Remembering my dad, Peter A. Grendysa

Dad: “Here I am on my way to see Little Richard on stage in 1957. Oh, I was cool! Bright green sport coat, black shirt, white tie, and a ‘cigareette’! Because I was working at Music Mart I got discounted tickets for afternoon shows. Not a full-house at that show. Great show, and I got to meet the stars who later came to our store to sign autographs.”

A couple weeks ago, my dad broke his hip and didn’t tell anyone at first. We got him to the hospital and were more alarmed and worried than he was, considering he was talking non-stop and claiming it was no big deal (“Nature fixes things itself!”).

My dad never got sick, you see; he just periodically broke things, usually through bicycling on the trails. One hip, the other hip, a wrist, a collarbone…one time, it had been a patch of wet leaves. Another time, my dad had rung his bicycle bell and called “On your left!” to alert an oncoming trail pedestrian that he was going to pass him; at the last moment, the pedestrian instead stepped right into my dad’s path, who naturally tried to avoid him, and then, per my dad, stood stupidly by as my dad was trying to extract himself from his crashed bicycle.

My dad counted it a good ride if he didn’t encounter the three Fs: “No falls, flats, or fangs!”

While in the last five years he’d switched to indoor biking only, he still hopped on it twice a day for a half hour each. “I may not be noble, but I’m mobile,” he would quip.

But this time, he’d fallen off his indoor bike while dismounting. This time, he was 82.

The hospital stay was annoying for him with all its fuss and bother, not to mention surgery (immediately after which he was insisting he wanted to go home and actively trying to get up, despite the fact that he could put no pressure on his right leg). Following the protocol I enacted last time he’d landed in the hospital, I brought in his favorite rhythm’n’blues CDs to listen to. Music soothes all manner of savage beasts and dads are no exception.

We had a grand time, or as much as you can in a setting like that, playing music loud enough to spill out into the hallway. I would dance around the room and my dad would move his feet in his chair or in the bed. The physical therapist liked to see the foot-moving.

The unexpected show attracted CNAs and others to come in and find out what we were listening to. My dad was in his element at such moments, because he had written the liner notes for half the albums I’d brought in. He got to talk about his beloved music historian career to people who seemed fascinated and delighted to hear about it.

My dad was transferred to a physical rehab facility with his music and his insistence that he didn’t need to be there. We tried to positively reinforce the notion that if he puts in the rehab work now, he’ll be able to go back to his life with a few adjustments, perhaps.

But after a couple days I started thinking, and I didn’t want to think this, that he wasn’t going to make it out of there. Or if he did, he might end up in assisted care instead. I squashed it all down; I didn’t want to think this! And what did I know? I wasn’t a doctor.

Yet while he’d be happy to see us and smile and chair-bop along to his music, he wasn’t doing much of anything else. He was barely eating. He said he wasn’t hungry and it hurt to swallow. He kept bringing up assisted euthanasia.

I hated to leave him, the night before he died. Absolutely hated it. I didn’t like the way his breathing was sounding or the way he was responding to some things. We were still playing music and that was occupying him, and he knew the words to the songs, and even tried to sing along a bit. And when visiting hours ended and I had to go, he looked sad, which pierced my heart.

We said “I love you” — something he had also said the night before that, but hadn’t before then during this time. I left him playing his music as I danced out into the hall under his laughing eyes.

I was dreadfully worried. I thought, I’ll be back tomorrow, and it’s important to stay optimistic for his sake. I had already planned to take a few hours off work and come in even earlier with a whole bunch of “his” music I had compiled on YouTube for him so he could listen longer without having to change CDs. So I could be there longer, too.

Instead, I was left with a playlist that I had no heart to play.

Again, I’m not a doctor. I don’t think he had the wherewithal to soldier through this latest injury. I really don’t know how well he would have been able to take care of himself afterward, either. He would have hated assisted care. And as he’d been saying for years now that he didn’t think he’d “be retired this long,” he may just have decided that this was it.

