To Be A small Fish In a Big Pond or a Big Fish In a Small Pond–That was The Question
We all have our own ponds that we live in. Some people head for the big pond where, if they’re ambitious and talented, they may become a big fish. Others choose to stay in the small pond and are satisfied being a somewhat big fish in that small pond. I guess the latter sort of describes me.
As a sideline avocation to my farming business, I entertained folks in my small pond. My performances took me south of my home base of Soda Springs, Idaho as far as Salt lake City, Utah, and north and west to Sun Valley, Idaho. My gigs usually consisted of performing at various conventions and other functions including variety shows, etc.; and a couple of popular local TV shows in Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls. I also did an impromptu gig at the English Pub, a supper club in the old English Village in Lake Havusu City, Arizona. (That was before the English Village fell into the run down state that exists there today.) My performances were usually for expenses only, because I never meant for them to be a major part of my income. I loved farming and that was my primary vocation.
I was probably one of Bing Crosby’s biggest fans. He never knew it, but he was my mentor from afar, and he taught me how to sing. When I was a teenager living at home I’m sure I must have driven my family to distraction when I would play Bing’s records over, and over, and over again studying his style and his phrasing. And believe me, there were plenty of records for them to tire of listening to. My Crosby collection of the old 78 rpms numbered into the multiple 100s.
The one thing Bing didn’t teach me, however, was timing. He was noted for taking liberties with timing himself, and although he claimed he couldn’t read music, he knew what he was doing and could get away with breaking the rules. His brother Bob, who was a stickler for time and was a strict technician, said of Bing: “He is constantly breaking the rules musically, but he always seems able to come out on top of things.”
When I tried taking the same liberties with timing as did Crosby, and because I lacked his skill, I quite often ended up in trouble. I usually sang rubato , which means to steal time , or break time. Crosby broke time, but he never stole time. In his syncopated style, he always gave the proper number of beats to the measure, but he often rearranged the values given to certain notes in the measure. I never quite mastered that technique. (I might state here that it was only with ballads that I had this problem. The upbeat tunes were no problem for me keeping time.)
Consequently, I resorted to using “piano only” accompaniment most of the time; accompanists who could anticipate what I was going to do before I did it, and would cover for me so brilliantly that the audience wasn’t aware that I had broken time, and my performances were always well received(a single accompanist can accomplish this. Imagine the discombobbulated chaos if a 70 piece orchestra tried it).
I had the good fortune of being able to work with two very fine accompanists. One was a very laid back musician, and a great improviser, but he was also an accomplished musician able to play several instruments.
At the piano, it was like he had four hands. He filled the room with music when his dancing fingers roamed all over the key board covering my inept timing liberties brilliantly while I sang and did my thing. Together, we sort of made up our own timing as we went along. And he was ever the accompanist; always playing softly enough so as to never compete, with, or overpower my crooning.
I also recorded an album years ago on an independent label and he built a seven piece band for the backup music. We recorded in the Bonneville International Studio in Salt Lake City. At that time they were still using tape recorders. They had a twenty four track master recorder. We began by laying my voice with the piano on one track. Bob then built the entire band one instrument at a time playing each instrument on separate tracks, after which, the sound engineer mixed the separate recordings together on the track with my voice, and voila, we had a vocal recording with a seven piece band backup.
The other piano accompanist I used was a lady who was a trained classical pianist, and was also a whiz at jazz piano. She, too, was able to fill in the gaps and make me sound and look very good. She was a bit more of a disciplinarian, however, and did try bringing me in line rhythmically, but it usually ended up being an exercise in futility. I also had an aunt with whom I worked some. She was a piano teacher of the old school—everything by the book—and very much a technical disciplinarian. At rehearsals, she would get so frustrated with me whenever I would take liberties with the timing. “Bill,” she would say, (sometimes yelled)you just can’t do that!”
“Why?” I would ask, “Bing does it all the time.”
“Yes, he does,” she would say, “but he knows what he’s doing; you don’t. He has a natural born instinct for rhythm which you don’t seem to have. Now shape up. You’ve got to sing it the way the composer wrote it.” I loved my aunt dearly, but needless to say, we didn’t work together very often. There was just too much of that family stubbornness in each of us. She wasn’t about to adapt to my rubato-style crooning, and I wasn’t about to succumb to her rigidity.
To her credit I will say this. The few times I did work with a group or a band, in order to get through the number without messing up, I did memorize every note and every beat, “the way the composer wrote it.” This caused my performances to be a little more stilted than I would have liked, because I just couldn’t quite master Bing’s syncopated rhythmic style of timing. As time went on, however, I did figure out what he was doing and I became a bit more proficient with my liberty taking, but never as successfully as Der Bingle did it.
Ah, but alas, those days are gone forever. Both my musician soul mates and my aunt have crossed over to the other side, and my vocal chords have since gone south. But it was great fun while it lasted. I never became a big star in the big pond like Bing or some of the other singers of his time, but I did manage to become a pretty good sized fish in the little pond where I swam. I’m not sure I really wanted to swim in the big pond anyway; too many sharks swimming around in there.
Now, if you like to visit things of yester-year, you can do so by clicking on the free download button at upper right on this page and received a free copy of my book Buddy…His Trials and Treasures where you will read about the adventures of a young boy growing up in rural America during the 1940s. Who knows it might even bring back a few childhood memories of your own.