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Juke Box Hero
My Five Decades in Rock 'n' Roll
By Lou Gramm, Scott Pitoniak
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Lou Gramm and Scott Pitoniak
All rights reserved.
A Harmonious Beginning
That I would choose a career in music is hardly a mystery because I come from a family of musicians. In fact, it was music that brought my mom and dad together in the first place. Ben Grammatico (yes, that's my real last name, and I'll tell you why it was changed later) was a second-generation Italian-American who went to Madison High School in Rochester. My mom, Nikki Masetta, had attended Franklin High School, Madison's hated cross-town rival. The story goes that Dad, an accomplished trumpet player, landed a gig with a swing band in the early 1940s and wound up meeting my mom while performing at a concert. They started dating, fell in love, and got married. And when my dad broke away to form his own band — the 16-piece Sonny James Orchestra — he asked Mom, a gifted singer, to become the lead vocalist.
Their love of music was instilled by their parents and was passed down to me and my two brothers. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of spending Sundays — "Sauce Sundays," we called them — at my grandparents' houses. I can still smell the enticing aroma of homemade spaghetti sauce wafting through the air, and I can still hear the voices of Sinatra and Caruso booming from a big, old wooden Philco radio that was tuned to The Italian Hour.
My grandparents on both sides of the family arrived with thousands of other immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. One of my grandfathers — Louis Grammatico, whom I'm named after — was actually sponsored by a Protestant church. Apparently, churches would pay for an immigrant's boat fare and provide food and a place to live if he or she agreed to convert. So Grandpa Grammatico wound up becoming a Baptist, and that occasionally resulted in some heated religious discussions at those Sunday get-togethers because my mom and her family were raised Catholic.
My grandparents worked as migrant farm workers upon settling in this country. I remember Grandpa Grammatico telling us that he started his American journey by picking cabbage in the Southern Tier region of New York State before migrating north to Rochester. He talked about the Spartan conditions when he first arrived. Yes, the sponsor families provided shelter, but it was often a shack with a dirt floor and no plumbing. But he and the other immigrants were hardy souls and were thrilled just to be in a land where the opportunities seemed boundless. They survived and later thrived. I'm always amazed when I think back to what they had to overcome.
Although my dad's local band was successful, there was never a time when it became a full-time occupation for him and my mom. It was always a side venture, a hobby, an avocation — something he did to pick up extra cash on the weekends and blow off a little steam. And that was something he harped on with me and my brothers. "You can love music," he said, "but don't ever think about making a life out of it; it's too hard on families." I must have heard those words a thousand times. And they would haunt me later when the often lonely, empty life of a rock star got the better of me.
Mom dropped out of Dad's band when she started having kids. And Dad gave it up in the mid-1950s because the weekend gigs on top of his regular job were running him ragged and keeping him away from our family too much.
Dad's real job was building metal filing cabinets for the Rochester-based company Yarman & Erbe. It wasn't easy work. He put in a lot of backbreaking hours at the factory, and I can remember him coming home dog-tired with grease stains on his T-shirt and gauze wrapped around hands bloodied from the flying shards he encountered while cutting the sheet metal to build the cabinets. My older brother, Ben, and I got a chance to see what he went through firsthand when Dad brought us into work with him on those Saturdays when he picked up overtime. I was a little freaked out because it was so noisy and hot in there. They'd have the windows open, but it didn't help. Even in the winter time it was hotter than the blazes, just like a sauna. I could see why my dad was so exhausted.
Looking back, I'd say I had a pretty normal childhood — nothing terribly out of the ordinary. I was born in Rochester on May 2, 1950, the second of three boys, and I spent my first 11 years living in neighborhoods on the city's west side. When I was three years old, we moved to a section of the city known as the 19th Ward, which was mostly populated by Italian-American families. It was definitely a blue-collar neighborhood, and it was safe. My friends and I spent hours upon hours riding our bikes all over the place without a care in the world. (It was the 1950s and no one seemed too worried about kids being abducted back then.) We were always outdoors doing something, and some of my most cherished recollections are of playing baseball either in sandlot games with my buddies at the diamond at School 37 or in Little League games at Genesee Valley Park several blocks away. Baseball definitely was my first love, and my summer routine revolved around playing ball. I'd have my breakfast, grab my glove, say goodbye to my mom, and head to the schoolyard, returning home only for lunch and dinner. And when I wasn't at the diamond, you'd often see me firing a tennis ball at the house, pretending I was Don Newcombe or Sandy Koufax, the thudding of each pitch against the wall driving my poor mom nuts.