He was like that. Fiercely independent, couldn’t stand being beholden, hated not being in control. You can imagine how this independence was at once a good and a bad thing for those of us who had all the worries and watchfulness as our share. He was never worried about himself.

We were told he had died while listening to music. This is the absolute best thing I could have hoped for him. But oh, those of us left behind.

***

These past days have been filled with a lot of physical and mental labor. It has been a whole mix of time, energy, bittersweet memories, and amazement as we go through his “stuff”. Sometimes that made him seem closer to us, even though he wasn’t there to ask questions anymore.

He had labeled everything, thank goodness. I discovered that he had saved every card and letter I’d ever written him. He even had a labeled “Becky” file.

I was asked to write his obituary. There were times when I wasn’t sure I could. But then I did. Thinking of you always, dad.

Obituary for Peter A. Grendysa, 1939 – October 8, 2021 (Age 82)

Yes, that’s a Commodore 64, circa 1982. Looks like article-writing is going on.

“Writing about music is just a hobby,” my dad would joke, puffing on his pipe. “I had to work real jobs all my life!”

But for him, it’s the music that mattered the most.

And what a life. Peter A. Grendysa held various roles throughout his admirable career, among them a chemical technician, Quality Control engineer, and an SPC coordinator. He was good at analyzing, building, and fixing. And he loved trains, bicycling, and smoking his pipe (albeit not at the same time!).

My dad had been a record collector since 1955 and a freelance writer since 1971. From being a teenage buyer for Milwaukee Music Mart, he became an internationally-known authority on the history of Atlantic Records and related black music. Over 400 of his articles, columns, and reviews have appeared in music magazines. He has written booklet essays for more than 100 albums and CDs.

Dad with Manny Maudlin, Jr., the first black DJ in Milwaukee. Manny had jazz records; my dad brought the rhythm’n’blues.

In the back room of our house, he researched, interviewed, and wrote for the love of music. In 1975, he published Atlantic Master Book #1. From 1980 to 1983, he produced radio programs with my mom, such as “Rhythm & Blues Unlimited” and “They Called it Rock ‘n’ Roll.” If the door to the back room was closed, we knew there was an interview being conducted or a show being recorded. Then the door would open, a swirl of pipe smoke would depart, and dad would be back among us with the music spilling out into the house once more.

Dad & Mom as the May cover story for their radio show.

The phone was always ringing with different accents on the other end. If I chanced to pick up, I might hear “This is Andy McKaie from MCA” or “This is Richard Weize from Bear Family.” My dad would interview artists such as Ruth Brown, Tiger Haynes, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, recording everything on his reels and tapes. The Golden Gate Quartet sent him their records, pictures, and Christmas cards.

I don’t have a circa for this, but this looks to me like it was still in the radio show production era.

My dad is Googleable. He was voted Best Music Journalist in Rhythm’n’Blues by Goldmine Magazine in 1985. In 1986, he was acknowledged by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences as Album Notes Writer, Best Historical Album, for the Grammy award-winning Atlantic Rhythm’n’Blues, 1947-1974 Vol 1—7. In 1993, he received the Award for Excellence in Jazz History from ARSC for Louis Jordan. In 1996, he earned a Grammy nomination as Notes Writer, Best Historical Album, for The R&B Box: 30 Years of Rhythm & Blues. In 1998, he wrote the introduction to the definitive book on the Ink Spots, More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots and Their Music, by long-time friend Marv Goldberg.

Dad, Marv Goldberg, Mitch Rosalsky.

Because of him, I retain a deep, abiding love for the music he held most dear. And for the wealth of musical genres he introduced me to beyond that: classical, opera, country, 1960s British pop, Blondie, Black Sabbath . . . he gave me the world of music, and I am forever grateful, just as I am grateful that he died peacefully, listening to the Mills Brothers.

He was much loved. And he will be much remembered.

