Bluefield Daily Telegraph
We had the same telephone number when we moved from our home on Wayne Street in Claysville, Pa., to our 58-acre farm on Beham Ridge — Normandy 3-5418. But on the farm, we were on a party line with three other farm families. We were two rings. The Burigs were one ring. The Hutchinson’s were three rings. I can’t recall who had four rings.
Wind always rattled the windows in our old Civil War era farmhouse. It got hot upstairs during the summer and very cold in winter. We had a forced-air coal furnace in the basement. I knew how to bank the fire so the coal would burn all night, but the heat never seemed to travel all the way up to the bedroom where my brother — he went by Donnie back then — and I slept.
In the fall of 1962, my sister Peggy and I decided we would fix up an old storage shed so we could use it as our club house. It was close to the house, between our house and the little tomato and strawberry patch we had. Peggy and I cleaned it out, but in retrospect, I guess we should have saved all of the old wooden crates and 19th century packaging that we threw away. That stuff would be worth a fortune now.
The one thing that we did fix up was an old wall model telephone with the little crank on the side, the mouthpiece you talked into and the black spool-looking thing you held to your ear to listen. To our delight, the wires to hook it up were hanging loose on the wall near the phone. I just needed a screw driver to reconnect it and we were in business. Hooking it up didn’t make it ring and we couldn’t call out on it, but when the phone rang inside the house, I could pick it up, listen and even talk if I wanted to.
The reason I know it was in the fall of 1962 is because Shelley Fabres’ only No. 1 hit, “Johnny Angel,” was out at the time. A few days ago, I sang the entire song to my wife — just playing around. Of course, it’s not difficult to remember the lyrics of old songs like that one that have been played over and over again on the radio. The hard part is remembering the context.
The wall phone was hung on the wall nearest the back of our farmhouse. Peggy and I found a can of red paint, so we painted the walls inside the shed red. By the time we finished, everything inside the old shed was red except the wall telephone. On the rare occasions that we actually got to hang out in the club house, I would bring the old radio out of the barn and we would listen to popular songs. But we only took the radio out of the barn on clubhouse days. It was a fixture in the barn.
Cathy, our Holstein cow, seemed to give better milk when I played popular music on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, but as luck would have it, our sheep seemed to hang around in the barn longer on cold nights when I tuned into WWVA radio from Wheeling. I felt blessed because our barn got clear radio signals from both AM stations. The sheep really liked Johnny Horton — both his “Battle of New Orleans” (1959) and “North to Alaska” (1960). Cathy and her daughter, Sycamore, really liked “Your Hit Parade.”
I was aware of who Shelley Fabres was because of “The Donna Reed Show,” however, I identified more with Jeff — Paul Petersen. I really loved the way the melody of “Johnny Angel” flowed and the syncopation of the lead and backing vocalists. I still love the kind of vocal blending in that song.
But to me, the thing that really made the song cool were the lines, “Other fellows call me up for a date, but I just sit and wait, I’d rather concentrate on Johnny Angel.”
You see, I had that telephone that never rang, but I could pick it up some times and hear voices. I never eavesdropped. That wasn’t my way. But having my own private telephone put me in league with television stars like Mary and Jeff Stone. I could imagine that the wall telephone with no bell could connect me with folks like that.
I was singing professionally long before that — years, in fact. I wasn’t bashful about singing any song at any time. I rode around with my dad on Sunday afternoon calls. He didn’t want me to see what he was doing as an artificial inseminator of cattle and horses, so I sat in the car and listened to the radio. That was where I first listened to Steelers football and how I learned the lyrics to the early Elvis songs.
People loved hearing those songs performed live even though I didn’t have a band to sing with back then. I just walked up on stage, sang 5 or 10 songs in a row and took requests. Audiences seemed to hunger for those songs so much that they could imagine the music playing. I learned how to sing the feel of the song along with the lyrics and people seemed to hear music that wasn’t there. It was a real strange time
I was done with that time of my life when “Johnny Angel” started getting radio air time. I never sang it for anyone other than the cattle and sheep, but the vocal blending was fun — almost like gliding over rolling hills on a blanket of air. It’s odd how a person can remember a moment like that, but forget his dinner bucket in the car until lunchtime rolls around.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.