Music Is In My Blood: My Uncle The Big Band Composer
All That Jazz
It was pretty much inevitable that I'd be a musician. My mother is a concert level classical pianist. My father can play guitar and piano by ear. My mother's father was a professional violin and mandolin player. And my dad's uncle was a composer, lyricist and clarinetist.
While growing up, all of these people had a profound influence on my musical career in many ways. My mom taught me how to play piano (my first instrument out of four), while my father was constantly blaring classical and jazz music in our home and the car. Meantime, my grandfather is the one who suggested I learn the flute when they began teaching us instruments at school.
When it came to my great uncle, however, I didn't know him very well. Yet his contribution to music has influenced my life greatly, and because of that, I feel a certain connection to him. You probably don't realize it, but there's a good chance that you know him, too.
Name That Tune
His name was Sydney Rabinowitz, though he'd changed his name to Sid Robin. He was the brother of my grandfather, Nathan, who'd died before I was born (and who I was named after). I didn't see Sydney much because he lived in Los Angeles. But I certainly heard many stories about him from my grandmother and my Aunt Sylvia (his sister).
You see, Sydney was more than just a musician. He was the lyricist behind the jazz standard "Undecided," as well as the Elvis tune "Just Because." He collaborated alongside Benny Goodman, Charlie Shavers, Irving Berlin, Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton, and wrote the songs used for many TV shows and movies throughout the '40s and '50s. He also appeared in the movie This Is The Army with Ronald Reagan.
As an adult, I look back at his accomplishments and am in awe that he managed to do so much. I'm still finding my way both as a writer and a musician and the fact that he was successful at both is quite impressive. When I was a kid, though, I didn't think too much about his career. To me, he was just Great Uncle Sydney.
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I only met my Uncle Sydney twice in my life, but both visits stand out amongst my favorite childhood memories.
The first time I met him was when I was four. My parents and I flew out to California that summer, which was actually my first ride on a plane. At this point, I didn't know much about Sydney except that he had palm trees on his front lawn. And a pool. I was VERY excited about that!
When we arrived at Sydney's house, we were greeted by an unassuming older man wearing a bathrobe and baggy pajamas. He looked as if he'd just gotten out of bed, but I'd soon learn that this was the way he always dressed.
He and his wife loved animals and had a terrier dog named Lollipop. I immediately fell in love with her. I'd pick her up and carry her around the house with me. I even tried to get her to spend the night with me by tying the blanket around her like a sack. She was freed when my parents heard her yowl... and yet she was still friendly to me.
When I wasn't tormenting the poor dog, I was swimming in my uncle's pool. This trip was full of firsts because it was in his pool that I learned how to swim underwater. My dad bribed me with Oreo cookies. Each time I put my head under, I'd get a cookie. Let's just say that by the end of the day, I was an expert at this skill!
Come to think of it, my great aunt and uncle's home was full of treats. They had chocolate-flavored gum, bowls full of hard candies, and my uncle made the best scrambled eggs. I don't what he did to them, but they were amazing; not too soft and not too hard.
In the evenings, we'd sit outside by the pool and relax. Because it was so warm, I could sit out there in my nightgown. I loved the freedom of being able to sit outside in my PJs. I loved California.
During our two weeks there, Uncle Sydney took us to all of his favorite restaurants. He also helped my parents come up with places to take me: Knots Berry Farm, Disneyland, Universal Studios. As far as I was concerned, L.A. was a big playground. His daughters even arranged for me to have a half birthday party at a nearby ice cream parlor. I'd never seen so much candy in my life! Thanks to their idea, I still celebrate half birthdays to this day.
We never saw Sydney too much and when we did, he tended to keep to himself, but he was the perfect host. He went out of his way for us and treated us like royalty.
