Robert Dale Klein’s Musical Journey (thus far)
First-born into what was to blossom (explode?) into a seven-child German-Irish Catholic family, when I entered this world, there were only three TV channels to dial, and all the shows were in black-and-white. The NBC peacock had not yet hatched! The network channels were snagged from the ether by spindly “rabbit-ears” antennae perched atop the RCA (maybe it was a Philco) TV, sometimes adorned with tin foil to enhance the chances of non-squiggly reception. All this modern technology lived inside the cozy living room of a classic Baltimore row house.
The first five years of my time on “This Side of the Dirt” are only a foggy memory. I remember that we lived in three different states: Maryland, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and then back in Maryland. In those days, my dad was a “G-man” with the FBI – indeed, adorning the wall of my law office is a framed letter to my parents congratulating them on my birth – it is signed by J. Edgar Hoover. But when it was time for me to start kindergarten, my dad left the FBI, I think so that we could have a single place to call “home.” Being in the FBI was like being an “army brat” – constant reassignment to new posts.
I got my first taste for “show biz” in kindergarten at Brehms Lane Elementary School in Baltimore, where I loved “Show and Tell.” I think that if we could have done it from behind a microphone, I might never have bothered to “graduate” to attend First Grade at the Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic parochial school.
My parents were not very musical, except that on the very rare occasions when my ordinarily very reserved ex-G-Man Dad could be encouraged by friends to sing a few Irish tunes after he had a few beers at a party at our house. My Grandmother was Irish, and my Dad inherited a lovely “Irish tenor” from her gene pool.
Prior to the Beatles invading the United States on February 7, 1964, there were no musical instruments in the Klein household. It’s not that my parents had anything against music, but there were seven young mouths to feed, and not a lot of money to spend on instruments or lessons. But once I saw John, Paul, George and Ringo perform “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show, our instrument-free status came to a quick end. Since I did not know how to play guitar, but could at least beat on things, I made do with what was at hand and built myself a “custom” drum kit.
Ringo may have been playing “Ludwigs,” poor sap, but I had myself a one-of-a kind set of “Kleins.” My kit was assembled from a few of my Grandmother’s cardboard hat boxes (they were my toms), and a snare and cymbals consisting of large metal tins in which the Charles Chips Company delivered potato chips and pretzels to the Klein household on a regular basis. The most “custom” part of my kit, however were the drum sticks that I hand-carved from two wooden dowels that I "borrowed” from the cage of the family’s deceased parakeet, “Tweetie.” I could now rock and roll with the Lads from Liverpool. Tweetie would have been proud!
No doubt to the great relief of my parents, I was more interested in being Paul or John, than Ringo banging away on potato chips tins with re-purposed parakeet cage paraphernalia. I really wanted to play guitar and sing songs like the other Mop Tops. So, when I begged my parents to buy me a guitar, they were only too happy to accommodate. My genuine set of “Kleins” was retired, and my Grandmother got her hat boxes back.
My first guitar (most likely from China – I don't recall the brand) arrived as a Christmas gift when I was a high school freshman. It was the finest 6-stringed instrument one could buy for $19.95 at the local Two Guys appliance discount store. I know its pedigree because Santa forgot to remove the price tag from the fetching cardboard box in which my brand-new archtop with F-holes came packaged. That box served as my guitar’s case until the box fell apart.
There was no money for lessons, so I bought a Mel Bay “Learn to Play Guitar” Book No. 1, which I read a million times, soaking up every word. That’s how I learned the string names and a few simple chords. I had already received a decent grounding in basic music theory from the good nuns at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic grade school when my family moved to what was then a Baltimore suburb in the middle of my Third Grade year. Sister Josephine and Sister Elizabeth Joseph taught us how to sight sing a melody line, and I was introduced to Gospel music when we learned the ancient tune “Old Black Joe.” Of course, we also learned a ton of Catholic hymns, especially those honoring the Virgin Mary.