Peter is survived by his former wife, Betty, their children, Pete II and Becky (Benishek), son-in-law David, his two sisters, Karen Balch and Tina Scherrei, nieces Marisa and Riann, and friends such as Rocky Kruegel and Kathy and Frank Irizarry.

The Passing of Ferdie

He was my dad’s friend more than mine.

Growing up, I knew Fernando Gonzalez simply as Ferdie. He was one of the frequent long-distance callers to our house back when the only phone you had was attached to the wall. The telephone line sparked and hummed with persons identifying themselves as “Richard from Bear Family” and “Andy from MCA,” and many others wanting to talk to my dad about rhythm’n’blues, doo wop, jump blues, and the like.

Ferdie could talk the paint off your cabinets and the letters off your books. Like Columbo, there was always one more thing, but unlike Columbo, he didn’t bother saying “just one more thing,” he just went ahead and said it. And another thing. And another.

He was working on this massive thing called a Disco-File, the “Discographical Catalog of American Race, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, and Soul Vocal Harmony Groups,” an ever-expanding tome that included not just vocal groups but duets. Group line-ups, albums, song titles, master numbers, release dates. . .there was always another facet to be added.

I finally met him myself in 1999. It was spring or possibly summer. We’d been invited to a weekend party at Ferdie’s house out on Long Island.*

This was not just any party. Ferdie had stuffed his house with food and his yard with tables and chairs–all that was normal. But he’d also arranged a makeshift stage with instruments and microphones up on his back patio. And the place was filled with rhythm’n’blues artists, avid collectors, historians, and for all I know, record producer notables.

I didn’t know anybody. I just knew of them. Yet it was glorious.

Lillian Leach (of Lillian Leach & the Mellows) was hanging out like she was just anybody. “Look, we have the same shoes!” she said to me. She was right.

I remember being told that Arthur Crier, the bass voice you hear in “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” was the person wandering around with a video camera. I recall mention that the bass singer from the Orioles was there as well.

Another friend of my dad’s, Marv Goldberg (Unca Marvy!), was much in evidence and having a great time. Mitch Rosalsky came right up and said he was my dad’s biggest fan. Caleb N. Ginyard III, son of Caleb Ginyard of the Golden Gate Quartet, spent some time deep in conversation with my dad, as he was one of the people Caleb had contacted to help with his then-forthcoming book. (Dad was great friends with the Quartet, and still has their letters, Christmas cards, photos, and albums they’d sent him over the years.)

It was as evening was rising that the magic really began: People had started to sing.

Lillian Leach got up on the stage and sang, “Smoke From Your Cigarette.” That hush so dear to performers fell on the crowd as she sang with heartfelt dignity and power, the audience’s love and respect swelling out as they joined her in lines such as “But now those days are gone,” as respectfully and tunefully as if it had been rehearsed.

A short, older gentleman whom I don’t think I ever knew, who had to walk with two canes and take the few steps up to the stage carefully, approached the microphone. As he sang, it was as if the two canes and the need for them just fell away. He stood straight and proud, and his voice was beautiful.

Others sang and played, including Caleb. I don’t remember what time we left, but it stayed grand all the way through. Ferdie had many such parties, though that was the only one we ever attended.

We all kept staying in touch, of course. Ferdie was fun to talk with, despite knowing you’d never get off the phone in under an hour; he was also perpetually sending us CD copies of the latest edition of his Disco-file for free even though we weren’t asking for them. It was a fond joke among those who knew Ferdie that this was a project never meant to end. It was so much of what he was. I said he should call it the Encyclopedia Ferditannica and suggested, as a way of prolonging his happiness, to go through and add the first lyric line of every song he had listed.

Well, I’m writing this all now because I just learned that Ferdie died on October 24, 2020 at age 77. He wasn’t a well man, plagued with serious health issues in his latter years. These issues could have been partially foreshadowed or at least aggravated from earlier incidents and accidents–such as being caught in the unfortunate World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In sad fact, when 9/11 occurred, the first thing I asked my dad was, “Is Ferdie okay?” I had no reason to think he’d be anywhere near, but it turned out he’d been there that day, too. Ferdie later said he came to himself wandering blocks away, not sure where his glasses went, in a daze.

