Early Musical Memories: Family

Everyone has their own relationship to music, with milestones and memories. There is the first record you buy, the first gig you attend...  As publishers of books about music, we love these stories. Reading through the Omnibus Press library makes it possible to compare the core memories of hundreds of musicians. For this blog post, we're sharing a few passages from autobiographies and biographies which transport us into the early days of musical legends, including Johnny Cash and Stevie Nicks. I picked five books almost at random from the shelves in the library.

I was struck by parallels, such as the power of singing with a family member or the thrill of attending a grown-up event at a young age, with adults roving around and music blasting. They reveal something about how time spent with family as a child can shape an artist's music and their adult life.


For Johnny Cash, born in 1932 to Carrie and Ray Cash, it was hearing his mother sing. 

Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon
, by Stephen Miller

'Two of Johnny Cash's earliest musical memories date back to the journey to Dyess [Arkansas]. In an attempt to comfort her brood, Carrie sang 'What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul'. At that particular moment the children would have been forgiven for answering, "A hot bath and a comfortable bed." It was during this journey that Johnny remembered singing for the first time, "seconding" with his mother leading on the appropriate 'I Am Bound For The Promised Land'. This was indicative of the powerful part the Christian religion played in JR's life from an early age'.


Compare Dolly Parton, born 14 years after Johnny Cash.

Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton, by Stephen Miller

'As her grandfather Jake Owens put it, "She started singing as soon as she quit crying". Avie Lee [Dolly Parton's mother] noticed that from a very early age Dolly hummed recognisable melodies. "When the radio would be on or I would sing, Dolly would carry the tune along with me."'


Stevie Nicks' early singing life involved performing with her grandfather. 

Stevie Nicks: Visions, Dreams & Rumours
, by Zoë Howe

'It would be Stevie's paternal grandfather who would steer her firmly onto her life's path. Aaron Jess Nicks was a nomadic country & western singer who took the four-year-old Stevie with him when he went to perform in bars, teaching her to harmonise and sing the 'answers' when he sang call-and-response classics. The first song they sang together was 'Are You Mine?' by Red Sovine.'

Don Letts' early musical memories share with Stevie Nicks the thrill to be found in combining music, family and a party atmosphere. 

Don Letts: There and Black Again

'My father, St Leger 'Duke' Letts... was hugely admired among our respectable neighbours for his collection of 78 rpm shellac 10-inch and 45 rpm 7-inch vinyl records, and his ability to start a party and keep it going long into the night... Some of my earliest memories are of occasional Sundays and holidays when he'd play singles by the likes of Lord Flea, Fats Domino, Prince Buster and Jim Reeves, as people from the neighbourhood and church talked, smoked, ate, drank and swayed around the church hall with plates of plantain, rice and peas or chicken in hand. When I was 4 or 5 years old I had the time of my life running around people's legs...'

Like Don Letts, Pete Townshend's reflections on his earliest musical memories include running around in a hall, set against the backdrop of parental performance. 

Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend, by Mark Wilkerson

'"My father was a musician in a dance band, so I was brought up in two places," Pete said in a 1993 radio interview. "During the week we were in dance halls... as young as two or three years old, I was running around dance halls. My mother used to sing with my dad's band... I was a real kind of rock'n'roll baby. The other thing that they used to do at weekends was these Sunday concerts where there would be like variety shows."'

What is the first record you remember hearing? What are your earliest musical memories? Have your parents shaped your music taste? Which musicians' early musical memories do you remember? What are the other milestones in a person's musical life? Please let us know in the comments!

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