not introduced to sex by any love-starved small-town matron.
Rich musical heritage
Jellico had an unusual musical heritage for a little southern Appalachian coal-mining town. It was best known as the home of Grace Moore, a popular Metropolitan Opera diva who appeared in several Hollywood movies, including at least one hit, “One Night of Love.” Known as the “Tennessee Nightingale,” she also made a name for herself in Broadway musicals and was much in demand as a concert singer.
Grace Moore was born in Slabtown, a little Cocke County community near Del Rio, on December 5, 1898. Her father, who accepted a position with my Grandfather Baird’s whole dry goods business, moved the family to Jellico when she was a small child. Despite her strict Baptist upbringing, Grace was considered something of a maverick in Jellico, a role she relished in her delightful autobiography, “You’re Only Human Once.” Grace got her early singing experience at Jellico’s First Baptist Church. She went on to study at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville then at the Wilson-Green music school in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her early success came in musicals on Broadway, and in 1928 she debuted at the Metropolitan as “Mimi” in La Boheme.
Grace became a national sensation: an opera star who popularity soared to heights that would only be surpassed in a later generation by the likes of Elvis Presley. Her career was cut tragically short at its peak when she died in a plane crash on a flight from Copenhagen to Stockholm. She was buried in the Moore family plot in a Chattanooga cemetery.
Grace Moore wasn’t the only famous musician nurtured by Jellico. Homer Rodeheaver became nationally known as song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday’s revivals on the “sawdust trail” in teens and ’20s of the 20th century. Like Grace Moore, Rodeheaver was born elsewhere—in Ohio—but moved to Jellico as a small child with his family. He learned the trombone and played in the 4th Tennessee Regimental Band during the Spanish-American War. In 1909, he joined Billy Sunday as vocal soloist and song leader in Sunday’s series of national gospel crusades. He has been described as “the George Beverly Shea of his day,” referring to Billy Graham’s popular song leader of the latter half of the 20th century. Unlike Shea, Rodeheaver also led the congregational singing with his trombone and the crusade’s 2,500-voice mixed chorus.
“He had a talent for leading audiences in the song services before Billy Sunday’s sermons, his genial and informal manner getting even the most shy and retiring to participate,” country music historian Robert R. Olson wrote in an article on the Internet (http://www.garlic.com/~tgracyk/rodeheaver.htm). “By all accounts a jovial man whose sincerity was infectious, he was affectionately known to associates as ‘Rody.’ He worked with Sunday for 20 years, until 1929, and wrote a book titled ‘My Twenty Years With Billy Sunday.’ Sunday was the leading gospel evangelist in this century’s early decades and was important to the cause of prohibition.”
After his years with Billy Sunday, Rodeheaver started a religious music publishing business and recording studio in Winona Lake, Indiana. The Winona Lake facility also offered summer courses for Bible students and aspiring religious song leaders. Rodeheaver died at Winona Lake on December 18, 1955, at age 75. His gospel publishing company continued for about 20 years after his death, being bought out by the Word Publishing Co. Today his copyrighted songs are shown as by The Rodeheaver Co., a Division Of Word, Inc.
I never met Grace Moore, and I met Homer Rodeheaver only once, during one of his infrequent visits to Jellico in the early 1950s before I graduated from high school. He heard me sing and offered me a chance to come and attend a summer music workshop at his Winona Lake facility. I didn’t go, but I kept the little gospel song book he autographed and gave me, Good News in Song. In it, he wrote, Col. 3:16 and “Aug. 3, two weeks” the date of the workshop. The verse from Colossians reads: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” I don’t know why I didn’t jump at the chance to attend Rodeheaver’s workshop. It may have been that my interest in those days was still more toward country music
‘Because of You’
Music won me my first steady girlfriend. Mrs. Lower understood that to make music appealing to the majority of the student body at JHS she had to present popular music. Early in my senior year, I stood before the assembly of students and teachers in the gymnasium and sang “Because of You,” a Tony Bennett ballad that had hit the top of the charts that year. As I crooned, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart, Because of you my romance had its start … ,” I had, I believe for the first time, that realization that the audience was totally captivated. It was heady stuff, the stuff that makes performers go back again and again, no matter how much they have to struggle. When I finished the last verse, “I only live for your love and your kiss; it’s paradise to be near you like this; because of you my life is now worthwhile, and I can smile because of you,” the applause was spontaneous and prolonged. Suddenly, I was almost as popular as the football and basketball players, and I basked in my newfound acceptance.
Shortly after that performance, I was reading in the library during the lunch hour when one of my female classmates came over to tell me that one student in particular had been captivated by my song. “Phyllis Llewellyn really likes you,” she said. Phyllis, a sophomore, was one of the most beautiful girls in high school, in my opinion. She had curly dark brown hair and big brown eyes. I had noticed her many times, but in my shyness with girls in general had never dared approach her. “She’s on the balcony in the gym right now,” my friend told me. “Why don’t you go talk to her?” I did and thus began my first “romance.” Up to that point, I had never had any luck with girls. I dated some of the girls in our crowd, and took Barbara McIntyre to the junior-senior banquet in our junior year. I had dated a few girls from outside our group as well, but nothing ever clicked. In fact, my dates rarely progressed as far as a goodnight kiss. But with Phyllis it was different. She accepted me for who I was. We quickly progressed to “going steady.” I even gave her my class ring.
Phyllis’s father, Morgan Llewellyn, was the owner of Llewellyn’s furniture store and funeral parlor. One winter night, her parents had gone to bed, and we were sitting in her living room. Mr. Llewellyn got a telephone call asking him to come and pick up a body in a rural area outside of Jellico. “Ed, would you come along with me?” he asked. “That way I won’t have to get somebody else out at this time of night.” I immediately agreed, hoping to make points with my girlfriend’s father. We got into the hearse and drove to a little cabin on Indian Mountain. I helped get the body on the gurney and loaded into the hearse. The funeral parlor was in the upper two floors of the furniture store building on South Main Street. Mr. Llewellyn backed the hearse up to the loading dock in the rear of the store and we rolled it inside and onto a freight elevator. The elevator was one of those old-fashioned elevators that had an open grill that pulled down in front and was started and stopped by yanking on a cable. Mr. Llewellyn had turned the lights on downstairs and on the floors above, but there was no light in the elevator cage itself. As the elevator creaked its way up to the third floor, the corpse on the gurney suddenly groaned. I was already a bit uneasy being so close to a dead body in the gloom of the elevator, but when that loud noise came from under the sheet covering the corpse, I almost messed my pants. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but it was enough to make Mr. Llellewyn, normally a rather dour man, start laughing. “Don’t worry,” he explained, “it’s just gas escaping from the body. He’s still dead.” Knowing how things went in Jellico, I fully expected this to become one of those almost folkloric stories that would haunt me for years to come, getting me laughed at wherever I went and costing me the brief popularity I had won with my singing. It didn’t happen. As far as I know, Mr. Llellewyn never told anybody about the incident, not even his own family.
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