My dad was the one who got me interested in baseball. One of the first things he would do when he got home from work was plop himself down in his easy chair and read the paper. He'd always go to the sports section first and pore over the major league box scores. I was intrigued by his fascination with these funny-looking little boxes of type filled with names and numbers that were foreign to me. One day when I was about four or five, he sat me on his lap and taught me how to read a box score. He showed me how they measured the statistical performance of each player from the previous day's games, and it wasn't long before I became as mesmerized by the names and numbers as he was. Eventually, I would grab the paper before he got home, and when he entered the door I would give him an update on how the players from my favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, had fared.
The Dodgers lineup in the 1950s was loaded with talented athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and PeeWee Reese. But my favorite player was their stylish centerfielder, Duke Snider. It seemed like every day I checked the box scores he'd have two or three hits and a double or a homer. I couldn't wait to get the paper to see how Duke had done. Sadly, most of my friends were Yankees fans, and I'd have to put up with their arrogance and obnoxiousness. They incessantly reminded me that their team was a perennial World Series champion, usually at the expense of my Dodgers, who were a great ballclub but always seemed to find a way to break our hearts in the end.
One of the worst moments of my childhood occurred when I was seven years old and learned that the Dodgers would be leaving Brooklyn and moving permanently to Los Angeles. I was as devastated as the folks who lived next door to Ebbets Field. I continued to root for the Duke of Flatbush, even though he was now 3,000 miles away, but my love for the Dodgers eventually faded. In 1962, when the National League returned to New York in the form of the Mets, I switched my allegiances to them. Like Brooklyn before them, the Mets sure knew how to test one's loyalty, but they also provided me with some great moments, too. The '69 Miracle Mets gave me one of my great thrills, stunning the sports world by upsetting the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. That amazing team was led by future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. In one of those interesting life-coming-full-circle stories, I wound up meeting Tom Terrific at Citi Field during the summer of 2011. I was there to sing the National Anthem before a Mets game, and Seaver came up to me afterward and told me had been a huge fan of mine during my Foreigner days. And I told him that the feeling was mutual, that I was a huge fan of his and that he had given me some very entertaining and memorable moments along the way.
I also enjoyed other sports, as well, especially boxing and football. I later became a diehard Buffalo Bills fan — still am. My allegiance to the old, "Wait Until Next Year" Brooklyn Dodgers clearly had prepared me for the near misses the Bills would suffer during their Super Bowl years of the early 1990s. Being an Upstate New York guy, I also began following Syracuse University football and basketball closely and reveled in the Orangemen's national hoops championship season in 2003.
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Our parents encouraged each of us boys to take up an instrument. My choice was drums because it looked like a lot of fun banging away with those sticks. I didn't even have a snare drum at first — we couldn't afford one — but my dad wound up making me a practice pad, which essentially was a rubberized playing surface over a piece of wood. Dad was a pretty ingenious guy. He used a piece of floor tile for the battering surface. It worked out well. I was about eight years old when I started beating on my practice pad and began taking drum lessons at Music Lovers in downtown Rochester. By age 11, I had become pretty proficient, and my percussion teacher urged me to try out for the All-County scholastic orchestra. To my surprise I earned a spot, which was a big thrill because the orchestra consisted mostly of kids in grades 9–12. In the ninth grade I also was encouraged to audition for admission to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, which was founded by George Eastman, the film magnate whose Rochester-based Eastman Kodak Company revolutionized the film and camera industry. I auditioned for John Beck, Rochester's renowned master percussionist. He was impressed and loved the way I played. He said I was a talented young drummer and he was going to do his best to see that I received a scholarship. A few weeks later we received a good news/bad news letter from Mr. Beck. The good news was that I had been accepted into the school; the bad news was that the school had already exceeded its scholarship limit and wouldn't be able to offer me a free ride. There was no way that my dad would be able to afford the tuition on his laborer's salary, so I couldn't go. It was a crushing blow, but I eventually got over it, encouraged by the fact that someone as respected as Mr. Beck thought I had the talent to go there.
