We were tuning our instruments when two older couples walked through the back door of the dance hall and across the floor to take seats at the table closest to the stage.
The couple on the side of the table facing the stage looked us over, carefully studying the big speaker that sat on a metal stand at the edge of the stage. They whispered to the other couple and pointed at our sound system. One of them stood and hesitantly approached the stage. She leaned close to our bass player who was hunched over his instrument fiddling with the strings. She pointed at the speaker and said, “Could you turn it down, please?’’
The bass guy’s eyebrows shot up. He begged her pardon, and she repeated the question. “Could you turn it down, please?’’ Our bass guy could appear gruff, but he was an old softie at heart. He looked up at the speaker and back at the woman. Gently, he said, “Ma’am, we don’t even have the sound on yet.’’
“I know that,’’ she said. “But you look like you’ll be really loud.’’
The bass guy turned to me, fighting off a laugh. “Hey, would you make sure we turn it down when we start playing. We’re usually awfully loud.’’
Even though we hadn’t turned the main sound system on yet, I nodded, set my guitar aside and walked over to the amplifier. I gave the volume knob a serious pinch. “That should do it,’’ I said. The bass guy and the woman smiled and nodded. Crisis averted.
Order restored to the universe.
We finished tuning, switched on the sound and the stage lights and kicked into “Looking for Love,’’ the song from “Urban Cowboy’’ that was the standard opening number for the Sensational Standbys in those days.
I’m pretty sure the main volume on our sound system was set halfway between 2 and 3 on the dial. The volume knob was numbered from 1 to 10, but that sweet, legendary Standbys’ sound worked best just below 3. In a movie called “Spinal Tap,’’ somebody said their volume knob went to 11. That wasn’t us. Once in a while, we might really crank it up and turn to the knob to a 4. I remember a wedding dance when things got so out of hand I twisted it to a 5, but I only remember one of those moments. Mostly, we played for mellow crowds of folks who remembered Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller and the Dorseys. We adjusted our sound to our dance demographic.
The thing was, we were about the same age — same generation, anyway — as most of our dancers. We grew up knowing the big bands and the swing tunes, the old country and the first decade of rock and roll. We came of age at a time when sound systems might have knobs that went to 10, but that didn’t mean the sound did.
I mean, think about it. Those of us who grew up in the early days of rock and roll got our dance music from café jukeboxes or small, portable record players that could spin either 78 rpm platters or 45 rpm discs, those clay pigeon-sized things with the big hole in the middle. You could stack eight or 10 of those 45s on the holder and dance the night away, at a sock hop in the gym or a teen canteen at a downtown place like the Rainbow Café in Chamberlain. I never knew the difference between a sock hop and a canteen. The gym, maybe?
Those early record players had less volume than the Standbys on dance-with-your-sweetheart mellow. Even so, they filled the back room of the Rainbow or the gymnasium in the old City Hall with the music cats and chicks in the ’50s loved to hear.
Thinking back, I wonder how in the world we heard music from those early sound machines even halfway across the gym. Maybe we had exceptional hearing in those days. Maybe the player had more volume than I remember.
Maybe we were in love with life and romance and heard music whether it was playing or not.