COLIN and KATHLEEN
It all started with a little plastic ukulele that my mother, Mary Murphy Garren, gave to me when I was 11-years-old. I don’t remember where she got it or why she thought I would like to have it. It came with an instruction booklet that included chords and some songs. It wasn’t long until I could play and sing all the songs. One of mom’s favorite stories about me and that uke was her coming home from work one day and finding me sitting on the commode in the bathroom playing the uke and loudly singing I’m a Lonesome Polecat.
Several years later mom presented me with a beautiful fruitwood baritone ukulele that was larger than the plastic uke. The transition from small to larger was easy because the chords were the same.
On my 15th birthday, August 8, 1956, without telling me where we were going, mom and I took a bus to downtown Memphis. Since it was my birthday, I assumed this trip had something to do with a birthday present. I was really buzzing with excitement as this trip progressed. After we got off the bus and walked for a while, mom finally stopped in front of a store. She turned to me and said, “This is it,” and we walked into a music store. A while later we walked out with a new Fender electric guitar and amplifier. OMG I was so excited I thought my heart would stop. I spent many hours learning to play that guitar and how to use the amp. I rushed home after school every day and practiced for hours. I should explain that I was an only child and did not have the interruptions of siblings.
I was 13 when I met Bill, a 14-year-old boy from El Paso, Texas, on the sidewalk in front of our apartment. He was visiting his grandmother who was a neighbor of ours. It was around this time, 1955, that rock and roll and the blues exploded on the American music culture. Several days after meeting Bill, he told me that he sat next to Elvis Presley on the flight to Memphis. Elvis was to star in a gospel music show at Ellis Auditorium, and he asked Bill if he would like to see the show. Of course Bill said yes, and Elvis left two tickets and a backstage pass for the show at the ticket counter. I was beyond thrilled when Bill asked me to go to the show with him. Elvis had a beautiful plaintive voice untouched by drugs and alcohol. We enjoyed the show but we were a little sad that he didn’t sing any rock and roll. When the show was over, we went backstage to see Elvis. He was new to stardom and so very young. He greeted Bill and turned to meet me and took my hand in both of his. Elvis had beautiful brown eyes, his manners were perfect, and he spoke softly. I had never been in the company of fame before, and I was very shy.
Our story continues with how I met Colin Heath…
We were both students at East High School in Memphis. Colin was 17 and a senior and I was 15 and a sophomore. The drama teacher decided to put on a production of The Mikado and chose Colin to be the student director. I tried out for and won a minor role in the play. As Colin and I became better acquainted during rehearsals, he asked me for a date. His father drove us to an Italian restaurant downtown where I ate pizza for the first time. I had never even heard of pizza or spaghetti before. Growing up I spent a lot of time on my mother’s large family farm in Alabama. Most of the food I ate there was delicious southern cooking. It was a short date and Colin’s father came to drive us home. By the end of that first date we were a couple.
As our relationship became closer, I shared my music with Colin. He was stunned that I had an electric guitar and knew how to play it. He begged me to teach him to play guitar, which I did after he bought an acoustic guitar. Singing together was a natural outcome of sharing our music. At first, we didn’t realize how beautifully our voices blended. We had a unique sound. Although I was always on key and my voice was sweet, it was never strong.
Sometimes after school we would go to Jim Dickinson’s house to play music and just hang out. Being around Jim was a kick. He was rarely still and he reminded me of a bolt of lightning. He could be wild and a little crazy, but he was never boring, and he was so passionate about music.
Colin was so excited when he heard that East High School was having a talent show, I thought I would have to sit on him to hold him down. He wanted us to perform. I said “NO,” this was not going to happen. There was no way I was going to play my guitar in front of a crowd. If I made a mistake, the whole world would know. That was my first experience with stage fright. We had our first major disagreement about performing. After much badgering, I finally agreed to perform just to shut him up. I should not have worried. When we walked on stage and the students saw me and my electric guitar and Colin with his acoustic guitar, they went crazy, yelling and jumping up and down. I don’t remember what we played but it didn’t matter because the crowd screamed throughout our entire presentation which covered up any mistakes we made. We did not win the talent show but everyone in our school knew who we were. And I was the only girl who had an electric guitar and played rock and roll.