A Latin Take On Undecided
Thet Next Visit
The next time we visited Sydney, I was eight. Again, we stayed for about a week and again, we took a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles. Lollipop was still alive, only this time she was joined by a big dog named Derek, as well as two cats. Derek liked to swim with me in the pool. One of the cats bit me after I accidentally stepped on its tail.
Now that I was older, I was much more aware of Sydney's musical legacy. I also realized that he knew Important People. I remember him talking about his friend "Doris" ... who turned out to be his close pal, Doris Day. He also knew many well-know musicians in Hollywood.
Sometimes we'd run into these Hollywood-types while out with him. When we did, his whole demeanor would change. He was no longer the little guy in the pajamas. Now he was all, "Babe" and "What's the buzz?" and "Let's do lunch." When we was around the Important People, he transformed into this power player. I wasn't sure I liked this side of him, but I liked his music. It was cool when we'd heard a version of "Undecided" being played in an elevator or supermarket. It made me feel proud.
Elvis Just Because
Sydney died in 1986, when I was 12. Though I didn't know him too well, it hit me hard. It was as if a piece of my childhood had died. Still, over the next few years, his music seemed to follow me. My parents took me to see a musical called Five Guys Named Moe, which featured two of his songs. Meanwhile, we played Undecided in my high school band. That was a little surreal for me, especially when my conductor announced to everyone that I was related to one of the composers. A few kids didn't believe me and even laughed at me about it. I made one boy feel very guilty by explaining that he was my favorite uncle, who'd passed away.
During that time, my dad also got a video tape of this movie musical from the 1940s called This Is The Army. He called me in and asked me to watch with him and I wasn't too thrilled about viewing some old-fashioned Army movie. Still, I found myself getting into the film, which was about military guys in WWII, who were, well, putting on a musical about the military. We then got to a scene where they introduced the new Army recruits. Out came a bunch of men wearing nothing but their underwear as the other soldiers laughed at them. My dad paused the tape. "Do you recognize him?" my dad asked, pointing to the man in the front. I eyed the man, who was wearing glasses and baggy pajamas. "That's Sydney!" I exclaimed. The soldiers then launched into that famous tune by Irving Berlin, "This Is The Army," and my uncle had the very first verse! Standing (still in his pjs), he sang those now really well-know lyrics, "This is the Army, Mr. Jones/No private rooms or telephones/You've had your breakfast in bed before/But you won't have it there anymore." This was so cool -- Sydney was famous! He appeared in a few other scenes in the movie, including in a dress! I showed off his scenes to all of my friends.
This Is The Army Mr. Jones -- That's Sydney singing the very first verse!
Sydney continued to follow me in college, when we again played Undecided in jazz band. Then, after I graduated and began working as a journalist, I had a rather spooky experience. Though I'm an avid traveler, I'm a very nervous flyer. I had a business trip coming up in L.A. and I really didn't want to go. A few nights before the trip I couldn't sleep, so I watched some TV. It was 3 a.m. ... and as I flipped around the channels, what should happen to be on but This Is The Army -- right at my uncle's scene where he begins singing in his pajamas.
Then when I was on the plane, I put on one of the music stations so I could calm myself down. And what should happen to be playing, but Undecided. This could've been a big coincidence, but I like to think that it was something bigger than that.
Over the years, I've continued to hear tales about Uncle Sydney from my grandmother. It was especially poignant when we had the band played Undecided at our wedding and everyone on my father's side went crazy. In particular, my grandmother and Aunt Sylvia, who were both 83 at the time, were having a blast as they sang and danced to the tune.
Last year, I tried to follow in my uncle's footsteps and took a stab at producing my own jazz flute album, which I titled Flute Path. I really wanted to challenge myself with this project so I composed all of the music and played the flute, piano and bass parts (using the bass sound on the keyboard). I'm not famous from it, but I'm really proud of how it turned out.
There's that old expression about music being in one's blood and I definitely think there's some in mine. I hope that one day my music will reach and entertain as many people as Sydney's has. His name may be attached to a famous tune, but he's part of my life.