Mel Bay’s book bored the hell out of me. I was impatient to master “my instrument,” and I soon discovered that I had “an ear” for learning guitar by watching and listening to the chord changes of more accomplished friends. Most of them were a year or two older, and they had a head start on their guitar “virtuosity” compared to me. With their help and inspiration, I soon mastered all three principal chords of the classic folk song “Donna Donna,” namely Am, Em, and an occasional Dm. There are a couple of major chords in “Donna Donna,” but I skipped them at first, because C’s and, especially G’s, were hard for me to fret in my early days. Joan Baez, watch out, here I come! (See
Playing guitar with folks who are better players than you is like playing tennis with a better player – eventually your own game gets better, at least mine did. Throughout high school, I mined the song books and playing styles of Peter Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, John Denver, and, of course, the Beatles. I mostly learned by watching and playing with friends who were better pickers. Along the way, I replaced my Two Guys archtop with a variety of other cheap instruments, including a Yamaha 12-string (not half-bad, actually) and some off-brand electric guitar when I had a brief flirtation with a short-lived neighborhood garage band. If we had a name, I don’t remember it. Our music certainly was not memorable.
My first “real” guitar was a Guild D-20 dreadnaught, just like the one played by my hero, Paul Simon. I traveled to New York City to buy it at the world-renowned Manny’s Music on 48th Street where Paul Simon shopped for his axes. What a cool place! (Sadly, Manny’s closed its doors in 2009:
The day I bought the guitar I wore a suit into Manny’s, because that night I was planning on seeing “Hair” on Broadway with my best friend, Rick. In those days, one dressed up for a night on Broadway. Needless to say, the sight of two high schoolers in suits was not a common sight at Manny’s.
When Rick and I arrived in the Big Apple earlier that day, we noticed a small building on the concrete island in the middle of Times Square where one could buy “twofers”, which was the nickname for last minute, half-priced tickets for Broadway shows. So, after we bought my D-20 at Manny’s, Rick and I headed back to Times Square to see if we could score a pair of twofers to see “Hair” that night. When we reached the Times Square island, we marched into what we thought was the twofers building, two high school seniors in their best Sunday suits, one of whom (me) with sort of long hair and a spanking new guitar case in hand. Inside, Rick and I were greeted by stares of disbelief and “now I’ve seen it all” looks from two uniformed members of the U.S. Army seated behind a big desk. Turns out that Rick and I accidentally had walked into a U.S. Army recruiting center. Of course, guitar-toting high schoolers in suits and long hair was not a common sight at Army recruiting centers, not even in Times Square. So, not quite ready to “be all that we could be,” Rick and I politely backed-out the door from whence we entered what was, essentially, a Vietnam travel bureau. By the way, we did see “Hair” that night on a pair of twofers. After all, we were living in the Age of Aquarius.
My musical tastes during high school were not limited to folk and pop. I also had a fondness for the music of Broadway, stoked in no small part, I’m sure, by my discovery of the fact that singing and dancing in high school musicals was a great way to meet girls. I went to an all-boy Catholic school, and was delighted to learn that the neighboring all-girl counterpart was desperate for male thespians. So, in addition to guitar-playing making for a pretty good “chick-magnet,” high school renditions of Broadway plays also helped me meet girls. I confess that “art” was not the only thing on my mind in those days. (Still isn’t).
The first songs I ever wrote were parody songs in the vein of Alan Sherman (my childhood’s version of Weird Al Yankovic). Since I didn’t own, much less play, any instrument as a kid, re-writing lyrics of popular songs became my “gateway drug” to songwriting. It wasn’t until college that I had the audacity to try my hand at writing both the lyrics and the music to a wholly original song. That was a very liberating realization, i.e., that it was “permissible” for me to attempt both.
Since music lessons were financially out-of-the-question when I was growing up, necessity became the mother of my invention, and I learned to play music by listening carefully to what I heard on records, and trying to match that as best I could when I finally did have a guitar to play. Eventually, through a combination of sweat equity and some genetic makeup for which I can take no credit, I became fairly adept at playing by ear. That skill has served me well over the years.
Ever since I first learned to play guitar in high school, I’ve always been a member of one of more duos, trios, or bands over the ensuing decades. Many have been “cover” groups, but I would slip-in original songs whenever possible. Also, I’ve always been a “church musician” since high school, playing, and often writing, Contemporary Christian Music. Presently, I direct the Contemporary Music Group of St. Andrew by the Bay Catholic Church in Annapolis, MD. We play and sing for about 500 people who attend our “Contemporary” Mass each Sunday. We have a very “singing” congregation, which is a true blessing for any worship music leader.
