52 Ancestors – #29 – Music: Is It In Our DNA?

Doris Lichtenthal
1938 Passport Photo

“All I ever wanted was to go to America and listen to jazz.” That’s what my mother told me during one of our chats about her childhood in Vienna, Austria. I never really thought deeply about that comment until recently. Mom left Vienna in 1938, a few months after her 6th birthday. Was it possible that a child that young had an understanding, nevermind a longing, for a specific music genre? I don’t know, but if anyone could, it would be Mom!!

This week’s post for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blog challenge is an unapologetic plug for two marvelous musicians in our family. But first a little history…

I don’t know anything about the musical inclinations of any generation before that of my maternal grandparents, so I’ll start there.

My grandfather, Paul Lichtenthal was by trade a hat-maker. He also played the cello, the viola, and the clarinet. My sister Jeanne said he and our grandmother, Rose Spiegel Lichtenthal used to play four-hand piano together. They lived in Vienna, Austria in the early 1930s. Vienna has been referred to as the “city of music” and the “world’s musical capital.” If you loved classical music that was the place to be! My mother, therefore, got a double-dose of musical DNA and most likely frequent exposure to music. Jeanne told me our grandmother listened to opera every Saturday night.

Once settled in America, my mother and her parents continued to appreciate music. My mother played bassoon in her high school orchestra. Both she and my grandfather were members of the New Rochelle (NY) Symphony in the early 1950s. I remember playing “kitchen” underneath my grandmother’s grand piano as a young child but I never once heard anyone play. One day the piano was gone. My grandmother sold it to someone in a neighboring apartment so she could buy new beds for my sister and me.

New Rochelle (NY) Symphony – Early 1950s

My mother literally married “the boy next door.” Mom lived in apartment 5D and Alan Samuel lived in 5E. My father also had an interest in music. They married in 1953 and by 1954, were living on a Naval base in Japan. In letters home to her mother, she often would write about the symphonies they were attending or the music they were currently listening to. In one particular letter, dated Jan. 24, 1955, my mother asked for advice about purchasing some instruments; specifically – a bassoon for her and an oboe for my father. “Honestly, we want your opinion on this, since it’s quite an investment. We know we’ll never be good musicians but we both enjoying playing and music so much.” Before I read that letter I had no idea my father ever played an instrument.

Fast forward to 1962(ish). My parents have divorced and my mom is in a new relationship with this great guy, Al Falcone. I don’t have any memories of music being played in the house before Alfie came on the scene. I’m sure there was- my father had built a GIANT speaker and a turntable which sat in the living room. (I think whatever may be left of the turntable is still in the attic – too big to drag out!!) NOW there’s music!!  Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Brazil 66, Dave Brubeck, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and many more!

My brother Dean was born in 1964. My mother said he “came out singing.” Hmmm. The boy did love music though. One of my earliest memories of Dean and music was the day we went to Chicken Lickin’ for lunch. He was maybe 2 years old. The Herman Hermit’s song Mrs. Brown You Have a Lovely Daughter was playing on the jukebox. And Dean sang along! More about his music prowess later…

At some point, my mother felt we should play instruments. Something a little more challenging than the tonettes and the recorders required in school! Our neighbor, Mrs. Croog taught (and I’m using that word very loosely!) me to play the piano. After some time, it became obvious that was not to be my instrument. My hands were pretty small and my chubby fingers really didn’t stretch enough to cover the necessary range. So, I switched to the clarinet. I remember practicing on my Poppa Paul’s clarinet during music lessons at school. Also not to be my instrument! Again I blamed my lack of ability on my tiny hands. I figured the guitar would present the same problem, so I tried the banjo. That didn’t last long. Eventually, I discovered I could sing. I joined the Glee Club in junior high and formed a little a cappella group with three other girls in high school. In March 1973 I got sick with mononucleosis and my voice changed. Maybe that’s why, years later, my little Meghan would put her tiny hand over my mouth as I sang to the car radio!

