Hitting the Right Notes

LIKE GOOD MUSIC, STYLE IS A MELANGE OF ECLECTIC ELEMENTS, THE WHOLE INEFFABLY GREATER THAN ITS PARTS.

BY JAMES RARUS

In 1935, at 10 years old, my father lost his dad in a fire. The death left a Polish-speaking widow to raise her six children in the blue collar town o f Sayreville, New Jersey. With no father at home, my dad adopted multiple father figures from his working-class, Catholic town. They taught him how to smoke, sing, swear, tie a four-in-hand and handle his whiskey. By 14, Julius Anthony Richard Rarus was singing with these men—most twice his age—in a Sayreville glee club. After graduating from a Catholic high school, my dad joined the Army, serving as a payroll master on a base in America’s Bible Belt. The only action he saw during WWII was at the officer’s club, in his tailor’s shop, and in the beds of the local girls who’d fall for the handsome singer in the custom-made khaki uniform.

After the war came college, the Cold War, and a possible new career. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover’s men were recruiting agents who could ferret out Communist infiltrators from post-war Eastern Europe. Aware of my dad’s Polish fluency, they pursued him, noting that his crisply tailored Ivy League suits, rakish fedoras and linen pocket squares would serve him well with The Director. But after months of interviews, background checks and tails from other agents to see where he drank, slept and prayed, he was passed over for being “too liberal.” He’d tell me these stories on Sunday nights, as he filed his nails, polished his Aldens and brushed his fur felt hats. He’d hum along to Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra on the Hi-Fi, and reminisce about how he courted my mother in jazz clubs while being courted by the F.B.I. “I’d wear my best custom suits, hire a chauffeured car, pick up Mom over in Princeton, and we’d drive into the city to see Lenny Bruce, George Shearing, Maxine Sullivan, Tony Bennett…”

Years after my dad’s passing, I found myself standing next to Tony Bennett in a Manhattan men’s store. We began a conversation about music. “Music is good or it’s not music,” Mr. Bennett told me with unabashed certainty. “We might call it music because it sounds like music, but it’s bad sound. It’s that simple and always has been.” He leaned forward, stared into my eyes with fatherly concern and asked, softly, “Understand?” I didn’t, to be honest. But I knew my dad would have understood perfectly.

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