An Article by Tom “Doc” Leytham
Between Labor Day of 1976 and Memorial Day of 1978, I was a somewhat normal, but also fairly awkward teenager* who attended a small private school and an even smaller conservative church – both in Mobile, Alabama. (*Who am I kidding? I was just plain awkward.)
Technically, I did not actually live in Mobile. I alternated between living with my parents on a pecan orchard south of Mobile during the school year (that was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in September 1979 when the eye of the storm passed directly over our home – while we were in it) and living with my grandparents at a bay house during summertime (and holidays) on the other side of Mobile Bay (also heavily damaged by “Freddy”).
My dad was a minister and my mom a schoolteacher. They were not wealthy by any monetary standards. They were both kind, well educated, and hard working. As parents they were strict, but affectionate and, for the most part, quite over protective. I did not have brothers or neighbors and both of my sisters were younger than me. None of my large cadre of cousins lived nearby. There was not actually all that much to do. This could not be admitted to out loud as it would instantly result in a laundry list of chores (including laundry) being assigned to you, so you had to keep that to yourself.
Top Photo: Radio Dial featuring WABB 97 Rock FM in Mobile, AL (courtesy of Smitty Armour); Above photo: Sitting behind the Dashboard of an Oldsmobile 98 help shape the dreams of young Tom Leytham.
I loved baseball and had played on sandlots often before we moved into the “country”, but it is not terribly easy to play baseball by yourself. There were two boys near my age who lived less than a mile away and I would have been allowed to ride my bike to visit them but for the fact that the road they lived on was made of red clay. This area was well known for heavy rainfall. If you know anything about red clay, you know that bicycles, rain, and red clay roads do not mix well. It might as well have been fifty miles away. But it doesn’t really matter because neither of those two boys even liked baseball.
So, I read books, threw my baseball at a pitch back, and listened to music during the school year (after homework and chores, of course). In the summer we added fishing and water skiing at the bay house, watching TV with my grandparents, and listening to the Atlanta Braves on the radio but still there was music.
In fact, my parents were tremendous music lovers. Dad sang often and played guitar some. Mom sang some and played piano often. We were all taught some piano, but I switched to percussion and guitar, one sister switched to playing flute, and the other switched to choral singing. And naturally, we all sang a bit in the youth choir at church. So, they passed their love of music to me and my sisters, but they were also extremely careful to monitor the content. My school was the same way. We were taught serious appreciation for music but within very strict guidelines.
Tom “Doc” Leytham following his dreams through the years (left photo: courtesy of Jeff Litton)
This made rock and roll, country music, and some types of jazz pretty much off limits. Neither my parents nor my teachers liked the link between drugs, sex, and rock and roll nor did they like the link between drinking, cheating, and country music. I am not sure what they had against jazz. It was probably that they simply didn’t like it very much.
Therefore, we were, for the most part, listening to: band music (John Philip Sousa, Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, etc.), folk music (Bob Dylan excluded due to his rock and roll affiliations), classical music (mostly symphonies but, also a few operas), bluegrass (instrumentals, mainly), Disney (sing-a-longs, mostly) and religious music of all types (Christian rock was not really a thing yet … at least not the louder kind). My parents had many vinyl records and a fairly nice hi-fi stereo on which to play them, considering our means. We even had quite a few albums which were actually produced, recorded by, and/or starring friends of my parents who happened to be gospel musicians, such as The Broadways and The Rosetones.
Mardi Gras Dubloon “1979 WABB 97 Rock FM”
(Courtesy of Smitty Armour)
As far as all of the music restrictions, there were only a very few exceptions; my dad would occasionally play a Hank Williams or Johnny Cash song and maybe some upbeat 50’s music – albeit, rarely. My parents had supposedly attended a Jerry Lee Lewis concert together not long before they were married – maybe that had something to do with their hesitancy about the rock and roll genre as we rarely spoke of this event. We were allowed to listen to some crossover music like Glen Campbell, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John or Herb Alpert and we could watch variety shows except for Sonny and Cher due to Cher’s constantly exposed navel.
What we knew about rock and roll would mainly have been from things like trips to the skating rink, “Donnie and Marie”, and whatever guest artists I could manage to see on “Saturday Night Live” on a tiny black and white TV when my parents did not know I was watching, in other words, not very much. In reality, most of the contemporary secular music that my sisters and I ever heard was riding in vehicles with other people, but at least we knew who Elton John and the Eagles were – even if we only knew about two or three of their songs.
Doc Leytham often appears with friends at The Peoples Room of Mobile in Mobile, AL (Courtesy of The Peoples Room of Mobile)
This brings me to a special kind of playlist which I have in my memory. You might have to put yourself in my shoes in order to understand why it would be so special to me. Between the time I was learning how to drive but before I had a drivers license, I was allowed to sit in my dad’s car by myself and wait for him to attend to church business after the evening church services were over. This was typically about two nights per week, but it could be more. Sometimes the meetings were only a few minutes, but they could last for hours and though I was allowed to attend, I was not actually expected to participate. It was, therefore, my “job” to watch the car and crank it up as soon as my dad came out of his meetings. I was sometimes even allowed to practice parking. Most of the other church members my age did not stay nearly as late as I did. So, it was just me and the car. I know it sounds silly, but I really enjoyed it.
