I wonder where Johnny Tracy is today. He came to mind Sunday when, at the Totem Pole Playhouse production of “I Love a Piano,” there stood an antique upright at the front of the stage, just like the one – or close enough – Johnny Tracy used to play at Roosevelt Grammar School.
That was the two-room schoolhouse where I spent my early years of more or less formal education, from Fourth through Eighth Grade. It was where Emma Hargreaves made hot lunch every day, where I fell in fourth-grade love with a cute red-haired girl who gave no sign she was aware of my existence, smoked my first cigarette (which didn’t work out nearly as well as when other guys did it) and learned to love Rock-and-Roll music, the latter thanks mostly to Johnny Tracy.
Think Jerry Lee Lewis and the Big Bopper in a single skinny package, conjuring heart pounding music from the ivories and, as far as I recall, not reading a note of music but feeling every beat.
I’ll give my parents credit for initiating my love of music in general. Mother loved Classical, Big Band and several players who fell under the general heading of Pop. Mom and Dad loved Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, but they thought country music was just so much wailing and crying, and rock’n’roll would the addle unformed brains of children.
We had a piano at home, a Baldwin, I think, for those who keep track of such things. It was a baby grand, Mom said, meaning it was fairly large to a little kid, but still fit in the living room. I took weekly lessons in town from Mrs. Jennings, but I failed to learn much, mostly because I hated practicing at the piano when there were more important things to do, mostly in the woods and water that surrounded our home.
But I could play a mean radio, late at night when the moon was right and I went to sleep with a pocket-size Sony six transistor under my pillow, listening to Cousin Brucie on 77-WABC, playing “my music,” and talking about submarine races – which I graduated high school not knowing what they were because they were in New York and by that time, I lived about 400 miles from where my upbringing began, in the unwooded canyons of Manhattan’s West Side.
I graduated from high school and joined the Navy. The first couple of years were in various electronics schools, until finally I was ordered to my first operational unit, a P-3 squadron in Jacksonville, Fla., where I learned there was way more to country music than Buck Owens, though what I’d never let on to Mom was I’d always liked Buck Owens. Another sailor in the barracks had two wall lockers; one held his clothes, the other his record collection. Six feet, maybe a little more, of LP records and no duplicates.
Eventually, I took up guitar and sang, mostly for myself and sometimes for the girl I eventually married, in part because she said I played and sang pretty good, songs by the Kingston Trio, and John Denver and Waylon and Willie. I played a banjo for a short while, and an Ovation guitar just like Glen Campbell. Eventually, I took my first step into broadcast radio playing country music on a station in California, and later in Alaska.
But I never played guitar the way Johnny Tracy played that old upright piano. I wonder where he is, and whether he still plays like Jerry Lee Lewis.