I never thought this year would close without him still being around. As his health problems increased, he was less likely to be on email, and his calls to my dad lapsed, too. I haven’t talked with him myself for years. But the sadness was immediate, and very real.

Ferdie knew the music, but more, he appreciated it. I’m not sure what happened to his record collection after he moved to Florida in his latter years, but I hope he kept some of it and played it, too. That Disco-file, much as we all liked to joke about it, is a legacy he’s left behind that I’m not sure anyone will care for, and that would be a shame. We’re in an era of “audiophiles” who scorn used records, content to shell out inflated sums of money for brand-new pressings, which to me is ridiculous; what’s the harm in a gently-used record? When you get a record that’s been treated correctly, it takes you back right to when the era was live and fresh and new. It carries its own history.

There is so much that will never be reprinted. Fortunately, we do still have YouTube, and incredible old music is uploaded every day. Perhaps that last edition of Disco-file will have relevance for generations on.

RIP, Ferdie.

***

Take a look at a few fuzzy pictures from a now-defunct camera at that once-in-a-lifetime-for-me party:

My dad and Ferdie in Ferdie’s basement.
Dad talking with Caleb N. Ginyard III.
Here’s Caleb singing!
Ferdie is not singing here. He’s either thanking people for showing up, announcing that singing will begin, or perhaps a combination.
Here’s my prized picture of me ‘n’ Lillian Leach.
Lillian singing “Smoke From Your Cigarette.”
A fuzzy close-up, but here’s Lillian again with other singers from the crowd.
A gentleman whose name I can’t remember, but was so happy to be hanging with my dad, being a big fan!
My dad, Marv Goldberg, and Mitch Rosalsky.
Just a shot of some folks at the party. Marv is in orange and you can spot Ferdie on the right, facing us, in the blue shirt.
We had time to hang out with Marv at his house, too.

*I hope I’m remembering all of this correctly. I definitely remember us being fogged in afterward and unable to leave as planned, so the airline helped us arrange for a hotel. I called into work that I was stranded in Long Island and would be a day late, and came back to much amusement from my boss and coworkers.

Read This: “Bob Dylan Explains What Really Killed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Make no mistake, this article is a long article by 8-second-attention-span internet standards, but it’s worth the scan and even the read.

Last year, Bob Dylan gave an interview that appeared in AARPDylan Behind the Shades: his new album and what he thinks about passion, aging, Sinatra — and why rock ’n’ roll died.

Here’s an excerpt from the Medium article I’m linking to today:

“From its fused inception, rock ‘n’ roll was already a racially integrated American invention being blasted in teenage bedrooms as early as 1955, but as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum going into 1960, the genre was being commercially segregated, on the sly, into white (British Invasion) and black (soul) music by the (WASPy) establishment.” – Dylan

Author’s comment: “Needless to say, I was floored. Why wasn’t this common knowledge?”

I wasn’t there at the time, but I think it was common knowledge, it just wasn’t lucrative for it to be talked about, so fast forward to today where everybody is shocked about it.

One thing I do think we’ve missed out on is that unless you have a dad or somebody (or yourself) with an awesome record collection from back in the day (like I do), or you really dig into those YouTube channels, you’ve grown up surfeited on the same old Top 40 doo wop songs.

The same oldies stations that barely reach back into the 1950s. The same utter neglect of the roots of rhythm’n’blues.

The same only knowing the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin'” and never the Gladiolas’ original:

Little nuances like that, little gems that have been buried; there are so many, and there are reasons for that, too, none of which do us any good.

So it’s high time it was talked about again.

And keep reading to uncover more gems, such as disc jockey Jim Ladd commenting: “Music was cast in terms of racial context, you know, R&B is black music, rock is white music.”

Think not? Read This.