By Caisie Breen
[Chapter 1] [Chapter 2]
“Come on, baby
Let’s do the twist
Come on, baby
Let’s do the twist…
Yeah, you should see my little sis
You should see my little sis
She really knows how to rock
She knows how to twist”
By the age of five, I had developed an unusually keen taste for music. One particular spring afternoon, I heard a ruckus from my sister Valerie’s room that sounded a lot like a popular song I’d heard on the radio, along with some loud squeaking sounds.
We lived in an older two-story house with three bedrooms. My sister’s room was on the main floor next to the kitchen, and her single bed was in the center of the room. Grandma Grace was in the kitchen preparing food for that evening’s dinner. I loved the song I was hearing but couldn’t figure out what the other noise was. I ran into Valerie’s room, and there she was, jumping up and down on her bed, swinging and swaying to the music playing on her transistor radio. Her bed had gigantic coil springs that made loud creaks and squeaks with every one of her gleeful crash landings. The noise got louder as my sister’s energy level increased and her jumps got higher.
“Hey Billie, here — put this on,” Valerie said, and she threw me one of her dresses. It was light pink, and I was particularly fond of that color. So, I tossed my shirt and trousers, slid the dress over my Jockey underwear, and joined her as we both danced to The Twist on the bed. I didn’t feel at all unusual in my sister’s dress, and it flew up and down with every jump I made. I was, in fact, comfortable, and I loved how it felt as it touched my skin with every bounce.
The culture at that time, however, had very strict ideas for what little boys and girls should wear and how they should behave. And as a young boy, getting caught in a pink dress could be considered a family crisis at worst, or an opportunity for a good sit-down talk at best.
I certainly wasn’t aware of any such taboos, but my fun came to a halt when my grandmother walked into the room with an expression of bewilderment and fear. Just that unfamiliar look on her face caused an empty feeling in my heart.
“Billie!” she scolded. “Take that dress off at once and put your own clothes back on. Don’t you ever do this sort of thing again. And really, Valerie, what were you thinking anyway, letting him wear one of your dresses?”
Even though Grandma Grace put a stop to my early girly experience, we remained close. Whether it was letting me help in preparing meals or just taking the time to talk, Grandma Grace was always there for me.
“Billie, c’mon Billie. Time to get up. Today’s your first day of school, and you don’t want to be late,” said Grandma Grace.
“Oh yeah,” I said, rubbing my eyes.
“And your mom will be taking you. She got back home last night.”
My mother was a professional singer and did a lot of traveling with her band.
“Oh boy. Mom!” I said, running to the kitchen.
“Well, hello, Billie. You’d better eat your breakfast. We need to get you to school. This is your first day. Are you excited?” said Mom.
“Oh. I guess so,” I replied.
Mom took me to school and introduced me to my first-grade teacher.
“Hello, are you Mrs. Martine?” asked Mom.
“Yes. And you must be Mrs. Casey. And this must be Billie. Glad to meet you. You can pick him up this afternoon at 2:30.”
“Will do, Mrs. Martine, and thank you,” said Mom.
I got along with the little girls much better than I did with the boys.
In the classroom, the girls were in a corner cutting out magazine pictures and pasting them on paper. Meanwhile, the boys colored on blank pieces of paper. I joined the girls.
“Hi, Patty. What are you making?” I asked.
“I’m making my family. See, there’s my mother, my dad, my sister, my cat, and I’m going to color in my yard now.”
“Billie. Billie, please get back to your seat. I do believe you may be girl crazy!” said Mrs. Martine.
On the playground, most of the boys were out in the field, playing ball, while several girls did their best to get some speed from the cold, steel merry-go-round. I loved trying to get it up to speeds that would make everyone dizzy.
“Billie, push me! I want to go faster. Go, push faster, faster, faster!” screamed one of the girls riding.
“Let’s go. Jump on now!” I yelled to two more girls thinking about joining the ride. But my glee turned to fear as one of the girls fell off and the teacher heard her scream.
