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Now That’s What I Call Vibrato!  On Oscar Wilde, Lena Zavaroni, and the Curious Art of Being Natural

Now That’s What I Call Vibrato! On Oscar Wilde, Lena Zavaroni, and the Curious Art of Being Natural

Munk's Junk (Everything Else), Music

In 1972 my family left perfectly dependable Brooklyn, New York, and made the exodus to the suburbs. At that time everyone who was able beat a hasty retreat from the deteriorating, criminal infrastructure of New York City—a metropolis in decline—in search of the postwar dream of home-ownership in the suburbs and its correlated notion that there was a benefit to combining child rearing and a lawn, a theory that the balance of my childhood disproved.

To Brooklynites like my parents, there were two options: you either went right and moved out to “the Island” or went left to New Jersey. We went left, I think, primarily, because my mother’s best friend Susan Held went left the year before and, for all intents and purposes, mom and Susan generally liked the same things, especially living in close proximity to each other. Mom and Susan had a great deal in common, not the least of which was having matching sets of three boys. Though both my mother and father are only children, Susan was and always will be “Aunt” Sue to me, an appellation that reflects her elevated status as something more than my mother’s best friend. Aunt Sue seemed to be happily acclimating to her new life and my parents had found a house to buy just a few blocks away, so when I finished first grade in June of that year, we followed the Helds to East Brunswick, a generic bedroom community that is best-known for being a place you pass on the way to other, better places, like the Jersey Shore.

“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” – Oscar Wilde.

In 1972 my family left perfectly dependable Brooklyn, New York, and made the exodus to the suburbs.  At that time everyone who was able beat a hasty retreat from the deteriorating, criminal infrastructure of New York City—a metropolis in decline—in search of the postwar dream of home-ownership in the suburbs and its correlated notion that there was a benefit to combining child rearing and a lawn, a theory that the balance of my childhood disproved.

To Brooklynites like my parents, there were two options: you either went right and moved out to “the Island” or went left to New Jersey.  We went left, I think, primarily, because my mother’s best friend Susan Held went left the year before and, for all intents and purposes, mom and Susan generally liked the same things, especially living in close proximity to each other.   Mom and Susan had a great deal in common, not the least of which was having matching sets of three boys.  Though both my mother and father are only children, Susan was and always will be “Aunt” Sue to me, an appellation that reflects her elevated status as something more than my mother’s best friend.  Aunt Sue seemed to be happily acclimating to her new life and my parents had found a house to buy just  a few blocks away, so when I finished first grade in June of that year, we followed the Helds to East Brunswick, a generic bedroom community that is best-known for being a place you pass on the way to other, better places, like the Jersey Shore.

With New Jersey’s verdant abundance came a literal allergic reaction, so, in 1973, it was determined that what those afflicted— chiefly me and Susan’s middle child, “cousin” Michael—needed was allergy shots.  So Mom and Aunt Sue began alternating driving the two of us to Dr. Barofsky’s office for weekly injections to alleviate our symptoms.  Regrettably, no one considered the possibility of alleviating the actual cause of the problem—New Jersey—an irritant I was not able to completely remove until I went to college some ten years later.

Our gigantic 1967 Chevy Impala wagon, with the beady taillight “eyes”

Initially both families had  “hers and hers” mid-1960s-vintage, boat-sized, navy blue station wagons—ours was a Chevy and Aunt Sue’s was a Plymouth—and it was always fun on family trips or outings to see each other’s matching cars populated identically: a father, a mother, and three boys in the back, or even the far back facing the opposite way the car was moving, a special effect achieved when a lever was pressed and the far back seat sprung into a different position and a trick that both cars were capable of executing.  The primary difference between the two enormous gas guzzlers was the shape of their taillights: our Chevy Impala had three round beady “eyes” on each side and the Helds’ Plymouth had two larger, triangular-shaped “eyes,” apparently, the better to see the way out of Brooklyn and toward the promised land of East Brunswick, thirty-five miles to the left.

At some point during the allergy-shot period, the Helds sold their Plymouth and bought a very contemporary-looking Chevy Malibu Grand Prix wagon, which was appreciably smaller and a lovely shade of off-white with oh-so-seventies wood panelling accents along its doors.  Even though Susan and mom technically both had Chevrolets—which might have suggested the perpetuation of familial symmetry—I intuitively disliked the lack of visual balance and its implicit suggestion that we were too poor to buy a new car, which was true.  My reaction might have had something to do with another way our two families no longer matched: my parents had split up and our Impala now only had one adult in the front seat.

