In 1994, I carefully yet casually asked a guy I knew from high school about Joy’s whereabouts. It was a fine summer evening out in front of Temptations, the local home-made ice cream shop. Ben stared at me and said, “What, you hadn’t heard? She got killed in a car accident last year.” He told me the details, but they weren’t important, because I was numb. I never ever said “thank you,” not at all.
My mind fell back to the days when I was a proud student of Richard Montgomery High School. Back then I couldn’t tell that Joy had a rush on me, but she gave me a tape that would change my life. No, it wasn’t anything by L. Ron Hubbard, Jello Biafra, or the eminent Rev. Sun Myung Moon. She gave me a copy of “Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Classics: Vol. 5 1962-1969.”
When she gave me the tape, I smiled, looked down at it, and turned away from her. I wondered at it, turning the tape over and over. My musical affections were reserved for the mind candy that poured out of WMAL-AM, a station that combined show tunes with easy-listening dreck from the ’70s.
As you might recall, Chicago had been my favorite band, and I was still partial to Christopher Cross and the theme from “Tootsie.” A sixth grade memory comes back to me: Howlin’ “something’s tellin’ me it might be yoooo….” as I sat out in the hot sun in my Scout uniform, parking cars at the County Fair near the Tractor Pull.
But everthing changed when I listened to that classic soul tape. My life began to change as soon as I heard Wilson Pickett yell “ONE TWO THREE!!!” on the very first track, “Land of 10,000 Dances.” Horns blared as the good-time vibes flooded my room. I didn’t even know what he meant when Wilson sang “Do the mashed potato,” and I didn’t really care. It was something good, I was sure of that.
Next came Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” followed by Sam & Dave’s “When Something’s Wrong With My Baby.” Then Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” came hot on their heels. The raw feelings and deep down grooves flew free from the fixed magnetic patterns on the tape and shamed my record collection, which included the Best of Tony Orlando and Dawn.
Finally, the bare powerful truth of “Chain of Fools” stripped away all my pride and pretension; “Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Hold On” just melted away into weepy mush. Any music that didn’t punch me in the gut like Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” wasn’t worth my time anymore. I didn’t know it then, but I had taken the first step away from Peter Cetera and was headed toward Sonic Youth and Camper Van Beethoven.
So the search began to for music that would match Aretha & Co. It eventually led me to the original Yesterday And Today Records, where I asked for some good music. The guy at the store told me to get Husker Du’s Metal Circus. My Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz had been gathering dust in a corner, but it was pulled out and I started to absorb Charlie Parker, Theolonius Monk, and Duke Ellington.
By the time I graduated from college in 1992, the transition was complete. A few years later, I looked back and tried to figure out how I had developed such a deep love for good music, and it all led back to that R&B tape.
And there I was, at an ice cream store on a fine summer night, trying to absorb the impossible….
Soul music saved me. Thank you, Joy.