This is when I happened upon three pieces of exceptionally good luck. Dad had a Oldsmobile 98 with a fair amount of extras. For example, it had electric windows which seemed like magic back then. It also had a very good A/C and heater which came in pretty darn handy for the Mobile weather patterns. (As it turned out, this would be, by far, the nicest car my dad would ever own – but, of course, we had no way of knowing he would be diagnosed with an untreatable cancer just a few years later.) But the best part about this car was my first bit of luck: The car had a stereo with retractable antenna and four speakers, including two large Delco 6X9 speakers in the back. The clarity of reception was exceptional and the sound was stellar.
My second bit of luck was that Mobile had an FM radio station, WABB 97 Rock, during this time with nighttime DJs who took a lot of pride in playing music that we were not likely to hear elsewhere. It was thought of as an “album rock” station and they were careful to stay away from hard rock or Top 40. They also tended to avoid anything that was way over the top progressive or excessively mellow. So, they left a lot of music for other stations to play (or at least other time slots).
These DJs seemed to be going to great lengths to choose music that could take maximum advantage of the clarity offered by the better quality FM receivers to which they were now broadcasting, including the one in my dad’s car. In retrospect, I think they were also doing what they could to push back against the corporatization of music which was happening at the time (as mocked in the Steely Dan song, “FM/No Static at All” and also later in the television show, WKRP in Cincinnati with the ever rebellious, Dr. Johnny Fever and the ultra-cool, Venus Flytrap). So, my favorite Gulf Coast DJs were well ahead of their time in terms of putting quality ahead of commercialism. As you will see below, they were also pretty darn good at picking music which would become iconic within a few years’ time.
The third piece of luck was the timing in terms of the quality of music being released. This was after Vietnam, Watergate, and the American Bicentennial. So there were fewer “protest” or political songs. The movie “Saturday Night Fever” came out around Christmas of 1977 so we were not yet inundated with the copycat disco music which followed that movie. That deluge came in full force in the latter half of 1978.
However, the artistic and production quality of what was being released during my pre-drivers license window of time would be hard to beat before or since. So, imagine a playlist as below – reproduced with near perfect clarity while you listened alone in the dark – as a teenager who loved different kinds of music but was hearing music like this for the first time ever:
“Year of the Cat” – Al Stewart
“Love Alive” – Heart
“Mr. Blue Sky” – Electric Light Orchestra
“Sound & Vision” – David Bowie
“Baker Street” – Gerry Rafferty
“Hunting Girl” – Jethro Tull
“Fanfare for the Common Man” – Emerson Lake & Palmer
“Swingtown” – Steve Miller
“The Chain” – Fleetwood Mac
“Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel
“Isn’t It Time” – The Babys
“Somebody To Love” – Queen
“Godzilla” – Blue Oyster Cult
“Dust in the Wind” – Kansas
“Give A Little Bit” – Supertramp
“I Robot” – Alan Parsons Project
“Kid Charlemagne” – Steely Dan
“Feeling That Way/Anytime” – Journey (played back to back as was the case on the album)
“Easy” – The Commodores
Some of these songs are extremely well known now – so much so that Americans can practically take them for granted from birth since they are in the background of so many movies and commercials. However, in the late 70’s these were recent releases and some were even from artists not internationally known at the time – certainly not the household names they are now.
So, if you have the time, I do not think you will disappointed if you put together at least a part of this playlist above and listen to each track from start to finish with your favorite blue tooth ear buds or noise cancelling headphones and while doing so, try to put yourself in the time and place (and darkness) which I’ve described. In my case, it turned out to be a great time to be a sheltered American teenager.
I think by 1978 though, I had figured out I was not a good enough musician to ever be a professional (or baseball player, for that matter) and those dreams were soon replaced by a new one – a goal of becoming a physician (which turned out to be a dream that did come true). Dad died while I was still in medical school so he did not get to see my vocal impression of Jake Blues singing a Spencer Davis song at our graduation celebration. Mom is still living. She is a breast cancer survivor who, to this day, teaches piano and is as sweet and lovely and beautiful as ever.
Tom “Doc” Leytham
I am now back in my home town after a 30 year career of family medicine (still going) and have never questioned my choice in that regard. The music here on the Gulf Coast is still excellent, especially the live music. I even have grandchildren now (both are “Azalea City” kids … and both are also crazy about music – go figure). I never lost my passion for music. It helped me get through some very tough times including dad’s prolonged and painful ordeal with leukemia.
As for my own music? I actually managed to eventually develop enough skill to write a few songs, play them in public, and try to record them. Now, I appreciate the music of the 70’s more than ever.
I am sure others have their own music lists from memorable time periods in their lives. I am making a mental note to be sure and ask about this the next time I am hanging out with friends – old or new.
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