During college, I made a TV appearance as a featured “singer-songwriter” on a Sunday morning “talk show” called “Man About Town”, which aired Sunday mornings on a local network affiliate. Not exactly prime time! The show was taped in the evening during the week using a commercial machine that recorded to 2-inch wide videotape. When I arrived at the studio, they sat me on a stool in front of a huge “green screen,” and then taped me performing a couple of original tunes to be aired at the beginning and end of the show. Naturally, I made sure I woke up in time to see the show when it aired the following Sunday morning, and I was amazed and thrilled to see that instead of a green screen behind me, I had been electronically transported to a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains – John Denver, move over! Unfortunately, this was recorded back in the days before home VCRs and YouTube, so I never was able to obtain a copy of my TV debut. In retrospect, perhaps that’s a good thing, since I can’t imagine that my songs were very good back then.
I do have audiotape, however, of another college performance, when my acoustic trio “Bob, Joni, and Mike” headlined at the MIT Potluck Coffeehouse in Cambridge, Mass. Our show was broadcast live over the MIT campus FM radio station, and we did an “on air” interview with the radio show host in the middle of our show. Ah, show biz! Later in college, another one of my trios “Bob, Leon, and Josie” toured a bit to different states, thanks to an older friend of mine who liked our music and arranged gigs for us at various business conventions and, even more fun, at a ski lodge. Leon, who sounded like Neal Young, went on to become an architect, and Josie (Josefina de Guzman), who was a beautiful Puerto Rican theater major with an equally gorgeous voice, pursued a career in theater and film; indeed, she received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of “Maria” in the 1980 Broadway revival of “West Side Story.” My only claim to fame is that I taught Josie how to snow ski at the Vermont ski resort where we spent a weekend performing. She was terrified of breaking her dancer’s legs. Fortunately, her teacher did not permit that to happen. Little did I know that I was protecting the career of a future Broadway sensation. I just knew that Josie was adorable, my friend, and oh so talented.
My love affair with the piano was consummated in college. Although I loved playing guitar, I really "jonesed” to play the piano. To me, a piano was such an expressive and powerful instrument, an entire orchestra splayed across 88 black and white keys. But my family couldn’t afford a piano. However, when I went to MIT, I lived in a Chi Phi fraternity house in Boston’s historic Back Bay area, indeed, the house was on the National Historic Register, because it had been the home of John Albion Andrew, former Governor of Massachusetts. The house had a music room in which was ensconced a spectacular Steinway grand piano. I taught myself to play chords on that piano, transferring my knowledge of the notes in guitar chords to the names of the notes on the piano keyboard. My study of Einstein’s Theory of Relatively at MIT thus paid off in the early stages of my learning piano! After that, it was simply a matter of “practice, practice, practice!”
Eventually, during one of my college summers back home in Maryland, a friend who knew my passion for piano playing told me about a someone who had an old upright piano that they were willing to give away for free to anyone willing to haul it away. I accepted that bargain, and my friend, who owned a pickup truck, helped me move the old upright to my family’s home, where I Iived during the summers. Using books from the Enoch Pratt free library, I then spent a couple of months teaching myself how to tune that old clunker, because I could not afford to pay a real piano tuner. The results were not great, but would have been passable had the upright been used in a saloon scene in a TV western! My piano chops have improved with practice, and fortunately, I can now afford to pay a professional to tune the grand piano that now graces my home, at which I frequently compose. The songs I compose on piano seem to differ from those I compose on guitar. Other songwriters who play both instruments tell me the same is true for them too.
My days as an MIT student playing music in the greater Boston area were interrupted when I spent my junior year abroad studying at Durham University, which is England’s third-oldest University (Oxford and Cambridge being its elders). The British pubs, both on campus and off, were fabulous places to perform music, and being an American, I had an extra air of authenticity when it came to singing any song that hailed from the USA. Also, it was a great way to meet girls – and I did! I have many fond memories of Durham, and many lasting friendships. Later in life, I served 25 years as the founder and President of the USA-based alumni association for Durham University.
After MIT, I headed off to New York City for three years, where I studied Law at Columbia University. NYC, of course, has a fabulous music scene, which I soaked up as much as my studies would permit. In my first year, my classmates and I revived what we learned historically had been called the “Rites of Spring” at Columbia Law School. Basically, it was a week of hell-raising, pranks, student skits, etc. My contribution was to write, direct, act, sing and dance in a full length a student musical, which I titled “Lawspiel”, because I had ripped off the music and general storyline of “Godspell.” Calling on the song parody skills I had developed since childhood, I rewrote the lyrics of the Godspell songbook to deal with the trials and tribulations of being a law student at Columbia, poking fun at faculty, at the aging law school facilities, and everything else associated with student life at Columba Law. The “JC” in my script, however, was not the Son of God, he instead was “Justice Cardozo,” who was one of Columbia Law’s most eminent alumni. The show was such a hit that the school administration asked us to perform it again for an alumni gathering a month later. In my second year at Columbia I tried to top myself, when I wrote, directed, acted, sang, and danced in “Pippin: Counselor at Law”, which we also performed for alumni at a later date. By the time I graduated, everyone in the school was convinced I would pursue a career in musical theater.