1972, in the back seat of the Impala.

Whatever awareness I may have felt about the Munks being the poorer “relation” was compensated for by the fact that Susan’s new car was equipped with a cutting-edge, brand-new 8-track tape player—the very latest in audio fidelity—which made the bi-weekly trek to the doctor’s office in her new Grand Prix a tuneful treat for Michael and me.  What was not so edgy was our taste in music, favoring as we did the middle-of-the-road superstars of the day: The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and John Denver—their early-1970s strings of hits provided the soundtrack to our new allergy-free young lives.  How we enjoyed our trips to Dr. Barofsky, whose office was located on the rather ominous sounding Throckmorton Lane and who—somewhat curiously—would gift us with the empty syringe he used (with the needle broken off, of course), which we prized as toys; these parting gifts accumulated and probably made Michael and me the only non-diabetic children in New Jersey with a personal collection of syringes.

Though I was only nine I was doing everything in my power to get my career off the ground.  I knew for sure that I was going to be famous a actor and singer—it didn’t matter which, “famous” being the operative word in the sentence—and already had a manager, Dolores Reed, to prove it, and I burnished my intentions with a fastidious intensity that would finally be described as “pathological” many years later by my first therapist.  As a child, my professional ambitions may have scanned as more charming then alarming, though the following anecdote presages some of the bumps in the road that awaited me.

Back in the Chevy Impala days in East Brunswick, my  favorites male singers were the Partridge Family’s David Cassidy, whose cover of the Association’s Cherish was a top-ten hit, Climax’s Precious and Few, and, Last Song, a mid-tempo ballad by a Canadian band called Edward Bear that went to number three in the Spring of 1973.  Like many people, I thought that Edward Bear was the name of a man, so if you’d asked me to name my favorite male singers on one of those long-ago allergy-shot rides, I would have quickly answered “David Cassidy, Edward Bear, and that guy who sings Precious and Few.”  If you’d asked me why, I would have mentioned their pleasing vibrato—the tremulous vibration of the vocal chords that adds expressiveness with its usually slight and rapid variations of pitch.  I say “usually” because there are surely examples of vibrato that could be described as slow or even struggling.  For example, if we consider the voices of the very elderly (and we should!), we would usually hear vibrato that is appreciably slower—rather like the labored, grinding sound that a car makes when it won’t turn over.  In extreme cases, vibrato can slow down to such a crawl that a passerby could easily roll a ball through the middle of a note without actually making physical contact with tone on either side.

Though vibrato that sounds like a car with engine trouble is not without its pleasures, my specific interest on those long-ago car rides was far more age appropriate: how to replace the flat child-like sound I naturally produced with vibrato that could stop the show!  Unfortunately in second grade in 1972, there weren’t many resources at my disposal, like the ability to google the question or even a qualified educator to consult with.  The fact that there also wasn’t a show to actually stop was completely irrelevant to me, possessing as I did the perfect confidence that global success was just beyond my sightline, a conviction that when expressed absolutely can only belong to the extremely naive or the extremely delusional.  In 1972 I suppose I was a bit of both.

Regarding the procurement of vibrato, my first assumption was that I simply needed to practice, believing that at some point, I would wake up one morning and my voice would just have it, introducing itself to me with the gleaming precision a set of German knives.  I’m quite sure the idea of vibrato via practicing occurred to me not for its inherent logic, but rather because of the association between what I was trying to do with my voice and what I was trying to do with my hair.  You see, at that time I had bone-straight hair that naturally parted in the middle.  Wanting very much to look like Robert Reed who played Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch or Chad Everett from Medical Center, I had asked the barber to cut my hair with a side part but was told that this was just impossible because of the tenacity of the aforementioned center part.  At this I balked—my part could not be as tenacious as my will—and I reproached the barber to offer a tonsorial solution that did not include the word “no.”  “Well,” he added, “There is one possibility but it takes a lot of work. It is possible to train your hair to part on the side but it may take a long time.”  He then prescribed daily, aggressive brushing with a square, nylon-bristled brush to retrain my recalcitrant hair to move to the left.  So for the next two years I brushed my hair constantly in a feverish attempt to do to my hair what civil engineers had done to the Colorado River in order to bring water to Los Angeles.  “If my hair can be retrained to go in a new direction,” I reasoned, “why can’t my voice be retrained to have vibrato?”  Thus, the practicing began.

