Growing up in my family, music was paramount. So many decades – so many songs – so many memories. I remember Brother Paul worshiping Bob Dylan to the absolute mind-boggling frustration of Father. When I think of Kathy, I think of Michael Jackson’s “I’ll Be There”. It is virtually impossible for me to hear “A Horse With No Name” and not think of Charlie. He loved that song in a rather obsessive-compulsive way. My job, as I recall, was to yell from wherever I was in the house whenever I heard it on the radio so that he could come sing along. He’d come running from wherever HE was in the house….sometimes sliding Tom Cruise/Risky Business style (thankfully fully dressed, however) at the top of our stairs in Bradford, Pennsylvania and serenade us word for word. The same was true with David and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally”. (It gets worse, David, Charlie and I actually used to record ourselves SINGING these pathetic songs into a tape recorder – but that is a different blog post for another day).
Have I mentioned that not one of us could sing on key if we were held at gunpoint? Truth be told I was perhaps the worst “singer” in the bunch? (Please note the use of quotation marks around the word “singer” is quite deliberate here). I was so inept that to my knowledge to this day I am, in fact, the only person for whom the music requirement at Delavan-Darien High School was waived. Not kidding. I was asked to quit the choir and never return in my freshman year. Humiliatingly bad.
The only family member who could (and still can) sing is sister Jane. In fact, in the late 60s, she made a RECORD. I thought she was so cool. Her high school choir taped “Aquarius” and put it on some flimsy vinyl to sell as a fundraiser so they could go on a trip of some kind. All I knew, however, was that there was an actual RECORD and my SISTER was on it. For years I thought Jane was the original artist whenever we heard the song on the radio. Everyone knows that song, right? “Da da da da da da da da da da da Aquarius….AQUARIUS. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Aquarius! AQUAR - EE - US!!!!" Oh, Jane was so cool. She still is.
Despite our collective lack of talent, we Whitakers loved to groove. While we of course had our favorites, we sang along to just about any song on the radio. And God help us all if "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" came on the radio when we were all in the car at the same time. We let it rip whenever we heard that bad boy (pun intended). "He's got a custom Continental and an Eldorado too….he's got a .32 gun in his pocket for fun he got a razor in his shoe."
If we were feeling particularly groovy, we might bounce the "bads" around in the car…. as in Kathy would say the first one and then "bounce" the second to Paul or Charlie in the back seat. He's "bad" from the front…."bad" from the back…all together now "Leroy Brown…baddest man in the whole damn town." OK, maybe we had to wait until I was 12 to say "damn", but, man, we thought we were the Partridge Family and the von Trapps all rolled into one kick ass band. Leroy Brown had nothing on the Whitakers.
Jim Croce’s “Leroy Brown” was special in another way, too. It was a song that we watched our parents dance to and their dancing always captivated us. Dad may have had his tough love and moments of questionable discipline with us but when it came to dancing with Mom, there was nothing more tender in the world. Sometime early in their marriage they took dance lessons and, to me, it was simply magical watching them take the dance floor at parties, weddings or even the family kitchen, if the mood hit them just right. “Leroy Brown” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” were two of the songs that could immediately get them to their feet anytime, anywhere. And, of course, their beloved “I’ll be loving you, Always”, which renders us all speechless to this day.
With ten children, we weren’t what you would describe as traditional country club people, but I do remember our entire brood filing in to the Penhills Country Club in Bradford on the rare special occasions when we all got to go out together. Often, the club would have music and in those days “Leroy Brown” was a classic that was frequently played by bands of all types. Watching Dad escort Mom to the dance floor and the two of them magically twist and turn into each other’s waiting arms was always the highlight of any evening.
For decades to follow “Leroy” made the top of the band and DJ request list at wedding after wedding and reunion after reunion.
In 2004, deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s, Dad hadn’t called many of us by our correct name in a long time. In fact, he often referred to brother Bill as his Uncle. Most days, at this stage, he knew he was supposed to know Mother, but how and why he knew her was often confusing for him – and, of course, heartbreaking for Mom.
Yet, after hearing just a few beats of a song at a family wedding that May, his tired eyes perked up and he immediately grabbed her hands and pulled her out of her chair. While Dad’s disease normally kept his steps timid, it was Mother who was nervous and slow as they headed to the dance floor this time.
If he had been looking at us, he would have seen all of his children staring with mouths agape and tears flowing unabashed. But, of course, he wasn't looking at us, he was looking straight into the eyes of his bride as he let the music carry him away - "he's got a .32 gun in his pocket for fun and a razor in his shoe…" His feet and legs operated automatically underneath him – almost outside of the man who we thought was gone but whom the music temporarily returned to us – and he never missed a beat. Back at Penhills they were, turning – arms open to each other.
When the music stopped so, too, did Daddy’s memory once again fade. He was startled and I suspect a little frightened by the raucous cheers and applause from everyone who had circled the dance floor to catch a glimpse of this amazing couple.
For us, however, the magic of this tune and other family music lives on just as outlined in their forever love song: “Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.”