When you think of music that children listen to, you might think of nursery rhymes, folk tunes, jump-rope songs. The music of my early childhood can be summed up in two words.
You probably have at least two questions. Possibly the first is “Who is Jackie Wilson?” He was an American pop singer of the 1950s who influenced singers from Elvis to Michael Jackson to Van Morrison. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 26th among the 100 greatest singers. But I’m not going to count that question. So, 1. Why Jackie Wilson? 2. What does this have to do with classical music? I’ll answer both.
1. My mother was a huge Jackie Wilson fan. Huge. She had all the records. My father took her to New York City to see a show. They never went to New York City. She also had a stereo that surpassed mine in sheer volume, not to mention size. My stereo rattled the blinds. Hers rattled the windows…in the neighbor’s house. And you could stack LPs and play one right after the other. Which she did. A lot.
I didn’t realize how much this music had sunk in until something like 20 years had passed, and a Jackie Wilson song came on. And I still remembered all the words. I don’t know any nursery rhymes or folk tunes (“Oh do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike?” No, not really).
2. So it came as a great astonishment to me the first time I listened to Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci when the aria Vesti la Giubba began. I knew it. But I knew it as My Empty Arms, sung by Jackie Wilson. And now I wish I could have heard him sing it in the original, because he had a spectacular voice. Later I came to equate Alone at Last with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Night with an aria from Camille San-Saëns opera Samson and Delilah (Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix).
Sure, some of Jackie’s music is schlocky. Someone once said (I wish I could remember who) that he never met a song he didn’t like (his rendition of My Yiddische Mama is unexpected, but part of a tribute to Al Jolson, whom he admired). But that voice. The voice of a man who had once been a Golden Gloves boxer (his athleticism shows on stage), whose opportunities to sing classical music were at that time non-existent. Lonely Teardrops indeed.
But he wasn’t the only one to turn classical music to a popular top hit. Here is a website that has compiled a list of popular songs that have borrowed classical themes.
So what are the songs you remember from childhood? What songs did you play for your children?