My class picture in 1973, by which point I was deeply entrenched in “retraining” my hair to part on the side, which was less Chad Everett and more comb-over for the under-ten set.

I would spend hours in my room brushing my hair to the side and listening to records, creating elaborate fantasies about how people would react when I got my vibrato.  The fact that I had recently discovered Barbra Streisand, whose own vibrato was as fast as a machine gun and which I did, in fact, find extremely thrilling, only made me yearn more for the elusive secret of how to make my own voice vibrate with such insistent, undeniable power.  I brushed and sang, sang and brushed and the months went by, producing nothing but the same high, piercing sound with no fluctuation of pitch.

My mother would sing around the house from time to time, and I noted that even she he had a light but very discernible quiver to her voice. Vibrato in my own house!  I asked her why her voice could do that and mine could not—a question she must have interpreted as a riddle, for she offered nothing beyond the encouragement of continued practice.  The more I sang the more frustrated I became at the unchanging quality of my shrill, flat sound, which more closely approximated Jean Stapleton’s version of Those Were The Days from the opening of All in The Family than anyone cousin Michael and I heard on Aunt Sue’s 8-track.  It seemed so unfair.  Even Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion possessed a stunning vibrato of throbbing, feline intensity.  If a lion can do it, why oh why can’t I?

When excessive practicing effected no change, I invented a new theory with a built in escape clause: vibrato must simply be something that happens when you grow up.  This made sense because when we went to the barber my mother noted that everyone thought I was girl and the barber said that would happen until I got older and was able to grow sideburns.  (What did not seem obvious to any of us was the idea of trading my Toni Tennille, shoulder-length, bowl cut for a more traditional, less ambiguous boy’s haircut, a possible consequence of my single-minded obsession with getting my hair to part on the side.)

Zavaroni’s first album: not a great moment for me

My efforts to accept the notion that I would have to be a grown-up to sing like one did not come easily to me.  Unfortunately, any progress I may have made in that direction was completely decimated one Saturday morning when I saw a ten-year-old Scottish girl named Lena Zavaroni sing on Bob McCallister’s Wonderama.  As she opened her mouth to perform two Teresa Brewer songs from the 1950s, Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me, and Put Another Nickel In (Music, Music, Music), I was horrified at what I heard: a gigantic alto belt with a fully-developed, booming vibrato!  My natural reaction was vitriol—I hated her completely—which did not prevent me from fixating on how she did it, being, as she was, just a few months older than myself and a great deal shorter.

In a moment the world seemed even more strange and unjust than it had before Zavaroni’s adult-like vibrato had completely destroyed the adult-only theory, leaving me once again at square one with no vibrato in sight.  Lena Zavaroni: those cutesy, coached mannerisms, little floral skirts that looked like table cloths, and that God-damned thundering vibrato, which seemed to mock me with every tremulous variation of pitch.  I helplessly watched in horror as her star ascended.  She was quickly signed to Stax Records and released her first album, called—what else, Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me—and I assure you, she was right, for every time I heard the wee little piglet sing I made mean, envious eyes at her, rather like the beady tail lights of our ancient Chevy Impala.  From my perspective, this horrible child had been put on the planet for the sole purpose of finishing the job of ruining my life begun a few months earlier when nine-year-old Tatum O’Neal became the youngest person to ever win a competitive Oscar for her performance in Paper Moon.  Such were the slings and arrows of my childhood.

I never related to kids who’s needs were simple, like the want of a new baseball glove or to go fishing with Grandpa.  My interests, though epic in scale, seemed simple: to sing with thrilling vibrato and become internationally famous.  The very existence of children like Tatum O’Neal and that horrible little Scottish girl proved my objectives were achievable.  How many Little Rascals reruns concerned  themselves with Alfafa—another young singer I admired—and his various schemes to achieve singing stardom?  This was the world I lived in, a world inhabited wholly by imagination and completely unbothered by the pesky intrusion of reality or any sense of proportion that might make things a bit less,well…tense.  Even though my goals were absurd and most likely unachievable, I was singleminded in my relentless pursuit of reinvention and success, tropes that are exalted in the narratives of those lucky enough to succeed and demonized in the narratives of those who are doomed to fail, in equal measure.