Years later, I would become best known for my voice, but back in those days I had absolutely no interest in singing. I didn't take part in any school choirs or choruses, just orchestras and bands. I was quite content to be a drummer and a songwriter. Someone else could sing the songs.
Ben, who is about 3 ½ years older than me, chose to follow my father and play trumpet. And, unlike me with the drums, he was a natural the instant my dad showed him what to do and he began blowing into that horn. By the time Ben was in high school, he had formed his own band — the Blue Tones. They featured the sax, piano, bass guitar, and drums, and would focus on music by modern jazz artists like Dave Brubek and Thelonious Monk, who was a wicked piano player. The Blue Tones were so good that they took part in a battle of the bands at the old War Memorial Auditorium in Rochester. There were about 20 bands in the competition, and each was allowed to play three songs. Judges, often swayed by the audience's response, would determine which acts advanced. I think the Blue Tones finished in the top two, and that publicity helped them book jobs around town like nobody's business.
My younger brother, who was four years my junior, was a very bright kid — somewhat of an intellectual and an introvert. He taught himself to play the guitar when he was 11 and, like Ben, it came to him naturally.
Dad always had his car radio tuned to jazz. He loved listening to Mel Torme, Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Dorsey Brothers. One day we were going someplace in his '53 Pontiac, and I guess he had his fill of music and started turning the dial in search of the news or a ballgame. He got distracted for a second, and the radio wound up on a pop music station. This DJ came on and said, "Now here's the latest from that up-and-coming recording artist, Elvis Presley. It's called "Hound Dog,' and I think it's going to become a big hit." Ben and I were sitting in the backseat, and our ears perked up immediately. We got to listen to about 20 seconds of this rousing song before Dad, who was muttering under his breath, "What is this shit?" abruptly switched the station. All we had heard, essentially, were the opening lyrics — "You ain't nothing but a hound dog, cryin' all the time." But that's all we needed to hear. Ben and I had these looks of incredulity, like we had just discovered a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk. That was my introduction to rock 'n' roll — Elvis' "Hound Dog" blasting out of the dashboard speakers of my Dad's '53 Pontiac. I didn't realize it at the time, but that would wind up being a life-altering experience. A whole new world was about to open up for me.
I can remember hanging with my older brother and some kids across the street, and we'd be singing harmonies to Dion and the Belmonts and stuff from that era. We knew all the words to all the songs by the Everly Brothers. Our parents and others in the neighborhood would watch us put on our little Doo-Wop concerts. I guess you could say that was my first involvement with a music group.
As I mentioned, we would spend Sundays at my grandparents' house, and after we consumed heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs smothered in homemade sauce, we'd gather in the living room to listen to either The Italian Hour radio show or my grandfather playing the mandolin. Grampa was an excellent musician, but he couldn't carry a tune to save his life. That, however, didn't stop him from singing at the top of his lungs while playing the mandolin. It was funny at first, but then it became painful. One by one, we kids would discreetly disappear from the room during Grampa's concerts. Ben and I would usually wind up in the bedroom of our older cousin because she had this tiny little record player and a bunch of 45s that we would play and sing along to. I remember listening to artists like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Dion and the Belmonts, and Little Richard. One Sunday we were spinning tunes when she put on this new 45 she had just purchased, and I finally got a chance to listen to the entire version of "Hound Dog" and learn about this Elvis guy. I was absolutely mesmerized. The sound and the man behind it were so distinctive, so cool. I couldn't wait to hear and see more.
When Ben and I got home, we told our parents about how our cousin was allowed to have a rock 'n' roll record collection and how we wanted to be able to start our own collection. My parents adamantly refused. My dad grumbled, "You're not playing that garbage in our house. It's nothing but noise, and the lyrics are filthy." But that didn't stop us from continuing to bug them about it. Eventually, we wore them down and they relented. But we were told we could only play the records when they weren't home. Dad warned us that if he heard that "crap" being played in his presence, he'd grab the record off the turntable and break it into a million pieces.
Excerpted from Juke Box Hero by Lou Gramm, Scott Pitoniak. Copyright © 2013 Lou Gramm and Scott Pitoniak. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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