The elder Mr. Ken French perusing his record collection. Photo by Kory French.
Around the time I was born, my father and uncle partnered up in a little side project as DJs to DJ for weddings, retirement parties, social gatherings and the like. It was the mid ‘70s, so the luxury of hooking your Mac up to an amp and letting iTunes shuffle do its thing was a development not yet available. Equipment and LPs had to be lugged from the house to the car, car to venue and back again, every Friday and Saturday night. The trick then of course, was to be the guy who had the latest single 45—being hip enough to play one of the latest radio hits before anyone else had a chance to buy it was a sure way to get popular on the circuit, especially in the days when disco ruled the circuit.
A benefit to all of this DJ’ing around for my sister and me was inheriting an in-depth, if not all-out eclectic, record collection. While the total number of albums would pale in comparison to the average person’s iTunes library today (yes, back in the days when musical libraries were measured in LPs and not ‘gigabytes’ or ‘days’), my dad did all right. A lot of his collection I have somewhat shamefully usurped today, claiming that my work in the industry allows me the right to confiscate his hard-earned stockpile. One of my favorites to pull out for after-hours partygoers who entertain my throwback nostalgia is an un-labeled LP of “Rapper’s Delight” that my dad purchased sometime in 1979 or ’80, immediately after its release. What my very white father from a very white family in a very white town was doing with such a hip track, I have no idea—it still blows my mind to this day.
The basement was where he kept all of his music, and his fancy sound system that housed a turntable, FM receiver, 8-track and tape player. The last component was key, for it allowed my parents to make mixtapes they could play during basement parties for their friends on the street, relieving either of them from any in-house DJ’ing responsibilities. As a treat, my father would let my older sister and me play with his microphone while he made tapes for us. In being too young to speak (or remember) I can only recall what I have heard from these tapes, which are composed mainly of my sister singing the alphabet or nursery rhymes while I’m trying to eat the microphone – all interspersed with songs like “Freeze Frame” by the J. Geils Band or “Hot In the City” by Billy Idol.
But credit to my father’s wisdom and foresight, one of the things he also did was make both of us mixed tapes, from him, to discover later in life and inclusive of popular songs from the day, personalized voiceovers, and some father-to-child classics.
When it comes to father-child songs, there are some staples that we all know, I guess, depending on our age. I know on the tape he made for me when I was three years old started off with the recently released John Lennon ballad “Beautiful Boy”, a song Lennon had written for his son, Sean. This really is one of the all-time classics for a father-son song. As if my father had some sense of clairvoyance for the Dylan fanatic I would turn out to be someday, he also made sure to include some of the Band. The second song on my tape was “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was, as I think about it now, a rather odd song for a father to dedicate to his son. Perhaps what would have been a little more appropriate would have been “Forever Young,” a Dylan track off of Planet Waves that he wrote for “one of his sons.” (Dylan, never the sentimentalist, never revealed who the song was actually for, but it can be noted that his son Jakob did turn four right around the time he recorded it.)
One of the most recognized pop classics in the father-son canon is “Cat’s In the Cradle,” written by Harry Chapin in 1973 (released in ’74) and re-released by California band Ugly Kid Joe in 1992 on America’s Least Wanted. Today, the song has become more of a contemporary punch line, appearing comically in shows like How I Met Your Mother, Family Guy, The Office, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Shrek the Third. A little less popular but just as much of a ‘70s tender-tune turned trick) is “Watching Scotty Grow” by Bobby Goldsboro. Goldsboro contemplates his rise to fame in the ‘70s singer-songwriter world, coming to the conclusion that all the fortune and success of the nightclub circuit isn’t worth the peace and happiness he gets from watching his young son grow up.
AfterIn the recent passing of Clarence Clemons last Sunday, I would be afoul to not mention at least one track by Springsteen. As part of their extensive collection, my mother ownedhad received the epic 5-LP Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/1975-85 boxed set. Among those tracks is “The River,”, a song Springsteen opens with a long monologue about him and his father. Yet that isn’t the Springsteen song that comes to mind when I think of my dad. When Born In the USA came out, “I (actually) was eight years old” and my dad would put me on his lap to that song and let me drive his car; he would repeat the words, “Son, take a good look around. This is your hometown.” I didn’t get it then. I do now.
For my sister, he found a song originally written by Jackie Gleason called “To A Sleeping Beauty,” (Jimmy Dean recorded a more famous version) which is tough to track down and even tougher to know. Of all the tracks he ever played for us from his old record collection, this is by far the biggest tearjerker. As I write this, my father is texting me from Canada to inform me that the version he used is by “Paul Reid … It’s the B-side on an album called A Letter To My Love, 1967.” This song doesn’t get a lot of airtime, but for any you young ladies out there who have a close relationship with your father, I encourage you to check it out.
At the end of one of our tapes, my father introduced a song with a rather somber and nostalgic tone. My dad travelled a lot, and I guess his biggest fear was that he was going to miss out on his kids growing up. So, one night when both my sister and I were in bed, he finished off a tape for us and pleaded that we someday accept his apology for not being around as much as he’d like, and if he ever made us feel like he was the man in this next song, he is sorry. The tape faded into “Rocket Man” by Elton John.
You never di,d Dad. Happy Father’s Day.