Also during my time at Columbia, I founded and ran a monthly musical “coffeehouse” (“Espresso Unius”) at which law students and professors would perform original and/or cover tunes. Musical talent, in a variety of forms and styles, abounded at Columbia Law. These coffeehouses were Friday nights well spent. Personally, the coffeehouse provided me an opportunity to test drive original songs, which I wrote throughout law school. Columbia was a high-pressure learning environment, and songwriting was stress relief therapy for me.
Upon graduation from Columbia, having decided against chasing a career on Broadway, I returned to Baltimore to begin my professional career in law at Piper & Marbury, which was the largest law firm in Maryland when I joined, and now is one of the largest in the World (the firm is now called DLA Piper). Even though the practice of law was demanding, I still made time for music, both at the parish church and on my own in the secular world. I continued to write songs and perform both my originals and cover tunes. Although singing covers can be fun, for me, it is not nearly as fulfilling as singing my own stuff. That said, had I never sung cover tunes, I don’t think I would have the deep appreciation that I do for commercial song structure, and the craft that underlies a well written song. Why not learn from the best that surrounds me?
I can’t possibly remember here, much less record here, the thousands of masses, weddings, funerals, bar gigs, music festivals, big stage concerts, house concerts, and other musical events at which I have performed since I strummed my first guitar chord. Suffice it to say, I have loved almost every minute of it, and strived to be a better musician each step of the way.
People often ask who have been my greatest musical influences. That’s a tough question to answer because they have been and continue to be so many. In no particular order, a few would certainly include Jimmy Webb, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Lennon & McCartney, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Miranda Lambert, Billy Joel, Mark Cohen, Steven Sondheim, the Eagles (esp., Don Henley), Hugh Prestwood, etc., etc., etc.
Prior to the early 2000s, songwriting mostly was a solitary pursuit for me, with only occasional co-writes. That all changed when I joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (“NSAI”) about 15 years ago. Until then, I did not really know that co-writing was “a thing.” Now I relish co-writing with friends whose craft I respect, all the while enjoying solo writing too, which some songs seem to cry out for. (I know ‘em when I see ‘em.) Through NSAI, I also discovered the value of receiving constructive feedback from my colleagues who are similarly afflicted with the need to write songs. I noticed that my own songwriting “game” has improved from such feedback, and also from providing feedback to my friends on their songs. For the last several years, I have served as a Coordinator of the Washington, D.C. Metro Area Chapter of NSAI. We meet monthly to hone our craft.
NSAI also has been a terrific networking springboard for me. So many doors have opened, friendships been forged, and introductions made along the way, thanks to NSAI. Equally valuable from a networking and co-writing standpoint have been the terrific Wood & Stone Songwriting Workshops and the Mercyland Songwriting Workshops. What a wonderful family of fellow writers have blessed my life from these two fonts of positive songwriting energy!
Having spent hundreds of hours formally studying the art and craft of songwriting in innumerable courses, workshops, writers’ retreats, books, videos, and you name it, I feel comfortable that I know what the “rules” are for writing good, commercially viable songs, and I feel competent to “break the rules” when appropriate. Most importantly perhaps, after 50 years of songwriting, I feel as though I have finally found “my voice” as a writer – I know when a song rings “true” for me, and I’ve stopped trying to “chase what’s on the radio” (much of which I don't like anyway). The album that I just cut in Nashville, “This Side of the Dirt,” reflects that personal realization. It also deals with subject matter about which I can speak authentically, simply by virtue having walked long enough on this earth, for example, life, death, love, and the need to make the most of the precious time each of has in this life, however long or short that might be.
“This Side of the Dirt” is my musical calling card, intended to introduce those who don't know me to who I am as a writer-artist, and to say “thank you” to the many folks who have been supportive of my musical journey along the way thus far. In many ways, my journey is just getting started. After all, I hope to be a “has been” some day. (Indeed, I just wrote a song – not on my album – titled “Has Been”).
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