“Billie! What have you done?” asked Mrs. Martine. “Why aren’t you playing with the boys out in the field? See, they’re playing ball. Now get out there and play with them. You’re too rough for the girls. She consoled the crying girl in a way she hadn’t consoled me when I’d fallen off the merry-go-round the day before. Nobody said anything to the girl doing the pushing then. And I had no interest in playing ball. I walked away with my head down and stood by the school entrance until recess was over. My first day was off to a rocky start, and I watched the clock the rest of the afternoon, looking forward to my ride home with Mom.
“Okay, Billie. Let’s go,” said Mom after the dismissal bell rang. She took my hand as we walked to her car.
“Well, how was your first day at school, Billie? Did you make any friends?” asked Mom as she started the car.
“It was okay,” I said. I didn’t tell her about the incident on the playground.
When we got home, Grandma was already in the kitchen preparing our dinner.
“Hi, Grandma. Whatcha doing?” I asked.
“Same as usual. Fixing dinner.”
“And how was your first day at school?” she asked.
“Awe, not that great. My teacher got mad at me for playing with the girls.”
“That’s odd. Why would that make her mad? You weren’t being mean, were you?”
“No. But when a girl fell off the merry-go-round, Mrs. Martine got mad and told me to go play with the boys.”
“Tell you what. I’m about to make some cookies for dessert. Wanna help?”
“Yes!” I said gleefully.
Grandma was a short, plump woman in her seventies, still with some brown color to her hair. We spent the next hour cutting out sugar cookies and had them in the oven before dinner. After we ate, my mother needed to get ready for work. As a professional singer, she did her makeup a little brighter than most women. I watched her methodically apply it in our small 1950s bathroom. She stood over the small, porcelain, wall-hung sink as she looked into the narrow, wall-mounted, medicine-cabinet mirror. I was enthralled, watching her squint as she applied glitter eye shadow.
“Hey, Mom. What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s my eye shadow, honey,” she said.
“It’s so pretty.”
And then she would smile and start singing one of her songs as I continued to watch in fascination.
She was always an animated woman, and from the time I was old enough to start school, she seemed to value my opinion about what she wore. Given the many parties and events she sang for; she was always looking for something special.
“Billie,” she’d ask, holding up a couple of dresses. “Which one do you like?”
“Oh, I like the red one, Mom,” I’d almost always say. “It’s so beautiful!”
It didn’t matter which dress she held up next to her red-sequined dress. Eventually, she caught on that the red dress would always be my choice, but continued to ask anyway—with a wink.
Her second husband was a bass player named Johnny Skiles, and they performed and traveled together. This was the pinnacle of her musical career. She had cut at least one record, a song called “Cole Miner,” and she performed on The Louisiana Hayride TV show. That show kick-started Elvis Presley’s career. One week, she sang “Bee Bop a Lula” on American Bandstand.
The morning after that performance, I walked down the hall toward my first-grade class, and some of the teachers stuck their heads out to greet me, saying things like, “Hey, Billie! We saw your mother on American Bandstand last night. She was really cool!”
Cool? Cool indeed! Inside I was thinking, Um, okay, so what? The only music I considered cool was the Beatles. Of course, to appear on American Bandstand was something all striving musicians longed for—an opportunity to display their talents all over America. Even The Beatles performed Strawberry Fields on the show in 1967. I was too young to appreciate the significance of her appearance.
We moved to a newer, single story house within blocks of my school. It was large enough for my mother to have her friends over for her occasional practice jam sessions. And I did appreciate all the attention I received during those sessions.
One evening when she was partying with her friends, she sat me next to her on the piano bench and sang to me. She was in a gleeful mood, smiling down, singing a song I think she made up on the spot — “And when I go out, I go with Billie, cause Billie knows just where to go…” The rest of her band joined in on a performance that seemed tailored for me. Men seemed to fall at her feet in those days.
Those early days of music and partying were exciting, but over time, they became routine — just a way of life. And although I never learned to sing or play an instrument, I did become an avid connoisseur of music. In fact, when I discovered that there were actually people in the world who weren’t as moved by music as I was, I started using the term “music people” to describe myself and others like me. We needed music in our daily lives, in our triumphs and challenges. There was always a song that would express my feelings, motivate me when I needed a push, excite me when I needed to celebrate, and — too many times — cry for me when all seemed lost.
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