From the moment I heard that Zavaroni girl, the gloves came off and I stopped playing.  In what might be described as a sort of delusional trance or, if you prefer, the tantrum of a pre-pubescent gay boy, I decided at once to stop waitin’ and start wobblin’: I just started shaking my voice manually, the way it sounds when you grab your throat and shake the skin on your neck while holding a note, only I figured out how to do it without my hands.  Bam!  It sounded positively vibrato-ish.  In a moment, I had demanded and received a new grown-up sound and—more importantly—commanded the innovation of my new thrilling, handless, manual vibrato with a perfect belief in my own ability, which, though misguided and ultimately wrong, may have been the only authentic aspect of my new singing voice!

Emboldened by discovery and the pride of possessing a treasure, the difference between what I heard in my head and what actually came out of my mouth had now completely disappeared.  This resulted in an explosion of constant singing: a piercing, nasal caterwaul cascading across the streets of East Brunswick with a throbbing vocal palsy of which I had not an iota of objectivity and not a bit of hesitation to spring upon an unsuspecting world.  So convinced was I that I had, at last, learned the secret to accelerate my career beyond the limits of central New Jersey, I strutted around the house and the neighborhood belting and shaking, shaking and belting, laboriously wheezing up and down Overhill Road like a broken down little train that almost could, in a voice so loud, shrill, and unstable, that it positively demanded: for God’s sake, could someone please help this child?  I was blissfully unaware of how I actually sounded…briefly.

My hands free, manual vibrato was too good to last.  The record finally skipped—proverbially speaking—one afternoon when Michael and I went to Dr. Barofsky’s for our shots.  It was Aunt Sue’s turn to drive.  We popped Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb 8-track into the machine.  The album contained the number one hit Delta Dawn—an excellent sing-along and a tune we had all enjoyed before.  The song begins with the chorus, the first line of which contains no note longer than a half note, not long enough to use my new vibrato: Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?  I grew excited knowing that the last note of the second line was a whole note—four beats—and my first opportunity to unleash the vibrato!  Could it be a faded rose from days gone by-y-y-y-y-y?  Whoa!  Aunt Sue gave me a puzzled looked in the rear-view mirror, perhaps not quite sure what she thought she might have heard, and we all kept singing.   And did I hear you say, she was a-meetin’ you here today?  To take you to that mansion in the sky-y-y-y-y-y-y?  On “sky” I hit fast and I hit hard, my manual vibrato thrust into turbo, fueled perhaps by all the rage I felt toward the horrible Lena Zavaroni and the joyful anticipation of the great success I was certain would be my reward for obtaining the secret of thrilling vibrato.  I held the note far longer than the four beats a whole note asked for.  It was just so good I didn’t want to let it go.

But something was wrong.  As Michael, me, and Helen Reddy began the first verse—she’s forty-one but her daddy still calls her baby…the car swerved slightly and I caught Aunt Sue’s eyes in the mirror as they nervously darted back and forth.  In a single moment, my manual vibrato had become my Donovan’s Brain, a power for which I had paid too high a price.

Aunt Sue turned the volume down. “David?  Why are you doing that weird thing with your voice?  I think your singing would sound better if you don’t shake your voice that way!  I don’t remember you ever doing that before.”   I stopped singing and I got that funny feeling you get on the back of your neck when you’re embarrassed and wish you could get small enough to disappear, a sensation that, I must admit, happened from time to time, but not as much as you would expect for a nine-year-old boy whose entire life looked and sounded like an episode of the Carol Burnett Show interpreted by a child on an acid trip.

“Well, It’s new, Aunt Sue.  It’s called vibrato and it comes from being a good singer,” I offered defensively, attempting to justify my achievement at the very moment I began to realize that I hadn’t achieved anything.  “Well, maybe don’t do that, just sing your old way, in your real voice, that was good enough!” she replied, and turned the volume up again.  For the rest of the song I tried to sing in my old style, though much more tentatively: loud enough for her to think her comment was no big deal but not loud enough for her or Michael to tell that I was so busy try to be something special that I had forgotten what my real voice actually sounded like—all I could remember was that I didn’t like it.