Meanwhile, my siblings were developing their own musical talents. Betsy took up the French horn, the flute and played the piano. Jeanne showed real promise! She loved all kinds of music and actually was good enough to play the flute in the school’s marching band. To this day, she still has a pretty good ear for music.

Dean picked up a guitar at age 12 and never put it down.

Dean in his youth!
He’s also a Beatles maven!!
The Excerpts in Japan

Basically self-taught, he and three buddies formed a band The Excerpts in the late 1970s. Those boys were good!! I still find myself humming some their songs 40 years later! The band did quite well. When they first started out, our mother had to attend all the gigs because Dean was too young to enter the bars where they performed. Over the next few years, the band got more attention. They even performed in Japan!

Dean and Shellye
From their website:

Then, as often happens in the world of music, the band broke up. Dean formed new bands over the next few decades and developed quite a following. Dean didn’t just play the guitar. I took this list of instruments he plays from his Facebook page:  Though his preferred instrument is guitar, he’s also proficient on bass, keyboards (including the Mellotron), sitar, lap steel, Pedal steel, dobro, banjo, ukulele, and theremin. (If you know what all those are, you’re more versed in all things musical than I am!) Oh! And he writes music and lyrics as well.

I have to say that I am constantly amazed at what my baby brother has accomplished. His most recent projects include writing/producing the latest CD Gaslighter for his band Tipsy in Chelsea, composing the original score to the documentary A Dog Named Gucci (especially the song One Voice with Norah Jones, Aimee Mann and other famous artists), and writing the score for and co-producing the upcoming documentary Pizza, A Love Story Oh, yea- and he’s soon to marry the fabulous Shellye Valauskas, his partner in crime music! Together, as the Shellye Valaskas Experience, they recently released the well-received CD History of Panic If you have 3 minutes and 39 seconds and want to spend it enjoying their song Leftover Mistake click here. You won’t be sorry!!!

Dean is not the only member of our family to develop their musical talent to a professional level.* Jeanne bought her son Clifford a guitar when he was in the sixth grade. In seventh grade, Cliff took lessons in jazz from his teacher and by the time he was ready for high school, he was skilled enough to be accepted into NOCCA (the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.) Cliff began getting recognition in the New Orleans area. He formed a few different bands, not just playing guitar but also writing music and exploring the new sounds of electronic music. (I’m sure I haven’t explained that properly but you get the idea! He’s creative and inventive!!)  Then, in 2005 Hurrican Katrina devasted New Orleans. The upside of that tragedy was that Cliff came to live with us for the fall semester. Thanks to the help of several key people in Hamden and at ACES, he was able to continue his musical studies attending ECA (Educational Center for the Arts) while also attending Hamden High.

I “stole” this photo of Cliff off his website!!

I can’t even begin to explain Cliff’s musical range. When he lived with us, much of his music had a distinct jazz influence (again…DNA??) After returning home, Cliff would occasionally book gigs here in Connecticut which I happily attended. But, I must be honest. The last time I saw Cliff performing his own music, there wasn’t anything I could hum to! I’m sure there was a melody in there somewhere and the combination of the electronic sounds was… um… I’ll just let you read the description I took from his website: “Cliff Hines is one of the leading voices in progressive music in New Orleans. His compositions defy categorization and seamlessly blend genres to create his own unique sound. His mastery over electronics allows him to manipulate his guitar in creative ways, also lending to his identifiable style.”

Like his uncle, Cliff always has several projects going at once. He has released several CDs and an EP of his various musical styles and recently toured with the Mike Dillon Band. Currently, Clifford is touring with Rickie Lee Jones. By the way, he isn’t yet 30 years old. Pretty damn accomplished already, I’d say!!

Will the musical talents continue to be passed down to the newest generation? Check out these videos and decide for yourself!!


*There are other accomplished musicians in my extended family, most notably Marion, a “for real” opera singer! But, for the purposes of this week’s post, I focused on the members with whom I share DNA.

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