June 15, 2006
Dad’s Gone, but His Melody Lingers On
When a person is slightly famous mostly for one thing, that thing becomes the one thing about him when he dies. So it was that Dave Blume, my father, over and over again in late March was noted as the composer of that likably odd 1966 hit, "Turn Down Day," a pop turn on what began as one of his jazz compositions.
He used to joke that every middling musician had one good tune in him, but he wasn't actually talking about himself, because he wrote many good songs, even if that added up to just one hit record.
But even one song, even one moment, can encapsulate a lot if you probe beneath the surface, or, in this case, beyond the catchy but saccharine arrangement by the Cyrkle. The song's lyrics, written by Jerry Keller, portray the languorous side of the anti-war, anti-age, free-love 1960s, the part of the youth culture that wanted sometimes just to tune out instead of tuning in:
Soft summer breeze and the surf rolls in
To laughter of small children playin'.
Someone's radio has the news tuned in,
But nobody cares what he's sayin'.
It's a turn-down day,
Nothin' on my mind.
It's a turn-down day,
And I dig it.
There was something of dad in that easygoing, live-and-let-live frame of mind. It was, in a way, a jazz sensibility set down to words. But the melody, dominated by minor chords, also hinted at something more -- something a little deeper, a little melancholy.
The tune originated during dad's Army days in Fayetteville, N.C., where the draft had dragged him, a native of Boston, and his wife, Charlotte, during the Korean War. Dad was a noted hater of needless exercise and early morning schedules, so he devised a night-owl gig for himself. He persuaded the brass and a local radio station that soldiers on the graveyard shift needed something to keep them alert. Did they really want these sleepy soldiers to be a safety hazard on duty or on their commute? How about some music?
Officers already knew of dad's musical skills. By this time, he'd sort of conned his way into the coveted base orchestra by presenting himself as a glockenspiel player -- it was the only opening. He'd given himself a crash course in the instrument and played a passable glockenspiel -- but it wasn't long before the orchestra took advantage of his jazz keyboard, arranging and conducting skills.
The overnight radio show followed. He wrote and performed, with some pals, the theme song: "680, 12 to 5." The song got its name from the station's place on the dial and the airtime: midnight to 5 a.m. Because of the show and his frequent performances -- all on behalf of the U.S. government, of course -- dad didn't meet at least one of his commanding officers until his day of discharge.
My parents were both building a notable life in this small Southern city all the while. In the 1950s, my mother used her talents to open a dance school and start a ballet company. Her first classes outside the base had only black students, because she refused to segregate or teach only white students. Dad, meanwhile, soon opened the region's first bowling alley, to which he attached the region's first jazz club. And he also refused to segregate.
At one point, the city informed him of a regulation that kept blacks out of white restrooms. If his new business were not to be "whites only," he'd have to build four restrooms. Dad responded by asking if there was a law saying that men and women had to have separate bathrooms. A city official replied that no such law was needed, because no one would ever put men and women in the same bathroom.
In that case, dad said, he would have one bathroom for black men and women and another for white men and women. The city official left in frustration, and when the business opened, dad simply had a men's room for all men and a women's room for all women. His key innovation, however, was in The Groove, the music club where the staff, musicians and audience all were integrated.
Neither of my parents ever got into trouble for this. One reason, of course, was that they were white -- and maybe being Jewish separated them from a sort of peer pressure. It didn't hurt that my mother could stare down a charging bull, and dad could accomplish the same with charm and a silly pun.
Dad had a fine old time in Fayetteville. He was the first public address announcer for the city high school's football games. And his jazz band was the talk of the town and beyond. He made fast friends with the local rabbi, a Holocaust survivor who'd been a writer and radio man himself in pre-war Germany, when that was still possible. And dad had two sons, who were growing up in a white house across from an elementary school that had two sapling maple trees in the front yard.
But Fayetteville could not contain dad's musical drive, and he'd leave home to travel long distances for gigs, especially ones that offered a chance to break through, like his "Today Show" appearance in 1962. And then came the 1966 hit "Turn Down Day" -- a re-imagined pop version of his old theme: "680, 12 to 5."