It took a while to want to sing loudly again.  I remember being confused as to why doing things in a natural way seemed so, well, completely unnatural.  What seems clear enough, at least from where I’m sitting now, was that however the elusive vibrato comes into your throat, it can’t just be stuffed there like an apple in a pig’s mouth any more than your hair can be diverted from its natural part.   It would take many years and many more Delta Dawn moments for me to begin to understand the appeal of using your true voice, one that is unforced and—perish the thought—natural.  Sometimes I still forget, especially on the days I look in the mirror and see only see “a faded rose from days gone by.”

Still singing: In high school chorus class, 1981, by which time I’d reverted to my natural, central part.

 

You may also like:

Painful Corners: The Time I Was a Cabaret Singer For One Night!

Notes From The Honeycomb Hideout, Part One: Hatching The Plan and The Joan Crawford Paradigm

Making Lists: On Collecting, the Acquisitive Personality, and Eight Things Barbra Streisand Did in 1971!

Get Reddy! A Stargayzing Tribute to Helen Reddy Illustrating the Theory of Celebrity Mental Stagnation at the Peak of Stardom!

36 Comments

  1. jojowah
    July 10, 2012 at 1:57 pm
    Reply

    Beautifully written…had me laughing uncontrollably at your manual vibrato! I found your site from the HONY FB page…looking forward to reading more of your work!

    • David Munk
      July 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm

      Thanks for reading and please stay in touch! The blog is relaunching next week as “Stargayzing!”

  2. Michele
    July 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm
    Reply

    Oh, David! I’m laughing on the outside, but still hurting for you on the inside. You, poor baby! So glad you have the ability to look back and see things clearly. It makes for good healing. (I hope!)

    • David Munk
      July 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Don’t be sad, Michele, this is all very therapeutic! You know that comedy can’t exist without tragedy!

  3. Ollie
    July 11, 2012 at 2:56 am
    Reply

    Hi. I received your link from Google Alert – Lena Zavaroni. Very interesting reading. I happen to be a big fan of Lena. I think she was probably the best child singer to come out of the 70’s. Lena made over 300 recordings. Would love you to check out http://www.lenazavaroni.com She grew and matured into a beautiful woman and brilliant singer, unfortunately falling into bad health and losing her battle with anorexia.

    • David Munk
      July 11, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Yes, I agree. She was very talented and I’m glad that you understand the tone of my resentment to her was completely that of a jealous child. I was (slightly) concerned that I was going to piss off some Lena fans who didn’t understand my childlike envy. Thanks for reading and please stay in touch!

  4. kelly
    July 11, 2012 at 11:40 am
    Reply

    I, too, hated that Zavaroni creep.

    • David Munk
      July 11, 2012 at 11:55 am

      Hi Kelly. “Hate” is a strong word, but I suppose it is applicable in this case – especially coming from a child. I can honestly say as a nine-year-old I hated the little bitch. Now I feel sad because she died tragically, but hopefully through my humorous piece, the old broad’ll get a few new fans!

  5. char
    July 14, 2012 at 11:30 am
    Reply

    I laughed so hard. I, too, spent much of my childhood aggrieved and disgruntled that all the wrong kids (namely everyone that wasn’t me) were being rewarded with fame and success. I kept the objects of my resentment more local, though, like the annoying, evil twits in the elementary school musical.

    • David Munk
      July 15, 2012 at 10:40 am

      Hi Charmaine! Thanks for taking the time to read my work. I hope you’ll continue checking in!

  6. Laura (Lore) Bloom
    July 14, 2012 at 6:23 pm
    Reply

    As usual, I loved this!! Keep writing!!!

    • David Munk
      July 15, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thank Laura! Hope you’re having a great summer.

  7. Uncle Sherwin
    July 15, 2012 at 8:42 am
    Reply

    I loved this post because of the “Aunt Sue Connection.” Sue and Linda are still best friends after all these years. It is so great to see such a long lasting relationship.

    • David Munk
      July 15, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Thank you for the kind words Sherwin! We’re looking forward to seeing you in just a few weeks!

  8. Debs Baker
    August 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm
    Reply

    Hi! Loved reading your story! I loved reading how you were jealous of Lena! I have been running her website for nearly 13 years, met her 5 times and would love you to have a look at the website, and sign the guestbook, I have recently had a tribute from Neil Sedaka himself! – Debs x

  9. Debs Baker
    August 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm
    Reply

    Meant to say my website is http://www.lenazavaroni.co.uk

    Debs x

  10. Donn Celi
    September 9, 2012 at 7:01 am
    Reply

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  11. Francesco Calin
    September 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm
    Reply

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