It’s the late 60s, and I’m in the backyard of our Pittsburgh home. My mother’s brothers, James and John, and their brother-in-law Frank are back there too. We’re busying ourselves with summer chores my mother has assigned. But Uncle John and Uncle Frank aren’t having it. After all, none of this was their idea. One minute they were out carousing somewhere between Newark and the Bronx. The next thing they knew they were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike headed for Pittsburgh, my Uncle James behind the wheel.
I can still picture Uncle John and Frank, then well into their 40s, fathers with their own nearly grown children, whispering and giggling, sneaking over the backyard fence like two naughty boys. I would learn later that they had left in search of a local bar.
But what sticks in my memory most is Uncle James, the youngest of the three, quietly refusing to go along.
Uncle James liked having fun as much as the next guy, but he had made that midnight drive to Pittsburgh to help his recently widowed sister fix whatever was broken in her house. Once the chores were done, he went to join Uncle John and Uncle Frank, but he left through the front door.
Uncle James was a good brother. A loving husband. A supremely patient father and the best uncle in the world. After a stint in the Navy at the end of World War II, his day jobs were construction, truck driving and maintenance.
But on Friday nights you would find him with the North Jersey Philharmonic Glee Club, his weekend love.
In 1947, the same year he married his childhood sweetheart, my Aunt Evelyn, he joined the glee club, and would cherish both of them until he died in 2000. The Glee Club is an ensemble of African-American men of every religious affiliation, social station and neighborhood. The group was founded in 1939 and continues to this day.
Uncle James would have been 85 June 10. I’ve been playing an album the group recorded when he was a member. Here are a couple of songs featuring him as the soloist. I hope you enjoy them too.