During the summer following my sophomore year, we were able to spend more time together learning and playing new songs. We also began to compose. Folk music was very popular at that time, and it was the perfect venue for our voices. As we became better known in Memphis, we began to sing for money. We changed our stage name from Colin and Kaye to Colin and Kathleen because we thought it sounded better for folk singers.
One of the benefits of singing around Memphis was meeting other local singers and musicians. From that pool, Sun Records employed backup singers and a house band. The house band adopted us and invited us to hang out with them at Sun Records any time we were in the neighborhood. They were always looking for new material, and when we played our song, Steady Girl, they wanted to record it. But we had already formed a band, the Heathens (a take on Colin’s last name), with three other high school friends. On December 8, 1956, we stood around a microphone in Sun Recording Studio and recorded two takes of Steady Girl, (a song Colin and I had written). Colin sang, and I played rhythm guitar. I did not sing because I had a cold. Roger Fakes played lead guitar, with David Gibson on piano and Joe Bauer on drums
Every day was so exciting. I would wake up and jump out of bed with all of my teenage energy and angst. Colin and I were so eager to see what was going to happen next.
We both had problems at home with our parents, mostly caused by our teenage arrogance, they were wrong, we were right. We were grown up and did not need our parents to tell us what to do. We decided to remove ourselves from the problem. On March 15, 1958, we drove to New Albany, Mississippi, where we were married by a Justice of the Peace. I began to feel sick on the way home. By the time we got to Memphis, I was feverish and miserable. I asked Colin to take me home and not tell our parents. The next day I had red bumps everywhere that turned out to be German measles. A week later we told our parents of our marriage. They were not happy, but they accepted it. Their only request was that we also be married by a minister, which we were. Several months later we had a tiny apartment and began our lives as a young married couple.
After graduating from East High School in 1957, Colin spent his freshman year of college at Southwestern in Memphis. I was still in high school. At the beginning of my junior year, I had moved from East High School to St. Agnes Academy. After our marriage, I had to leave St. Agnes so I enrolled at East High School to complete my junior year. I graduated from Memphis Technical High School in1959. Colin graduated from Memphis State University in 1961 with a bachelors degree in business.
From 1956 through 1964, we sang at many places including private parties and local coffee houses. One of our favorite gigs was at a joint with peanut shells on the floor and red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. I cannot remember the name of it. I do remember that it was located behind Baptist Hospital, where all three of our daughters were born. I believe the owner was Sam Gaia. We played there every Friday and Saturday night for months.
In 1963, Jim Dickinson told us that he and some other people were going to put together a theater in a former butcher shop in a run-down old farmer’s market at Poplar and Crosstown streets that would feature plays and music. Colin and I were very excited about it and with other volunteers, we helped Jim put it together. It was a huge undertaking to turn that property into a usable theater. Ready or not, it opened in June with Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff. Before the play, Jim Vinson opened the show with his rendition of Make Me a Pallet on the Floor. Colin and I followed him with several folk songs. The theater was packed. We could not get a baby sitter for that evening so we brought our two daughters with us. A friend looked after them while we were on stage singing. But they heard us and ran down the center aisle to the stage yelling “Mama and Daddy” and clapping their hands. They were three and two-years-old and so adorable. I came off the stage laughing and caught them in my arms. The audience loved it. It was a truly wonderful evening. We sang there many times that summer and enjoyed it so much. At summer’s end, however, Jim decided to shut down the theater. It was sad but it was time to move on. Bills were piling up and there wasn’t enough money to pay them. To raise money, Jim rented the Shell at Overton Park and advertised a Folk Music Festival. Colin and I sang along with Jim Dickinson, Jim Vinson and several other musicians. When we walked on stage, we were shocked at the huge and very appreciative audience. It was a magical evening. A few years before Colin’s death in 2012, we had lunch together and reminisced about the many years we sang together, and we agreed that the evening at the Overton Shell was the very best.