He expected his wife and two boys to follow him north when the time came. His wife expected that a man in his 30s could settle for a stable life in Fayetteville, where she'd built a formidable dance school.
The truth is, my parents never really belonged together in the first place, even though the marriage seemed so perfect when the glamorous young ballerina married her college sweetheart, the same wunderkind who wrote and conducted the college musicals in which she'd starred. In the end, neither was inclined to follow the other's star.
I was 6 when the divorce became official in 1967. My father ruefully told me years later that it was the hardest thing to leave town at the end of his visits, when I'd start crying. David Blume wanted to be the best dad possible, which, to him, included being around. He fulfilled this ambition in his second marriage, the one that gained me a wonderful stepmother and, eventually, two delightful kid sisters. My mother never forgave him for the marriage that failed or the unsteady financial contribution, but I concluded long ago that, sometimes, even for devoted parents, leaving is the best option available.
My brother Leo and I got by with phone calls, letters and a few weeks a year with dad. Occasionally we took trips with him, but it also was fun just to be where he was, romping around New York City and later Los Angeles, after dad moved west. We'd hear a lot of music, stay up way past midnight, play with his Persian cats, discover food they didn't have in Fayetteville and stage an annual World Series with made-up teams, a plastic bat and a ball made up of paper encased in masking tape. Leo and I played the parts of all the players. Dad was the umpire, a gravel-voiced character who took the name Gower Cahuenga, after two streets in Hollywood.
He was cool, with his long hair and leftie politics. He wore a bolo tie and a black leather cap, and tied his black locks into short ponytail in the back. And he could identify the year, make and model of virtually any car on the road -- and recite chapter and verse on the world's greatest ocean liners, its tallest buildings and the major suspension bridges.
And he never failed to do interesting things -- like running Café Danssa, an Israeli folk-dancing club in West L.A., or quietly lobbying to save a majestic bunya-bunya tree that the city was going to cut down.
He never had another hit like "Turn Down Day," but he forged a respectable career as a composer, producer and collaborator with his second wife, singer Carolyn Hester. And he eventually got that stable job, as a copy editor with the Los Angeles Times. In truth, he didn't especially like the implied message of "Turn Down Day" if applied beyond a day or so. His lyrical essence was more rooted in another song, "I Have a Dream," a plea for justice and family, which he wrote with Jerry Keller the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.
At the close of our visits, dad would send us home with records he'd produced or custom-made tapes of songs he liked: He didn't want us growing up with unsophisticated musical tastes. But without his steady presence, our piano lessons lapsed.
And though he laughed with us as we told tales of mom's unlucky second marriage to a man who turned out to have mental health issues, I'm sure he was worried. But at an elemental level, he trusted his first wife to take care of his boys.
My brother and I never felt we quite got enough of him, which, in recent years, had more to do with managing our own families and careers than him not being available. This sense of needing to catch up for lost time partly explains why my brother, the informal family archivist, started interviewing dad on videotape. Dad would complain, mostly in jest, that the process implied that his demise was impending.
I always assumed that someday there would be time to catch up properly; he'd probably felt the same way watching his boys grow up, mostly from far away. Too late, I realized that in the last year, he was slowly leaving us, as his health problems mounted. When he died, his wallet contained a list of favorite songs that he could refer to if called on to play at any moment.
My brother and I were in Fayetteville early this month, and we stopped by the old white house. Our grade school across the street has become the campus for teenage "delinquents" -- information provided by the security guard who accosted us when she noticed us taking pictures.
The two sapling maple trees are giants now, dominating the yard, if not the neighborhood. I couldn't recall whether it was dad who'd planted the maples. Leo didn't know either. There was no doubt that dad had nurtured these trees when they were small. It was in his nature to care about such matters.
In past years, dad would ask us how the maples were doing. We'd show him pictures.
This year, so far, the maples are doing fine. Maybe they haven't been looked after every moment, but they're green and strong, and making it on their own.
Howard Blume is the former managing editor of The Jewish Journal.