Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pink Shoe Laces: Songs from my mother (UPDATED FOR 2015)

This record was an unlikely part of my music education.

Kids are inundated with music every day of their lives, of course. We sing to them and encourage them to sing, too, both at home and at school. There are thousands and thousands of recordings made specifically for kids. Children's music is a whole genre unto itself. Meanwhile, TV shows, films, and plays aimed at kids are generally very song-heavy. My musical upbringing, in retrospect, was very typical for American suburban children of my generation. I sang the usual Christmas carols and nursery rhyme-type songs, took piano lessons for a couple of years, learned how to play "Hot Cross Buns" on the recorder, and joined the school band when I was about 10 years old.

But my introduction to popular music was a little more unorthodox. It came in the form of a stack of scratchy, well-worn 45 RPM singles that my mother handed down to my sister and me. They'd been hers as a girl, and she wanted us to have them. My grandparents were restaurateurs in Northern Michigan in the 1950s, and they'd let my mom keep the records from the jukebox once they were done with them. Back in those days, jukebox play was an important gauge of a record's success, sort of like how digital downloads are today. From 1955 to 1957, Billboard even had a separate Most Played in Jukeboxes chart for pop songs. That was when rock 'n' roll music -- beloved by teenagers, detested by adults -- was first taking over the world. My mom grew up during those Back to the Future years. What a coup it was for her to get all those jukebox platters for free! How proud she must have been to play them for her friends at slumber parties and the like. Lucky for me, she held on to those cherished 45s. By the late 1970s, when she was a working mom with two kids of her own, she was able to give those records a second life. My sister and I played those twenty-plus-year-old tunes over and over on our dependable little Fisher Price record player in the basement. Of course, we managed to break a few (so sorry, "Peter Gunn Theme"; you were enjoyed), but I still have most of them in my possession today.

Dodie Stevens
Among those ancient records was "Pink Shoe Laces," a million-selling 1959 novelty smash by one-hit wonder Dodie Stevens, who recorded the sassy, lighthearted tune when she was only 13. It reached #3 on the national charts, but Dodie would never so much as graze the Top 40 ever again. She's still at it, though, as a singer and vocal coach more than half a century after her brief flurry of Eisenhower-era fame. The record itself is an odd one and must have baffled grownups at the time. Dodie more or less raps the verses, decades before that genre even existed. Lyrically, the song is about how smitten Dodie is with her older-sounding boyfriend (she claims she "love[s] him truly") because of his flashy wardrobe and material wealth. These would not have been typical sentiments in the stodgy romantic music of the era. (Think: "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.") Only on a rock 'n' roll record could Dodie say such things. A typical lyric: "He takes me deep sea fishing in a submarine/We go to drive-in movies in a limousine/He's got a whirly-birdy and a twelve-foot yacht/Ahhh, but that's-a not all he's got!" Listening to the song with modern ears, it's tough not to take that last couplet as a double entendre, but we must remember that this was 1959! Still, though, perhaps in Dodie Stevens we can see a precursor of Ke$ha or at least Rebecca Black.

As silly and utterly trivial as "Pink Shoe Laces" is, every time I hear it, I think of my mother, who would also have been about 13 when the song was new. I do not currently possess any photographs of my late mother. I don't know whether any audio or video recordings of her even exist. Twenty-two years after her cancer-related death, her face and voice are fading a bit from my memory. What I have is that stack of vinyl records she used to own, and I'm damned glad to have them. Mom, this one's for you. Enjoy.