Also in 1963, an arranging and recording man invited Jim Dickinson to the Columbia recording studio in Nashville to record some folk songs with dixieland music. He also told Jim to bring any folk singers he knew with him, and Jim invited us. Colin and I actually thought mixing folk music and dixieland was a terrible idea but hey! it was an open door to Columbia Records. They recorded two songs that we sang, but our voices were not strong enough so, sadly, they sent us home. When the album was released we were surprised that it included the two songs we sang.
In August 1964, we and our three young daughters moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Colin enrolled at the University of Alabama to obtain a MBA, which he did a year later. We did not sing together during that year but all of our music was still fresh in our heads and our hearts.
In 1965, we moved from Tuscaloosa to Jacksonville, Alabama, where Colin taught marketing and advertising at Jacksonville State University. As we blended into university life, through Colin’s interest in theater, we wrote some satirical skits, some with music, and students actually performed them on two occasions. Colin directed and I was stage manager . We loved living in Jacksonville. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of that sweet little town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains but we were so inspired to compose. We wrote many songs, Unfortunately, all that music was in our heads. We did not even write down the words. The war in Vietnam and political upheaval in the USA were topics of some of our songs.
Colin did not have to teach in the summer months–June, July and August. To us, three free consecutive months was a rare opportunity to do something special, to have an adventure. But what? We had many ideas and many discussions about it. We were obsessed. Then it came to us.
We traded our green Volkswagen bug for a new green Volkswagen bus. We took out the back seats and turned it into a travel bus suitable for three small children and us. I made curtains for all of the windows. The bus had a full size bed with room underneath and around it for coolers and food, cooking pots and utensils, clothing, toys, tools, etc. Our whole house was in that bus!
In early June 1966, we hit the road and did not return to our home in Alabama until the middle of August. As we left Jacksonville on our great adventure, we headed north to Tennessee then east to North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. We camped for two and a half months all the way up the east coast to Maine and back. During all that time we spent only one very stormy night in a motel.
There were many coffee houses that featured live folk music all the way north. We would drive to a coffee house and audition, and we were always offered a job, sometimes for a night, or a few days or a week. We did not know of all the coffee houses except by word of mouth from strangers who heard us sing. Most of the audiences were people on their summer vacation.
There were a few unforgettable experiences. Washington, D.C., was one of them. Driving into our nation’s capital, we crossed a small bridge. The Pentagon was to our right. An overwhelming sense of power seemed to float in the air. It was very strange. We heard on our radio that The Cellar, a famous coffee house in Washington, was sponsoring a contest the following night that would be aired on the radio. The winner would have a gig at The Cellar for the following week with pay. At that time, the war in Vietnam, unemployment and severe poverty in the states making up the Appalachian chain of mountains. The time was ripe for comedic release. We had written several songs, the Poor Corp and Captain America, that did poke fun at some of the current political programs. We signed up for the contest and sang the Poor Corp over the radio. The audience loved It and laughed, cheered, clapped and whistled. Unfortunately, we were hustled off the stage and out of the building as quick as a blink. We were warned not to sing that song too often or too loud while in Washington.
The Fourth of July 1966, with temperatures hovering in the mid-nineties, was miserable. Cold showers helped a little. As the sun went down, the campground set off a volley of magnificent fireworks we had never seen before. Life was hot but good.
The next day we headed to Baltimore to stay with our good friends from Memphis, Phil and Barbara Arnoult. At that time, Phil was directing a theater troop in Baltimore. They offered to care for our girls so Colin and I could go to New York City for a few days for a little R and R. We stayed at the Algonquin Hotel and went to see the Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a comedy starring Zero Mostel. It was a lovely much needed break.
We stayed with Phil and Barbara for a few more days then headed to Newport, Rhode Island, and the famous Newport Folk Festival scheduled for July 20-24, 1966. On the way there, some people in a van tried to run us off the road. Because of racial adversity in the country at that time we thought that it was probably our Alabama license plate that provoked them.
To our dismay, there were no camping facilities in or around the Festival closer than 50 miles and those were full. The New England countryside was beautiful. In desperation we knocked on the door of a lovely farm house and asked if we could camp on their property. At first they said no but changed their minds when they saw our three daughters. Also to our great good fortune, there was a bathroom in their barn that they said we were welcome to use. Taking warm showers was a spiritual experience after having to take cold showers in the campgrounds where we stayed. We took turns going to the festival (a 100 mile round trip). A very young Maria Muldaur sang with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Pete Seeger demonstrated how to make a usable bass out of a washtub, a broom handle and a piece of rope. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs also performed.
At one of the concerts, I sat in the front row next to fifty-one-year-old McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters. We talked and laughed and traded stories. I did not know then of his talent and fame as a father of the blues. He was not put off by my southern whiteness or my Hattiesburg, Mississippi birth. Nor was I by his blackness. We became friends for a day but never saw each other again.
Two days later, when it was my turn to go to the festival again, I had a horrific experience. A very large, very drunk man caught me in a secluded area near the porta-potties. Music from the concerts and the noise of the crowds almost covered up my screams for help. An ensign of the US Navy and several of his buddies came to my rescue. They were on leave from the USS Pocono that was docked at the Naval Station at Newport. I was so thankful for their help. I was so nervous after I was attacked that I stayed with them the whole day. They invited me to have dinner with the captain and officers aboard the ship. Of course I accepted their invitation. They were all perfect gentlemen. They were interested in our big adventure and our music. What a great experience!
Our next stop was Boston. We enjoyed driving around that wonderful city. They loved our southern accents, and we laughed at their Yankee talk. Wherever we went, people wanted to hear us talk. We wandered around Harvard and went to several museums. We also went to a coffee house concert to hear a beautiful coloratura soprano named Carolyn sing folk songs.
When the festival was over, we headed to Cape Cod where we camped on the beach for three days enjoying the sea and sand. The constant breeze of the Atlantic Ocean was a welcome relief from the heat. We were all brown as berries. One day we drove to Provincetown to grocery shop and to just walk around and feel the history. The Mayflower had docked in Provincetown Harbor in 1620. From Cape Cod we headed north to Maine.
Some people who heard us sing along the way told us about a coffee house in Kennebunk, Maine. We were nearly out of gas when we got there. We pulled into a gas station that denied us service because of our Alabama license plate. The gas station down the road was happy to have us as customers.
The coffee house was in part of a huge, magnificent 300-year-old barn. Robert and Birgit, the owners, also lived in the barn. They were delighted to see us because the entertainment they had scheduled for the week did not show up. Birgit was Swedish and a fabulous cook and baker. She and her husband adopted the five of us and insisted that we join them for dinner every night. They had no children and enjoyed our three daughters then 6, 5 and 2-years-old. After the week ended, we were sad to leave. From Maine, we drove through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont to beautiful Saratoga Springs, New York, where we camped for the night. When we woke up the next morning, Colin and I looked at each other and said, “Lets go home.” On our trek home we drove through New York to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Tennessee to Alabama and home. We were exhausted but so happy to have had such an awesome adventure and so happy to be home. We never sang together again.
Although Colin and I may have seemed like a perfect couple, we were not. In 1967, we divorced and went our separate ways. After a few years, we were able to become friends again. Our wonderful daughters enriched our lives so much. They gave us six grandchildren and as of today nine great-grandchildren.